Charles James Lever.

Charles O'Malley, the Irish dragon online

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menced its retreat. They moved with slow and, as it were, reluctant
steps ; and Bessidres, who commanded the Imperial Guard, turned
his eyes more than once to that position which all the bravery of his
troops was unavailing to capture. Although our cavalry lay in
force to the front of our line, no attempt was made to molest the
retreating French ; and Massena, having retired beyond the Aguada,
left a strong force to watch the ford, while the remainder of the
army fell back upon Ciudad Rodrigo.

During this time we had succeeded in fortifying our position at
Fuentes d'Onoro so strongly as to resist any new attack, and Lord
Wellington now turned his whole attention to the blockade of
Almeida, which, by Massena's retreat, was now abandoned to its

On the morning of the 10th, I accompanied General Craufurd in
a reconnaissance of the fortress, which, from the intelligence we had
lately received, could not much longer hold out against our block-
ade. The fire from the enemy's artillery was, however, hotly main-
tained, and, as night fell, some squadrons of the 14th, who were
picketed near, were unable to light their watch-fires, being within
reach of their shot. As the darkness increased, so did the can-
nonade, and the bright flashes from the walls and the deep booming
of the artillery became incessant.

A hundred conjectures were afloat to account for the circum-
stance; some asserting that what we heard were mere signals to
Massena's army; and others, that Brennier was destroying and
mutilating the fortress before he evacuated it to the allies.

It was a little past midnight when, tired from the fatigues of the
day, I had fallen asleep beneath a tree, an explosion, louder than
any which preceded it, burst suddenly forth, and, as I awoke and
looked about me, I perceived the whole heavens illuminated by one
bright glare, while the crashing noise of falling stones and crumb-
ling masonry told me that a mine had been sprung. The moment
after all was calm, and still, and motionless ; a thick black smoke
increasing the sombre darkness of the night, shut out every star
from view, and some drops of heavy rain began to fall.

The silence, ten times more appalling than the din which pre-
ceded it, weighed heavily upon my senses, and a dread of some un-


known danger crept over me ; the exhaustion, however, was greater
than my fear, and again I sank into slumber.

Scarcely had I been half an hour asleep, when the blast of a
trumpet again awoke me, and I found, amid the confusion and ex-
citement about, that something of importance had occurred. Ques-
tions were eagerly asked on all sides, but no one could explain what
had happened. Towards the town all was still as death, but a drop«
ping irregular fire of musketry issued from the valley beside the
Aguada. "What can this mean? what can it be?" we asked of
each other. "A sortie from the garrison," said one; "A night
attack by Massena's troops," cried another ; and, while thus we dis-
puted and argued, a horseman was heard advancing along the road
at the top of his speed.

" Where are the cavalry ?" cried a voice I recognized as one of
my brother aides-de-camp. " Where are the 14th ?"

A cheer from our party answered this question, and the next
moment, breathless and agitated, he rode in amongst us.

"What is it? are we attacked?"

" Would to heaven that were all ! But come along, lads, follow

" What can it be, then?" said I again, while my anxiety knew no

" Brennier has escaped ; burst his way through Pack's division,
and has already reached Valde Mula."

" The French have escaped !" was repeated from mouth to mouth ;
while, pressing spurs to our horses, we broke into a gallop, and
dashed forward in the direction of the musketry. We soon came
up with the 36th Infantry, who having thrown away their knap-
sacks, were rapidly pressing the pursuit. The maledictions which
burst from every side proved how severely the misfortune was felt
by all, while the eager advance of the men bespoke how ardently
they longed to repair the mishap.

Dark as was the night, we passed them in a gallop. Suddenly
the officer who commanded the leading squadron called out to halt.

" Take care there, lads !" cried he ; " I hear the infantry before
us ; we shall be down upon our own people."

The words were hardly spoken, when a bright flash blazed out
before us, and a smashing volley was poured into the squadron.

"The French! the French, by Jove!" said Hampden. "For-
ward, boys ! charge them !"

Breaking into open order, to avoid our wounded comrades, several
of whom had fallen by the fire, we rode down amongst them. In
a moment their order was broken, their ranks pierced, and, fresh
squadrons coming up at the instant, they were sabred to a man.


After this the French pursued their march in silence, and, even
when assembling in force we rode down upon their squares, they
never halted nor fired a shot. At Barba del Puerco, the ground
being unfit for cavalry, the 36th took our place, and pressed them
hotly home. Several of the French were killed, and above threo
hundred made prisoners, but our fellows following up the pursuit
too rashly, came upon an advanced body of Massena's force, drawn
up to await and cover Brennier's retreat ; the result was the loss of
above thirty men in killed and wounded.

Thus were the great efforts of the three preceding days rendered
fruitless and nugatory. To maintain this blockade, Lord Welling-
b ton, with an inferior force, and a position by no means strong, had
ventured to give the enemy battle ; and now, by the unskilfulness
of some and the negligence of others, were all his combinations
thwarted, and the French General enabled to march his force
through the midst of the blockading columns almost unmolested
and uninjured.

Lord Wellington's indignation was great, as well it might be ; the
prize for which he had contested was torn from his grasp at the very
moment he had won it, and although the gallantry of the troops
in pursuit might, under other circumstances, have called forth
eulogium, his only observation on the matter was a half-sarcastic
allusion to the inconclusive effects of undisciplined bravery. " Not-
withstanding," says the general order of the day, " what has been
printed in gazettes and newspapers, we have never seen small bodies,
unsupported, successfully opposed to large ; nor has the experience
of any officer realized the stories which all have read, of whole
armies being driven by a handful of light infantry and dragoons."




"ASSENA was now recalled, and Marmont having assumed
the command of the French army, retired towards Sala-
manca, while our troops went into cantonments upon the
Aguada. A period of inaction succeeded to our previous life of
bustle and excitement, and the whole interest of the campaign was
now centred in Beresford's army, exposed to Soult in Estremadura.
On the 15th, Lord Wellington set out for that province, having
already directed a strong force to march upon Badajos.


"Well, O'Malley," said Craufurd, as he returned from bidding
Lord Wellington good-bye, " your business is all right ; the Com-
mander-in-Chief has signed my recommendation, and you will get
your troop."

* While I continued to express my grateful acknowledgments for
his kindness, the General, apparently inattentive to all I was saying,
paced the room with hurried steps, stopping every now and then to
glance at a large map of Spain which covered one wall of the apart-
ment, while he muttered to himself some broken and disjointed

" Eight leagues — too weak in cavalry — with the left upon Fuenta
Grenaldo — a strong position. O'Malley, you'll take a troop of dra-
goons and patrol the country towards Castro; you'll reconnoitre the"
position the sixth corps occupies, but avoid any collision with the
enemy's pickets, keeping the Azava between you and them. Take
rations for three days."

" When shall I set out, sir?"

"Now !" was the reply.

Knowing with what pleasure the hardy veteran recognized any-
thing like alacrity and despatch, I resolved to gratify him; and,
before half an hour had elapsed, was ready with my troop to receive
his final orders.

" Well done, boy !" said he, as he came to the door of the hut,
" you've lost no time. I don't believe I have any further instruc-
tions to give you ; to ascertain as far as possible the probable move-
ment of the enemy is my object, that's all." As he spoke this, he
waved his hand, and wishing me "Good-bye," walked leisurely
back into the house. I saw that his mind was occupied by other
thoughts; and although I desired to obtain some more accurate
information for my guidance, knowing his dislike to questions, I
merely returned his salute, and set forth upon my journey.

The morning was beautiful ; the sun had risen about an hour, and
the earth, refreshed by the heavy dew of the night, was breathing
forth all its luxuriant fragrance. The river, which flowed beside us,
was clear as crystal, showing beneath its eddying current the
shining, pebbly bed, while upon the surface the water-lilies floated
or sank, as the motion of the stream inclined. The tall cork-trees
spread their shadows about us, and the richly-plumed birds hopped
from branch to branch, awaking the echoes with their notes.

It is but seldom that the heart of man is thoroughly attuned to
the circumstances of the scenery around him. How often do we
need a struggle with ourselves to enjoy the rich and beautiful land-
scape which lies smiling in its freshness before us ! How frequently
do the blue sky and the calm air look down upon the heart dark-


ened and shadowed with affliction ! And how often have we felt
the discrepancy between the louring look of winter and the glad
sunshine of our hearts ! The harmony of the world without with
our thoughts within is one of the purest, as it is one of the greatest,
sources of happiness. Our hopes and our ambitions lose their selfish
character when feeling that fortune smiles upon us from all around;
and the flattery which speaks to our hearts from the bright stars
and the blue sky, the peaked mountain, or the humble flower,
is greater in its mute eloquence than all the tongue of man can
tell us.

This feeling did I experience in all its fulness, as I ruminated
upon my bettered fortunes, and felt within myself that secret instinct
that tells of happiness to come. In such moods of mind my thoughts
strayed ever homeward, and I could not help confessing how little
were my successes in my eyes, did I not hope for the day when I
should pour forth my tale of war and battle-fields to the ears of those
who loved me.

I resolved to write home at once to my uncle. I longed to tell
him each incident of my career, and my heart glowed as I thought
over the broken and disjointed sentences which every cottier around
would whisper of my fortunes, far prouder as they would be in the
humble deeds of one they knew, than in the proudest triumphs of
a nation's glory.

Indeed, Mike himself gave the current to my thoughts. After
riding beside me some time in silence, he remarked,

"And isn't it Father Rush will be proud when he sees your honor's
a captain ; to think of the little boy that he used to take before him
on the ould gray mare for a ride down the avenue ; to think of him
being a real captain, six feet two without his boots, and galloping
over the French as if they were lurchers! Peggy Mahon, that
nursed you, will be the proud woman the day she hears it ; and
there won't be a soldier sober in his quarters that night in Portumna
barracks ! Ton my soul, there's not a thing with a red coat on it,
if it was even a scarecrow to frighten the birds from the barley,
that won't be treated with respect when they hear of the news."

The country through which we travelled was marked at every step
by the traces of a retreating army; the fields of rich corn lay flat-
tened beneath the tramp of cavalry, or the wheels of the baggage-
wagons ; the roads, cut up and nearly impassable, were studded here
and there with marks which indicated a bivouac; at the same time,
everything around bore a very different aspect from what we had
observed in Portugal ; there the vindictive cruelty of the French
soldiery had been seen in full sway. The ruined chateau, the burned
villages, the desecrated altars, the murdered peasantry, — all attested


the revengeful spirit of a beaten and baffled enemy. No sooner,
however, had they crossed the frontiers, than, as if by magic, their
character became totally changed. Discipline and obedience suc-
ceeded to recklessness and pillage; and, instead of treating the
natives with inhumanity and cruelty, in all their intercourse with
the Spaniards the French behaved with moderation and even kind-
ness. Paying for everything, obtaining their billets peaceably and
quietly, marching with order and regularity, they advanced into the
heart of the country, showing, by the most irrefragable proof, the
astonishing evidences of a discipline which by a word could convert
the lawless irregularities of a ruffian soldiery into the orderly habits
ana" obedient conduct of a highly-organized army.

As we neared the Azava, the tracks of the retiring enemy became
gradually less perceptible, and the country, uninjured by the march,
extended for miles around us in all the richness and abundance of
a favored climate. The tall corn, waving its yellow gold, reflected
like a sea the clouds that moved slowly above it. The wild gentian
and the laurel grew thickly around, and the cattle stood basking in
the clear streams, while some listless peasant lounged upon the bank
beside them. Strange as all these evidences of peace and tranquillity
were, so near to the devastating track of a mighty army, yet I have
more than once witnessed the fact, and remarked how but a short
distance from the line of our hurried march, the country lay un-
touched and uninjured ; and though the clank of arms and the dull
roll of the artillery may have struck upon the ear of the far-off
dweller in his native valley, he listened as he would have done to
the passing thunder as it crashed above him; and when the bright
sky and pure air succeeded to the louring atmosphere and darkening
storm, he looked forth upon his smiling fields and happy home,
while he muttered to his heart a prayer of thanksgiving that the
scourge was passed.

We bivouacked upon the bank of the river— a truly Salvator Eosa
scene ; the rocks, towering high above us, were fissured by the chan-
nel of many a trickling stream, seeking, in its zigzag current, the
bright river below. The dark pine-tree and the oak mingled their
foliage with the graceful cedar, which spread its fan-like branches
about us. Through the thick shade some occasional glimpses of a
starry sky could yet be seen, and a faint yellow streak upon the silent
river told that the queen of night was there.

When I had eaten my frugal supper, I wandered forth alone upon
the bank of the stream, now standing to watch its bold sweeps as it
traversed the lonely valley before me, now turning to catch a pass-
ing glance at our red watch-fires, and the hardy features which sat
around. The hoarse and careless laugh, the deep-toned voice of


some old campaigner holding forth his tale of flood and field, were
the only sounds I heard ; and gradually I strolled beyond the reach
of even these. The path beside the river, which seemed scarped
from the rock, was barely sufficient for the passage of one man, a
rude balustrade of wood being the only defence against the preci-
pice, which, from a height of full thirty feet, looked down 'upon the
stream. Here and there some broad gleam of moonlight would fall
upon the opposite bank, which, unlike the one I occupied, stretched
out into rich meadow and pasturage, broken by occasional clumps
of ilex and beech. River scenery has been ever a passion with me.
I can glory in the bold and broken outline of a mighty mountain ;
I can gaze with delighted eyes upon the boundless sea, and know
not whether to like it more in all the mighty outpouring of its
wrath, when the white waves lift their heads to heaven, and break
themselves in foam upon the rocky beach, or in the calm beauty of
its broad and mirrored surface, in which the bright world of sun
and sky are seen full many a fathom deep. But far before these, I
love the happy and tranquil beauty of some bright river, tracing its
winding current through valley and through plain, now spreading
into some calm and waveless lake, now narrowing to an eddying
stream, with mossy rocks and waving trees darkening over it.
There's not a hut, however lowly, where the net of the fisherman is
stretched upon the sward, around whose hearth I do not picture
before me the faces of happy toil and humble contentment, while
from the ruined tower upon the crag, methinks I hear the ancient
sounds of wassail and of welcome ; and though the keep be fissured
and the curtain fallen, and though for banner there " waves some
tall wall-flower," I can people its crumbling walls with images of
the past; and the merry laugh of the warder and the clanking tread
of the mailed warrior are as palpably before me as the tangled
lichen that now trails from its battlements.

As I wandered on, I reached the little rustic stair which led down-
ward from the path to the river side ; and, on examining further,
perceived that in this place the stream was fordable ; a huge flat
rock, filling up a great part of the river's bed, occupied the middle,
on either side of which the current ran with increased force.

Bent upon exploring, I descended the cliff, and was preparing to
cross, when my attention was attracted by the twinkle of a fire at
some distance from me, on the opposite side ; the flame rose and
fell in fitful flashes, as though some hand were ministering to it at
the moment. As it was impossible, from the silence on every side,
that it could proceed from a bivouac of the enemy, I resolved on
approaching it and examining it for myself. I knew that the shep-
herds in remote districts were accustomed thus to pass the summer


nights, with no other covering save the blue vault above them. It
was not impossible, too, that it might prove a Guerilla party, who
frequently, in small numbers, hang upon the rear of a retreating
army. Thus conjecturing, I crossed the stream, and quickening my
pace, walked forward in the direction of the blaze. For a moment a
projecting rock obstructed my progress ; while I was devising some
means of proceeding farther, the sound of voices near me arrested
my attention. I listened, and what was my astonishment to hear
that they spoke in French. I now crept cautiously to the verge of
the rock and looked over ; the moon was streaming in its full bril-
liancy upon a little shelving strand beside the stream, and here I
now beheld the figure of a French officer. He was habited in the
undress uniform of a chasseur a cheval, but wore no arms ; indeed,
his occupation at the moment was anything but a warlike one, he
being leisurely employed in collecting some flasks of champagne
which apparently had been left to cool within the stream.

" Eh bien,Alphonse," said a voice in the direction of the fire, "what
are you delaying for ?"

" I'm coming, I'm coming," said the other ; " but, par Dieu ! I can
only find five of our bottles; one seems to have been carried away
by the stream."

" No matter," replied the other, " we are but three of us, and one
is, or should be, on the sick list."

The only answer to this was the muttered chorus of a French
drinking-song, interrupted at intervals by an imprecation upon the
missing flask. It chanced at this moment that a slight clinking
noise attracted me, and on looking down I perceived at the foot of
the rock the prize he sought for. It had been, as he conceived,
carried away by an eddy of the stream, and was borne, as a true
prisoner of war, within my grasp. I avow that from this moment
my interest in the scene became considerably heightened } such a
waif as a bottle of champagne was not to be despised in circum-
stances like mine, and I watched with anxious eyes every gesture
of the impatient Frenchman, and alternately vibrated between hope
and fear, as he neared or receded from the missing flask.

"Let it go to the devil," shouted his companion once more.
" Jacques has lost all patience with you."

" Be it so, then," said the other as he prepared to take up his bur-
den. At this instant I made a slight effort to change my position, so
as to obtain a view of the rest of the party. The branch by which I
supported myself, however, gave way beneath my grasp with a loud
crash. I lost my footing, and slipping downward from the rock,
came plump into the stream below. The noise, the splash, and,
more than all, the sudden appearance of a man beside him, astounded


the Frenchman, who almost let fall his pannier, and thus we stood
confronting each other for at least a couple of minutes in silence.
A hearty burst of laughter from both parties terminated this awk-
ward moment, while the Frenchman, with the readiness of his
country, was the first to open the negotiation.

" 8acr6 Dieu I" said he, " what can you be doing here ? You're
English, without doubt."

" Even so," said I ; " but that is the very question I was about
to ask you ; what are you doing here ?"

" Eh Men" replied the other, gayly ; " you shall be answered in all
frankness. Our captain was wounded in the action of the 8th, and
we heard had been carried up the country by some peasants. As
the army fell back, we obtained permission to go in search of him.
For two days all was fruitless ; the peasantry fled at our approach ;
and although we captured some of our stolen property — among
other things, the contents of this basket — yet we never came upon
the track of our comrade till this evening. A good-hearted shep-
herd had taken him to his hut, and treated him with every kind-
ness, but no sooner did he hear the gallop of our horses and the
clank of our equipments, than, fearing himself to be made a pris-
oner, he fled up the mountains, leaving our friend behind him:
voild notre histoire. Here we are, three in all, one of us with a deep
sabre-cut in his shoulder. If you are the stronger party, we are, I
suppose, your prisoners ; if not "

What was to have followed, I know not, for at this moment his
companion, who had finally lost all patience, came suddenly to the

" A prisoner," cried he, placing a heavy hand upon my shoulder,
while with the other he held his drawn sword pointed towards my

To draw a pistol from my bosom was the work of a second ; and
while gently turning the point of his weapon away, I coolly said, —

" Not so fast, my friend, — not so fast ! The game is in my hands,
not yours. I have only to pull this trigger, and my dragoons are
upon you ; whatever fate befall me, yours is certain."

A half-scornful laugh betrayed the incredulity of him I addressed,
while the other, apparently anxious to relieve the awkwardness of
the moment, suddenly broke in with, —

" He is right, Auguste, and you are wrong ; we are in his power ;
that is," added he, smiling, " if he believes there is any triumph in
capturing such pauvres diables as ourselves."

The features of him he addressed suddenly lost their scornful ex-
pression, and sheathing his sword with an air of almost melo-
dramatic solemnity, he gravely pulled up his moustaches, and after


a pause of a few seconds, solemnly ejaculated a malediction upon his

" C'est toujours ainsi" said he, with a bitterness that only a French-
man can convey when cursing his destiny. " Soyez bon enfant, and
see what will come of it. Only be good-natured, only be kind, and
if you haven't bad luck at the end of it, it's only because fortune
has a heavier stroke in reserve for you hereafter."

I could not help smiling at the Frenchman's philosophy, which,
assuming as a good augury, he gayly said, " So, then, you'll not
make us prisoners. Isn't it so ?"

" Prisoners," said the other, " nothing of the kind. Come and sup
with us ; I'll venture to say our larder is as well stocked as your
own ; in any case an omelette, a cold chicken, and a glass of cham-
pagne, are not bad things in our circumstances."

I could not help laughing outright at the strangeness of the pro-

Online LibraryCharles James LeverCharles O'Malley, the Irish dragon → online text (page 56 of 80)