Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales online

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right on its back with its four legs in the air, and it was one of these
that I had seen flapping through the smoke. Then there were eight or ten
dead men and about as many wounded, sitting dazed on the grass for the
most part, though one was shouting "_Vive l'Empereur!_" at the top of
his voice. Another fellow who had been shot in the thigh - a great
black-moustached chap he was too - leaned his back against his dead horse
and, picking up his carbine, fired as coolly as if he had been shooting
for a prize, and hit Angus Myres, who was only two from me, right
through the forehead. Then he out with his hand to get another carbine
that lay near, but before he could reach it big Hodgson, who was the
pivot man of the Grenadier company, ran out and passed his bayonet
through his throat, which was a pity, for he seemed to be a very fine
man.

At first I thought that the cuirassiers had run away in the smoke; but
they were not men who did that very easily. Their horses had swerved at
our volley, and they had raced past our square and taken the fire of the
two other ones beyond. Then they broke through a hedge, and coming on a
regiment of Hanoverians who were in line, they treated them as they
would have treated us if we had not been so quick, and cut them to
pieces in an instant. It was dreadful to see the big Germans running
and screaming while the cuirassiers stood up in their stirrups to have a
better sweep for their long, heavy swords, and cut and stabbed without
mercy. I do not believe that a hundred men of that regiment were left
alive; and the Frenchmen came back across our front, shouting at us and
waving their weapons, which were crimson down to the hilts. This they
did to draw our fire, but the colonel was too old a soldier; for we
could have done little harm at the distance, and they would have been
among us before we could reload.

These horsemen got behind the ridge on our right again, and we knew very
well that if we opened up from the squares they would be down upon us in
a twinkle. On the other hand, it was hard to bide as we were; for they
had passed the word to a battery of twelve guns, which formed up a few
hundred yards away from us, but out of our sight, sending their balls
just over the brow and down into the midst of us, which is called a
plunging fire. And one of their gunners ran up on to the top of the
slope and stuck a handspike into the wet earth to give them a guide,
under the very muzzles of the whole brigade, none of whom fired a shot
at him, each leaving him to the other. Ensign Samson, who was the
youngest subaltern in the regiment, ran out from the square and pulled
down the hand-spike; but quick as a jack after a minnow, a lancer came
flying over the ridge, and he made such a thrust from behind that not
only his point but his pennon too came out between the second and third
buttons of the lad's tunic. "Helen! Helen!" he shouted, and fell dead
on his face, while the lancer, blown half to pieces with musket balls,
toppled over beside him, still holding on to his weapon, so that they
lay together with that dreadful bond still connecting them.

But when the battery opened there was no time for us to think of
anything else. A square is a very good way of meeting a horseman, but
there is no worse one of taking a cannon ball, as we soon learned when
they began to cut red seams through us, until our ears were weary of the
slosh and splash when hard iron met living flesh and blood. After ten
minutes of it we moved our square a hundred paces to the right; but we
left another square behind us, for a hundred and twenty men and seven
officers showed where we had been standing. Then the guns found us out
again, and we tried to open out into line; but in an instant the
horsemen - lancers they were this time - were upon us from over the brae.

I tell you we were glad to hear the thud of their hoofs, for we knew
that that must stop the cannon for a minute and give us a chance of
hitting back. And we hit back pretty hard too that time, for we were
cold and vicious and savage, and I for one felt that I cared no more for
the horsemen than if they had been so many sheep on Corriemuir. One
gets past being afraid or thinking of one's own skin after a while, and
you just feel that you want to make some one pay for all you have gone
through. We took our change out of the lancers that time; for they had
no breastplates to shield them, and we cleared seventy of them out of
their saddles at a volley. Maybe, if we could have seen seventy mothers
weeping for their lads, we should not have felt so pleased over it; but
then, men are just brutes when they are fighting, and have as much
thought as two bull pups when they've got one another by the throttle.

Then the colonel did a wise stroke; for he reckoned that this would
stave off the cavalry for five minutes, so he wheeled us into line, and
got us back into a deeper hollow out of reach of the guns before they
could open again. This gave us time to breathe, and we wanted it too,
for the regiment had been melting away like an icicle in the sun.
But bad as it was for us, it was a deal worse for some of the others.
The whole of the Dutch Belgians were off by this time helter-skelter,
fifteen thousand of them, and there were great gaps left in our line
through which the French cavalry rode as pleased them best. Then the
French guns had been too many and too good for ours, and our heavy horse
had been cut to bits, so that things were none too merry with us.
On the other hand, Hougoumont, a blood-soaked ruin, was still ours, and
every British regiment was firm; though, to tell the honest truth, as a
man is bound to do, there were a sprinkling of red coats among the blue
ones who made for the rear. But these were lads and stragglers, the
faint hearts that are found everywhere, and I say again that no regiment
flinched. It was little we could see of the battle; but a man would be
blind not to know that all the fields behind us were covered with flying
men. But then, though we on the right wing knew nothing of it, the
Prussians had begun to show, and Napoleon had set 20,000 of his men to
face them, which made up for ours that had bolted, and left us much as
we began. That was all dark to us, however; and there was a time, when
the French horsemen had flooded in between us and the rest of the army,
that we thought we were the only brigade left standing, and had set our
teeth with the intention of selling our lives as dearly as we could.

At that time it was between four and five in the afternoon, and we had
had nothing to eat, the most of us, since the night before, and were
soaked with rain into the bargain. It had drizzled off and on all day,
but for the last few hours we had not had a thought to spare either upon
the weather or our hunger. Now we began to look round and tighten our
waist-belts, and ask who was hit and who was spared. I was glad to see
Jim, with his face all blackened with powder, standing on my right rear,
leaning on his firelock. He saw me looking at him, and shouted out to
know if I were hurt.

"All right, Jim," I answered.

"I fear I'm here on a wild-goose chase," said he gloomily, "but it's not
over yet. By God, I'll have him, or he'll have me!"

He had brooded so much on his wrong, had poor Jim, that I really believe
that it had turned his head; for he had a glare in his eyes as he spoke
that was hardly human. He was always a man that took even a little
thing to heart, and since Edie had left him I am sure that he was no
longer his own master.

It was at this time of the fight that we saw two single fights, which
they tell me were common enough in the battles of old, before men were
trained in masses. As we lay in the hollow two horsemen came spurring
along the ridge right in front of us, riding as hard as hoof could
rattle. The first was an English dragoon, his face right down on his
horse's mane, with a French cuirassier, an old, grey-headed fellow,
thundering behind him, on a big black mare. Our chaps set up a hooting
as they came flying on, for it seemed shame to see an Englishman run
like that; but as they swept across our front we saw where the trouble
lay. The dragoon had dropped his sword, and was unarmed, while the
other was pressing him so close that he could not get a weapon.
At last, stung maybe by our hooting, he made up his mind to chance it.
His eye fell on a lance beside a dead Frenchman, so he swerved his horse
to let the other pass, and hopping off cleverly enough, he gripped hold
of it. But the other was too tricky for him, and was on him like a
shot. The dragoon thrust up with the lance, but the other turned it,
and sliced him through the shoulder-blade. It was all done in an
instant, and the Frenchman cantering his horse up the brae, showing his
teeth at us over his shoulder like a snarling dog.

That was one to them, but we scored one for us presently. They had
pushed forward a skirmish line, whose fire was towards the batteries on
our right and left rather than on us; but we sent out two companies of
the 95th to keep them in check. It was strange to hear the crackling
kind of noise that they made, for both sides were using the rifle.
An officer stood among the French skirmishers - a tall, lean man with a
mantle over his shoulders - and as our fellows came forward he ran out
midway between the two parties and stood as a fencer would, with his
sword up and his head back. I can see him now, with his lowered eyelids
and the kind of sneer that he had upon his face. On this the subaltern
of the Rifles, who was a fine well-grown lad, ran forward and drove full
tilt at him with one of the queer crooked swords that the rifle-men
carry. They came together like two rams - for each ran for the other -
and down they tumbled at the shock, but the Frenchman was below.
Our man broke his sword short off, and took the other's blade through
his left arm; but he was the stronger man, and he managed to let the
life out of his enemy with the jagged stump of his blade. I thought
that the French skirmishers would have shot him down, but not a trigger
was drawn, and he got back to his company with one sword through his arm
and half of another in his hand.



CHAPTER XIII.


THE END OF THE STORM.

Of all the things that seem strange in that battle, now that I look back
upon it, there is nothing that was queerer than the way in which it
acted on my comrades; for some took it as though it had been their daily
meat without question or change, and others pattered out prayers from
the first gunfire to the last, and others again cursed and swore in a
way that was creepy to listen to. There was one, my own left-hand man,
Mike Threadingham, who kept telling about his maiden aunt, Sarah, and
how she had left the money which had been promised to him to a home for
the children of drowned sailors. Again and again he told me this story,
and yet when the battle was over he took his oath that he had never
opened his lips all day. As to me, I cannot say whether I spoke or not,
but I know that my mind and my memory were clearer than I can ever
remember them, and I was thinking all the time about the old folk at
home, and about Cousin Edie with her saucy, dancing eyes, and de Lissac
with his cat's whiskers, and all the doings at West Inch, which had
ended by bringing us here on the plains of Belgium as a cockshot for two
hundred and fifty cannons.

During all this time the roaring of those guns had been something
dreadful to listen to, but now they suddenly died away, though it was
like the lull in a thunderstorm when one feels that a worse crash is
coming hard at the fringe of it. There was still a mighty noise on the
distant wing, where the Prussians were pushing their way onwards, but
that was two miles away. The other batteries, both French and English,
were silent, and the smoke cleared so that the armies could see a little
of each other. It was a dreary sight along our ridge, for there seemed
to be just a few scattered knots of red and the lines of green where the
German Legion stood, while the masses of the French appeared to be as
thick as ever, though of course we knew that they must have lost many
thousands in these attacks. We heard a great cheering and shouting from
among them, and then suddenly all their batteries opened together with a
roar which made the din of the earlier part seem nothing in comparison.
It might well be twice as loud, for every battery was twice as near,
being moved right up to point blank range, with huge masses of horse
between and behind them to guard them from attack.

When that devil's roar burst upon our ears there was not a man, down to
the drummer boys, who did not understand what it meant. It was
Napoleon's last great effort to crush us. There were but two more hours
of light, and if we could hold our own for those all would be well.
Starved and weary and spent, we prayed that we might have strength to
load and stab and fire while one of us stood upon his feet.

His cannon could do us no great hurt now, for we were on our faces, and
in an instant we could turn into a huddle of bayonets if his horse came
down again. But behind the thunder of the guns there rose a sharper,
shriller noise, whirring and rattling, the wildest, jauntiest, most
stirring kind of sound.

"It's the _pas-de-charge!_" cried an officer. "They mean business this
time!"

And as he spoke we saw a strange thing. A Frenchman, dressed as an
officer of hussars, came galloping towards us on a little bay horse.
He was screeching "_Vive le roi! Vive le roi!_" at the pitch of his
lungs, which was as much as to say that he was a deserter, since we were
for the king and they for the emperor. As he passed us he roared out in
English, "The Guard is coming! The Guard is coming!" and so vanished
away to the rear like a leaf blown before a storm. At the same instant
up there rode an aide-de-camp, with the reddest face that ever I saw
upon mortal man.

"You must stop 'em, or we are done!" he cried to General Adams, so that
all our company could hear him.

"How is it going?" asked the general.

"Two weak squadrons left out of six regiments of heavies," said he, and
began to laugh like a man whose nerves are overstrung.

"Perhaps you would care to join in our advance? Pray consider yourself
quite one of us," said the general, bowing and smiling as if he were
asking him to a dish of tea.

"I shall have much pleasure," said the other, taking off his hat; and a
moment afterwards our three regiments closed up, and the brigade
advanced in four lines over the hollow where we had lain in square, and
out beyond to the point whence we had seen the French army.

There was little of it to be seen now, only the red belching of the guns
flashing quickly out of the cloudbank, and the black figures - stooping,
straining, mopping, sponging - working like devils, and at devilish work.
But through the cloud that rattle and whirr rose ever louder and louder,
with a deep-mouthed shouting and the stamping of thousands of feet.
Then there came a broad black blurr through the haze, which darkened and
hardened until we could see that it was a hundred men abreast, marching
swiftly towards us, with high fur hats upon their heads and a gleam of
brasswork over their brows. And behind that hundred came another
hundred, and behind that another, and on and on, coiling and writhing
out of the cannon-smoke like a monstrous snake, until there seemed to be
no end to the mighty column. In front ran a spray of skirmishers, and
behind them the drummers, and up they all came together at a kind of
tripping step, with the officers clustering thickly at the sides and
waving their swords and cheering. There were a dozen mounted men too at
their front, all shouting together, and one with his hat held aloft upon
his swordpoint. I say again, that no men upon this earth could have
fought more manfully than the French did upon that day.

It was wonderful to see them; for as they came onwards they got ahead of
their own guns, so that they had no longer any help from them, while
they got in front of the two batteries which had been on either side of
us all day. Every gun had their range to a foot, and we saw long red
lines scored right down the dark column as it advanced. So near were
they, and so closely did they march, that every shot ploughed through
ten files of them, and yet they closed up and came on with a swing and
dash that was fine to see. Their head was turned straight for
ourselves, while the 95th overlapped them on one side and the 52nd on
the other.

I shall always think that if we had waited so the Guard would have
broken us; for how could a four-deep line stand against such a column?
But at that moment Colburne, the colonel of the 52nd, swung his right
flank round so as to bring it on the side of the column, which brought
the Frenchmen to a halt. Their front line was forty paces from us at
the moment, and we had a good look at them. It was funny to me to
remember that I had always thought of Frenchmen as small men; for there
was not one of that first company who could not have picked me up as if
I had been a child, and their great hats made them look taller yet.
They were hard, wizened, wiry fellows too, with fierce puckered eyes and
bristling moustaches, old soldiers who had fought and fought, week in,
week out, for many a year. And then, as I stood with my finger upon the
trigger waiting for the word to fire, my eye fell full upon the mounted
officer with his hat upon his sword, and I saw that it was de Lissac.

I saw it, and Jim did too. I heard a shout, and saw him rush forward
madly at the French column; and, as quick as thought, the whole brigade
took their cue from him, officers and all, and flung themselves upon the
Guard in front, while our comrades charged them on the flanks. We had
been waiting for the order, and they all thought now that it had been
given; but you may take my word for it, that Jim Horscroft was the real
leader of the brigade when we charged the Old Guard.

God knows what happened during that mad five minutes. I remember
putting my musket against a blue coat and pulling the trigger, and that
the man could not fall because he was so wedged in the crowd; but I saw
a horrid blotch upon the cloth, and a thin curl of smoke from it as if
it had taken fire. Then I found myself thrown up against two big
Frenchmen, and so squeezed together, the three of us, that we could not
raise a weapon. One of them, a fellow with a very large nose, got his
hand up to my throat, and I felt that I was a chicken in his grasp.
"_Rendez-vous, coqin; rendez-vous!_" said he, and then suddenly doubled
up with a scream, for someone had stabbed him in the bowels with a
bayonet. There was very little firing after the first sputter; but
there was the crash of butt against barrel, the short cries of stricken
men, and the roaring of the officers. And then, suddenly, they began to
give ground - slowly, sullenly, step by step, but still to give ground.
Ah! it was worth all that we had gone through, the thrill of that
moment, when we felt that they were going to break. There was one
Frenchman before me, a sharp-faced, dark-eyed man, who was loading and
firing as quietly as if he were at practice, dwelling upon his aim, and
looking round first to try and pick off an officer. I remember that it
struck me that to kill so cool a man as that would be a good service,
and I rushed at him and drove my bayonet into him. He turned as I
struck him and fired full into my face, and the bullet left a weal
across my cheek which will mark me to my dying day. I tripped over him
as he fell, and two others tumbling over me I was half smothered in the
heap. When at last I struggled out, and cleared my eyes, which were
half full of powder, I saw that the column had fairly broken, and was
shredding into groups of men, who were either running for their lives or
were fighting back to back in a vain attempt to check the brigade, which
was still sweeping onwards. My face felt as if a red-hot iron had been
laid across it; but I had the use of my limbs, so jumping over the
litter of dead and mangled men, I scampered after my regiment, and fell
in upon the right flank.

Old Major Elliott was there, limping along, for his horse had been shot,
but none the worse in himself. He saw me come up, and nodded, but it
was too busy a time for words. The brigade was still advancing, but the
general rode in front of me with his chin upon his shoulder, looking
back at the British position.

"There is no general advance," said he; "but I'm not going back."

"The Duke of Wellington has won a great victory," cried the
aide-de-camp, in a solemn voice; and then, his feelings getting the
better of him, he added, "if the damned fool would only push on!" - which
set us all laughing in the flank company.

But now anyone could see that the French army was breaking up.
The columns and squadrons which had stood so squarely all day were now
all ragged at the edges; and where there had been thick fringes of
skirmishers in front, there were now a spray of stragglers in the rear.
The Guard thinned out in front of us as we pushed on, and we found
twelve guns looking us in the face, but we were over them in a moment;
and I saw our youngest subaltern, next to him who had been killed by the
lancer, scribbling great 71's with a lump of chalk upon them, like the
schoolboy that he was. It was at that moment that we heard a roar of
cheering behind us, and saw the whole British army flood over the crest
of the ridge, and come pouring down upon the remains of their enemies.
The guns, too, came bounding and rattling forward, and our light
cavalry - as much as was left of it - kept pace with our brigade upon the
right. There was no battle after that. The advance went on without a
check, until our army stood lined upon the very ground which the French
had held in the morning. Their guns were ours, their foot were a rabble
spread over the face of the country, and their gallant cavalry alone was
able to preserve some sort of order and to draw off unbroken from the
field. Then at last, just as the night began to gather, our weary and
starving men were able to let the Prussians take the job over, and to
pile their arms upon the ground that they had won. That was as much as
I saw or can tell you about the Battle of Waterloo, except that I ate a
two-pound rye loaf for my supper that night, with as much salt meat as
they would let me have, and a good pitcher of red wine, until I had to
bore a new hole at the end of my belt, and then it fitted me as tight as
a hoop to a barrel. After that I lay down in the straw where the rest
of the company were sprawling, and in less than a minute I was in a dead
sleep.



CHAPTER XIV.


THE TALLY OF DEATH.

Day was breaking, and the first grey light had just begun to steal
through the long thin slits in the walls of our barn, when someone shook
me hard by the shoulder, and up I jumped. I had the thought in my
stupid, sleepy brain that the cuirassiers were upon us, and I gripped
hold of a halbert that was leaning against the wall; but then, as I saw
the long lines of sleepers, I remembered where I was. But I can tell
you that I stared when I saw that it was none other than Major Elliott
that had roused me up. His face was very grave, and behind him stood
two sergeants, with long slips of paper and pencils in their hands.

"Wake up, laddie," said the Major, quite in his old easy fashion, as if
we were back on Corriemuir again.

"Yes, Major?" I stammered.

"I want you to come with me. I feel that I owe something to you two
lads, for it was I that took you from your homes. Jim Horscroft is
missing."

I gave a start at that, for what with the rush and the hunger and the
weariness I had never given a thought to my friend since the time that
he had rushed at the French Guards with the whole regiment at his heels.

"I am going out now to take a tally of our losses," said the Major;
"and if you cared to come with me, I should be very glad to have you."

So off we set, the Major, the two sergeants, and I; and oh! but it was a
dreadful, dreadful sight! - so much so, that even now, after so many
years, I had rather say as little of it as possible. It was bad to see
in the heat of fight; but now in the cold morning, with no cheer or
drum-tap or bugle blare, all the glory had gone out of it, and it was
just one huge butcher's shop, where poor devils had been ripped and
burst and smashed, as though we had tried to make a mock of God's image.


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Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales → online text (page 8 of 11)