Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales online

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considered what had best be done.

And first of all it was certain that I could not get back. Long before
I could pass the lines it would be broad daylight. I must hide myself
for the day, and then devote the next night to my escape. I took the
saddle, holsters, and bridle from poor Voltigeur, and I concealed them
among some bushes, so that no one finding him could know that he was a
French horse. Then, leaving him lying there, I wandered on in search of
some place where I might be safe for the day. In every direction I
could see camp fires upon the sides of the hills, and already figures
had begun to move around them. I must hide quickly, or I was lost.

But where was I to hide? It was a vineyard in which I found myself, the
poles of the vines still standing, but the plants gone. There was no
cover there. Besides, I should want some food and water before another
night had come. I hurried wildly onwards through the waning darkness,
trusting that chance would be my friend. And I was not disappointed.
Chance is a woman, my friends, and she has her eye always upon a gallant

Well, then, as I stumbled through the vineyard, something loomed in
front of me, and I came upon a great square house with another long, low
building upon one side of it. Three roads met there, and it was easy to
see that this was the posada, or wine-shop. There was no light in the
windows, and everything was dark and silent, but, of course, I knew that
such comfortable quarters were certainly occupied, and probably by some
one of importance. I have learned, however, that the nearer the danger
may really be the safer the place, and so I was by no means inclined to
trust myself away from this shelter. The low building was evidently the
stable, and into this I crept, for the door was unlatched. The place
was full of bullocks and sheep, gathered there, no doubt, to be out of
the clutches of marauders. A ladder led to a loft, and up this I
climbed, and concealed myself very snugly among some bales of hay upon
the top. This loft had a small open window, and I was able to look down
upon the front of the inn and also upon the road. There I crouched and
waited to see what would happen.

It was soon evident that I had not been mistaken when I had thought that
this might be the quarters of some person of importance. Shortly after
daybreak an English light dragoon arrived with a despatch, and from then
onwards the place was in a turmoil, officers continually riding up and
away. Always the same name was upon their lips: "Sir Stapleton - Sir
Stapleton." It was hard for me to lie there with a dry moustache and
watch the great flagons which were brought out by the landlord to these
English officers. But it amused me to look at their fresh-coloured,
clean-shaven, careless faces, and to wonder what they would think if
they knew that so celebrated a person was lying so near to them. And
then, as I lay and watched, I saw a sight which filled me with surprise.

It is incredible the insolence of these English! What do you suppose
Milord Wellington had done when he found that Massena had blockaded him
and that he could not move his army? I might give you many guesses.
You might say that he had raged, that he had despaired, that he had
brought his troops together and spoken to them about glory and the
fatherland before leading them to one last battle. No, Milord did none
of these things. But he sent a fleet ship to England to bring him a
number of fox-dogs, and he with his officers settled himself down to
chase the fox. It is true what I tell you. Behind the lines of Torres
Vedras these mad Englishmen made the fox-chase three days in the week.
We had heard of it in the camp, and now I was myself to see that it was

For, along the road which I have described, there came these very dogs,
thirty or forty of them, white and brown, each with its tail at the same
angle, like the bayonets of the Old Guard. My faith, but it was a
pretty sight! And behind and amidst them there rode three men with
peaked caps and red coats, whom I understood to be the hunters. After
them came many horsemen with uniforms of various kinds, stringing along
the roads in twos and threes, talking together and laughing. They did
not seem to be going above a trot, and it appeared to me that it must
indeed be a slow fox which they hoped to catch. However, it was their
affair, not mine, and soon they had all passed my window and were out of
sight. I waited and I watched, ready for any chance which might offer.

Presently an officer, in a blue uniform not unlike that of our flying
artillery, came cantering down the road - an elderly, stout man he was,
with grey side-whiskers. He stopped and began to talk with an orderly
officer of dragoons, who waited outside the inn, and it was then that I
learned the advantage of the English which had been taught me. I could
hear and understand all that was said.

"Where is the meet?" said the officer, and I thought that he was
hungering for his bifstek. But the other answered him that it was near
Altara, so I saw that it was a place of which he spoke.

"You are late, Sir George," said the orderly.

"Yes, I had a court-martial. Has Sir Stapleton Cotton gone?"

At this moment a window opened, and a handsome young man in a very
splendid uniform looked out of it.

"Halloa, Murray!" said he. "These cursed papers keep me, but I will be
at your heels."

"Very good, Cotton. I am late already, so I will ride on."

"You might order my groom to bring round my horse," said the young
general at the window to the orderly below, while the other went on down
the road. The orderly rode away to some outlying stable, and then in a
few minutes there came a smart English groom with a cockade in his hat,
leading by the bridle a horse - and, oh, my friends, you have never known
the perfection to which a horse can attain until you have seen a
first-class English hunter. He was superb: tall, broad, strong, and yet
as graceful and agile as a deer. Coal black he was in colour, and his
neck, and his shoulder, and his quarters, and his fetlocks - how can I
describe him all to you? The sun shone upon him as on polished ebony,
and he raised his hoofs in a little, playful dance so lightly and
prettily, while he tossed his mane and whinnied with impatience. Never
have I seen such a mixture of strength and beauty and grace. I had
often wondered how the English Hussars had managed to ride over the
Chasseurs of the Guards in the affair at Astorga, but I wondered no
longer when I saw the English horses.

There was a ring for fastening bridles at the door of the inn, and the
groom tied the horse there while he entered the house. In an instant I
had seen the chance which Fate had brought to me. Were I in that saddle
I should be better off than when I started. Even Voltigeur could not
compare with this magnificent creature. To think is to act with me.
In one instant I was down the ladder and at the door of the stable.
The next I was out and the bridle was in my hand. I bounded into the
saddle. Somebody, the master or the man, shouted wildly behind me.
What cared I for his shouts! I touched the horse with my spurs, and he
bounded forward with such a spring that only a rider like myself could
have sat him. I gave him his head and let him go - it did not matter to
me where, so long as we left this inn far behind us. He thundered away
across the vineyards, and in a very few minutes I had placed miles
between myself and my pursuers. They could no longer tell, in that wild
country, in which direction I had gone. I knew that I was safe, and so,
riding to the top of a small hill, I drew my pencil and note-book from
my pocket and proceeded to make plans of those camps which I could see,
and to draw the outline of the country.

He was a dear creature upon whom I sat, but it was not easy to draw upon
his back, for every now and then his two ears would cock, and he would
start and quiver with impatience. At first I could not understand this
trick of his, but soon I observed that he only did it when a peculiar
noise - "yoy, yoy, yoy" - came from somewhere among the oak woods beneath
us. And then suddenly this strange cry changed into a most terrible
screaming, with the frantic blowing of a horn. Instantly he went mad -
this horse. His eyes blazed. His mane bristled. He bounded from the
earth and bounded again, twisting and turning in a frenzy. My pencil
flew one way and my notebook another. And then, as I looked down into
the valley, an extraordinary sight met my eyes. The hunt was streaming
down it. The fox I could not see, but the dogs were in full cry, their
noses down, their tails up, so close together that they might have been
one great yellow and white moving carpet. And behind them rode the
horsemen - my faith, what a sight! Consider every type which a great army
could show: some in hunting dress, but the most in uniforms; blue
dragoons, red dragoons, red-trousered hussars, green riflemen,
artillerymen, gold-slashed lancers, and most of all red, red, red, for
the infantry officers ride as hard as the cavalry. Such a crowd, some
well mounted, some ill, but all flying along as best they might, the
subaltern as good as the general, jostling and pushing, spurring and
driving, with every thought thrown to the winds save that they should
have the blood of this absurd fox! Truly, they are an extraordinary
people, the English!

But I had little time to watch the hunt or to marvel at these islanders,
for of all these mad creatures the very horse upon which I sat was the
maddest. You understand that he was himself a hunter, and that the
crying of these dogs was to him what the call of a cavalry trumpet in
the street yonder would be to me. It thrilled him. It drove him wild.
Again and again he bounded into the air, and then, seizing the bit
between his teeth, he plunged down the slope and galloped after the
dogs. I swore, and tugged, and pulled, but I was powerless.
This English General rode his horse with a snaffle only, and the beast
had a mouth of iron. It was useless to pull him back. One might as
well try to keep a Grenadier from a wine bottle. I gave it up in
despair, and, settling down in the saddle, I prepared for the worst
which could befall.

What a creature he was! Never have I felt such a horse between my
knees. His great haunches gathered under him with every stride, and he
shot forward ever faster and faster, stretched like a greyhound, while
the wind beat in my face and whistled past my ears. I was wearing our
undress jacket, a uniform simple and dark in itself - though some figures
give distinction to any uniform - and I had taken the precaution to
remove the long panache from my busby. The result was that, amidst the
mixture of costumes in the hunt, there was no reason why mine should
attract attention, or why these men, whose thoughts were all with the
chase, should give any heed to me. The idea that a French officer might
be riding with them was too absurd to enter their minds. I laughed as I
rode, for, indeed, amid all the danger, there was something of comic in
the situation.

I have said that the hunters were very unequally mounted, and so, at the
end of a few miles, instead of being one body of men, like a charging
regiment, they were scattered over a considerable space, the better
riders well up to the dogs and the others trailing away behind. Now, I
was as good a rider as any, and my horse was the best of them all, and
so you can imagine that it was not long before he carried me to the
front. And when I saw the dogs streaming over the open, and the
red-coated huntsman behind them, and only seven or eight horsemen
between us, then it was that the strangest thing of all happened, for I,
too, went mad - I, Etienne Gerard! In a moment it came upon me, this
spirit of sport, this desire to excel, this hatred of the fox.
Accursed animal, should he then defy us? Vile robber, his hour was
come! Ah, it is a great feeling, this feeling of sport, my friends,
this desire to trample the fox under the hoofs of your horse. I have
made the fox-chase with the English. I have also, as I may tell you
some day, fought the box-fight with the Bustler, of Bristol. And I say
to you that this sport is a wonderful thing - full of interest as well as

The farther we went the faster galloped my horse, and soon there were
but three men as near the dogs as I was. All thought of fear of
discovery had vanished. My brain throbbed, my blood ran hot - only one
thing upon earth seemed worth living for, and that was to overtake this
infernal fox. I passed one of the horsemen - a Hussar like myself.
There were only two in front of me now: the one in a black coat, the
other the blue artilleryman whom I had seen at the inn. His grey
whiskers streamed in the wind, but he rode magnificently. For a mile or
more we kept in this order, and then, as we galloped up a steep slope,
my lighter weight brought me to the front. I passed them both, and when
I reached the crown I was riding level with the little, hard-faced
English huntsman. In front of us were the dogs, and then, a hundred
paces beyond them, was a brown wisp of a thing, the fox itself,
stretched to the uttermost. The sight of him fired my blood. "Aha, we
have you then, assassin!" I cried, and shouted my encouragement to the
huntsman. I waved my hand to show him that there was one upon whom he
could rely.

And now there were only the dogs between me and my prey. These dogs,
whose duty it is to point out the game, were now rather a hindrance than
a help to us, for it was hard to know how to pass them. The huntsman
felt the difficulty as much as I, for he rode behind them, and could
make no progress towards the fox. He was a swift rider, but wanting in
enterprise. For my part, I felt that it would be unworthy of the
Hussars of Conflans if I could not overcome such a difficulty as this.
Was Etienne Gerard to be stopped by a herd of fox-dogs? It was absurd.
I gave a shout and spurred my horse.

"Hold hard, sir! Hold hard!" cried the huntsman.

He was uneasy for me, this good old man, but I reassured him by a wave
and a smile. The dogs opened in front of me. One or two may have been
hurt, but what would you have? The egg must be broken for the omelette.
I could hear the huntsman shouting his congratulations behind me.
One more effort, and the dogs were all behind me. Only the fox was in

Ah, the joy and pride of that moment! To know that I had beaten the
English at their own sport. Here were three hundred all thirsting for
the life of this animal, and yet it was I who was about to take it.
I thought of my comrades of the light cavalry brigade, of my mother, of
the Emperor, of France. I had brought honour to each and all.
Every instant brought me nearer to the fox. The moment for action had
arrived, so I unsheathed my sabre. I waved it in the air, and the brave
English all shouted behind me.

Only then did I understand how difficult is this fox-chase, for one may
cut again and again at the creature and never strike him once. He is
small, and turns quickly from a blow. At every cut I heard those shouts
of encouragement from behind me, and they spurred me to yet another
effort. And then, at last, the supreme moment of my triumph arrived.
In the very act of turning I caught him fair with such another
back-handed cut as that with which I killed the aide-de-camp of the
Emperor of Russia. He flew into two pieces, his head one way and his
tail another. I looked back and waved the blood-stained sabre in the
air. For the moment I was exalted - superb.

Ah! how I should have loved to have waited to have received the
congratulations of these generous enemies. There were fifty of them in
sight, and not one who was not waving his hand and shouting. They are
not really such a phlegmatic race, the English. A gallant deed in war
or in sport will always warm their hearts. As to the old huntsman, he
was the nearest to me, and I could see with my own eyes how overcome he
was by what he had seen. He was like a man paralyzed - his mouth open,
his hand, with outspread fingers, raised in the air. For a moment my
inclination was to return and to embrace him. But already the call of
duty was sounding in my ears, and these English, in spite of all the
fraternity which exists among sportsmen, would certainly have made me
prisoner. There was no hope for my mission now, and I had done all that
I could do. I could see the lines of Massena's camp no very great
distance off, for, by a lucky chance, the chase had taken us in that
direction. I turned from the dead fox, saluted with my sabre, and
galloped away.

But they would not leave me so easily, these gallant huntsmen. I was
the fox now, and the chase swept bravely over the plain. It was only at
the moment when I started for the camp that they could have known that I
was a Frenchman, and now the whole swarm of them were at my heels.
We were within gunshot of our pickets before they would halt, and then
they stood in knots and would not go away, but shouted and waved their
hands at me. No, I will not think that it was in enmity. Rather would
I fancy that a glow of admiration filled their breasts, and that their
one desire was to embrace the stranger who had carried himself so
gallantly and well.


It was in the days when France's power was already broken upon the seas,
and when more of her three-deckers lay rotting in the Medway than were
to be found in Brest harbour. But her frigates and corvettes still
scoured the ocean, closely followed ever by those of her rival. At the
uttermost ends of the earth these dainty vessels, with sweet names of
girls or of flowers, mangled and shattered each other for the honour of
the four yards of bunting which flapped from the end of their gaffs.

It had blown hard in the night, but the wind had dropped with the
dawning, and now the rising sun tinted the fringe of the storm-wrack as
it dwindled into the west and glinted on the endless crests of the long,
green waves. To north and south and west lay a skyline which was
unbroken save by the spout of foam when two of the great Atlantic seas
dashed each other into spray. To the east was a rocky island, jutting
out into craggy points, with a few scattered clumps of palm trees and a
pennant of mist streaming out from the bare, conical hill which capped
it. A heavy surf beat upon the shore, and, at a safe distance from it,
the British 32-gun frigate _Leda_, Captain A. P. Johnson, raised her
black, glistening side upon the crest of a wave, or swooped down into an
emerald valley, dipping away to the nor'ard under easy sail. On her
snow-white quarter-deck stood a stiff little brown-faced man, who swept
the horizon with his glass.

"Mr. Wharton!" he cried, with a voice like a rusty hinge.

A thin, knock-kneed officer shambled across the poop to him.

"Yes, sir."

"I've opened the sealed orders, Mr. Wharton."

A glimmer of curiosity shone upon the meagre features of the first
lieutenant. The _Leda_ had sailed with her consort, the _Dido_, from
Antigua the week before, and the admiral's orders had been contained in
a sealed envelope.

"We were to open them on reaching the deserted island of Sombriero,
lying in north latitude eighteen, thirty-six, west longitude
sixty-three, twenty-eight. Sombriero bore four miles to the north-east
from our port-bow when the gale cleared, Mr. Wharton."

The lieutenant bowed stiffly. He and the captain had been bosom friends
from childhood. They had gone to school together, joined the navy
together, fought again and again together, and married into each other's
families, but so long as their feet were on the poop the iron discipline
of the service struck all that was human out of them and left only the
superior and the subordinate. Captain Johnson took from his pocket a
blue paper, which crackled as he unfolded it.

"The 32-gun frigates _Leda_ and _Dido_ (Captains A. P. Johnson
and James Munro) are to cruise from the point at which these
instructions are read to the mouth of the Caribbean Sea, in
the hope of encountering the French frigate _La Gloire_ (48),
which has recently harassed our merchant ships in that quarter.
H.M. frigates are also directed to hunt down the piratical craft
known sometimes as the _Slapping Sal_ and sometimes as the _Hairy
Hudson_, which has plundered the British ships as per margin,
inflicting barbarities upon their crews. She is a small brig,
carrying ten light guns, with one twenty-four pound carronade
forward. She was last seen upon the 23rd ult. to the north-east
of the island of Sombriero."


H.M.S. _Colossus_, Antigua."

"We appear to have lost our consort," said Captain Johnson, folding up
his instructions and again sweeping the horizon with his glass.
"She drew away after we reefed down. It would be a pity if we met this
heavy Frenchman without the _Dido_, Mr. Wharton. Eh?"

The lieutenant twinkled and smiled.

"She has eighteen-pounders on the main and twelves on the poop, sir,"
said the captain. "She carries four hundred to our two hundred and
thirty-one. Captain de Milon is the smartest man in the French service.
Oh, Bobby boy, I'd give my hopes of my flag to rub my side up against
her!" He turned on his heel, ashamed of his momentary lapse.
"Mr. Wharton," said he, looking back sternly over his shoulder, "get
those square sails shaken out and bear away a point more to the west."

"A brig on the port-bow," came a voice from the forecastle.

"A brig on the port-bow," said the lieutenant.

The captain sprang upon the bulwarks and held on by the mizzen-shrouds,
a strange little figure with flying skirts and puckered eyes. The lean
lieutenant craned his neck and whispered to Smeaton, the second, while
officers and men came popping up from below and clustered along the
weather-rail, shading their eyes with their hands - for the tropical sun
was already clear of the palm trees. The strange brig lay at anchor in
the throat of a curving estuary, and it was already obvious that she
could not get out without passing under the guns of the frigate.
A long, rocky point to the north of her held her in.

"Keep her as she goes, Mr. Wharton," said the captain. "Hardly worth
while our clearing for action, Mr. Smeaton, but the men can stand by the
guns in case she tries to pass us. Cast loose the bow-chasers and send
the small-arm men to the forecastle."

A British crew went to its quarters in those days with the quiet
serenity of men on their daily routine. In a few minutes, without fuss
or sound, the sailors were knotted round their guns, the marines were
drawn up and leaning on their muskets, and the frigate's bowsprit
pointed straight for her little victim.

"Is it the _Slapping Sal_, sir?"

"I have no doubt of it, Mr. Wharton."

"They don't seem to like the look of us, sir. They've cut their cable
and are clapping on sail."

It was evident that the brig meant struggling for her freedom.
One little patch of canvas fluttered out above another, and her people
could be seen working like madmen in the rigging. She made no attempt
to pass her antagonist, but headed up the estuary. The captain rubbed
his hands.

"She's making for shoal water, Mr. Wharton, and we shall have to cut her
out, sir. She's a footy little brig, but I should have thought a
fore-and-after would have been more handy."

"It was a mutiny, sir."

"Ah, indeed!"

"Yes, sir, I heard of it at Manilla: a bad business, sir. Captain and
two mates murdered. This Hudson, or Hairy Hudson as they call him, led
the mutiny. He's a Londoner, sir, and a cruel villain as ever walked."

"His next walk will be to Execution Dock, Mr. Wharton. She seems
heavily manned. I wish I could take twenty topmen out of her, but they
would be enough to corrupt the crew of the ark, Mr. Wharton."

Both officers were looking through their glasses at the brig. Suddenly
the lieutenant showed his teeth in a grin, while the captain flushed a
deeper red.

"That's Hairy Hudson on the after-rail, sir."

"The low, impertinent blackguard! He'll play some other antics before
we are done with him. Could you reach him with the long eighteen, Mr.

"Another cable length will do it, sir."

The brig yawed as they spoke, and as she came round a spurt of smoke
whiffed out from her quarter. It was a pure piece of bravado, for the

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Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales → online text (page 10 of 11)