Charles James Lever.

[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 13) online

. (page 24 of 35)
Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 13) → online text (page 24 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


muskets dry, move together, and we shall be the first to
touch the shore." As he said this, he sprang over the
side of the boat into the sea, and waving his hat above
his head, began his progress .towards the land. " Come
along, gentlemen, we've often done as much when
salmon-fishing in our own rivers." Thus, lightly jesting,
and encouraging his party, he waded on, with all the seem-
ing carelessness of one bent on some scheme of pleasure.

The large batteries had no longer the range, but a
dreadful fire of musketry was poured in from the heights,
and several brave fellows fell, mortally wounded, ere the
strand was reached. Cheered by the approving shouts
of thousands from the boats, they at length touched the
beach, and wild and disorderly as had been their advance
when breasting the waves, no sooner had they landed
than discipline resumed its sway, and the words, " Fall
in, men," were obeyed with the prompt precision of a
parade. A strong body of tirailleurs, scattered along the
base of the sand-hills, and through the irregularities of
the ground, galled them with a dropping and destructive
fire as they formed ; nor was it till an advanced party
had driven these back, that the dispositions could be well
and properly taken. By this time several other boats
had touched the shore, and already detachments from the
40th, 28th, and 42nd Regiments were drawn up along
the beach, and, from these, frequent cries and shouts
were heard, encouraging and cheering the " Volunteers,"
who alone, of all the force, had yet come to close quarters
with the enemy.

A brief but most dangerous interval now followed ; for
the boats, assailed by a murderous fire, had sustained
severe losses, and a short delay inevitably followed, assist-
ing the wounded, or rescuing those who had fallen into
the sea. Had the French profited by this pause, to bear
down upon the small force now drawn up inactive on the
beach, the fate of that great achievement might have been
perilled ; as it happened, however, nothing was further
from their thought than coming into immediate contact
with the British, and they contented themselves with a
distant but still destructive cannonade. It is not impos-
sible that the audacity of those who first landed, and who


a mere handful assumed the offensive, might have
been the reason of this conduct, certain ifc is, the boats,
for a time retarded, were permitted again to move forward
and disembark their men, with no other resistance than
the fire from the batteries.

The three first regiments which gained the land were,
strangely enough, representatives of the three different
nationalities of the Empire, and scarcely were the words,
"Forward! to the assault!" given, when an emulative
struggle began, which should first reach the top and cross
bayonets with the French. On the left, and nearest to
the causeway that led up the heights, stood the High-
landers. These formed under an overwhelming shower of
grape and musketry, and, with pibrochs playing, marched
steadily forward. The 40th made an effort to pass them,
which caused a momentary confusion, ending in an order
for this regiment to halt, and support the 42nd, and while
this was taking place, the 28th rushed to the ascent in
broken parties, and following the direction the " Volun-
teers " had taken in pursuit of the tirailleurs, they
mounted the heights together.

So suddenly was the tirailleur force repelled, that they
had scarcely time to give the alarm, when the 28th passed
the crest of the hill, and prepared to charge. The Irish regi-
ment, glorying in being the first to reach the top, cheered
madly, and bore down. The French poured in a single
volley, and fell back ; not to retreat, but to entice pursuit.
The stratagem succeeded. The 28th pursued them hotly,
and almost at once found themselves engaged in a narrow
gorge of the sand-hills, and exposed to a terrific cross-fire.
To retreat was impossible ; their own weight drove them
on, and the deafening cheers of their comrades drowned
every word of command. Grape at half-musket distance
ploughed through their ranks, while one continuous crash,
of small-arms showed the number and closeness of their

It was at this moment that Darcy, -whose party was ad-
vancing by a smaller gorge, ascended a height, and beheld
the perilous condition of his countrymen. There was but
one way to liberate them, and that involved their own de-
struction : to throw themselves on the French flank, and


while devoting themselves to death, enable the 28th to
retire or make head against the opposing force. While
Darcy, in a few hurried words, made known his plan to
those around him, the opportunity for its employment most
strikingly presented itself. A momentary repulse of the
French had driven a part of their column to the high
road leading to Alexandria, where already several bag-
gage carts and ammunition waggons were gathered. This
movement seemed so like retreat that Darcy's sanguine
nature was deceived, and calling out, " Come along, lads
they are running already !" he dashed onward, followed
by his gallant band. His attack, if inefficient for want
of numbers, was critical in point of time. The same in-
stant that the French were assailed by him in flank, the
42nd had gained the summit and attacked them in front :
fresh battalions each moment arrived, and now along the
entire crest of the ridge the fight raged fiercely. One
after the other the batteries were stormed, and carried
by our infantry at the bayonet's point, and, in less than
an hour from the time of landing, the British flag waved
over seven of the nine heavy batteries.

The battle, severe as it was on the heights, was main-
tained with even greater slaughter on the shore. The
French, endeavouring too late, to repair the error of not
resisting the actual landing, had now thrown an immense
force by a flank movement on the British battalions ; and
this attack of horse, foot, and artillery combined, was, for
its duration, the great event of the day. For a brief space
it appeared impossible for the few regiments to sustain the
shock of such an encounter ; and had it not been for the
artillery of the gunboats stationed along the shore, they
must have yielded. Their fire, however, was terribly de-
structive, sweeping through the columns as they came up,
and actually cutting lanes in the dense squadrons.

Reinforcements poured in, besides, at every instant, and
after a bloody and anxious struggle, the British were
enabled to take the offensive, and advance against their
foes. The French, already weakened by loss, and dispirited
by failure, did not await the conflict, but retired slowly, it
is true, and in perfect order, on one of the roads leading
hito the great highway to Alexandria.


Victory had even more unequivocally pronouned for the
British on the heights. By this time every battery was
in their possession. The enemy were in full flight towards
Alexandria, the tumultuous mass, occasionally assailed by
our light infantry, to whom, from our deficiency in cavalry,
was assigned the duty of harassing the retreat. It was
here that Darcy's Volunteers, now reduced to one-third
of their original number, highly distinguished themselves,
not only attacking the flank of the retiring enemy, but
seizing every opportunity of ground to assail them in front
and retard their flight.

In one of these onslaughts, for such they were, the
"Volunteers" became inextricably entangled with the
enemy, and although fighting with the desperation of
tigers, volley after volley tore through them ; and the
French, maddened by the loss they had already suffered
at their hands, hastened to finish them by the bayonet.
It was only by the intervention of the French officers,
a measure in itself not devoid of peril, that any were
spared ; and those few, bleeding and mangled, were hur-
ried along as prisoners, the only triumph of that day's
battle ! The strange spectacle of an affray in the very
midst of a retiring column, was seen by the British in
pursuit, and the memory of this scene is preserved among
the incidents of that day's achievements.

Many and desperate attempts were made to rescue the
prisoners. The French, however, received the charges
with deadly volleys, and as their flanks were now covered
by a cloud of tirailleurs, they were enabled to continue
their retreat on Alexandria, protected by the circuitances
of the ground, every point of which they had favourably
occupied. The battle was now over ; guns, ammunition,
and stores were all landed ; on the heights, the English
ensign waved triumphantly ; and, far as the eye' could
reach, the French masses were seen in flight, to seek
shelter within the lines of Alexandria.

It was a glorious moment as the last column ascended
the cliffs, to find their gallant comrades masters of the
French position in its entire extent. Here, now, two
brigades reposed with piled arms, guns, mortars, camp
equipage, and military chests strewed on every side, all


attesting the completeness of a victory which even a
French bulletin could hardly venture to disavow. It is
perhaps fortunate that, at times like this, the feeling of
high excitement subdues all sense of the regret so natural
to scenes of suffering ; and thus, amid many a sight and
sound of woe, glad shouts of triumph were raised, and
heart-felt bursts of joyous recognition broke forth as
friends met, and clasped each other's hands. Incidents
of the battle, traits of individual heroism, were recorded
on every side : anecdotes then told for the first time, to
be remembered, many a year after, among the annals of
regimental glory !

It is but seldom, at such moments, that men can turn
from the theme of triumph to think of the more disastrous
events of the day ; and yet a general feeling of sorrow
prevailed on the subject of the brave " Volunteers," of
whose fate none could bring any tidings ; some asserting
that they had all fallen to a man on the road leading to
Alexandria, others affirming that they were carried off
prisoners by the French cavalry.

A party of light infantry, who had closely followed the
enemy till nightfall, had despatched some of their wounded
to the rear, and by these the news came, that, in an open
space, beside the high road, the ground was covered with
bodies in the well-known blue and silver of the " Volun-
teers." One only of these exhibited signs of life, and him
they had placed among the wounded in one of the carts,
and brought back with them. As will often happen,
single instances of suffering excite more of compassionate
pity than wide-spread affliction ; and so here. When
death and agony were on every hand whole waggons
filled with maimed and dying comrades a closely wedged
group gathered around the dying volunteer, their sad-
dened faces betraying emotions that all the terrible scenes
of the day had never evoked.

" It's no use, sir," said the surgeon, to the field-officer
who had called him to the spot. " There is internal
bleeding, besides this ghastly sabre cut."

"Who knows him ?" said the officer, looking around;
but none made answer. " Can no one tell his name V"

There was a silence for a few seconds ; when the dying


man lifted his failing eyes upwards, and turned them
slowly around on the group. A slight tremor shook his
lips, as if with an effort to speak ; but no sound issued.
Yet in the terrible eagerness of his features might be
seen the working of a spirit fiercely struggling for utter-

" Yes, my poor fellow," said the officer, stooping down
beside him, and taking his hand. " I was asking for your

A faint smile and a slight nod of the head seemed to
acknowledge the speech.

" He is speaking hush ! I hear his voice," cried the

An almost inaudible murmur moved his lips then a
shivering shook his frame and his head fell heavily back.

" What is this ? " said the officer.

" Death," said the surgeon, with the solemn calm of
one habituated to such scenes. " His last words were
strange did you hear them ? "

" I thought he said ' Court-martial.' "

The surgeon nodded, and turned to move away.

" See here, sir," said a sergeant, as opening the dead
man's coat he drew forth a white handkerchief, ' the poor
fellow was evidently trying to write his name with his
own blood ; here are some letters clear enough. L-e-o,
and this is an n or m "

"I know him now," cried another. "This was the
volunteer who joined us at Malta ; but Colonel Darcy got
him exchanged into hia own corps. His name was Leo-




LET us now turn to the Knight of Gwynne, who, wounded
and bleeding, was carried along in the torrent of the
retreat. Poor fellow, he had witnessed the total slaughter
or capture of the gallant band he had so bravely led into
action but a few hours before, and now, with one arm
powerless, and a sabre cut in the side, could barely keep
up with the hurried steps of the flying army.

From the few survivors among his followers, not one of
whom was unwounded, he received every proof of affec-
tionate devotion. If they were proud of the gallant old
officer as their leader, they actually loved him like a father.
The very last incident of their struggle was an effort to
cut through the closing ranks of the French, and secure
his escape ; and although one of the volunteers almost
lifted him into the saddle, from which he had torn the
rider, Darcy would not leave his comrades, but cried out,
" What signifies a prisoner more or less, lads ? The victory
is ours, let that console us." The brave fellow, who had
perilled his life for his leader, was cut down at the same
instant. Darcy saw him bleeding and disarmed, and had
but time to throw him his last pistol, when he was driven
onward, and, in the mingled confusion of the movement,
beheld him no more.

The exasperation of a defeat so totally unlocked for, had
made the French almost savage in their vindictiveness,
and nothing but the greatest efforts on the part of the
officers could have saved the prisoners from the cruel
vengeance of the infuriated soldiery. As it was, insulting
epithets, oaths, and obnoxious threats, met them at every
moment of the halt, and at each new success of the British

6?7 -jis/O


their fary broke out afresh, accompanied by menacing
gestures, that seemed to dare and defy every fear of dis-

Darcy, whom personal considerations were ever the
last to influence, smiled at these brutal demonstrations,
delighted at heart to witness such palpable evidence of
insubordination in the enemy, nor could he, in the very
midst of outrages which perilled his life, avoid comparing
to his followers the French troops of former days with
these soldiers of the Republic. " I remember them at
Quebec," said he, "under Montcalm. It may be too much
to say that the spirit of a monarchy had imparted a sense
of chivalry to its defenders but certainly it is fair to think,
that the bloody orgies of a revolutionary capital have made
a ruffian and ruthless soldiery."

Nor was this the only source of consolation open, for he
beheld on every side of him, in the disorder of the force,
the moral discouragement of the army, and the meagre
preparations made for the defence of Alexandria. Wounded
and weary, he took full note of these various circumstances,
and made them the theme of encouragement to his com-
panions in captivity. "There is little here, lads," said he,
" to make us fear a long imprisonment. The gallant fel-
lows, whose watch-fires crown yonder hills, will soon
bivouac here. All these preparations denote haste and
inefficiency. These stockades will offer faint resistance,
their guns seem in many instances unserviceable, and from
what we have seen of their infantry to-day, we need never
fear the issue of a struggle with them."

In the brief intervals of an occasional halt, he lost no
opportunity of remarking the appearance of the enemy's
soldiery their bearing and their equipment and openly
communicated to his comrades his opinion that the French
army was no longer the formidable force it had been repre-
sented to be, and that the first heavy reverse would be its
dismemberment. In all the confidence a foreign language
suggests, he spoke his mind freely and without reserve,
not sparing the officers in his criticisms, which now and
then took a form of drollery that drew laughter from the
other prisoners. It was at the close of some remark of
this kind, and while the merriment had not yet subsided,


that a Frencli major, who had more than once shown
interest for the venerable old soldier, rode close up to his
side and whispered a few words of friendly caution in his
ear, while by an almost imperceptible gesture, he pointed
to a group of prisoners who accompanied the Knight's
party, and persisted in pressing close to where he walked.
These were four dragoons of Hompesch's regiment, then
serving with the British army, but a corps which had
taken no part in the late action. Darcy could not help
wondering at their capture, a feeling not devoid of distrust,
as he remarked that neither their dress nor accoutrements
bore any trace of the fierce struggle, while their manner
exhibited a degree of rude assurance and effrontery, rather
than the regretful feelings of men taken prisoners.

Darcy's attention was not permitted to dwell much
more on the circumstance, for, at the same instant, the
column was halted, in order that the wounded might pass
on, and in the sad spectacle that now presented itself, all
memory of his own griefs was merged. The procession
was a long one, and seemed even more so than it was,
from the frequent halts in front, the road being choked up
by tumbrels and waggons, all confusedly mixed up in the
hurry of retreat. Night was now falling fast, but still
there was light enough to descry the ghastly looks of the
poor fellows, suffering in every variety of agony. Some
sought vent to their tortures by shouts and cries of pain ;
others preserved a silence, that seemed from their agonized
features an effort as dreadful as the very wounds them-
selves ; many were already mad with suffering, and sang
and blasphemed, with shrieks of mingled recklessness and
misery. What a terrible reverse to the glory of war, and
how far deeper into the heart do such scenes penetrate
than all the triumphs the most successful campaign has
ever gathered ! While Darcy still gazed on this sad sight,
he was gently touched on the arm by the same officer who
had addressed him before, saying, " There is an English
soldier here among the wounded, who wishes to speak
with you ; it is against my orders to permit it, but be
brief and cautious." With a motion to a litter some paces
in the rear, the officer moved on to his place in the column
nor waited for any reply.


The Knight lost not a second in profiting by the kind
suggestion, but, in the now thickening gloom, it was some
time before he could discover the object of his search. At
length he caught sight of the well-known uniform of his
corps the blue jacket slashed with silver as it was
thrown loosely over the figure, and partly over the face of
a wounded soldier. Gently removing it, he gazed with
steadfastness at the pale and bloodless countenance of a
young and handsome man, who, with half-closed eyelids,
lay scarcely breathing before him. " Do you know me, my
poor fellow?" whispered Darcy, bending down over him
" do you know me ? For I feel as if we should know
each other well, and had met before this." The wounded
man met his glance with a look of kind acknowledgment,
but made no effort to speak ; a faint sigh broke from him,
as with a tremulous hand he pushed back the jacket and
showed a terrible bayonet stab in the chest, from which,
at each respiration, the blood welled out in florid rivulets.

"Where is the surgeon?" said Darcy, to the soldier
beside the litter.

" He is here, monsieur," said a sharp-looking man, who,
without coat and with shirt-sleeves tucked up, came hastily

" Can you look to this poor fellow for me ?" whispered
Darcy, while he pressed into the not unwilling hand of the
doctor a somewhat weighty purse.

" We can do little more than put a pad on a wounded
vessel just now," said the surgeon, as with practised
coolness he split up with a scissors the portions of dress
around the wound. " When we have them once housed

in the hospital' Parbleu ! " cried he, interrupting

himself, " this is a severe affair."

Darcy turned away while the remorseless fingers of the
surgeon probed the gaping incision, and then whispered
low, " Can he recover ? "

" Ah ! mon Dieu ! who knows ? There is enough mis-
chief here to kill half a squadron ; but some fellows get
through anything. If we had him in a quiet chamber of
the Faubourg, with a good nurse, aud all still and tran-
quil about him, there's no saying ; but here, with some
seven hundred others many as bad, some worse than



himself the chances are greatly against him. Come,
however, we'll do our best for him." So saying, he
proceeded to pass ligatures on some bleeding arteries ;
and although speaking rapidly all the while, his motions
were even still more quick and hurried. " How old is
he ? " asked the surgeon, suddenly, as he gazed atten-
tively at the youth.

" I can't tell you," said Darcy. " He belonged to my
own corps, and by the lace on his jacket, I see, must have
been a volunteer ; but I shame to say I don't remember
even his name."

" He knows you, then," replied 'the doctor, who, with
the shrewd perception of his craft, watched the working
of the sick man's features. " Is't not so ? " said he,
stooping down and speaking with marked distinctness.
" Tou know your colonel ?"

A gesture, too faint to be called a nod of the head, and
a slight notion of the eyebrows, seemed to assent to this
question ; and Darcy, whose labouring faculties struggled
to bring up some clue to the memory of a face he was
convinced he had known before, was about to speak again,
when a mounted orderly, with a led horse beside him,
rode up to the spot, and looking round for a few seconds,
as if in search of some one, said,

" The English colonel, I believe ? " The Knight nodded.
"You are to mount this horse, sir," continued the orderly,
" and proceed to the head-quarters at once."

The doctor whispered a few hasty sentences, and while
promising to bestow his greatest care upon the sick
man, assured Darcy that at the head-quarters he would
soon obtain admission of the wounded volunteer into
the officers .' hospital. Partly comforted by this, and partly
yielding to what he knew was the inevitable course of for-
tune, the Knight took a farewell look of his follower, and
mounted the horse provided for'him.

Darcy was too much engrossed by the interest of the
wounded soldier's case to think much on what might
await himself ; nor did he notice for some time that they
had left the high road by which the troops were march-
ing for a narrower causeway, leading, as it seemed, not
into, but at one side of Alexandria, It mattered so little


to him, however, which way they followed, that he paid
110 further attention, nor was he aware of their progress,
till they entered a little mud-built village, which swarmed
with dogs, and miserable looking half-clothed Arabs.

" How do they call this village ? " said the Knight,
speaking now for the first time to his guide.

*' El Etscher," replied the soldier ; " and here we halt."
At the same moment he dismounted at the door of a low,
mean-looking house ; and having ushered Darcy into a
small room dimly lighted by a lamp, departed.

The Knight listened to the sharp tramp of the horses'
feet as they moved away, and when they had gone beyond
hearing, the silence that followed fell heavily and drearily
on his spirits. After sitting for some time in expectation
of seeing some one sent after him, he arose and went to
the door, but there now stood a sentry posted. He
returned at once within the room, and partly overcome
by fatigue, and partly from the confusion of his own
harassed thoughts, he leaned his head on the table and
slept soundly.

" Pardon, Monsieur le colonel," said a voice at his ear,
as, some hours later in the night, he was awakened from,
his slumbers. "You will be pleased to follow me."

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 13) → online text (page 24 of 35)