Charles James Lever.

Charles O'Malley, the Irish dragon online

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tune seemed to have deserted us when our hopes were high-
est ; for from the day of that splendid victory we began our retro-
grade movement upon Portugal. Pressed hard by overwhelming
masses of the enemy, we saw the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and
Almeida fall successively into their hands. The Spaniards were de-
feated wherever they ventured upon a battle ; and our own troops,
thinned by sickness and desertion, presented but a shadow of that
brilliant army which only a few months previous had followed the
retiring French beyond the frontiers of Portugal.

However willing I now am — and who is not? — to recognize the
genius and foresight of that great man who then held the destinies
of the Peninsula within his hands, I confess, at the time I speak of,
I could ill comprehend, and still less feel contented with, the suc-
cessive retreats our forces made ; and while the words Torres Vedras
brought nothing to my mind but the last resting-place before em-
barkation, the sad fortunes of Corunna were now before me, and it
was with a gloomy and desponding spirit I followed the routine of
my daily duty.

During these weary months, if my life was devoid of stirring in-
terest or adventure, it was not profitless. Constantly employed at
the outposts, I became thoroughly inured to all the roughing of a
soldier's life, and learned in the best of schools that tacit obedience
which alone can form the subordinate, or ultimately fit its possessor
for command himself.

Humble and unobtrusive as such a career must ever be, it was not
without its occasional rewards. From General Craufurd I more
than once obtained most kind mention in his despatches, and felt
that I was not unknown or unnoticed by Sir Arthur Wellesley him-
self. At that time these testimonies, slight and passing as they
were, contributed to the pride and glory of my existence ; and even
now — shall I confess it ? — when some gray hairs are mingling with
the brown, and when my old dragoon swagger is taming down into
a kind of half-pay shamble, I feel my heart warm at the recollection
of them.

Be it so. I care not who smiles at the avowal. I know of little
better worth remembering as we grow old than what pleased us while
we were young. With the memory of the kind words once spoken,
come back the still kinder looks of those who spoke them, and,


better than all, that early feeling of budding manhood when there
was neither fear nor distrust. Alas ! these are the things, and not
weak eyes and tottering limbs, which form the burden of old age.
Oh ! if we could only go on believing, go on trusting, go on hoping
to the last, who would shed tears for the bygone feats of his youth-
ful days, when the spirit that evoked them lived young and vivid as
before ?

But to my story. While Ciudad Kodrigo still held out against
the besieging French, its battered walls and breached ramparts sadly
foretelling the fate inevitably impending, we were ordered, together
with the 16th Light Dragoons, to proceed to Gallegos, to reinforce
Craufurd's division, then forming a corps of observation upon Mas-
sena's movements.

The position he occupied was a most commanding one — the crown
of a long mountain ridge, studded with pine copse and cork trees,
presenting every facility for light infantry movements; and here and
there, gently sloping towards the plain, offering a field for cavalry
manoeuvres. Beneath, in the vast plain, were encamped the dark
legions of France, their heavy siege artillery planted against the
doomed fortress, while clouds of their cavalry caracoled proudly
before us, as if in taunting sarcasm at our inactivity.

Every artifice which his natural cunning could suggest, every
taunt a Frenchman's vocabulary contains, had been used by Mas-
sena to induce Sir Arthur Wellesley to come to the assistance of the
beleaguered fortress ; but in vain. In vain he relaxed the energy
of the siege, and affected carelessness. In vain he asserted that the
English were either afraid, or else traitors to their allies. The mind
of him he thus assailed was neither accessible to menace nor to sar-
casm. Patiently abiding his time, he watched the progress of events,
and provided for that future which was to crown his country's arms
with success, and himself with undying glory.

Of a far different mettle was the general formed under whose
orders we were now placed. Hot, passionate, and impetuous, relying
upon bold and headlong heroism, rather than upon cool judgment and
well-matured plans, Craufurd felt in war all the asperity and bitter-
ness of a personal conflict. Ill brooking the insulting tone of the
wily Frenchman, he thirsted for any occasion of a battle ; and his
proud spirit chafed against the colder counsels of his superior.

On the very morning we joined, the pickets brought in the intel-
ligence that the French patrols were nightly in the habit of visiting
the villages of the outposts, and committing every species of cruel
indignity upon the wretched inhabitants. Fired at this daring
insult, our General resolved to cut them off, and formed two ambus-
cades for that purpose.


Six squadrons of the 14th were despatched to Villa del Puerco,
three of the 16th to Baguetto, while some companies of the 95th,
and the cacadores, supported by artillery, were ordered to hold
themselves in reserve, for the enemy were in force at no great dis-
tance from us.

The morning was just breaking as an aide-de-camp galloped up
with the intelligence that the French had been seen near the Villa
del Puerco, a body of infantry and some cavalry having crossed the
plain, and disappeared in that direction. While our Colonel was
forming us, with the intention of getting between them and their
main body, the tramp of horses was heard in the wood behind, and
in a few moments two officers rode up. The foremost, who was a
short, stoutly-built man of about forty, with a bronzed face and
eye of piercing black, shouted out as we wheeled into column, —

" Halt, there ! Why, where the devil are you going? That's your
ground !" So saying, and pointing straight towards the village with
his hand, he would not listen to our Colonel's explanation that sev-
eral stone fences and enclosures would interfere with cavalry move-
ments, but added, " Forward, I say ! Proceed !"

Unfortunately, the nature of the ground separated our squadron,
as the Colonel anticipated ; and although we came on at a topping
pace, the French had time to form in square upon a hill to await us,
and when we charged, they stood firmly, and firing with a low and
steady aim, several of our troopers fell. As we wheeled round, we
found ourselves exactly in front of their cavalry coming out of
Baguilles ; so, dashing straight at them, we revenged ourselves for
our first repulse by capturing twenty-nine prisoners and wounding
several others.

The French infantry were, however, still unbroken ; and Colonel
Talbot rode boldly up with five squadrons of the 14th ; but the
charge, pressed home with all its gallantry, failed also, and the
Colonel fell mortally wounded, and fourteen of his troopers around
him. Twice we rode round the square seeking for a weak point,
but in vain ; the gallant Frenchman who commanded, Captain
Guache, stood fearlessly amid his brave followers, and we could hear
him, as he called out from time to time,

" C'est Qa, mes enfans ! tr£s bien fait, mes braves !"

And at length they made good their retreat, while we returned to
the camp, leaving thirty-two troopers and our brave Colonel dead
upon the field in this disastrous affair.

The repulse we had met with, so contrary to all our hopes and
expectations, made that a most gloomy day to all of us. The brave
fellows we had left behind us, the taunting cheer of the French


infantry, the unbroken ranks against which we rode time after time
in vain, never left our minds ; and a sense of shame of what might
be thought of us at head-quarters rendered the reflection still more

Our bivouac, notwithstanding all our efforts, was a sad one, and
when the moon rose, some drops of heavy rain falling at intervals
in the still, unruffled air, threatened a night of storm ; gradually the
sky grew darker and darker, the clouds hung nearer to the earth, and
a dense, thick mass of dark mist shrouded every object. The heavy
cannonade of the siege was stilled ; nothing betrayed that a vast
army was encamped near us ; their bivouac fires were even imper-
ceptible, and the only sound we heard was the great bell of Ciudad
Rodrigo as it struck the hour, and seemed, in the mournful cadence
of its chime, like the knell of the doomed citadel.

The patrol which I commanded had to visit on its rounds the most
advanced post of our position. This was a small farm-house, which,
standing upon a little rising ledge of ground, was separated from
the French lines by a small tributary stream to the Aguda. A party
of the 14th were picketed here, and beneath them, in the valley,
scarce five hundred yards distant, was a detachment of cuirassiers
which formed the French outpost. As we neared our picket, the
deep voice of the sentry challenged us, and, while all else was silent
as the grave, we could hear from the opposite side the merry chorus
of a French chanson a boire, with its clattering accompaniment of
glasses, as some gay companions were making merry together.

Within the little hut which contained our fellows, the scene was a
different one. The three officers who commanded sat moodily over
a wretched fire of wet wood ; a solitary candle dimly lighted the dis-
mantled room, where a table but ill-supplied with cheer stood un-
minded and uncared for.

" Well, O'Malley," cried Baker, as I came in, "what is the night
about? and what's Craufurd for next?"

" We hear," cried another, "that he means to give battle to-mor-
row ; but surely Sir Arthur's orders are positive enough. Gordon
himself told me that he was forbid to fight beyond the Coa, but to
retreat at the first advance of the enemy."

" I'm afraid," replied I, " that retreating is his last thought just
now. Ammunition has just been served out, and I know the horse
artillery have orders to be in readiness by daybreak."

"All right," said Hampden, with a half-bitter tone. " Nothing
like going through with it. If he is to be brought to court-mar-
tial for disobedience, he'll take good care we shan't be there to
see it."

"Why, the French are fifty thousand strong!" said Baker.


" Look there ! What does that mean, now ? That's a signal from
the town."

As he spoke, a rocket of great brilliancy shot up into the sky, and
bursting, at length fell in millions of red lustrous sparks on every
side, showing forth the tall fortress, and the encamped army around
it, with all the clearness of noonday. It was a most splendid sight ;
and though the next moment all was dark as before, we gazed still
fixedly into the gloomy distance, straining our eyes to observe what
was hid from our view forever.

"That must be a signal," repeated Baker.

" Begad ! if Craufurd sees it, he'll interpret it as a reason for
fighting. I trust he's asleep by this time," said Hampden. " By
the bye, O'Malley, did you see the fellows at work in the trenches ?
How beautifully clear it was towards the southward !"

" Yes, I remarked that ; and what surprised me was the openness
of their position in that direction. Towards the San Benito mole I
could not see a man."

"Ah ! they'll not attack on that side : but if we really are "

" Stay, Hampden !" said I, interrupting him ; " a thought has just
struck me. At sunset I saw, through my telescope, the French en-
gineers marking with their white tape the line of a new entrench-
ment in that quarter. Would it not be a glorious thing to move
the tape, and bring the fellows under the fire of San Benito ?"

" By Jove! O'Malley, that is a thought worth a troop to you."

" Far more likely to forward his promotion in the next world than
in this," said Baker, smiling.

" By no means," added I ; " I marked the ground this evening,
and have it perfectly in my mind. If we were to follow the bend
of the river, I'll be bound we'd come right upon the spot ; by near-
ing the fortress we'll escape the sentries ; and all this portion is open
to us."

The project thus loosely thrown out was now discussed in all its
bearings. Whatever difficulties it presented were combated so much
to our own satisfaction, that at last its very facility damped our
ardor. Meanwhile, the night wore on, and the storm of rain so long
impending began to descend in very torrents ; hissing along the
parched ground, it rose in a mist, while overhead the heavy thunder
rolled in long unbroken peals, the crazy door threatened to give
way at each moment, and the whole building trembled to its foun-

"Pass the brandy down here, Hampden, and thank your stars
you're where you are. Eh, O'Malley? You'll defer your trip to San
Benito for finer weather."

"Well, to come to the point," said Hampden, "I'd rather begin


my engineering at a more favorable season; but if O'Malley's
for it "

" And O'Malley is for it," said I, suddenly.

" Then, faith, I'm not the man to baulk his fancy ; and as Crau-
furd is so bent upon fighting to-morrow, it don't make much differ-
ence. Is it a bargain ?"

" It is ; here's my hand on it."

" Come, come, boys," said Baker, " I'll have none of this ; we've
been prettily cut up this morning already. You shall not go upon
this foolish excursion."

" Confound it, old fellow ! it's all very well for you to talk, with
the majority before you next step ; but here we are, if peace came
to-morrow, scarcely better than we left England. No, no ; if

O'Malley's ready — and I see he is so before me What have you

got there ? Oh ! I see ; that's our tape line ; capital fun, by George !
The worst of it is, they'll make us colonels of engineers. Now, then,
what's your plan — on foot or mounted ?"

" Mounted, and for this reason, the country is all open ; if we
are to have a run for it, our thorough-breds ought to distance them ;
and as we must expect to pass some of their sentries, our only
chance is on horseback."

" My mind is relieved of a great load," said Hampden. " I was
trembling in my skin lest you should make it a walking party. I'll
do anything you like in the saddle, from robbing the mail to cutting
out a frigate ; but I never was much of a footpad."

" Well, Mike," said I, as I returned to the room with my trusty
follower, " are the cattle to be depended on ?"

"If we had a snaffle in Malachi Daly's mouth" (my brown horse),
" I'd be afeared of nothing, sir; but if it comes to fencing, with that

cruel bit but sure, you've a light hand, and let him have his

head, if it's wall."

" By Jove, he thinks it a fox-chase !" said Hampden.

" Isn't it the same, sir ?" said Mike, with a seriousness that made
the whole party smile.

• "Well, I hope we shall not be earthed, anyway," said I. "Now,
the next thing is, who has a lantern? — ah! the very thing — nothing
better. Look to your pistols, Hampden ; and, Mike, here's a glass
of grog for you ; we'll want you. And now, one bumper for good
luck. Eh, Baker, won't you pledge us ?"

"And spare a little for me," said Hampden. "How it does rain !
If one didn't expect to be waterproofed before morning, one really
wouldn't go out in such weather."

While I busied myself in making my few preparations, Hamp-
den proceeded gravely to inform Mike that we were going to the


assistance of the besieged fortress, which could not possibly go on
without us.

" Tare and ages !" said Mike, " that's mighty quare ; and the blue
rocket was a letter of invitation, I suppose ?"

"Exactly," said Hampden; "and you see there's no ceremony
between us. We'll just drop in, in the evening, in a friendly way."

" Well, then, upon my conscience, I'd wait, if I was you, till the
family wasn't in confusion. They have enough on their hands just

" So you'll not be persuaded ?" said Baker. " Well, I frankly
tell you that, come what will of it, as your senior officer, I'll report
you to-morrow. I'll not risk myself for any such hare-brained expe-

"A mighty pleasant lookout for me," said Mike; "if I'm not shot
to-night, I may be flogged in the morning." .

This speech once more threw us into a hearty fit of laughter, amid
which we took leave of our friends, and set forth upon our way.



THE small twinkling lights which shone from the ramparts of
Ciudad Eodrigo were our only guide as we issued forth upon
our perilous expedition. The storm raged, if possible, even
more violently than before, and gusts of wind swept along the
ground with the force of a hurricane, so that at first our horses
could scarcely face the tempest. Our path lay along the little stream
for a considerable way, after which, fording the rivulet, we entered
upon the open plain, taking care to avoid the French outpost on the
extreme left, which was marked by a bivouac fire, burning under
the heavy down-pour of rain, and looking larger through the dim
atmosphere around it.

I rode foremost, followed closely by Hampden and Mike. Not a
word was spoken after we crossed the stream. Our plan was, if
challenged by a patrol, to reply in French and press on ; so small a
party could never suggest the idea of attack, and we hoped in this
manner to escape.

The violence of the storm was such, that many of our precautions
as to silence were quite unnecessary; and we had advanced to a
considerable extent into the plain before any appearance of the


encampment struck us. At length, on mounting a little rising
ground, we perceived several fires stretching far away to the north-
ward, while still to our left there blazed one larger and brighter
than the others. We now found that we had not outflanked their
position as we intended, and learning, from the situation of the
fires, that we were still only at the outposts, we pressed sharply
forward, directing our course by the twin stars that shone from the

" How heavy the ground is here !" whispered Hampden, as our
horses sunk above the fetlocks ; " we had better stretch away to the
right ; the rise of the hill will favor us."

" Hark !" said I ; " did you not hear something ? Pull up.
Silence now. Yes, there they come. It's a patrol ; I hear their
tramp." As I spoke, the measured tread of infantry was heard above
the storm, and soon after a lantern was seen coming along the
causeway near us. The column passed within a few yards of where
we stood. I could even recognize the black covering of the shakos
as the light fell on them. " Let us follow them," whispered I, and
the next moment we fell in upon their track, holding our cattle well
in hand, and ready to start at a moment.

" Qui va la ?" a sentry demanded.

" La deuxieme division," cried a hoarse voice.

"Halte la ! la consigne ?"

" Wagram !" repeated the same voice as before, while his party
resumed their march ; and the next moment the patrol was again
upon his post, silent and motionless as before.

" En avant, messieurs !" said I aloud, as soon as the infantry had
proceeded some distance ; " en avant !"

" Qui va la ?" demanded the sentry, as we came along at a sharp

" L'6tat-major, Wagram !" responded I, pressing on without draw-
ing rein ; and in a moment we had regained our former position be-
hind the infantry. We had scarcely time to congratulate ourselves
upon the success of our scheme, when a tremendous clattering noise
in front, mingled with the galloping of horses and the cracking of
whips, announced the approach of the artillery as they came along
by a narrow road which bisected our path. As they passed between
us and the column, we could hear the muttered sentences of the
drivers, cursing the Unseasonable time for an attack, and swearing
at their cattle in no measured tones.

" Did you hear that ?" whispered Hampden ; " the battery is
about to be directed against the San Benito, which must be far away
to the left. I heard one of the troop saying that they were to open
their fire at daybreak."


" All right, now," said I ; " look there !"

From the hill we now stood upon, a range of lanterns was dis-
tinctly visible, stretching away for nearly half a mile.

"There are the trenches; they must be at work, too; see how
the lights are moving from place to place ! Straight, now. For-
ward I"

So saying, I pressed my horse boldly on.

We had not proceeded many minutes, when the sounds of gallop-
ing were heard coming along behind us.

" To the right, in the hollow," cried I ; "be still."

Scarcely had we moved off when several horsemen galloped up,
and, drawing their reins to breathe their horses up the hill, we could
hear their voices as they conversed together.

In the few broken words we could catch, we guessed that the
attack upon San Benito was only a feint to induce Craufurd to hold
his position, while the French, marching upon his flank and front,
were to attack him with overwhelming masses and crush him.

" You hear what's in store for us, O'Malley," whispered Hampden.
" I think we could not possibly do better than hasten back with the

" We must not forget what we came for, first," said I ; and the
next moment we were following the horsemen, who, from their hel-
mets, seemed horse-artillery officers.

The pace our guides rode at showed us that they knew their
ground. We passed several sentries, muttering something at each
time, and seeming as if only anxious to keep up with our party.

" They've halted," said I. " Now to the left there ; gently here,
for we must be in the midst of their lines. Ha ! I knew we were
right; see there!"

Before us, now, at a few hundred yards, we could perceive a num-
ber of men engaged upon the field. Lights were moving from place
to place rapidly, while immediately in front a strong picket of cav-
alry were halted.

" By Jove, there's sharp work of it to-night !" whispered Hamp-
den ; " they do intend to surprise us to-morrow."

" Gently now, to the left," said I, as, cautiously skirting the little
hill, I kept my eye firmly fixed upon the watch-fire.

The storm, which for some time had abated considerably, was now
nearly quelled, and the moon again peeped forth amid masses of
black and watery clouds.

" What good fortune for us !" thought I, at this moment, as I sur-
veyed the plain before me.

" I say, O'Malley, what are those fellows at, yonder, where the
blue light is burning?"


"Ah ! the very people we want ; these are the sappers. Now for
it, that's our ground ; we'll soon come upon their track now."

We pressed rapidly forward, passing an infantry party as we went.
The blue light was scarcely one hundred yards off; we could even
hear the shouting of the officers to their men in the trenches, when
suddenly my horse came down upon his head, and rolling over,
crushed me to the earth.

" Not hurt, my boy," cried I, in a subdued tone, as Hampden
jumped down beside me.

It was the angle of a trench I had fallen into ; and though both
my horse and myself felt stunned for the moment, we rallied the
next minute.

" Here is the very spot," said I. " Now, Mike, catch the bridles
and follow us closely."

Guiding ourselves along the edge of the trench, we crept stealthily
forward ; the only watch-fire near was where the engineer party was
halted, and our object was to get outside of this.

" My turn this time," said Hampden, as he tripped suddenly, and
fell head foremost upon the grass.

As I assisted him to rise, something caught my ankle ; and, on
stooping, I found it was a cord pegged fast into the ground, and
lying only a few inches above it.

" Now, steady ! see here ; this is their working line ; pass your
hand along it there, and let us follow it out."

While Hampden accordingly crept along on one side, I tracked
the cord upon the other ; here I found it terminating upon a small
mound, where probably some battery was to be erected. I accord-
ingly gathered it carefully up, and was returning towards my friend,
when what was my horror to hear Mike's voice, conversing, as it
seemed to me, with some one in French.

I stood fixed to the spot, my very heart beating almost in my
mouth as I listened.

" Qui etes vous done, mon ami ?" inquired a hoarse, deep voice, a
few yards off.

" Bon cheval, non beast, sacre nom de Dieu !" A hearty burst of

Online LibraryCharles James LeverCharles O'Malley, the Irish dragon → online text (page 42 of 80)