Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch.

The Laird's Luck and Other Fireside Tales online

. (page 7 of 19)
Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchThe Laird's Luck and Other Fireside Tales → online text (page 7 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


to the end of their beat, with about three hundred yards between them,
and I was thinking this a fair opportunity for the Captain when José
whispered, "There he goes," very low and quick, and with a souse,
horse and rider struck the water behind us by the gable of the inn. As
the stream splashed up around them we saw the horse slip on the stony
bottom and fall back, almost burying his haunches, but with two short
heaves he had gained the good gravel and was plunging after us. The
infantry spied him first - the two vedettes were in the act of wheeling
about and heard the warning before they saw. Before they could put
their charges to the gallop Captain McNeill was past us and climbing
the bank between them. A bullet or two sang over us from the Huerta
shore. Not knowing of what his horse was capable, I feared he might
yet be headed off; but the troopers in their flurry had lost their
heads and their only chance unless they could drop him by a fluking
shot. They galloped straight for the ford-head, while the Captain
slipped between, and were almost charging each other before they could
pull up and wheel at right angles in pursuit.

"Good," said José simply. A shot had struck one of our panniers,
smashing a dozen eggs (by the smell he must have bought them cheap),
and he halted and gesticulated in wrath like a man in two minds about
returning and demanding compensation. Then he seemed to think better
of it, and we moved forward; but twice again before we reached dry
land he turned and addressed the soldiers in furious Spanish across
the babble of the ford. José had gifts.

For my part I was eager to watch the chase which the rise of the
bank hid from us, though we could hear a few stray shots. But José's
confidence proved well grounded, for when we struck the high road
there was the Captain half a mile away within easy reach of the wood,
and a full two hundred yards ahead of the foremost trooper.

"Good!" said José again. "Now we can eat!" and he pulled out a loaf of
coarse bread from the injured pannier, and trimming off an end where
the evil-smelling eggs had soaked it, divided it in two. On this and a
sprig of garlic we broke our fast, and were munching and jogging along
contentedly when we met the returning vedettes. They were not in the
best of humours, you may be sure, and although we drew aside and
paused with crusts half lifted to our open mouths to stare at them
with true yokel admiration, they cursed us for taking up too much of
the roadway, and one of them even made a cut with his sabre at the
near pannier of eggs.

"It's well he broke none," said I as we watched them down the road. "I
don't deny you and your master any reasonable credit, but for my taste
you leave a little too much to luck."

Our road now began to skirt the wood into which the Captain had
escaped, and we followed it for a mile and more, José all the while
whistling a gipsy air which I guessed to carry a covert message; and
sure enough, after an hour of it, the same air was taken up in the
wood to our right, where we found the Captain dismounted and seated
comfortably at the foot of a cork tree.

He was good enough to pay me some pretty compliments, and, after
comparing notes, we agreed that - my messenger being a good seven hours
on his way with all the information Lord Wellington could need for the
moment - we would keep company for a day or two, and a watch on the
force and disposition of the French advance. We had yet to discover
Marmont's objective. For though in Salamanca the French officers had
openly talked of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, there was still a
chance (though neither of us believed in it) that their general meant
to turn aside and strike southward for the Tagus. Our plan, therefore,
was to make for Tammames where the roads divided, where the hills
afforded good cover, and to wait.

So towards Tammames (which lay some thirty miles off) we turned our
faces, and arriving there on the 27th, encamped for two days among
the hills. Marmont had learnt on the 14th that none of Wellington's
divisions were on the Algueda, and we agreed, having watched his
preparations, that on the 27th he would be ready to start. These two
days, therefore, we spent at ease, and I found the Captain, in spite
of his narrow and hide-bound religion, an agreeable companion. He
had the McNeills' genealogy at his finger ends, and I picked up more
information from him concerning our ancestral home in Ross and our
ancestral habits than I have ever been able to verify. Certainly our
grandfathers, Manus of Aranjuez and Angus (slain at Sheriff-muir), had
been first cousins. But this discovery had no sooner raised me to a
claim on his regard than I found his cordiality chilled by the thought
that I believed in the Pope or (as he preferred to put it) Antichrist.
My eminence as a genuine McNeill made the shadow of my error the
taller. In these two days of inactivity I felt his solicitude growing
until, next to the immediate movements of Marmont, my conversion
became for him the most important question in the Peninsula, and I saw
that, unless I allowed him at least to attempt it, another forty-eight
hours would wear him to fiddle-strings.

Thus it happened that mid-day of the 30th found us on the wooded hill
above the cross-roads; found me stretched at full length on my back
and smoking, and the Captain (who did not smoke) seated beside me with
his pocket Testament, earnestly sapping the fundamental errors of
Rome, when José, who had been absent all the morning reconnoitring,
brought news that Marmont's van (which he had been watching, and ahead
of which he had been dodging since ten o'clock) was barely two miles
away. The Captain pulled out his watch, allowed them thirty-five
minutes, and quietly proceeded with his exposition. As the head of the
leading column swung into sight around the base of the foot-hills, he
sought in his haversack and drew out a small volume - the _Pilgrim's
Progress_ - and having dog's-eared a page of it inscribed my name on
the fly-leaf, "from his kinsman, Alan McNeill."

"It is a question," said he, as I thanked him, "and one often debated,
if it be not better that a whole army, such as we see approaching,
should perish bodily in every circumstance of horror than that one
soul, such as yours or mine, should fail to find the true light. For
my part" - and here he seemed to deprecate a weakness - "I have never
been able to go quite so far; I hope not from any lack of intellectual
courage. Will you take notes while I dictate?"

So on the last leaf of the _Pilgrim's Progress_ I entered the strength
of each battalion, and noted each gun as the great army wound its way
into Tammames below us, and through it for the cross-roads beyond,
but not in one body, for two of the battalions enjoyed an hour's halt
there before setting forward after their comrades, by this time out of
sight. They had taken the northern road.

"Ciudad Rodrigo!" said I. "And there goes Wellington's chance of
Badajos."

The Captain beckoned to José and whispered in his ear, then opened his
Testament again as the sturdy little Spaniard set off down the hill
with his leisurely, lopping gait, so much faster than it seemed. The
sun was setting when he returned with his report.

"I thought so," said the Captain. "Marmont has left three-fourths of
his scaling ladders behind in Tammames. Ciudad Rodrigo he will not
attempt; I doubt if he means business with Almeida. If you please,"
he added, "José and I will push after and discover his real business,
while you carry to Lord Wellington a piece of news it will do him good
to hear."


II

THE BARBER-SURGEON OF SABUGAL


So, leaving my two comrades to follow up and detect the true object of
Marmont's campaign, I headed south for Badajos. The roads were heavy,
the mountain torrents in flood, the only procurable horses and mules
such as by age or debility had escaped the strictest requisitioning.
Nevertheless, on the 4th of April I was able to present myself at
Lord Wellington's headquarters before Badajos, and that same evening
started northwards again with his particular instructions. I
understood (not, of course, by direct word of mouth) that disquieting
messages had poured in ahead of me from the allied commanders
scattered in the north, who reported Ciudad Rodrigo in imminent peril;
that my news brought great relief of mind; but that in any case our
army now stood committed to reduce Badajos before Soult came to its
relief. Our iron guns had worked fast and well, and already three
breaches on the eastern side of the town were nearly practicable.
Badajos once secured, Wellington would press northward again to teach
Marmont manners; but for the moment our weak troops opposing him must
even do the best they could to gain time and protect the magazines and
stores.

At six o'clock then in the evening of the 4th, on a fresh mount, I
turned my back on the doomed fortress, and crossing the Guadiana by
the horse ferry above Elvas, struck into the Alemtejo.

On the 6th I reached Castello Branco and found the position of the
Allies sufficiently serious. Victor Alten's German cavalry were in the
town - 600 of them - having fallen back before Marmont without striking
a blow, and leaving the whole country four good marches from Rodrigo
exposed to the French marauders. They reported that Rodrigo itself had
fallen (which I knew to be false, and, as it turned out, Marmont had
left but one division to blockade the place); they spoke openly of a
further retreat upon Vilha Velha. But I regarded them not. They had
done mischief enough already by scampering southward and allowing
Marmont to push in between them and the weak militias on whom it now
depended to save Almeida with its battering train, Celorico and Pinhel
with their magazines, and even Ciudad Rodrigo itself; and while I
listened I tasted to myself the sarcastic compliments they were likely
to receive from Lord Wellington when he heard their tale.

Clearly there was no good to be done in Castello Branco, and the next
morning I pushed on. I had no intention of rejoining Captain McNeill;
for, as he had observed on parting - quoting some old Greek for his
authority - "three of us are not enough for an army, and for any other
purpose we are too many," and although pleased enough to have a
kinsman's company he had allowed me to see that he preferred to work
alone with José, who understood his methods, whereas mine (in spite
of his compliments) were unfamiliar and puzzling. I knew him to be
watching Marmont, and even speculated on the chances of our meeting,
but my own purpose was to strike the Coa, note the French force there
and its disposition, and so make with all serviceable news for the
north, where Generals Trant and Wilson with their Portuguese militia
were endeavouring to cover the magazines.

Travelling on mule-back now as a Portuguese drover out of work, I
dodged a couple of marauding parties below Penamacor, found Marmont in
force in Sabugal at the bend of the Coa, on the 9th reached Guarda, a
town on the top of a steep mountain, and there found General Trant in
position with about 6,000 raw militiamen. To him I presented myself
with my report - little of which was new to him except my reason for
believing Ciudad Rodrigo safe for the present; and this he heard with
real pleasure, chiefly because it confirmed his own belief and gave it
a good reason which it had hitherto lacked.

And here I must say a word on General Trant. He was a gallant soldier
and a clever one, but inclined (and here lay his weakness) to be on
occasion too clever by half. In fact, he had a leaning towards my own
line of business, and naturally it was just here that I found him out.
I am not denying that during the past fortnight his cleverness had
served him well. He had with a handful of untrained troops to do his
best for a group of small towns and magazines, each valuable and each
in itself impossible of defence. His one advantage was that he knew
his weakness and the enemy did not, and he had used this knowledge
with almost ludicrous success.

For an instance; immediately on discovering the true line of Marmont's
advance he had hurried to take up a position on the lower Coa, but had
been met on his march by an urgent message from Governor Le Mesurier
that Almeida was in danger and could not resist a resolute assault.
Without hesitation Trant turned and pushed hastily with one brigade to
the Cabeça Negro mountain behind the bridge of Almeida, and reached it
just as the French drew near, driving 200 Spaniards before them across
the plain. Trant, seeing that the enemy had no cavalry at hand, with
the utmost effrontery and quite as if he had an army behind him, threw
out a cloud of skirmishers beyond the bridge, dressed up a dozen
guides in scarlet coats to resemble British troopers, galloped with
these to the glacis of Almeida, spoke the governor, drew off a score
of invalid troopers from the hospital in the town, and at dusk made
his way back up the mountain, which in three hours he had covered with
sham bivouac fires.

These were scarcely lit when the governor, taking his cue, made a
determined sortie and drove back the French light troops, who in the
darkness had no sort of notion of the numbers attacking them. So
completely hoaxed, indeed, was their commander that he, who had come
with two divisions to take Almeida, and held it in the hollow of his
hand, decamped early next morning and marched away to report, the
fortress so strongly protected as to be unassailable.

Well this, as I say, showed talent. Artistically conceived as a _ruse
de guerre_, in effect it saved Almeida. But a success of the kind too
often tempts a man to try again and overshoot his mark. Now Marmont,
with all his defects of vanity, was no fool. He had a strong army
moderately well concentrated; he had, indeed, used it to little
purpose, but he was not likely, with his knowledge of the total force
available by the Allies in the north, to be seriously daunted or for
long by a game of mere impudence. In my opinion Trant, after brazening
him away from Almeida, should have thanked Heaven and walked humbly
for a while. To me even his occupation of Guarda smelt of dangerous
bravado, for Guarda is an eminently treacherous position, strong in
itself, and admirable for a force sufficient to hold the ridges behind
it, but capable of being turned on either hand, affording bad retreat,
and, therefore, to a small force as perilous as it is attractive. But
I was to find that Trant's enterprise reached farther yet.

To my description of Marmont's forces he listened (it seemed to me)
impatiently, asking few questions and checking off each statement with
"Yes, yes," or "Quite so." All the while his fingers were drumming on
the camp table, and I had no sooner come to an end than he began to
question me about the French marshal's headquarters in Sabugal. The
town itself and its position he knew as well as I did, perhaps better.
I had not entered it on my way, but kept to the left bank of the Coa.
I knew Marmont to be quartered there, but in what house or what part
of the town I was ignorant. "And what the deuce can it matter?" I
wondered.

"But could you not return and discover?" the general asked at length.

"Oh, as for that," I answered, "it's just as you choose to order."

"It's risky of course," said he.

"It's risky to be sure," I agreed; "but if the risk comes in the day's
work I take it I shall have been in tighter corners."

"Excuse me," he said with a sort of deprecatory smile, "but I was not
thinking of you; at least not altogether." And I saw by his face that
he held something in reserve and was in two minds about confiding it.

"I beg that you won't think of me," I said simply, for I have always
made it a rule to let a general speak for himself and ask no questions
which his words may not fairly cover. Outside of my own business (the
limits of which are well defined) I seek no responsibility, least of
all should I seek it in serving one whom I suspect of over-cleverness.

"Look here," he said at length, "the Duke of Ragusa is a fine figure
of a man."

"Notoriously," said I. "All Europe knows it, and he certainly knows it
himself."

"I have heard that his troops take him at his own valuation."

"Well," I answered, "he sits his horse gallantly; he has courage. At
present he is only beginning to make his mistakes; and soldiers, like
women, have a great idea of what a warrior ought to look like."

"In fact," said General Trant, "the loss of him would make an almighty
difference."

Now he had asked me to be seated and had poured me out a glass of wine
from his decanter. But at these words I leapt up suddenly, jolting the
table so that the glass danced and spilled half its contents.

"What the dickens is wrong?" asked the general, snatching a map out of
the way of the liquor. "Good Lord, man! You don't suppose I was asking
you to assassinate Marmont!"

"I beg your pardon," said I, recovering myself. "Of course not; but it
sounded - "

"Oh, did it?" He mopped the map with his pocket handkerchief and
looked at me as who should say "Guess again."

I cast about wildly. "This man cannot be wanting to kidnap him!"
thought I to myself.

"You tell me his divisions are scattered after supplies. I hear that
the bulk of his troops are in camp above Penamacor; that at the
outside he has in Sabugal under his hand but 5,000. Now Silveira
should be here in a couple of days; that will make us roughly 12,000."

"Ah!" said I, "a surprise?" He nodded. "Night?" He nodded again. "And
your cavalry?" I pursued.

"I could, perhaps, force General Bacellar to spare his squadron of
dragoons from Celorico. Come, what do you think of it?"

"I do as you order," said I, "and that I suppose is to return to
Sabugal and report the lie of the land. But since, general, you ask my
opinion, and speaking without local knowledge, I should say - "

"Yes?"

"Excuse me, but I will send you my opinion in four days' time." And I
rose to depart.

"Very good, but keep your seat. Drink another glass of wine."

"Sabugal is twenty miles off, and when I arrive I have yet to discover
how to get into it," I protested.

"That is just what am going to tell you."

"Ah," said I, "so you have already been making arrangements?"

He nodded while he poured out the wine. "You come opportunely, for I
was about to rely on a far less _rusé_ hand. The plan, which is my
own, I submit to your judgment, but I think you will allow some merit
in it."

Well, I was not well-disposed to approve of any plan of his. In truth
he had managed to offend me seriously. Had an English gentleman
committed my recent error of supposing him to hint at assassination,
General Trant (who can doubt it?) would have flamed out in wrath; but
me he had set right with a curt carelessness which said as plain as
words that the dishonouring suspicion no doubt came natural enough to
a Spaniard. He had entertained me with a familiarity which I had not
asked for, and which became insulting the moment he allowed me to
see that it came from cold condescension. I have known a dozen
combinations spoilt by English commanders who in this way have
combined extreme offensiveness with conscious affability; and I
have watched their allies - Spaniards and Portuguese of the first
nobility - raging inwardly, while ludicrously impotent to discover a
peg on which to hang their resentment.

I listened coldly, therefore, leaving the general's wine untasted and
ignoring his complimentary deference to my judgment. Yet the neatness
and originality of his scheme surprised me. He certainly had talent.

He had found (it seemed) an old vine-dresser at Bellomonte, whose
brother kept a small shop in Sabugal, where he shaved chins, sold
drugs, drew teeth, and on occasion practised a little bone-setting.
This barber-surgeon or apothecary had shut up his shop on the approach
of the French and escaped out of the town to his brother's roof. As a
matter of fact he would have been safer in Sabugal, for the excesses
of the French army were all committed by the marauding parties
scattered up and down the country-side and out of the reach of
discipline, whereas Marmont (to his credit) sternly discouraged
looting, paid the inhabitants fairly for what he took, and altogether
treated them with uncommon humanity.

It was likely enough, therefore, that the barber-surgeon's shop stood
as he had left it. And General Trant proposed no less than that
I should boldly enter the town, take down the shutters, and open
business, either personating the old man or (if I could persuade him
to return) going with him as his assistant. In either case the danger
of detection was more apparent than real, for so violently did the
Portuguese hate their invaders that scarcely an instance of treachery
occurred during the whole of this campaign. The chance of the
neighbours betraying me was small enough, at any rate, to justify the
risk, and I told the General promptly that I would take it.

Accordingly I left Guarda that night, and reaching Bellomonte a little
after daybreak, found the vine-dresser and presented Trant's letter.

He was on the point of starting for Sabugal, whither he had perforce
to carry a dozen skins of wine, and with some little trouble I
persuaded the old barber-surgeon to accompany us, bearing a petition
to Marmont to be allowed peaceable possession of his shop. We arrived
and were allowed to enter the town, where I assisted the vine-dresser
in handling the heavy wine skins, while his brother posted off to
headquarters and returned after an hour with the marshal's protection.
Armed with this, he led me off to the shop, found it undamaged, helped
me to take down the shutters, showed me his cupboards, tools, and
stock in trade, and answered my rudimentary questions in the art of
compounding drugs - in a twitter all the while to be gone. Nor did I
seek to delay him (for if my plans miscarried, Sabugal would assuredly
be no place for him). Late in the afternoon he left me and went off
in search of his brother, and I fell to stropping my razors with what
cheerfulness I could assume.

Before nightfall my neighbours on either hand had looked in and given
me good evening. They asked few questions when I told them I was
taking over old Diego's business for the time, and kept their
speculations to themselves. I lay down to sleep that night with a
lighter heart.

The adventure itself tickled my humour, though I had no opinion at
all of the design - Trant's design - which lay at the end of it. This,
however, did not damp my zeal in using eyes and ears; and on the third
afternoon, when the old vine-dresser rode over with more wine skins,
and dropped in to inquire about business and take home a pint of
rhubarb for the stomach-ache, I had the satisfaction of making up for
him, under the eyes of two soldiers waiting to be shaved, a packet
containing a compendious account of Marmont's dispositions with a
description of his headquarters. My report concluded with these
words: -

"_With regard to the enterprise on which I have had the honour to be
consulted I offer my opinion with humility. It is, however, a fixed
one. You will lose two divisions; and even a third, should you bring
it._"

On the whole I had weathered through these three days with eminent
success. The shaving I managed with something like credit (for a
Portuguese). My pharmaceutics had been (it was vain to deny) in the
highest degree empirical, but if my patients had not been cured they
even more certainly had not died - or at least their bodies had not
been found. What gravelled me was the phlebotomy. Somehow the chance
of being called upon to let blood had not occurred to me, and on the
second morning when a varicose sergeant of the line dropped into
my operating chair and demanded to have a vein opened, I bitterly
regretted that I had asked my employer neither where to insert the
lancet nor how to stop the bleeding. I eyed the brawn in the chair, so
full of animal life and rude health - no, strike at random I could not!
I took his arm and asked insinuatingly, "Now, where do you usually
have it done?" "Sometimes here, sometimes there," he answered. Joy! I
remembered a bottle of leeches on the shelf. I felt the man's pulse
and lifted his eyelids with trembling fingers. "In your state," said
I, "it would be a crime to bleed you. What you want is leeches." "You
think so?" he asked - "how many?" "Oh, half-a-dozen - to begin with."
In my sweating hurry I forgot (if I had ever known) that the bottle
contained but three. "No," said I, "we'll start with a couple and work


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchThe Laird's Luck and Other Fireside Tales → online text (page 7 of 19)