Story type: Literature
Chapters from the Memoirs of Manuel (or Manus) McNeill, an agent in the Secret Service of Great Britain during the campaigns of the Peninsula (1808-1813). A Spanish subject by birth, and a Spaniard in all his upbringing, he traces in the first chapter of his Memoirs his descent from an old Highland family through one Manus McNeill, a Jacobite agent in the Court of Madrid at the time of the War of Succession, who married and settled at Aranjuez. The authenticity of these Memoirs has been doubted, and according to Napier the name of the two scouts whom Marmont confused together (as will appear in a subsequent chapter) was not McNeill, but Grant: which is probable enough, but not sufficient to stamp the Memoirs as forgeries. Their author may have chosen McNeill as a nom de guerre, and been at pains to deceive his readers on this point while adhering to strictest truth in his relation of events. And this I conceive to be the real explanation of a narrative which itself clears up, and credibly, certain obscurities in Napier.–Q.]
THE TWO SCOUTS
I. THE FORD OF THE TORMES
In the following chapters I shall leave speaking of my own adventures and say something of a man whose exploits during the campaigns of 1811-1812 fell but a little short of mine. I do so the more readily because he bore my own patronymic, and was after a fashion my kinsman; and I make bold to say that in our calling Captain Alan McNeill and I had no rival but each other. The reader may ascribe what virtue he will to the parent blood of a family which could produce at one time in two distinct branches two men so eminent in a service requiring the rarest conjunction of courage and address.
I had often heard of Captain McNeill, and doubtless he had as often heard of me. At least thrice in attempting a coup d’espionage upon ground he had previously covered–albeit long before and on a quite different mission–I had been forced to take into my calculations the fame left behind by “the Great McNeill,” and a wariness in our adversaries whom he had taught to lock the stable door after the horse had been stolen. For while with the Allies the first question on hearing of some peculiarly daring feat would be “Which McNeill?” the French supposed us to be one and the same person; which, if possible, heightened their grudging admiration.
Yet the ambiguity of our friends upon these occasions was scarcely more intelligent than our foes’ complete bewilderment; since to anyone who studied even the theory of our business the Captain’s method and mine could have presented but the most superficial resemblance. Each was original, and each carried even into details the unmistakable stamp of its author. My combinations, I do not hesitate to say, were the subtler. From choice I worked alone; while the Captain relied for help on his servant Jose (I never heard his surname), a Spanish peasant of remarkable quickness of sight, and as full of resource as of devotion. Moreover I habitually used disguises, and prided myself in their invention, whereas it was the Captain’s vanity to wear his conspicuous scarlet uniform upon all occasions, or at most to cover it with his short dark-blue riding cloak. This, while to be sure it enhanced the showiness of his exploits, obliged him to carry them through with a suddenness and dash foreign to the whole spirit of my patient work. I must always maintain that mine were the sounder methods; yet if I had no other reason for my admiration I could not withhold it from a man who, when I first met him, had been wearing a British uniform for three days and nights within the circuit of the French camp. I myself had been living within it in a constant twitter for hard upon three weeks.
It happened in March, 1812, when Marmont was concentrating his forces in the Salamanca district, with the intent (it was rumoured) of marching and retaking Ciudad Rodrigo, which the Allies had carried by assault in January. This stroke, if delivered with energy, Lord Wellington could parry; but only at the cost of renouncing a success on which he had set his heart, the capture of Badajos. Already he had sent forward the bulk of his troops with his siege-train on the march to that town, while he kept his headquarters to the last moment in Ciudad Rodrigo as a blind. He felt confident of smashing Badajos before Soult with the army of the south could arrive to relieve it; but to do this he must leave both Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo exposed to Marmont, the latter with its breaches scarcely healed and its garrison disaffected. He did not fear actual disaster to these fortresses; he could hurry back in time to defeat that, for he knew that Marmont had no siege guns, and could only obtain them by successfully storming Almeida and capturing the battering train which lay there protected by 3,000 militia. Nevertheless a serious effort by Marmont would force him to abandon his scheme.
All depended therefore (1) on how much Marmont knew and (2) on his readiness to strike boldly. Consequently, when that General began to draw his scattered forces together and mass them on the Tormes before Salamanca, Wellington grew anxious; and it was to relieve that anxiety or confirm it that I found myself serving as tapster of the Posada del Rio in the village of Huerta, just above a ford of the river, and six miles from Salamanca. Neither the pay it afforded nor the leisure had attracted me to the Posada del Rio. Pay there was little, and leisure there was none, since Marmont’s lines came down to the river here, and we had a battalion of infantry quartered about the village–sixteen under our roof–and all extraordinarily thirsty fellows for Frenchmen; besides a squadron of cavalry, vedettes of which constantly patrolled the farther bank of the Tormes. The cavalry officers kept their chargers–six in all–in the ramshackle stable in the court-yard facing the inn; and since (as my master explained to me the first morning) it was a tradition of the posada to combine the duties of tapster and ostler in one person, I found all the exercise I needed in running between the cellar and the great kitchen, and between the kitchen and the stable, where the troopers had always a job for me, and allowed me in return to join in their talk. They seemed to think this an adequate reward, and I did not grumble.
Now, beside the stable, and divided from it by a midden-heap, there stood at the back of the inn a small outhouse with a loft. This in more prosperous days had accommodated the master’s own mule, but now was stored with empty barrels, strings of onions, and trusses of hay–which last had been hastily removed from the larger stable when the troopers took possession. Here I slept by night, for lack of room indoors, and also to guard the fodder–an arrangement which suited me admirably, since it left me my own master for six or seven hours of the twenty-four. My bedroom furniture consisted of a truss of hay, a lantern, a tinder-box, and a rusty fowling piece. For my toilet I went to the bucket in the stable yard.
On the fifth night, having some particular information to send to headquarters, I made a cautious expedition to the place agreed upon with my messenger–a fairly intelligent muleteer, and honest, but new to the business. We met in the garden at the rear of his cottage, conveniently approached by way of the ill-kept cemetery which stood at the end of the village. If surprised, I was to act the nocturnal lover, and he the angry defender of his sister’s reputation–a foolish but not ill-looking girl, to whom I had confided nothing beyond a few amorous glances, so that her evidence (if unluckily needed) might carry all the weight of an obvious incapacity to invent or deceive.
These precautions proved unnecessary. But my muleteer, though plucky, was nervous, and I had to repeat my instructions at least thrice in detail before I felt easy. Also he brought news of a fresh movement of battalions behind Huerta, and of a sentence in the latest General Order affecting my own movements, and this obliged me to make some slight alteration in my original message. So that, what with one thing and another, it wanted but an hour of dawn when I regained the yard of the Posada del Rio and cautiously re-entered the little granary.
Rain had fallen during the night–two or three short but heavy showers. Creeping on one’s belly between the damp graves of a cemetery is not the pleasantest work in the world, and I was shivering with wet and cold and an instant want of sleep. But as I closed the door behind me and turned to grope for the ladder to my sleeping loft, I came to a halt, suddenly and painfully wide awake. There was someone in the granary. In the pitch darkness my ear caught the sound of breathing–of someone standing absolutely still and checking his breath within a few paces of me–perhaps six, perhaps less.
I, too, stood absolutely still, and lifted my hand towards the hasp of the door. And as I did so–in all my career I cannot recall a nastier moment–as my hand went up, it encountered another. I felt the fingers closing on my wrist, and wrenched loose. For a moment our two hands wrestled confusedly; but while mine tugged at the latch the other found the key and twisted it round with a click. (I had oiled the lock three nights before.) With that I flung myself on him, but again my adversary was too quick, for as I groped for his throat my chest struck against his uplifted knee, and I dropped on the floor and rolled there in intolerable pain.
No one spoke. As I struggled to raise myself on hands and knees, I heard the chipping of steel on flint, and caught a glimpse of a face. As its lips blew on the tinder this face vanished and reappeared, and at length grew steady in the blue light of the sulphur match. It was not the face, however, on which my eyes rested in a stupid wonder, but the collar below it–the scarlet collar and tunic of a British officer.
And yet the face may have had something to do with my bewilderment. I like, at any rate, to think so; because I have been in corners quite as awkward, yet have never known myself so pitifully demoralised. The uniform might be that of a British officer, but the face was that of Don Quixote de la Mancha, and shone at me in that blue light straight out of my childhood and the story-book. High brow, high cheek-bone, long pointed jaw, lined and patient face–I saw him as I had known him all my life, and I turned up at the other man, who stooped over me, a look of absurd surmise.
He was a Spanish peasant, short, thick-set and muscular, but assuredly no Sancho: a quiet quick-eyed man, with a curious neat grace in his movements. Our tussle had not heated him in the least. His right fist rested on my back, and I knew he had a knife in it; and while I gasped for breath he watched me, his left hand hovering in front of my mouth to stop the first outcry. Through his spread fingers I saw Don Quixote light the lantern and raise it for a good look at me. And with that in a flash my wits came back, and with them the one bit of Gaelic known to me.
“Latha math leat” I gasped, and caught my breath again as the fingers closed softly on my jaw, “O Alan mhic Neill!”
The officer took a step and swung the lantern close to my eyes–so close that I blinked.
“Gently, Jose.” He let out a soft pleased laugh while he studied my face. Then he spoke a word or two in Gaelic–some question which I did not understand.
“My name is McNeill,” said I; “but that’s the end of my mother tongue.”
The Captain laughed again. “We’ve caught the other one, Jose,” said he. And Jose helped me to my feet–respectfully, I thought. “Now this,” his master went on, as if talking to himself, “this explains a good deal.”
I guessed. “You mean that my presence has made the neighbourhood a trifle hot for you!”
“Exactly; there is a General Order issued which concerns one or both of us.”
I nodded. “In effect it concerns us both; but, merely as a matter of history, it was directed against me. Pardon the question, Captain, but how long have you been within the French lines?”
“Three days,” he answered simply; “and this is the third night.”
“What? In that uniform?”
“I never use disguises,” said he–a little too stiffly for my taste.
“Well, I do. And I have been within Marmont’s cantonments for close, on three weeks. However, there’s no denying you’re a champion. But did you happen to notice the date on the General Order?”
“I did; and I own it puzzled me. I concluded that Marmont must have been warned beforehand of my coming.”
“Not a bit of it. The order is eight days old. I secured a copy on the morning it was issued; and the next day, having learnt all that was necessary in Salamanca, I allowed myself to be hired in the market-place of that city by the landlord of this damnable inn.”
“I disapprove of swearing,” put in Captain McNeill, very sharp and curt.
“As well as of disguises? You seem to carry a number of scruples into this line of business. I suppose,” said I, nettled, “when you read in the General Order that the notorious McNeill was lurking disguised within the circle of cantonments, you took it that Marmont was putting a wanton affront on your character, just for the fun of the thing?”
“My dear sir,” said the Captain, “if I have expressed myself rudely, pray pardon me: I have heard too much of you to doubt your courage, and I have envied your exploits too often to speak slightingly of your methods. As a matter of fact, disguise would do nothing, and worse than nothing, for a man who speaks Spanish with my Highland accent. I may, perhaps, take a foolish pride in my disadvantage, but,” and here he smiled, “so, you remember, did the fox without a tail.”
“And that’s very handsomely spoken,” said I; “but unless I’m mistaken, you will have to break your rule for once, if you wish to cross the Tormes this morning.”
“It’s a case of must. Barring the certainty of capture if I don’t, I have important news to carry–Marmont starts within forty-eight hours.”
“Since it seems that for once we are both engaged on the same business, let me say at once, Captain, and without offence, that my news is as fresh as yours. Marmont certainly starts within forty-eight hours to assault Ciudad Rodrigo, and my messenger is already two hours on his way to Lord Wellington.”
I said this without parade, not wishing to hurt his feelings. Looking up I found his mild eyes fixed on me with a queer expression, almost with a twinkle of fun.
“To assault Ciudad Rodrigo? I think not.”
“Almeida, then, and Ciudad Rodrigo next. So far as we are concerned the question is not important.”
“My opinion is that Marmont intends to assault neither.”
“But, my good sir,” I cried, “I have seen and counted the scaling-ladders!”
“And so have I. I spent six hours in Salamanca itself,” said the Captain quietly.
“Well, but doesn’t that prove it? What other place on earth can he want to assault? He certainly is not marching south to join Soult.” I turned to Jose, who had been listening with an impassive face.
“The Captain will be right. He always is,” said Jose, perceiving that I appealed to him.
“I will wager a month’s pay–“
“I never bet,” Captain McNeill interrupted, as stiffly as before. “As you say, Marmont will march upon the Agueda, but in my opinion he will not assault Ciudad Kodrigo.”
“Then he will be a fool.”
“H’m! As to that I think we are agreed. But the question just now is how am I to get across the Tormes? The ford, I suppose, is watched on both sides.” I nodded. “And I suppose it will be absolutely fatal to remain here long after daybreak?”
“Huerta swarms with soldiers,” said I, “we have sixteen in the posada and a cavalry picket just behind. A whole battalion has eaten the village bare, and is foraging in all kinds of unlikely places. To be sure you might have a chance in the loft above us, under the hay.”
“Even so, you cannot hide our horses.”
“Yes, they’re outside at the back. I didn’t know there was a cavalry picket so close, and Jose must have missed it in the darkness.”
Jose looked handsomely ashamed of himself.
“They are well-behaved horses,” added the Captain. “Still, if they cannot be stowed somewhere, it is unlikely they can be explained away, and of course it will start a search.”
“Our stable is full.”
“Of course it is. Therefore you see we have no choice–apart from our earnest wish–but to cross the ford before daybreak. How is it patrolled on the far side?”
“Cavalry,” said I; “two vedettes.”
“Meeting, I suppose, just opposite the ford? How far do they patrol?”
“Three hundred yards maybe: certainly not more.”
The Captain pursed up his lips as if whistling.
“Is there good cover on the other side? My map shows a wood of fair size.”
“About half a mile off; open country between. Once there, you ought to be all right; I mean that a man clever enough to win there ought to make child’s-play of the rest.”
He mused for half a minute. “The stream is two wide for me to hear the movements of the patrols opposite. Jose has a wonderful ear.”
“Yes, Captain, I can hear the water from where we stand,” Jose put in.
“He is right,” said I, “it’s not a question of distance, but of the noise of the water. The ford itself will not be more than twenty yards across.”
“Three feet in the middle, as near as can be. I have rubbed down too many horses these last three days not to know. The river may have fallen an inch since yesterday. They have cleared the bottom of the ford, but just above and below there are rocks, and slippery ones.”
“My horse is roughed. Of course the bank is, watched on this side?”
“Two sentries by the ford, two a little up the road, and the guard-house not twenty yards beyond. Captain, I think you’ll have to put on a disguise for once in your life.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Then, excuse me, but how the devil do you propose to manage?”
He frowned at the oath, recovered himself, and looked at me again with something like a twinkle of fun in his solemn eyes.
“Do you know,” said he, “it has just occurred to me to pay you a tremendous compliment–McNeill to McNeill, you understand? I propose to place myself entirely in your hands.”
“Oh, thank you!” I pulled a wry face. “Well, it’s a compliment if ever there was one–an infernally handsome compliment. Your man, I suppose, can look after himself?” But before he could reply I added, “No; he shall go with me: for if you do happen to get across, I shall have to follow, and look sharp about it.” Then, as he seemed inclined to protest, “No inconvenience at all–my work here is done, and you are pretty sure to have picked up any news I may have missed. You had best be getting your horse at once; the dawn will be on us in half an hour. Bring him round to the door here. Jose will find straw–hay–anything–to deaden his footsteps. Meanwhile I’ll ask you to excuse me for five minutes.”
The Spaniard eyed me suspiciously.
“Of course,” said I, reading his thoughts, “if your master doubts me–“
“I think, Senor McNeill, I have given you no cause to suspect it,” the Captain gravely interrupted. “There is, however, one question I should like to ask, if I may do so without offence. Is it your intention that I should cross in the darkness or wait for daylight?”
“We must wait for daylight; because although it increases some obvious dangers–“
“Excuse me; your reasons are bound to be good ones. I will fetch around my horse at once, and we shall expect you back here in five minutes.”
In five minutes time I returned to find them standing in the darkness outside the granary door. Jose had strewn a space round about with hay; but at my command he fetched more and spread it carefully, step by step, as Captain McNeill led his horse forward. My own arms were full; for I had spent the five minutes in collecting a score of French blankets and shirts off the hedges, where the regimental washermen had spread them the day before to dry.
The sketch on the following page will explain my plan and our movements better than a page of explanation:–
The reader will observe that the Posada del Rio, which faces inwards upon its own courtyard, thrusts out upon the river at its rear a gable which overhangs the stream and flanks its small waterside garden from view of the village street. Into this garden, where the soldiers were used to sit and drink their wine of an evening, I led the Captain, whispering him to keep silence, for eight of the Frenchmen slept behind the windows above. In the corner by the gable was an awning, sufficient, when cleared of stools and tables, to screen him and his horse from any eyes looking down from these windows, though not tall enough to allow him to mount. And at daybreak, when the battalion assembled at its alarm-post above the ford, the gable itself would hide him. But of course the open front of the garden–where in two places the bank shelved easily down to the water–would leave him in full view of the troopers across the river. It was for this that I had brought the blankets. Across the angle by the gable there ran a clothes line on which the house-servant, Mercedes, hung her dish-clouts to dry. Unfastening the inner end, I brought it forward and lashed it to a post supporting a dovecote on the river wall. To fasten it high enough I had to climb the post, and this set the birds moving uneasily in the box overhead. But before their alarm grew serious I had slipped down to earth again, and now it took Jose and me but a couple of minutes to fling the blankets over the line and provide the Captain with a curtain, behind which, when day broke, he could watch the troopers and his opportunity. Already, in the village behind us, a cock was crowing. In twenty minutes the sun would be up and the bugles sounding the reveille. “Down the bank by the gable,” I whispered. “It runs shallow there, and six or seven yards to the right you strike the ford. When the vedettes are separated–just before they turn to come back–that’s your time.”
I took Jose by the arm. “We may as well be there to see. How were you planning to cross?”
“Oh,” said he, “a marketer–with a raw-boned Galician horse and two panniers of eggs–for Arapiles–“
“That will do; but you must enter the village at the farther end and come down the road to the ford. Get your horse”–we crept back to the granary together–“but wait a moment, and I will show you the way round.”
When I rejoined him at the back of the granary he had his horse ready, and we started to work around the village. But I had miscalculated the time. The sky was growing lighter, and scarcely were we in the lane behind the courtyard before the bugles began to sound.
“Well,” said I, “that may save us some trouble after all.”
Across the lane was an archway leading into a wheelwright’s yard. It had a tall door of solid oak studded with iron nails; but this was unlocked and unbolted, and I knew the yard to be vacant, for the French farriers had requisitioned all the wheelwright’s tools three days before, and the honest man had taken to his bed and proposed to stay there pending compensation.
To this archway we hastily crossed, and had barely time to close the door behind us before the soldiers, whose billets lay farther up the lane, came running by in twos and threes for the alarm-post, the later ones buckling their accoutrements as they ran halting now and then, and muttering as they fumbled with a strap or a button. Jose at my instruction had loosened his horse’s off hind shoe just sufficiently to allow it to clap; and as soon as he was ready I opened the door boldly, and we stepped out into the lane among the soldiers, cursing the dog’s son of a smith who would not arise from his lazy bed to attend to two poor marketers pressed for time.
Now it had been dim within the archway, but out in the lane there was plenty of light, and it did me good to see Jose start when his eyes fell on me. For a couple of seconds I am sure he believed himself betrayed: and yet, as I explained to him afterwards, it was perhaps the simplest of all my disguises and–barring the wig–depended more upon speech and gait than upon any alteration of the face. (For a particular account of it I must refer the reader back to my adventure in Villafranca. On this occasion, having proved it once, I felt more confident; and since it deceived Jose, I felt I could challenge scrutiny as an aged peasant travelling with his son to market.)
A couple of soldiers passed us and flung jests behind them as we hobbled down the lane, the loose shoe clacking on the cobbles, Jose tugging at his bridle, and I limping behind and swearing volubly, with bent back and head low by the horse’s rump, and on the near side, which would be the unexposed one when we gained the ford. And so we reached the main street and the river, Jose turning to point with wonder at the troops as we hustled past. One or two made a feint to steal an egg from our panniers. Jose protested, halting and calling in Spanish for protection. A sergeant interfered; whereupon the men began to bait us, calling after us in scraps of camp Spanish. Jose lost his temper admirably; for me, I shuffled along as an old man dazed with the scene; and when we came to the water’s edge felt secure enough to attempt a trifle of comedy business as Jose hoisted my old limbs on to the horse’s back behind the panniers. It fetched a shout of laughter. And then, having slipped off boots and stockings deliberately, Jose took hold of the bridle again and waded into the stream. We were safe.
I had found time for a glance at the farther bank, and saw that the troopers were leisurely riding to and fro. They met and parted just as we entered the ford. Before we were half-way across they had come near to the end of their beat, with about three hundred yards between them, and I was thinking this a fair opportunity for the Captain when Jose whispered, “There he goes,” very low and quick, and with a souse, horse and rider struck the water behind us by the gable of the inn. As the stream splashed up around them we saw the horse slip on the stony bottom and fall back, almost burying his haunches, but with two short heaves he had gained the good gravel and was plunging after us. The infantry spied him first–the two vedettes were in the act of wheeling about and heard the warning before they saw. Before they could put their charges to the gallop Captain McNeill was past us and climbing the bank between them. A bullet or two sang over us from the Huerta shore. Not knowing of what his horse was capable, I feared he might yet be headed off; but the troopers in their flurry had lost their heads and their only chance unless they could drop him by a fluking shot. They galloped straight for the ford-head, while the Captain slipped between, and were almost charging each other before they could pull up and wheel at right angles in pursuit.
“Good,” said Jose simply. A shot had struck one of our panniers, smashing a dozen eggs (by the smell he must have bought them cheap), and he halted and gesticulated in wrath like a man in two minds about returning and demanding compensation. Then he seemed to think better of it, and we moved forward; but twice again before we reached dry land he turned and addressed the soldiers in furious Spanish across the babble of the ford. Jose had gifts.
For my part I was eager to watch the chase which the rise of the bank hid from us, though we could hear a few stray shots. But Jose’s confidence proved well grounded, for when we struck the high road there was the Captain half a mile away within easy reach of the wood, and a full two hundred yards ahead of the foremost trooper.
“Good!” said Jose again. “Now we can eat!” and he pulled out a loaf of coarse bread from the injured pannier, and trimming off an end where the evil-smelling eggs had soaked it, divided it in two. On this and a sprig of garlic we broke our fast, and were munching and jogging along contentedly when we met the returning vedettes. They were not in the best of humours, you may be sure, and although we drew aside and paused with crusts half lifted to our open mouths to stare at them with true yokel admiration, they cursed us for taking up too much of the roadway, and one of them even made a cut with his sabre at the near pannier of eggs.
“It’s well he broke none,” said I as we watched them down the road. “I don’t deny you and your master any reasonable credit, but for my taste you leave a little too much to luck.”
Our road now began to skirt the wood into which the Captain had escaped, and we followed it for a mile and more, Jose all the while whistling a gipsy air which I guessed to carry a covert message; and sure enough, after an hour of it, the same air was taken up in the wood to our right, where we found the Captain dismounted and seated comfortably at the foot of a cork tree.
He was good enough to pay me some pretty compliments, and, after comparing notes, we agreed that–my messenger being a good seven hours on his way with all the information Lord Wellington could need for the moment–we would keep company for a day or two, and a watch on the force and disposition of the French advance. We had yet to discover Marmont’s objective. For though in Salamanca the French officers had openly talked of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, there was still a chance (though neither of us believed in it) that their general meant to turn aside and strike southward for the Tagus. Our plan, therefore, was to make for Tammames where the roads divided, where the hills afforded good cover, and to wait.
So towards Tammames (which lay some thirty miles off) we turned our faces, and arriving there on the 27th, encamped for two days among the hills. Marmont had learnt on the 14th that none of Wellington’s divisions were on the Algueda, and we agreed, having watched his preparations, that on the 27th he would be ready to start. These two days, therefore, we spent at ease, and I found the Captain, in spite of his narrow and hide-bound religion, an agreeable companion. He had the McNeills’ genealogy at his finger ends, and I picked up more information from him concerning our ancestral home in Ross and our ancestral habits than I have ever been able to verify. Certainly our grandfathers, Manus of Aranjuez and Angus (slain at Sheriff-muir), had been first cousins. But this discovery had no sooner raised me to a claim on his regard than I found his cordiality chilled by the thought that I believed in the Pope or (as he preferred to put it) Antichrist. My eminence as a genuine McNeill made the shadow of my error the taller. In these two days of inactivity I felt his solicitude growing until, next to the immediate movements of Marmont, my conversion became for him the most important question in the Peninsula, and I saw that, unless I allowed him at least to attempt it, another forty-eight hours would wear him to fiddle-strings.
Thus it happened that mid-day of the 30th found us on the wooded hill above the cross-roads; found me stretched at full length on my back and smoking, and the Captain (who did not smoke) seated beside me with his pocket Testament, earnestly sapping the fundamental errors of Rome, when Jose, who had been absent all the morning reconnoitring, brought news that Marmont’s van (which he had been watching, and ahead of which he had been dodging since ten o’clock) was barely two miles away. The Captain pulled out his watch, allowed them thirty-five minutes, and quietly proceeded with his exposition. As the head of the leading column swung into sight around the base of the foot-hills, he sought in his haversack and drew out a small volume–the Pilgrim’s Progress–and having dog’s-eared a page of it inscribed my name on the fly-leaf, “from his kinsman, Alan McNeill.”
“It is a question,” said he, as I thanked him, “and one often debated, if it be not better that a whole army, such as we see approaching, should perish bodily in every circumstance of horror than that one soul, such as yours or mine, should fail to find the true light. For my part”–and here he seemed to deprecate a weakness–“I have never been able to go quite so far; I hope not from any lack of intellectual courage. Will you take notes while I dictate?”
So on the last leaf of the Pilgrim’s Progress I entered the strength of each battalion, and noted each gun as the great army wound its way into Tammames below us, and through it for the cross-roads beyond, but not in one body, for two of the battalions enjoyed an hour’s halt there before setting forward after their comrades, by this time out of sight. They had taken the northern road.
“Ciudad Rodrigo!” said I. “And there goes Wellington’s chance of Badajos.”
The Captain beckoned to Jose and whispered in his ear, then opened his Testament again as the sturdy little Spaniard set off down the hill with his leisurely, lopping gait, so much faster than it seemed. The sun was setting when he returned with his report.
“I thought so,” said the Captain. “Marmont has left three-fourths of his scaling ladders behind in Tammames. Ciudad Rodrigo he will not attempt; I doubt if he means business with Almeida. If you please,” he added, “Jose and I will push after and discover his real business, while you carry to Lord Wellington a piece of news it will do him good to hear.”
II. THE BARBER-SURGEON OF SABUGAL
So, leaving my two comrades to follow up and detect the true object of Marmont’s campaign, I headed south for Badajos. The roads were heavy, the mountain torrents in flood, the only procurable horses and mules such as by age or debility had escaped the strictest requisitioning. Nevertheless, on the 4th of April I was able to present myself at Lord Wellington’s headquarters before Badajos, and that same evening started northwards again with his particular instructions. I understood (not, of course, by direct word of mouth) that disquieting messages had poured in ahead of me from the allied commanders scattered in the north, who reported Ciudad Rodrigo in imminent peril; that my news brought great relief of mind; but that in any case our army now stood committed to reduce Badajos before Soult came to its relief. Our iron guns had worked fast and well, and already three breaches on the eastern side of the town were nearly practicable. Badajos once secured, Wellington would press northward again to teach Marmont manners; but for the moment our weak troops opposing him must even do the best they could to gain time and protect the magazines and stores.
At six o’clock then in the evening of the 4th, on a fresh mount, I turned my back on the doomed fortress, and crossing the Guadiana by the horse ferry above Elvas, struck into the Alemtejo.
On the 6th I reached Castello Branco and found the position of the Allies sufficiently serious. Victor Alten’s German cavalry were in the town–600 of them–having fallen back before Marmont without striking a blow, and leaving the whole country four good marches from Rodrigo exposed to the French marauders. They reported that Rodrigo itself had fallen (which I knew to be false, and, as it turned out, Marmont had left but one division to blockade the place); they spoke openly of a further retreat upon Vilha Velha. But I regarded them not. They had done mischief enough already by scampering southward and allowing Marmont to push in between them and the weak militias on whom it now depended to save Almeida with its battering train, Celorico and Pinhel with their magazines, and even Ciudad Rodrigo itself; and while I listened I tasted to myself the sarcastic compliments they were likely to receive from Lord Wellington when he heard their tale.
Clearly there was no good to be done in Castello Branco, and the next morning I pushed on. I had no intention of rejoining Captain McNeill; for, as he had observed on parting–quoting some old Greek for his authority–“three of us are not enough for an army, and for any other purpose we are too many,” and although pleased enough to have a kinsman’s company he had allowed me to see that he preferred to work alone with Jose, who understood his methods, whereas mine (in spite of his compliments) were unfamiliar and puzzling. I knew him to be watching Marmont, and even speculated on the chances of our meeting, but my own purpose was to strike the Coa, note the French force there and its disposition, and so make with all serviceable news for the north, where Generals Trant and Wilson with their Portuguese militia were endeavouring to cover the magazines.
Travelling on mule-back now as a Portuguese drover out of work, I dodged a couple of marauding parties below Penamacor, found Marmont in force in Sabugal at the bend of the Coa, on the 9th reached Guarda, a town on the top of a steep mountain, and there found General Trant in position with about 6,000 raw militiamen. To him I presented myself with my report–little of which was new to him except my reason for believing Ciudad Rodrigo safe for the present; and this he heard with real pleasure, chiefly because it confirmed his own belief and gave it a good reason which it had hitherto lacked.
And here I must say a word on General Trant. He was a gallant soldier and a clever one, but inclined (and here lay his weakness) to be on occasion too clever by half. In fact, he had a leaning towards my own line of business, and naturally it was just here that I found him out. I am not denying that during the past fortnight his cleverness had served him well. He had with a handful of untrained troops to do his best for a group of small towns and magazines, each valuable and each in itself impossible of defence. His one advantage was that he knew his weakness and the enemy did not, and he had used this knowledge with almost ludicrous success.
For an instance; immediately on discovering the true line of Marmont’s advance he had hurried to take up a position on the lower Coa, but had been met on his march by an urgent message from Governor Le Mesurier that Almeida was in danger and could not resist a resolute assault. Without hesitation Trant turned and pushed hastily with one brigade to the Cabeca Negro mountain behind the bridge of Almeida, and reached it just as the French drew near, driving 200 Spaniards before them across the plain. Trant, seeing that the enemy had no cavalry at hand, with the utmost effrontery and quite as if he had an army behind him, threw out a cloud of skirmishers beyond the bridge, dressed up a dozen guides in scarlet coats to resemble British troopers, galloped with these to the glacis of Almeida, spoke the governor, drew off a score of invalid troopers from the hospital in the town, and at dusk made his way back up the mountain, which in three hours he had covered with sham bivouac fires.
These were scarcely lit when the governor, taking his cue, made a determined sortie and drove back the French light troops, who in the darkness had no sort of notion of the numbers attacking them. So completely hoaxed, indeed, was their commander that he, who had come with two divisions to take Almeida, and held it in the hollow of his hand, decamped early next morning and marched away to report, the fortress so strongly protected as to be unassailable.
Well this, as I say, showed talent. Artistically conceived as a ruse de guerre, in effect it saved Almeida. But a success of the kind too often tempts a man to try again and overshoot his mark. Now Marmont, with all his defects of vanity, was no fool. He had a strong army moderately well concentrated; he had, indeed, used it to little purpose, but he was not likely, with his knowledge of the total force available by the Allies in the north, to be seriously daunted or for long by a game of mere impudence. In my opinion Trant, after brazening him away from Almeida, should have thanked Heaven and walked humbly for a while. To me even his occupation of Guarda smelt of dangerous bravado, for Guarda is an eminently treacherous position, strong in itself, and admirable for a force sufficient to hold the ridges behind it, but capable of being turned on either hand, affording bad retreat, and, therefore, to a small force as perilous as it is attractive. But I was to find that Trant’s enterprise reached farther yet.
To my description of Marmont’s forces he listened (it seemed to me) impatiently, asking few questions and checking off each statement with “Yes, yes,” or “Quite so.” All the while his fingers were drumming on the camp table, and I had no sooner come to an end than he began to question me about the French marshal’s headquarters in Sabugal. The town itself and its position he knew as well as I did, perhaps better. I had not entered it on my way, but kept to the left bank of the Coa. I knew Marmont to be quartered there, but in what house or what part of the town I was ignorant. “And what the deuce can it matter?” I wondered.
“But could you not return and discover?” the general asked at length.
“Oh, as for that,” I answered, “it’s just as you choose to order.”
“It’s risky of course,” said he.
“It’s risky to be sure,” I agreed; “but if the risk comes in the day’s work I take it I shall have been in tighter corners.”
“Excuse me,” he said with a sort of deprecatory smile, “but I was not thinking of you; at least not altogether.” And I saw by his face that he held something in reserve and was in two minds about confiding it.
“I beg that you won’t think of me,” I said simply, for I have always made it a rule to let a general speak for himself and ask no questions which his words may not fairly cover. Outside of my own business (the limits of which are well defined) I seek no responsibility, least of all should I seek it in serving one whom I suspect of over-cleverness.
“Look here,” he said at length, “the Duke of Ragusa is a fine figure of a man.”
“Notoriously,” said I. “All Europe knows it, and he certainly knows it himself.”
“I have heard that his troops take him at his own valuation.”
“Well,” I answered, “he sits his horse gallantly; he has courage. At present he is only beginning to make his mistakes; and soldiers, like women, have a great idea of what a warrior ought to look like.”
“In fact,” said General Trant, “the loss of him would make an almighty difference.”
Now he had asked me to be seated and had poured me out a glass of wine from his decanter. But at these words I leapt up suddenly, jolting the table so that the glass danced and spilled half its contents.
“What the dickens is wrong?” asked the general, snatching a map out of the way of the liquor. “Good Lord, man! You don’t suppose I was asking you to assassinate Marmont!”
“I beg your pardon,” said I, recovering myself. “Of course not; but it sounded–“
“Oh, did it?” He mopped the map with his pocket handkerchief and looked at me as who should say “Guess again.”
I cast about wildly. “This man cannot be wanting to kidnap him!” thought I to myself.
“You tell me his divisions are scattered after supplies. I hear that the bulk of his troops are in camp above Penamacor; that at the outside he has in Sabugal under his hand but 5,000. Now Silveira should be here in a couple of days; that will make us roughly 12,000.”
“Ah!” said I, “a surprise?” He nodded. “Night?” He nodded again. “And your cavalry?” I pursued.
“I could, perhaps, force General Bacellar to spare his squadron of dragoons from Celorico. Come, what do you think of it?”
“I do as you order,” said I, “and that I suppose is to return to Sabugal and report the lie of the land. But since, general, you ask my opinion, and speaking without local knowledge, I should say–“
“Excuse me, but I will send you my opinion in four days’ time.” And I rose to depart.
“Very good, but keep your seat. Drink another glass of wine.”
“Sabugal is twenty miles off, and when I arrive I have yet to discover how to get into it,” I protested.
“That is just what am going to tell you.”
“Ah,” said I, “so you have already been making arrangements?”
He nodded while he poured out the wine. “You come opportunely, for I was about to rely on a far less ruse hand. The plan, which is my own, I submit to your judgment, but I think you will allow some merit in it.”
Well, I was not well-disposed to approve of any plan of his. In truth he had managed to offend me seriously. Had an English gentleman committed my recent error of supposing him to hint at assassination, General Trant (who can doubt it?) would have flamed out in wrath; but me he had set right with a curt carelessness which said as plain as words that the dishonouring suspicion no doubt came natural enough to a Spaniard. He had entertained me with a familiarity which I had not asked for, and which became insulting the moment he allowed me to see that it came from cold condescension. I have known a dozen combinations spoilt by English commanders who in this way have combined extreme offensiveness with conscious affability; and I have watched their allies–Spaniards and Portuguese of the first nobility–raging inwardly, while ludicrously impotent to discover a peg on which to hang their resentment.
I listened coldly, therefore, leaving the general’s wine untasted and ignoring his complimentary deference to my judgment. Yet the neatness and originality of his scheme surprised me. He certainly had talent.
He had found (it seemed) an old vine-dresser at Bellomonte, whose brother kept a small shop in Sabugal, where he shaved chins, sold drugs, drew teeth, and on occasion practised a little bone-setting. This barber-surgeon or apothecary had shut up his shop on the approach of the French and escaped out of the town to his brother’s roof. As a matter of fact he would have been safer in Sabugal, for the excesses of the French army were all committed by the marauding parties scattered up and down the country-side and out of the reach of discipline, whereas Marmont (to his credit) sternly discouraged looting, paid the inhabitants fairly for what he took, and altogether treated them with uncommon humanity.
It was likely enough, therefore, that the barber-surgeon’s shop stood as he had left it. And General Trant proposed no less than that I should boldly enter the town, take down the shutters, and open business, either personating the old man or (if I could persuade him to return) going with him as his assistant. In either case the danger of detection was more apparent than real, for so violently did the Portuguese hate their invaders that scarcely an instance of treachery occurred during the whole of this campaign. The chance of the neighbours betraying me was small enough, at any rate, to justify the risk, and I told the General promptly that I would take it.
Accordingly I left Guarda that night, and reaching Bellomonte a little after daybreak, found the vine-dresser and presented Trant’s letter.
He was on the point of starting for Sabugal, whither he had perforce to carry a dozen skins of wine, and with some little trouble I persuaded the old barber-surgeon to accompany us, bearing a petition to Marmont to be allowed peaceable possession of his shop. We arrived and were allowed to enter the town, where I assisted the vine-dresser in handling the heavy wine skins, while his brother posted off to headquarters and returned after an hour with the marshal’s protection. Armed with this, he led me off to the shop, found it undamaged, helped me to take down the shutters, showed me his cupboards, tools, and stock in trade, and answered my rudimentary questions in the art of compounding drugs–in a twitter all the while to be gone. Nor did I seek to delay him (for if my plans miscarried, Sabugal would assuredly be no place for him). Late in the afternoon he left me and went off in search of his brother, and I fell to stropping my razors with what cheerfulness I could assume.
Before nightfall my neighbours on either hand had looked in and given me good evening. They asked few questions when I told them I was taking over old Diego’s business for the time, and kept their speculations to themselves. I lay down to sleep that night with a lighter heart.
The adventure itself tickled my humour, though I had no opinion at all of the design–Trant’s design–which lay at the end of it. This, however, did not damp my zeal in using eyes and ears; and on the third afternoon, when the old vine-dresser rode over with more wine skins, and dropped in to inquire about business and take home a pint of rhubarb for the stomach-ache, I had the satisfaction of making up for him, under the eyes of two soldiers waiting to be shaved, a packet containing a compendious account of Marmont’s dispositions with a description of his headquarters. My report concluded with these words:–
“With regard to the enterprise on which I have had the honour to be consulted I offer my opinion with humility. It is, however, a fixed one. You will lose two divisions; and even a third, should you bring it.”
On the whole I had weathered through these three days with eminent success. The shaving I managed with something like credit (for a Portuguese). My pharmaceutics had been (it was vain to deny) in the highest degree empirical, but if my patients had not been cured they even more certainly had not died–or at least their bodies had not been found. What gravelled me was the phlebotomy. Somehow the chance of being called upon to let blood had not occurred to me, and on the second morning when a varicose sergeant of the line dropped into my operating chair and demanded to have a vein opened, I bitterly regretted that I had asked my employer neither where to insert the lancet nor how to stop the bleeding. I eyed the brawn in the chair, so full of animal life and rude health–no, strike at random I could not! I took his arm and asked insinuatingly, “Now, where do you usually have it done?” “Sometimes here, sometimes there,” he answered. Joy! I remembered a bottle of leeches on the shelf. I felt the man’s pulse and lifted his eyelids with trembling fingers. “In your state,” said I, “it would be a crime to bleed you. What you want is leeches.” “You think so?” he asked–“how many?” “Oh, half-a-dozen–to begin with.” In my sweating hurry I forgot (if I had ever known) that the bottle contained but three. “No,” said I, “we’ll start with a couple and work up by degrees.” He took them on his palm and turned them over with a stubby forefinger. “Funny little beasts!” said he and marched out of the shop into the sunshine. To this day when recounting his Peninsular exploits he omits his narrowest escape.
I can hardly describe the effect of this ridiculous adventure upon my nerves. My heart sank whenever a plethoric customer entered the shop, and I caught fright or snatched relief even from the weight of a footfall or the size of a shadow in my doorway. A dozen times in intervals of leisure I reached down the bottle from its shelf and studied my one remaining leech. A horrible suspicion possessed me that the little brute was dead. He remained at any rate completely torpid, though I coaxed him almost in agony to show some sign of life. Obviously the bottle contained nothing to nourish him; to offer him my own blood would be to disable him for another patient. On the fourth afternoon I went so far as to try him on the back of my hand. I waited five minutes; he gave no sign. Then, startled by a footstep outside, I popped him hurriedly back in his bottle.
A scraggy, hawk-nosed trooper of hussars entered and flung himself into my chair demanding a shave. In my confusion I had lathered his chin and set to work before giving his face any particular attention. He had started a grumble at being overworked (he was just off duty and smelt potently of the stable), but sat silent as men usually do at the first scrape of the razor. On looking down I saw in a flash that this was not the reason. He was one of the troopers whose odd jobs I had done at the Posada del Rio in Huerta, an ill-conditioned Norman called Michu–Pierre Michu. Since our meeting, with the help of a little walnut juice, I had given myself a fine Portuguese complexion with other small touches sufficient to deceive a cleverer man. But by ill-luck (or to give it a true name, by careless folly) I had knotted under my collar that morning a yellow-patterned handkerchief which I had worn every day at the Posada del Rio, and as his eyes travelled from this to my face I saw that the man recognised me.
There was no time for hesitating. If I kept silence, no doubt he would do the same; but if I let him go, it would be to make straight for headquarters with his tale. I scraped away for a second or two in dead silence, and then holding my razor point I said, sharp and low, “I am going to kill you.”
He turned white as a sheet, opened his mouth, and I could feel him gathering his muscles together to heave himself out of the chair; no easy matter. I laid the flat of the razor against his flesh, and he sank back helpless. My hand was over his mouth. “Yes, I shall have plenty of time before they find you.” A sound in his throat was the only answer, something between a grunt and a sob. “To be sure” I went on, “I bear you no grudge. But there is no other way, unless–“
“No, no,” he gasped. “I promise. The grave shall not be more secret.”
“Ah,” said I, “but how am I to believe that?”
“I must have even a little more than that.” I made him swear by the faith of a soldier and half-a-dozen other oaths which occurred to me as likely to bind him if, lacking honour and religion, he might still have room in his lean body for a little superstition. He took every oath eagerly, and with a pensive frown I resumed my shaving. At the first scrape he winced and tried to push me back.
“Indeed no,” said I; “business is business,” and I finished the job methodically, relentlessly. It still consoles me to think upon what he must have suffered.
When at length I let him up he forced an uneasy laugh. “Well, comrade, you had the better of me I must say. Eh! but you’re a clever one–and at Huerta, eh?” He held out his hand. “No rancour though–a fair trick of war, and I am not the man to bear a grudge for it. After all war’s war, as they say. Some use one weapon, some another. You know,” he went on confidentially, “it isn’t as if you had learnt anything out of me. In that case–well, of course, it would have made all the difference.”
I fell to stropping my razor. “Since I have your oath–” I began.
“That’s understood. My word, though, it is hard to believe!”
“You had best believe it, anyway,” said I; and with a sort of shamefaced swagger he lurched out of the shop.
Well, I did not like it. I walked to the door and watched him down the street. Though it wanted an hour of sunset I determined to put up my shutters and take a stroll by the river. I had done the most necessary part of my work in Sabugal; to-morrow I would make my way back to Bellomonte, but in case of hindrance it might be as well to know how the river bank was guarded. At this point a really happy inspiration seized me. There were many pools in the marsh land by the river–pools left by the recent floods. Possibly by hunting among these and stirring up the mud I might replenish my stock of leeches. I had the vaguest notion how leeches were gathered, but the pursuit would at the worst give me an excuse for dawdling and spying out the land.
I closed the shop at once, hunted out a tin box, and with this and my bottle (to serve as evidence, if necessary, of my good faith) made my way down to the river side north of the town. The bank here was well guarded by patrols, between whom a number of peaceful citizens sat a-fishing. Seen thus in line and with their backs turned to me they bore a ludicrous resemblance to a row of spectators at a play; and gazing beyond them, though dazzled for a moment by the full level rays of the sun, I presently became aware of a spectacle worth looking at.
On the road across the river a squadron of lancers was moving northward.
“Hallo!” thought I, “here’s a reconnaissance of some importance.” But deciding that any show of inquisitiveness would be out of place under the eyes of the patrols, I kept my course parallel with the river’s, at perhaps 300 yards distance from it. This brought me to the first pool, and there I had no sooner deposited my bottle and tin box on the brink than beyond the screen of the town wall came pushing the head of a column of infantry.
Decidedly here was something to think over. The column unwound itself in clouds of yellow dust–a whole brigade; then an interval, then another dusty column–two brigades! Could Marmont be planning against Trant the very coup which Trant had planned against him? Twenty miles–it could be done before daybreak; and the infantry (I had seen at the first glance) were marching light.
I do not know to this day if any leeches inhabit the pools outside Sabugal. It is very certain that I discovered none. About a quarter of a mile ahead of me and about the same distance back from the river there stood a ruinous house which had been fired, but whether recently or by the French I could not tell; once no doubt the country villa of some well-to-do townsman, but now roofless, and showing smears of black where the flames had licked its white outer walls. Towards this I steered my way cautiously, that behind the shelter of an outbuilding I might study the receding brigades at my leisure.
The form of the building was roughly a hollow square enclosing a fair-sized patio, the entrance of which I had to cross to gain the rearward premises and slip out of sight of the patrols. The gate of this entrance had been torn off its hinges and now lay jammed aslant across the passage; beyond it the patio lay heaped with bricks and rubble, tiles, and charred beams. I paused for a moment and craned in for a better look at the debris.
And then the sound of voices arrested me–a moment too late. I was face to face with two French officers, one with a horse beside him. They saw me, and on the instant ceased talking and stared; but without changing their attitudes, which were clearly those of two disputants. They stood perhaps four paces apart. Both were young men, and the one whose attitude most suggested menace I recognised as a young lieutenant of a line regiment (the 102nd) whom I had shaved that morning. The other wore the uniform of a staff officer, and at the first glance I read a touch of superciliousness in his indignant face. His left hand held his horse’s bridle, his other he still kept tightly clenched while he stared at me.
“What the devil do you want here?” demanded the lieutenant roughly in bad Portuguese. “But, hallo!” he added, recognising me, and turned a curious glance on the other.
“Who is it?” the staff officer asked.
“It’s a barber; and I believe something of a surgeon. That’s so, eh?” He appealed to me.
“In a small way,” I answered apologetically.
The lieutenant turned again to his companion. “He might do for us; the sooner the better, unless–“
“Unless,” interrupted the staff officer with cold politeness, “you prefer the apology you owe me.”
The lieutenant swung round again with a brusque laugh. “Look here, have you your instruments about you?”
For answer I held up my bottle with the one absurd leech dormant at the bottom. He laughed again just as harshly.
“That is about the last thing to suit our purpose. Listen”–he glanced out through the passage–“the gates won’t be shut for an hour yet. It will take you perhaps twenty minutes to fetch what is necessary. You understand? Return here, and don’t keep us waiting. Afterwards, should the gates be shut, one of us will see you back to the town.”
I bowed without a word and hurried back across the water meadow. Along the river bank between the patrols the anglers still sat in their patient row. And on the road to the north-west the tail of the second brigade was winding slowly out of sight.
Once past the gate and through the streets, I walked more briskly, paused at my shop door to fit the key in the lock, and was astonished when the door fell open at the push of my hand.
Then in an instant I understood. The shop had been ransacked–by that treacherous scoundrel Michu, of course. Bottles, herbs, shaving apparatus all was topsy-turvy. Drawers stood half-open; the floor was in a litter.
I had two consolations: the first that there were no incriminating papers in the, house; the second that Michu had clearly paid me a private visit before carrying his tale to headquarters. Otherwise the door would have been sealed and the house under guard. I reflected that the idiot would catch it hot for this unauthorised piece of work. Stay! he might still be in the house rummaging the upper rooms. I crept upstairs.
No, he was gone. He had left my case of instruments, too, after breaking the lock and scattering them about the floor. I gathered them together in haste, descended again, snatched up a roll of lint, and pausing only at the door for a glance up and down the street, made my escape post haste for the water meadow.
In the patio I found the two disputants standing much as I had left them, the staff officer gently and methodically smoothing his horse’s crupper, the lieutenant with a watch in his hand.
“Good,” said he, closing it with a snap, “seventeen minutes only. By the way, do you happen to understand French?”
“A very little,” said I.
“Because, as you alone are the witness of this our little difference, it will be in order if I explain that I insulted this gentleman.”
“Somewhat grossly,” put in the staff officer.
“Somewhat grossly, in return for an insult put upon me–somewhat grossly–in the presence of my company, two days ago, in the camp above Penamacor, when I took the liberty to resent a message conveyed by him to my colonel–as he alleges upon the authority of the marshal, the Duke of Ragusa.”
“An assertion,” commented the staff officer, “which I am able to prove on the marshal’s return and with his permission, provided always that the request be decently made.”
They had been speaking in French and meanwhile removing their tunics. The staff officer had even drawn off his riding boots. “Do you understand?” asked the lieutenant.
“A little,” said I; “enough to serve the occasion.”
“Excellent barber-surgeon! Would that all your nation were no more inquisitive!” He turned to the staff officer. “Ready? On guard, then, monsieur!”
The combat was really not worth describing. The young staff officer had indeed as much training as his opponent (and that was little), but no wrist at all. He had scarcely engaged before he attempted a blind cut over the scalp. The lieutenant, parrying clumsily, but just in time, forced blade and arm upward until the two pointed almost vertically to heaven, and their forearms almost rubbed as the pair stood close and chest to chest. For an instant the staff officer’s sword was actually driven back behind his head; and then with a rearward spring the lieutenant disengaged and brought his edge clean down on his adversary’s left shoulder and breast, narrowly missing his ear. The cut itself, delivered almost in the recoil, had no great weight behind it, but the blood spurted at once, and the wounded man, stepping back for a fresh guard, swayed foolishly for a moment and then toppled into my arms.
“Is it serious?” asked the lieutenant, wiping his sword and looking, it seemed to me, more than a little scared.
“Wait a moment,” said I, and eased the body to the ground. “Yes, it looks nasty. And keep back, if you please; he has fainted.”
Being off my guard I said it in very good French, which in his agitation he luckily failed to remark.
“I had best fetch help,” said he.
“I’ll run for one of the patrols; we’ll carry him back to the town.”
But this would not suit me at all. “No,” I objected, “you must fetch one of your surgeons. Meanwhile I will try to stop the bleeding; but I certainly won’t answer for it if you attempt to move him at once.”
I showed him the wound as he hurried into his tunic. It was a long and ugly gash, but (as I had guessed) neither deep nor dangerous. It ran from the point of the collar-bone aslant across the chest, and had the lieutenant put a little more drag into the stroke it must infallibly have snicked open the artery inside the upper arm. As it was, my immediate business lay in frightening him off before the bleeding slackened, and my heart gave a leap when he turned and ran out of the patio, buttoning his tunic as he went.
It took me ten minutes perhaps to dress the wound and tie a rude bandage; and perhaps another four to pull off coat and shoes and slip into the staff officer’s tunic, pull on his riding boots over my blue canvas trousers–at a distance scarcely discernible in colour from his tight-fitting breeches–and buckle on his sword-belt. I had some difficulty in finding his cap, for he had tossed it carelessly behind one of the fallen beams, and by this time the light was bad within the patio. The horse gave me no trouble, being an old campaigner, no doubt, and used to surprises. I untethered him and led him gently across the yard, picking my way in a circuit which would take him as far as possible from his fallen master. But glancing back just before mounting, to my horror I saw that the wounded man had raised himself on his right elbow and was staring at me. Our eyes met; what he thought–whether he suspected the truth or accepted the sight as a part of his delirium–I shall never know. The next instant he fell back again and lay inert.
I passed out into the open. The warning gun must have sounded without my hearing it, for across the meadow the townspeople were retracing their way to the town gate, which closed at sunset. At any moment now the patrols might be upon me; so swinging myself into the saddle I set off at a brisk trot towards the gate.
My chief peril for the moment lay in the chance of meeting the lieutenant on his way back with the doctor; yet I must run this risk and ride through the town to the bridge gate, the river being unfordable for miles to the northward and trending farther and farther away from Guarda; and Guarda must be reached at all costs, or by to-morrow Trant’s and Wilson’s garrisons would have ceased to exist. My heart fairly sank when on reaching the gate I saw an officer in talk with the sentry there, and at least a score of men behind him. I drew aside; he stepped out and called an order to his company, which at once issued and spread itself in face of the scattered groups of citizens returning across the meadow.
“Yes, captain,” said the sentry, answering the question in my look,” they are after a spy, it seems, who has been practising here as a barber. They say even the famous McNeill.”
I rode through the gateway and spurred my horse to a trot again, heading him down a side street to the right. This took me some distance out of my way, but anything was preferable to the risk of meeting the lieutenant, and I believed that I had yet some minutes to spare before the second gunfire.
In this I was mistaken. The gun boomed out just as I came in sight of the bridge gate, and the lieutenant of the guard appeared clanking out on the instant to close the heavy doors. I spurred my horse and dashed down at a canter, hailing loudly:–
“A spy!–a barber fellow; here, hold a minute!”
“Yes, we have had warning half an hour ago. Nobody has passed out since.”
“At the gate below,” I panted, “they sighted him; and he made for the river–tried to swim it. Run out your men and bring them along to search the bank!”
He began to shout orders. I galloped through the gate and hailed the sentry at the tete du pont. “A spy!” I shouted–“in the river. Keep your eyes open if he makes the bank!”
The fellow drew aside, and I clattered past him with a dozen soldiers at my heels fastening their belts and looking to their muskets as they ran. Once over the bridge I headed to the right again along the left bank of the river.
“This way! This way! Keep your eyes open!”
I was safe now. In the rapidly falling dusk, still increasing the distance between us, I led them down past the town and opposite the astonished patrols on the meadow bank. Even then, when I wheeled to the left and galloped for the high road, it did not occur to them to suspect me, nor shall I ever know when first it dawned on them that they had been fooled. Certainly not a shot was sent after me, and I settled down for a steady gallop northward, pleasantly assured of being at least twenty minutes ahead of any effective pursuit.
I was equally well assured of overtaking the brigades, but my business, of course, was to avoid and get ahead of them. And with this object, after an hour’s brisk going, I struck a hill-track to the left which, as I remembered (having used it on my journey from Badajoz), at first ran parallel with the high road for two miles or more and then cut two considerable loops which the road followed along the valley bottom.
Recent rains had unloosed the springs on the mountain side and set them chattering so loudly that I must have reined up at least a score of times before I detected the tramp of the brigades in the darkness below me. Of the cavalry, though I rode on listening for at least another two miles, I could hear no sound. Yet, as I argued, they could not be far distant; and I pushed forward with heart elate at the prospect of trumping Marmont’s card, for I remembered the staff officer’s words, “on the marshal’s return.” I knew that Marmont had been in Sabugal no longer ago than mid-day; and irregular and almost derogatory as it might be thought for a marshal of France to be conducting a night surprise against a half-disciplined horde of militia, I would have wagered my month’s pay that this was the fact.
And then, with a slip of my horse on the stony track, my good fortune suddenly ended, and smash went my basket of eggs while I counted the chickens. The poor brute with one false step came down heavily on his near side. Quick as I was in flinging my foot from the stirrup, I was just a moment too late; I fell without injury to bone, but his weight pinned me to earth by the boot, and when I extricated myself it was with a wrenched ankle. I managed to get him to his feet, but he had either dislocated or so severely wrung his near shoulder that he could scarcely walk a step. It went to my heart to leave him there on the mountain side, but it had to be done, for possibly the fate of the garrison at Guarda depended on it.
I left him, therefore, and limped forward along the track until it took an abrupt turn around a shoulder of the mountain. Immediately below me, unless I erred in my bearings, a desolate sheep farm stood but a short distance above the high road. Towards this I descended, and finding it with no great difficulty, knocked gently at the back door. To my surprise the shepherd opened it almost at once. He was fully dressed in spite of the lateness of the hour, and seemed greatly perturbed; nor, I can promise you, was he reassured when, after giving him the signal arranged between Trant and the peasantry, I followed him into his kitchen and his eyes fell on my French uniform.
But it was my turn to be perturbed when, satisfied with my explanation, he informed me that a body of cavalry had passed along the road towards Guarda a good twenty minutes before. It was this had awakened him. “No infantry?” I asked.
He shook his head positively. He had been on the watch ever since. And this, while it jumped with my own conviction that the infantry was at least a mile behind me, gave me new hope. I could not understand this straggling march, but it was at least reasonable to suppose that Marmont’s horse would wait upon his foot before attempting such a position as Guarda.
“I must push on,” said I, and instructed him where to seek for my unfortunate charger.
He walked down with me to the road. My ankle pained me cruelly.
“See here,” said he, “the senor had best let me go with him. It is but six miles, and I can recover the horse in the morning.”
He was in earnest, and I consented. It was fortunate that I did, or I might have dropped in the road and been found or trodden on by the French column behind us.
As it was I broke down after the second mile. The shepherd took me in his arms like a child and found cover for me below a bank to the left of the road beside the stream in the valley bottom. I gave him my instructions and he hurried on.
Lying there in the darkness half an hour later I heard the tramp of the brigade approaching, and lay and listened while they went by.
I have often, in writing these memoirs, wished I could be inventing instead of setting down facts. With a little invention only, how I could have rounded off this adventure! But that is the way with real events. All my surprising luck ended with the casual stumble of a horse, and it was not I who saved Guarda, nor even my messenger, but Marmont’s own incredible folly.
When my shepherd reached the foot of the ascent to the fortress he heard a drum beaten suddenly in the darkness above. This single drum kept rattling (he told me) for at least a minute before a score of others took up the alarm. There had been no other warning, not so much as a single shot fired; and even after the drums began there was no considerable noise of musketry until the day broke and the shepherd saw the French cavalry retiring slowly down the hill scarcely 500 yards ahead of the Portuguese militia, now pouring forth from the gateway. These were at once checked and formed up in front of the town, the French still retiring slowly, with a few English dragoons hanging on their heels. A few shots only were exchanged, apparently without damage. The man assured me that the whole 400 or 500 troopers passed within a hundred yards of him and so down the slope and out of his sight.
What had happened was this: Marmont, impatient at the delay of his two brigades of infantry (which by some bungle in the starting did not reach the foot of the mountain before daylight), had pushed his horsemen up the hill and managed to cut off and silence the outposts without their firing a shot. Encouraged by this he pressed on to the very gates of the town, and had actually entered the street when the alarm was sounded–and by whom? By a single drummer whom General Trant, distrusting the watchfulness of his militia, had posted at his bedroom door! Trant’s servant entering with his coffee at daybreak brought a report that the French were at the gates; the drummer plied his sticks like a madman; other drummers all over the town caught up their sticks and tattooed away without the least notion of what was happening; the militia ran helter-skelter to their alarm post; and the French marshal, who might have carried the town at a single rush and without losing a man, turned tail! Such are the absurdities of war.
But in fancy I sometimes complete the picture and see myself, in French staff officer’s dress, boldly riding up to the head of the French infantry column and in the name of the, Duke of Ragusa commanding its general to halt. True, I did not know the password–which might have been awkward. But a staff officer can swagger through some small difficulties, as I had already proved twice that night. But for the stumble of a horse–who knows? The possibility seems to me scarcely more fantastic than the accident which actually saved Guarda.
III. THE PAROLE
Marmont’s night attack on Guarda, though immediately and even absurdly unsuccessful, did, in fact, convince Trant that the hill was untenable, and he at once attempted to fall back upon Celorico across the river Mondego, where lay Lord Wellington’s magazines and very considerable stores, for the moment quite unprotected.
Marmont had from four to six thousand horsemen and two brigades of infantry. The horse could with the utmost ease have headed Trant off and trotted into Celorico while the infantry fell on him, and but for the grossest blundering the militia as a fighting force should have been wiped out of existence. But blunders dogged Marmont throughout this campaign. Trant and Wilson marched their men (with one day’s provisions only) out of Guarda and down the long slopes toward the river. Good order was kept for three or four miles, and the head of the column was actually crossing by a pretty deep ford when some forty dragoons (which Trant had begged from Bacellar to help him in his proposed coup upon Sabugal, and which had arrived from Celorico but the day before) came galloping down through the woods with a squadron of French cavalry in pursuit, and charging in panic through the rearguard flung everything into confusion. The day was a rainy one, and the militia, finding their powder wet, ran for the ford like sheep. The officers, however, kept their heads and got the men over, though with the loss of two hundred prisoners. Even so, Marmont might have crossed the river on their flank and galloped into Celorico ahead of them. As it was, he halted and allowed the rabble to save themselves in the town. While blaming his head I must do justice to his heart and add that, finding what poor creatures he had to deal with, he forbade his horsemen to cut down the fugitives, and not a single man was killed.
Foreseeing that Trant must sooner or later retreat upon Celorico–though ignorant, of course, of what was happening–I was actually crossing the river at the time by a ford some four miles above, not in the French staff officer’s uniform which I had worn out of Sabugal, but in an old jacket lent me by my friend the shepherd. By the time I reached the town Wilson had swept in his rabble and was planting his outposts, intending to resist and, if this became impossible, to blow up the magazines before retiring. Trant and Bacellar with the bulk of the militia were continuing the retreat meanwhile towards Lamego.
I need only say here that Wilson’s bold front served its purpose. Once, when the French drove in his outposts, he gave the order to fire the powder, and a part of the magazine was actually destroyed when Marmont (who above all things hated ridicule, and was severely taxing the respect of his beautiful army by these serio-comic excursions after a raw militia) withdrew his troops and retired in an abominable temper to Sabugal.
How do I know that Marmont’s temper was abominable? By what follows.
On March 30th I had left my kinsman, Captain Alan McNeill, with his servant Jose at Tammanies. They were to keep an eye on the French movements while I rode south and reported to Lord Wellington at Badajoz. It was now April 16th, and in the meanwhile a great deal had happened; but of my kinsman’s movements I had heard nothing. At first I felt sure he must be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Marmont’s headquarters; but even in Sabugal itself no hint of him could I hear, and at length I concluded that having satisfied himself of the main lines of Marmont’s campaign he had gone off to meet and receive fresh instructions from Wellington, now posting north to save the endangered magazines.
On the evening of the 16th General Wilson sent for me.
“Here is a nasty piece of news,” said he. “Your namesake is a prisoner.”
“In Sabugal; but it seems he was brought there from the main camp above Penamacor. Trant tells me that you are not only namesakes but kinsmen. Would you care to question the messenger?”
The messenger was brought in–a peasant from the Penamacor district. Out of his rambling tale one or two certainties emerged. McNeill–the celebrated McNeill–was a prisoner; he had been taken on the 14th somewhere in the pass above Penamacor, and conveyed to Sabugal to await the French marshal’s return. His servant was dead–killed in trying to escape, or to help his master’s escape. So much I sifted out of the mass of inaccuracies. For, as usual, the two McNeills had managed to get mixed up in the story, a good half of which spread itself into a highly coloured version of my own escape from Sabugal on the evening of the 13th; how I had been arrested by a French officer in a back shop in the heart of the town; how, as he overhauled my incriminating papers, I had leapt on him with a knife and stabbed him to the heart, while my servant did the same with his orderly; how, having possessed ourselves of their clothes and horses, we had ridden boldly through the gate and southward to join Lord Wellington; and a great deal more equally veracious. As I listened I began to understand how legends grow and demigods are made.
It was flattering; but without attempting to show how I managed to disengage the facts, I will here quote the plain account of them, sent to me long afterwards by Captain Alan himself:–
Captain Alan McNeill’s Statement.
“You wish, for use in your Memoirs, an account of my capture in the month of April, 1811, and the death of my faithful servant, Jose. I imagine this does not include an account of all our movements from the time you left us at Tammames (though this, too, I shall be happy to send if desired), and so I come at once to the 14th, the actual date of the capture.
“The preceding night we had spent in the woods below the great French camp, and perhaps a mile above the mouth of the pass opening on Penamacor. All through the previous day there had been considerable stir in the camp, and I believed a general movement to be impending. I supposed Marmont himself to be either with the main army or behind in his headquarters at Sabugal, and within easy distance. It never occurred to me–nor could it have occurred to any reasonable man–to guess, upon no evidence, that a marshal of France had gone gallivanting with six thousand horse and two brigades of infantry in chase of a handful of undrilled militia.
“My impression was that his move, if he made one, would be a resolute descent through Penamacor and upon Castello Branco. As a matter of fact, although Victor Alten had abandoned that place to be held by Lecor and his two thousand five hundred militiamen, the French (constant to their policy of frittering away opportunities) merely sent down two detachments of cavalry to menace it, and I believe that my capture was the only success which befel them.
“Early on the 14th, and about an hour before these troops (dragoons for the most part) began to descend the pass, I had posted myself with Jose on one of the lower ridges and (as I imagined) well under cover of the dwarf oaks which grew thickly there. They did indeed screen us admirably from the squadrons I was watching, and they passed unsuspecting within fifty yards of us. Believing them to be but an advance guard, and that we should soon hear the tramp of the main army, I kept my shelter for another ten minutes, and was prepared to keep it for another hour, when Jose–whose eyes missed nothing–caught me by the arm and pointed high up the hillside behind us.
“‘Scouts!’ he whispered. ‘They have seen us, sir!’
“I glanced up and saw a pair of horsemen about two gunshots away galloping down the uneven ridge towards us, with about a dozen in a cluster close behind. We leapt into saddle at once, made off through the oaks for perhaps a couple of hundred yards, and then wheeling sharply struck back across the hillside towards Sabugal. We were still in good cover, but the enemy had posted his men more thickly than we had guessed, and by-and-by I crossed a small clearing and rode straight into the arms of a dragoon. Providentially I came on him with a suddenness which flurried his aim, and though he fired his pistol at me point-blank he wounded neither me nor my horse. But hearing shouts behind him in answer to the shot, we wheeled almost right-about and set off straight down the hill.
“This new direction did not help us, however; for almost at once a bugle was sounded above, obviously as a warning to the dragoons at the foot of the pass, who halted and spread themselves along the lower slopes to cut us off. Our one chance now lay in abandoning our horses and crawling deep into the covert of the low oaks where cavalry would have much ado to follow. This we promptly did, and for twenty minutes we managed to elude them, so that my hopes began to grow. But unhappily a knot of officers on the ridge above had watched this manoeuvre through their telescopes, and now detached small parties of infantry down either side of the pass to beat the covers. Our hiding place quickly became too hot, and as we broke cover and dashed across another small clearing we were spied again by those on the ridge, who shouted to the soldiers and directed the chase by waving their caps. For another ten minutes we baffled them, and then crawling on hands and knees from a thicket where we could hear our enemies not a dozen yards away beating the bushes with the flat of their swords, we came face to face with a second party advancing straight upon us. I stood up straight and was on the point of making a last desperate run for it when I saw Jose sink on his face exhausted.
“‘Do not shoot!’ I called to the officer. ‘We have hurt no man, monsieur.’–For it is, as you know, a fact that in our business I strongly disapprove of bloodshed, and in all our expeditions together Jose had never done physical injury to a living creature.
“But I was too late. The young officer fired, and though the ball entered my poor servant’s skull and killed him on the instant, a hulking fellow beside him had the savagery to complete what was finished with a savage bayonet-thrust through the back.
“I stood still, fully expecting to be used no more humanely, but the officer lowered his pistol and curtly told me I was his prisoner. By this time the fellows had come up from beating the thicket behind and surrounded me. I therefore surrendered, and was marched up the hill to the camp with poor Jose’s body at my heels borne by a couple of soldiers.
“In all the hurry and heat of this chase I had found time to wonder how our pursuers happened to be so well posted. For a good fortnight and more–in fact, since my escape across the ford at Huerta–I could remember nothing that we had done to give the French the slightest inkling that we were watching them or, indeed, were anywhere near. And yet the affair suggested no casual piece of scouting, but a deliberate plan to entrap somebody of whose neighbourhood they were aware.
“Nor was this perplexity at all unravelled by the general officer to whose tent they at once conveyed me–a little round white-headed man, Ducrot by name. He addressed me at once as Captain McNeill, and seemed vastly elated at my capture.
“‘So we have you at last!’ he said, regarding me with a jocular smile and a head cocked on one side, pretty much after the fashion of a thrush eyeing a worm. ‘But, excuse me, after so much finesse it was a blunder–hein?’
“Now finesse is not a word which I should have claimed at any time for my methods,[A] and I cast about in my memory for the exploit to which he could be alluding.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.–Here the captain, in his hurry to pay me a compliment, does himself some injustice. Finesse, to be sure, was not generally characteristic of his methods, but he used it at times with amazing dexterity, as, for instance, the latter part of this very adventure will prove, if I can ever prevail on him to narrate it. On the whole I should say that he disapproved of finesse much as he disapproved of swearing, but had a natural aptitude for both.]
“‘It is the mistake of clever men,’ continued General Ducrot sagely, ‘to undervalue their opponents; but surely after yesterday the commonest prudence might have warned you to put the greatest possible distance between yourself and Sabugal.’
“‘Sabugal?’ I echoed.
“‘Oh, my dear sir, we know. It was amusing–eh!–the barber’s shop? I assure you I laughed. It was time for you to be taken; for really, you know, you could never have bettered it, and it is not for an artist to wind up by repeating inferior successes.’
“For a moment I thought the man daft. What on earth (I asked myself) was this nonsense about Sabugal and a barber’s shop? I had not been near Sabugal; as for the barber’s shop it sounded to me like a piece out of the childish rigmarole about cutting a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie. Some fleeting suspicion I may have had that here was another affair in which you and I had again managed to get confused; but if so the suspicion occurred only to be dismissed. A fortnight before you had left me on your way south to Badajoz, and you will own that to connect you with something which apparently had happened yesterday in a barber’s shop in Sabugal was to overstrain guessing. Having nothing to say, I held my tongue; and General Ducrot put on a more magisterial air. He resented this British phlegm in a prisoner with whom he had been graciously jocose and fell back on his national belief that we islanders, though occasionally funny, are so by force of eccentricity rather than by humour.
“‘I do not propose to deal with you myself,’ he announced. ‘At one time and another, sir, you have done our cause an infinity of mischief, and I prefer that the Duke of Ragusa should decide your fate. I shall send you therefore to Sabugal to await his return.’
“This gave me my first intimation that Marmont was neither in Sabugal nor with his main army. That same afternoon they marched me off to the town and set me under guard in a house next door to his headquarters.
“Marmont returned from Celorico (if my memory serves me) on the afternoon of the 17th. I was taken before him at once. He treated me with the greatest apparent kindness, hoped I had suffered no ill-usage, and wound up by inviting me to dinner. A couple of hours later I was escorted to headquarters, where, on entering the room where he received his guests, I found him in conversation with a young staff officer who wore his arm in a sling.
“The marshal turned to me at once, and very gaily. ‘I understand,’ said he with a smile, ‘that I have no need to introduce you to Captain de Brissac.’
“I looked from him to the young officer in some bewilderment, and saw in a moment that Captain de Brissac was certainly not less bewildered than I.
“‘But Monsieur le Marechal–but this is not the man!’
“‘Not the man?’
“‘Most decidedly not. The man of whom I spoke was dark and not above middle height. He spoke Portuguese like a native, and belonged to a class altogether different. It would be impossible for this gentleman to disguise himself so.’
“For a moment Marmont seemed no less puzzled than we. Then he broke out laughing again.
“‘Ah! of course; that will have been Captain McNeill’s servant–the poor fellow who was killed,’ he added more gravely. ‘I am told, sir, that this servant shared and furthered most of your adventures?’
“‘He did indeed, M. le Marechal,’ said I; ‘but excuse me if I am at a loss–‘
“The Duke interrupted me by laughing again and laying a hand on my shoulder as an orderly announced dinner. ‘Rest easy, my friend, we know of all your little tricks.’ And at table he amused himself and more and more befogged me by a precise account of my haunts and movements. How I had kept a barber’s shop in Sabugal under his very nose; what disguises I used (and you know that I never used a disguise in my life); how my servant had assisted M. de Brissac in a duel and afterwards escaped in his uniform–with much more, and all of it news to me. My astonished face merely excited his laughter; he set it down to my eccentricity. But after dinner, when M. de Brissac had taken his departure, Marmont crossed his handsome legs and came to business.
“‘Sir,’ said he, ‘I am going to pay you a compliment. We have suffered heavily through your cleverness; and although Lord Wellington may choose to call you a scouting officer, you must be aware (and will forgive me for reminding you) that I might well be excused for calling you by an uglier name.’
“You may be sure I did not like this. You may also remember how at Huerta on the occasion of our first meeting the question of disguise came up between us, and how I assured you that to me, with my Scottish face and accent, a disguise would be worse than useless. Well, that was true enough so far as it went; but I fear that in my anxiety not to offend your feelings I spoke less than the whole truth, for I have always held that in our business as soon as a man resorts to disguise his work ceases to be legitimate scouting. It may be no less justifiable and even more useful, but it is no longer scouting. I admit the distinction to be a nice one;[A] and I have sometimes asked myself, when covering my uniform with my dark riding cloak, ‘What, after all, is a disguise?’ Nevertheless, I had always observed it, and standing before Marmont now in His Majesty’s scarlet, which (as I might have told him) I had never discarded either to further a plan or to avoid a danger, I put some constraint on myself to listen in silence on the merest off-chance that my silence might help an affair with which the marshal assumed my perfect acquaintance, while I could only surmise that somehow you were mixed up in it, and therefore presumably it aimed at some advantage to our arms. I did keep silence, however, though without so much as a bow to signify that I assented.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.–I should think so indeed! To me the moral difference, say, between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding under a wig is not worth discussing outside a seminary.]
“‘But you are a gentleman,’ Marmont continued, ‘and I propose to treat you as one. You will be sent in safe custody to France, and beyond this I propose to take no revenge on you–but upon one condition.’
“‘The condition is you give me your parole that on your journey through Spain to France you not only make no effort to escape, but will not consent to be rescued should the attempt be made by any of the partidas in hope of reward.’
“I considered this for a moment. ‘That is not a small thing to require, since Wellington may be reasonably expected to offer a round price for my recapture.’
“The marshal laughed not too pleasantly. ‘Truly,’ said he, ‘I have heard that Scotsmen are hard bargainers. But considering that I could have you shot out of hand for a spy, I believed I was offering you generous terms.’
“Well, that was unfortunately true; so after a few seconds’ pause I answered, ‘Monsieur le Duc, by imposing these terms on me you at any rate pay me a handsome compliment. I accept it and give you my word.’
“Upon this parole, then, on the 19th I began my journey towards France and captivity, escorted only by M. Gerard, a young lieutenant of dragoons, and one trooper. The rest you know.”
(Conclusion of Captain McNeill’s Statement.)
As I have said, the bare news of my kinsman’s capture and of poor Jose’s death reached me at Celorico on the 16th, late in the evening. Knowing that Lord Wellington was by this time well on his way northward, and believing that for more than one reason the captain’s fate would concern him deeply–feeling, moreover, some compunction at the toils I had all innocently helped to wind about an honest man–I at once sought and obtained leave from General Wilson to ride southward to meet the Commander-in-Chief with the tidings, and if necessary solicit his help in a rescue. The captain (on this point the messenger was precise) had been taken to Sabugal to await Marmont’s return. I did not know that Marmont was actually at that moment on his way thither, but I thought him at least likely to be returning very soon. To be sure he might decide to shoot Captain Alan out of hand. My recent performances gave him a colourable excuse, unless the prisoner could disassociate himself from these and prove an alibi, which under the circumstances and without the help of Jose’s evidence he could scarcely hope to do. I built, however, some faith on Marmont’s known humanity, of which in his pursuit of the militia he had just given striking proof. The longer I weighed the chances the more certain I became that Marmont would treat him as an ordinary prisoner of war and send him up to France under escort.
Why, then (the reader may ask), did I lose time in seeking Lord Wellington instead of making my way at once to the north and doing my best to incite the partidas to attempt a rescue somewhere on the road north of Burgos, or even between Valladolid and Burgos? My answer is that such an affair would certainly turn on the question of money. The French held the road right away to the Pyrenees, not so strongly perhaps as to forbid hope, but strongly enough to make an attempt upon it risky in the extreme. The bands of Mendizabal, Mina, and Merino were kept busy by Generals Bonnet and Abbe; for a big convoy they might be counted on to exert themselves, but for a single prisoner they as certainly had no time to spare without the incitement of such a reward as only the Commander-in-Chief could offer.
Accordingly I made my way south to Castello Branco and reached it on the 18th, to find Lord Wellington arrived there and making ready to push on as soon as overtaken by the bulk of his troops. I had always supposed him to cherish a peculiar liking for my kinsman, but was fairly astonished by the emotion he showed.
“Rescued? Of course he must be rescued!” He broke off to use (I must confess) some very strong words upon Trant’s design against Marmont and the tomfoolery, as he called it, which had taken me into Sabugal, and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over “the best scouting officer in my service; the only man of the lot, sir, who knows his business.” Lord Wellington could, when he lost his temper, be singularly unjust. I strove to point out that my “tomfoolery” in Sabugal had as a matter of fact put a stop to the very scheme of General Trant’s which he condemned. He cut me short by asking if I proposed to argue with him.
“Ride back, sir. Choose the particular blackguard who can effect your purpose, and inform him that on the day he rescues Captain McNeill I am his debtor for twelve thousand francs.”
The speech was ungracious enough, but the price more than I had dared to hope for. Feeling pretty sure that in his lordship’s temper a word of thanks would merely invite him to consign my several members to perdition, I bowed and left him. Twenty minutes later I was on the road and galloping north again.
Before starting from Celorico I had sent the peasant who brought news of Captain Alan’s plight back to Sabugal with instructions to discover what more he could, and bring his report to Bellomonte on my northward road not later than the 20th. On the afternoon of the 19th when I rode into that place I could hear no news of him. But late in the evening he arrived with word that “the great McNeill” had been sent off under escort towards Salamanca. Of the strength of that escort he could tell me nothing, and had very wisely not stayed to inquire; he had picked up the news from camp gossip and brought it at once, rightly judging that time was more valuable to me just now than detailed information.
His news was doubly cheering; it assured me that my kinsman still lived, and also that by riding to secure Lord Wellington’s help I had not missed my opportunity. Yet there was need to hurry, for I had not only to fetch a long circuit by difficult paths before striking the road to the Pyrenees,–I had to find the partidas, persuade them, and get them on to the road ahead of their quarry.
I need not describe my journey at length. I rode by Guarda, Almeida, Ledesma, keeping to the north of the main road, and travelling, not by day only, but through the better part of each night. Beyond the ford of Tordesillas, left for the while unguarded, I was in country where at any moment I might stumble on the guerilla bands, or at least get news of them. The chiefs most likely for my purpose were “the three M’s”–the curate Merino, Mina and Mendizabal. Of these, the curate was about the biggest scoundrel in Spain. I learned on my way that having lately taken about a hundred prisoners near Aranda, he had hanged the lot, sixty to avenge three members of the local junta put to death by the French, and the rest in proportion of ten for every soldier of his lost in the action. From dealing with such a blackguard I prayed to be spared. And by all accounts Mina ran him close for brutal ferocity. I hoped, therefore, for Mendizabal, but at Sedano I heard that Bonnet, after foiling an attack by him on a convoy above Burgos, had beaten him into the Asturias, where his scattered bands were now shifting as best they could among the hills. Merino was in no better case, and my only hope rested on Mina, who after a series of really brilliant operations, helped out by some lucky escapes, had on the 7th with five thousand men planted himself in ambush behind Vittoria, cut up a Polish regiment, and mastered the same enormous convoy which had escaped the curate and Mendizabal at Burgos, releasing no less than four hundred Spanish prisoners and enriching himself to the tune of a million francs, not to speak of carriages, arms, stores, and a quantity of church plate.
This was no cheerful hearing, since so much in his pocket must needs lessen the attractiveness of my offer of twelve thousand francs. And, indeed, when I found him in his camp above the road a little to the east of Salvatierra his first answer was to bid me go to the devil. Although for months he had only supported his troops on English money conveyed through Sir Howard Douglas, this ignorant fellow snapped his dirty fingers at the mention of Wellington and, flushed with a casual triumph, had nothing but contempt for the allied troops who were saving his country while he and his like wasted themselves on futile raids. I can see him now as he sat smoking and dangling his legs on a rock in the midst of his unwashed staff officers.
“For an Englishman,” he scoffed, “I won’t say but twelve thousand francs is a high price to pay. Unfortunately, it is no price for my troops to earn. Here am I expecting at any moment a convoy which is due from the Valencia side, and Lord Wellington asks me to waste my men and miss my chance for the sake of a single redcoat. He must be a fool.”
Said I, nettled, “For a Spaniard you have certainly acquired a rare suit of manners. But may I suggest that their rarity will scarcely prove worth the cost when your answer comes to Lord Wellington’s ears.”
He glared at me for a moment, during which no doubt he weighed the temptation of shooting me against the probable risk. Then his features relaxed into a grin, and withdrawing the chewed cigarette from his teeth he spat very deliberately on the ground. “The interview,” he announced, “is ended.”
I took my way down the hillside in no gay mood. I had travelled far; my nerves were raw with lack of sleep. I judged myself at least a day ahead of any convoy with which the captain could be travelling, even though it had moved with the minimum of delay. But where in the next two days was I to find the help which Mina had refused? To be sure I had caught up at Sedano a flying rumour that the curate Merino had eluded Bonnet, broken out of the Asturias, and was again menacing the road above Burgos. I had come across no sign of him on my way, yet could hit on no more hopeful course than to hark back along the road on the chance of striking the trail of a man who as likely as not was a hundred miles away.
It was about nine in the morning when Mina gave me his answer, and at three in the afternoon I was scanning the road towards Miranda de Ebro from a hill about a mile beyond Arinez (the same hill, in fact, where General Gazan’s centre lay little more than a year afterwards on the morning of the battle of Vittoria). I had been scanning the road perhaps for ten minutes when my heart gave a jump and my hand, I am not ashamed to confess, shook on the small telescope. To the south-west, between me and Nanclares three horsemen were advancing at a walk, and the rider in the middle wore a scarlet jacket.
It took me some seconds to get my telescope steady enough for a second look, and with that I wheeled my horse, struck spur and posted back towards Salvatierra as fast as the brute would carry me through the afternoon heat.
I reached Mina’s camp again at nightfall, and found the chief seated exactly as I had left him, still smoking and still dangling his legs. Were it not that he now wore a cloak against the night air I might have supposed him seated there all day without stirring, and the guard who led me to him promised with a grin that I was dangerously near one of those peculiar modes of death which his master passed his amiable leisure in inventing.
At the sight of me Mina’s eyebrows went up and he chuckled, “Indeed,” said he, “it has been a dull day, and I have been regretting that I let you off so easily this morning.”
“This morning,” I said, “I made you an offer of twelve thousand francs. You replied that you considered it too little for the services of your army. Perhaps it was; but you will admit it to be pretty fair pay for the services of a couple of men.”
“Hullo!” He eyed me sharply. “What has happened?”
“That,” I answered, “is my secret. Lend me a couple of men, say, for forty-eight hours. In return, on producing this paper, you receive twelve thousand francs; that is, as soon as Lord Wellington has assured himself on my report that you received the paper from me and did as I requested.”
“Two men? This begins to look like business.”
“It is business,” said I curtly. “To your patriotism I should not have troubled to appeal a second time.”
He warned me to keep a civil tongue in my head; but I knew my man, and within half-an-hour I rode out of his camp with two of his choicest ruffians, one beside me and one ahead to guide me through the darkness.
Now at Vittoria the road towards Irun and the frontier runs almost due north for some distance and then bends about in a rough arc towards the east. Another road runs almost due east from Vittoria to Pamplona. The first road would certainly be taken by my kinsman and his escort: Mina’s camp lay above the second: but, a little way beyond, at Alsasua, a third road of about five leagues joins the two, and by this short cut I was certain of heading off our quarry.
There was no call to hurry. If, as I judged likely, the party meant to sleep the night at Vittoria, I had almost twenty-four hours in hand. So we rode warily, on the look-out for French vedettes, and reaching Beasain a little before two in the morning took up a comfortable position on the hillside above the junction of the roads.
At dawn we shifted into better shelter–a shepherd’s hut, dilapidated and roofless–and eked out a long day with tobacco and a greasy pack of cards. A few bullock carts passed along the road below us, the most of them bound westward, and perhaps half-a-dozen peasants on mule-back. At about four in the afternoon a French patrol trotted by. As the evening drew on I began to feel anxious.
A little before sunset I sent off one of my ruffians–Alonso something-or-other (I forget his magnificent surname)–to scout along the road. He had been gone half-an-hour when his fellow, Juan Gallegos, flung down his cards in the dusk–the more readily perhaps because he held a weak hand–and pricked up his ears.
“Horses!” he whispered, and after a pause nodded confidently. “Three horses!”
We picked up our muskets and crept down towards the road. Halfway down we met Alonso ascending with the news. Yes, there were three horsemen on this side of Zumarraga and coming at a trot. One of them wore a red coat.
“Be careful, then, how you pick them off. The man in red must not be hurt; the money depends on that.”
They nodded. Night was now falling fast, yet not so fast but that as the horsemen came up I could distinguish Captain Alan. He was riding on the left beside the young French officer, the orderly about six yards behind. As they came abreast of us Juan let fly, and the orderly’s horse pitched forward at once and fell, flinging his man, who struck the road and lay either stunned or dead. At the noise of the report the other horses shied violently and separated, thus giving us our chance without danger to the prisoner. Alonso and I fired together, and rushed out upon the officer, who groaned in the act of wheeling upon us. One of the bullets had shattered his sword arm. Within the minute we had him prisoner, the captain not helping us at all.
“What is this?” he demanded in Spanish, peering at me out of the dusk and breaking off to quiet his frightened horse. “What is this, and who are you?”
“Well, it looks like a rescue,” said I; “and I am your kinsman, Manus McNeill, and have been at some pains to effect it.”
“You!” he peered at me. “I thank you,” said he, “but you have done a bad evening’s work. I am on parole, as a man so clever as you might have guessed by the size of my escort.”
“We will talk of that later,” I answered, and sent Juan and Alonso off to examine the fallen trooper. “Meanwhile the man here has fainted. Oblige me by helping him a little way up the hill, or by leading his horse while I carry him. The road here is not healthy.”
Captain Alan followed in silence while I bore my burden up to the hut. Having tethered the horses outside, he entered and stood above me while I lit a lantern and examined the young officer’s wound.
“Nothing serious,” I announced, “a fracture of the forearm and maybe a splintered bone. I can fix this up in no time.”
“You had better leave it to me and run,” my kinsman answered. “This M. Gerard is an amiable young man and a friend of mine, and I charge myself to see him safe to Tolosa to-night. What are you doing?”
“Searching for his papers.”
“I forbid it.”
“Alain mhic Neill,” said I, “you are not yet the head of our clan.” And I broke the seal of a letter addressed to the Governor of Bayonne. “Ah! I thought as much,” I added, having glanced over the missive. “It seems, my dear kinsman, that my knowledge of the Duke of Ragusa goes a bit deeper than yours. Listen to this: ‘The prisoner I send you herewith is one Captain McNeill, a spy and a dangerous one, who has done infinite mischief to our arms. I have not executed him on the spot out of respect to something resembling an uniform which he wears. But I desire you to place him at once in irons and send him up to Paris, where he will doubtless suffer as he deserves’ …”
Captain Alan took the paper from me and perused it slowly, biting his upper lip the while. “This is very black treachery,” said he.
“It acquits you at any rate.”
“Of my parole?” He pondered for a moment; then, “I cannot see that it does,” he said. “If the Duke of Ragusa chooses to break an implied bond with me it does not follow that I can break an explicit promise to him.”
“No? Well, I should have thought it did.”
At once my kinsman put on that stiff pedantic tone which had irritated me at Huerta. “I venture to think,” said he, “that no McNeill would say so unless he had been corrupted by traffic with the Scarlet Woman.”
“Scarlet grandmother!” I broke out. “You seem to forget that I have ridden a hundred leagues to effect this rescue, for which, by the way, Lord Wellington offers twelve thousand francs. I have promised them to the biggest scoundrel in Spain; but because he happens to be even a bigger scoundrel than the Duke of Ragusa must I break my bond with him and let you go to be shot for the sake of your silly punctilio?”
I spoke with heat, and bent over the groaning officer. My kinsman rubbed his chin. “What you say,” he replied, “demands a somewhat complicated answer, or rather a series of answers. In the first place, I thank you sincerely for what you have done, and not the less sincerely because I am going to nullify it. I shall, perhaps, not cheat myself by believing that a clansman’s spirit went some way to help your zeal”–here I might well have blushed in truth, for it had not helped my zeal a peseta. “I thank Lord Wellington, too, for the extravagant price he has set upon my services, and I beg you to convey my gratitude to him. As for being shot, I might answer that my parole extends only to the Pyrenees; but I consider myself to have extended it tacitly to my young friend here, who has treated me with all possible consideration on the journey; and I shall go to Bayonne.”
He spoke quietly and in the most matter-of-fact voice. But I have often thought since of his words; and often when I call up the figure of Marmont in exile at Venice, where, as he strode gloomily along the Riva dei Schiavoni, the very street urchins pointed and cried after him, “There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon!” I call up and contrast with it the figure of this humble gentleman of Scotland in the lonely hut declining simply and without parade to buy his life at the expense of a scruple of conscience.
“But,” he continued, “I fancy I may persuade M. Gerard at least to delay the delivery of that letter, in which case I see my way at least to a chance of escape. For the rest, these partidas have been promised twelve thousand francs for a service which they have duly rendered. My patrimony is not a rich one, but I can promise that this sum, whether I escape or not, shall be as duly paid. Hush!” he ended as I sprang to my feet, and Juan and Alonso appeared in the doorway supporting the trooper, who had only been stunned after all.
“We did not care to kill him,” Juan explained blandly, “until we had the senor’s orders.”
“You did rightly,” I answered, and glanced at my kinsman. His jaw was set. I pulled out a couple of gold pieces for each. “An advance on your earnings,” said I. “My orders are that you leave the trooper here with me, ride back instantly to your chief, report that your work has been well done and successfully, and the money for which he holds an order shall be forwarded as soon as I return and report to Lord Wellington in Beira.”