The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter X. The Passage of the Rhine
"I suppose," Nigel Graheme said, as the officers of the regiment assembled in one of the Imperialist tents on the night after the battle of Leipzig, "we shall at once press forward to Vienna;" and such was the general opinion throughout the Swedish army; but such was not the intention of Gustavus. Undoubtedly the temptation to press forward and dictate peace in Vienna was strong, but the difficulties and disadvantages of such a step were many. He had but 20,000 men, for the Saxons could not be reckoned upon; and indeed it was probable that their elector, whose jealousy and dislike of Gustavus would undoubtedly be heightened by the events of the battle of Breitenfeld, would prove himself to be a more than a doubtful ally were the Swedish army to remove to a distance.
Tilly would soon rally his fugitives, and, reinforced by the numerous Imperialist garrisons from the towns, would be able to overrun North Germany in his absence, and to force the Saxons to join him even if the elector were unwilling to do so. Thus the little Swedish force would be isolated in the heart of Germany; and should Ferdinand abandon Vienna at his approach and altogether refuse to treat with him -- which his obstinacy upon a former occasion when in the very hands of his enemy rendered probable -- the Swedes would find themselves in a desperate position, isolated and alone in the midst of enemies.
There was another consideration. An Imperialist diet was at that moment sitting at Frankfort, and Ferdinand was using all his influence to compel the various princes and representatives of the free cities to submit to him. It was of the utmost importance that Gustavus should strengthen his friends and overawe the waverers by the approach of his army. Hitherto Franconia and the Rhine provinces had been entirely in the hands of the Imperialists, and it was needful that a counterbalancing influence should be exerted. These considerations induced Gustavus to abandon the tempting idea of a march upon Vienna. The Elector of Saxony was charged with carrying the war into Silesia and Bohemia, the Electors of Hesse and Hesse-Cassel were to maintain Lower Saxony and Westphalia, and the Swedish army turned its face towards the Rhine.
On the 20th of September it arrived before Erfurt, an important fortified town on the Gera, which surrendered at discretion. Gustavus granted the inhabitants, who were for the most part Catholics, the free exercise of their religion, and nominated the Duke of Saxe-Weimar to be governor of the district and of the province of Thuringen, and the Count of Lowenstein to be commander of the garrison, which consisted of Colonel Foulis's Scottish regiment, 1500 strong.
Travelling by different routes in two columns the army marched to Wurtzburg, the capital of Franconia, a rich and populous city, the Imperialist garrison having withdrawn to the strong castle of Marienburg, on a lofty eminence overlooking the town, and only separated from it by the river Maine. The cathedral at Wurtzburg is dedicated to a Scottish saint, St. Kilian, a bishop who with two priests came from Scotland in the year 688 to convert the heathen of Franconia. They baptized many at Wurtzburg, among them Gospert, the duke of that country. This leader was married to Geilana, the widow of his brother; and Kilian urging upon him that such a marriage was contrary to the laws of the Christian church, the duke promised to separate from her. Geilana had not, like her lord, accepted Christianity, and, furious at this interference of Kilian, she seized the opportunity when the latter had gone with his followers on an expedition against the pagan Saxons to have Kilian and his two companions murdered.
The cathedral was naturally an object of interest to the Scotch soldiers in the time of Gustavus, and there was an animated argument in the quarters of the officers of Munro's regiment on the night of their arrival as to whether St. Kilian had done well or otherwise in insisting upon his new convert repudiating his wife. The general opinion, however, was against the saint, the colonel summing up the question.
"In my opinion," he said, "Kilian was a fool. Here was no less a matter at stake than the conversion of a whole nation, or at least of a great tribe of heathens, and Kilian imperilled it all on a question of minor importance; for in the first place, the Church of Rome has always held that the pope could grant permission for marriage within interdicted degrees; in the second place, the marriage had taken place before the conversion of the duke to Christianity, and they were therefore innocently and without thought of harm bona fide man and wife. Lastly, the Church of Rome is opposed to divorce; and Kilian might in any case have put up with this small sin, if sin it were, for the sake of saving the souls of thousands of pagans. My opinion is that St. Kilian richly deserved the fate which befell him. And now to a subject much more interesting to us -- viz, the capture of Marienburg.
"I tell you, my friends, it is going to be a warm business; the castle is considered impregnable, and is strong by nature as well as art, and Captain Keller is said to be a stout and brave soldier. He has 1000 men in the garrison, and all the monks who were in the town have gone up and turned soldiers. But if the task is a hard one the reward will be rich; for as the Imperialists believe the place cannot be taken, the treasures of all the country round are stored up there. And I can tell you more, in the cellars are sixty gigantic tuns of stone, the smallest of which holds twenty-five wagon loads of wine, and they say some of it is a hundred years old. With glory and treasure and good wine to be won we will outdo ourselves tomorrow; and you may be sure that the brunt of the affair will fall upon the Scots."
"Well, there is one satisfaction," said Nigel Graheme -- who after Leipzig had been promoted to the rank of major -- "if we get the lion's share of the fighting, we shall have the lion's share of the plunder and wine."
"For shame, Graheme! You say nothing of the glory."
"Ah! well," Graheme laughed, "we have already had so large share of that, that I for one could do without winning any more just at present. It's a dear commodity to purchase, and neither fills our belly nor our pockets."
"For shame, Graheme! for shame!" Munro said laughing. "It is a scandal that such sentiments should be whispered in the Scottish brigade; and now to bed, gentlemen, for we shall have, methinks, a busy day tomorrow."
Sir James Ramsay was appointed to command the assault. The river Maine had to be crossed, and he sent off Lieutenant Robert Ramsay of his own regiment to obtain boats from the peasantry. The disguise in which he went was seen through, and he was taken prisoner and carried to the castle. A few boats were, however, obtained by the Swedes.
The river is here 300 yards wide, and the central arch of the bridge had been blown up by the Imperialists, a single plank remaining across the chasm over the river 48 feet below. The bridge was swept by the heaviest cannon in the fortress, and a passage appeared well nigh hopeless. On the afternoon of the 5th of October the party prepared to pass, some in boats, others by the bridge. A tremendous fire was opened by the Imperialists from cannon and musketry, sweeping the bridge with a storm of missiles and lashing the river to foam around the boats. The soldiers in these returned the fire with their muskets, and the smoke served as a cover to conceal them from the enemy.
In the meantime Major Bothwell of Ramsay's regiment led a company across the bridge. These, in spite of the fire, crossed the plank over the broken arch and reached the head of the bridge, from whence they kept up so heavy a fire upon the gunners and musketeers in the lower works by the river that they forced them to quit their posts, and so enabled Sir James Ramsay and Sir John Hamilton to effect a landing.
Major Bothwell, his brother, and the greater part of his followers were, however, slain by the Imperialists' fire from above. The commandant of the castle now sallied out and endeavoured to recapture the works by the water, but the Scotch repelled the attack and drove the enemy up the hill to the castle again. The Scottish troops having thus effected a lodgment across the river, and being protected by the rocks from the enemy's fire, lay down for the night in the position they had won.
Gustavus during the night caused planks to be thrown across the broken bridge and prepared to assault at daybreak. Just as morning was breaking, a Swedish officer with seven men climbed up the hill to reconnoitre the castle, and found to his surprise that the drawbridge was down, but a guard of 200 men were stationed at the gate. He was at once challenged, and, shouting "Sweden!" sprang with his men on to the end of the drawbridge. The Imperialists tried in vain to raise it; before they could succeed some companions of the Swedes ran up, and, driving in the guard, took possession of the outer court.
Almost at the same moment Ramsay's and Hamilton's regiments commenced their assault on a strong outwork of the castle, which, after two hours' desperate fighting, they succeeded in gaining. They then turned its guns upon the gate of the keep, which they battered down, and were about to charge in when they received orders from the king to halt and retire, while the Swedish regiment of Axel-Lilly and the Blue Brigade advanced to the storm.
The Scottish regiments retired in the deepest discontent, deeming themselves affronted by others being ordered to the post of honour after they had by their bravery cleared the way. The Swedish troops forced their way in after hard fighting; and the Castle of Marienburg, so long deemed impregnable, was captured after a few hours' fighting. The quantity of treasure found in it was enormous, and there were sufficient provisions to have lasted its garrison for twenty years.
Immediately the place was taken, Colonel Sir John Hamilton advanced to Gustavus and resigned his commission on the spot; nor did the assurances of the king that he intended no insult to the Scotch soldiers mollify his wrath, and quitting the Swedish service he returned at once to Scotland. Munro's regiment had taken no part in the storming of Marienburg, but was formed up on the north side of the river in readiness to advance should the first attack be repelled, and many were wounded by the shot of the enemy while thus inactive.
Malcolm while binding up the arm of his sergeant who stood next to him felt a sharp pain shoot through his leg, and at once fell to the ground. He was lifted up and carried to the rear, where his wound was examined by the doctor to the regiment.
"Your luck has not deserted you," he said after probing the wound. "The bullet has missed the bone by half an inch, and a short rest will soon put you right again."
Fortunately for a short time the army remained around Wurtzburg. Columns scoured the surrounding country, capturing the various towns and fortresses held by the Imperialists, and collecting large quantities of provisions and stores. Tilly's army lay within a few days' march; but although superior in numbers to that of Gustavus, Tilly had received strict orders not to risk a general engagement as his army was now almost the only one that remained to the Imperialists, and should it suffer another defeat the country would lie at the mercy of the Swedes.
One evening when Malcolm had so far recovered as to be able to walk for a short distance, he was at supper with Colonel Munro and some other officers, when the door opened and Gustavus himself entered. All leapt to their feet.
"Munro," he said, "get the musketeers of your brigade under arms with all haste, form them up in the square before the town hall, and desire Sir John Hepburn to meet me there."
The drum was at once beaten, and the troops came pouring from their lodgings, and in three or four minutes the musketeers, 800 strong, were formed up with Hepburn and Munro at their head. Malcolm had prepared to take his arms on the summons, but Munro said at once:
"No, Malcolm, so sudden a summons augurs desperate duty, maybe a long night march; you would break down before you got half a mile; besides, as only the musketeers have to go, half the officers must remain here."
Without a word the king placed himself at the head of the men, and through the dark and stormy night the troops started on their unknown mission. Hepburn and Munro were, like their men, on foot, for they had not had time to have their horses saddled.
After marching two hours along the right bank of the Maine the tramp of horses was heard behind them, and they were reinforced by eighty troopers whom Gustavus before starting had ordered to mount and follow. Hitherto the king had remained lost in abstraction, but he now roused himself.
"I have just received the most serious news, Hepburn. Tilly has been reinforced by 17,000 men under the Duke of Lorraine, and is marching with all speed against me. Were my whole army collected here he would outnumber us by two to one, but many columns are away, and the position is well nigh desperate.
"I have resolved to hold Ochsenfurt. The place is not strong, but it lies in a sharp bend of the river and may be defended for a time. If any can do so it is surely you and your Scots. Tilly is already close to the town; indeed the man who brought me the news said that when he left it his advanced pickets were just entering, hence the need for this haste.
"You must hold it to the last, Hepburn, and then, if you can, fall back to Wurtzburg; even a day's delay will enable me to call in some of the detachments and to prepare to receive Tilly."
Without halting, the little column marched sixteen miles, and then, crossing the bridge over the Maine, entered Ochsenfurt.
It was occupied by a party of fifty Imperialist arquebusiers, but these were driven headlong from it. The night was extremely dark, all were ignorant of the locality, and the troops were formed up in the marketplace to await either morning or the attack of Tilly. Fifty troopers were sent half a mile in advance to give warning of the approach of the enemy. They had scarcely taken their place when they were attacked by the Imperialists, who had been roused by the firing in the town. The incessant flash of fire and the heavy rattle of musketry told Gustavus that they were in force, and a lieutenant of Lumsden's regiment with fifty musketeers was sent off to reinforce the cavalry. The Imperialists were, however, too strong to be checked, and horse and foot were being driven in when Colonel Munro sallied out with a hundred of his own regiment, and the Imperialists after a brisk skirmish, not knowing what force they had to deal with, fell back.
As soon as day broke the king and Hepburn made a tour of the walls, which were found to be in a very bad condition and ill calculated to resist an assault. The Imperialists were not to be seen, and the king, fearing they might have marched by some other route against Wurtzburg, determined to return at once, telling Hepburn to mine the bridge, and to blow it up if forced to abandon the town.
Hepburn at once set to work to strengthen the position, to demolish all the houses and walls outside the defences, cut down and destroy all trees and hedges which might shelter an enemy, and to strengthen the walls with banks of earth and platforms of wood. For three days the troops laboured incessantly; on the third night the enemy were heard approaching. The advanced troopers and a half company of infantry were driven in, contesting every foot of the way. When they reached the walls heavy volleys were poured in by the musketeers who lined them upon the approaching enemy, and Tilly, supposing that Gustavus must have moved forward a considerable portion of his army, called off his troops and marched away to Nuremberg. Two days later Hepburn was ordered to return with his force to Wurtzburg.
The king now broke up his camp near Wurtzburg, and leaving a garrison in the castle of Marienburg and appointing Marshal Horn to hold Franconia with 8000 men, he marched against Frankfort-on-the-Maine, his troops capturing all the towns and castles on the way, levying contributions, and collecting great booty. Frankfort opened its gates without resistance, and for a short time the army had rest in pleasant quarters.
The regiments were reorganized, in some cases two of those which had suffered most being joined into one. Gustavus had lately been strengthened by two more Scottish regiments under Sir Frederick Hamilton and Alexander Master of Forbes, and an English regiment under Captain Austin. He had now thirteen regiments of Scottish infantry, and the other corps of the army were almost entirely officered by Scotchmen. He had five regiments of English and Irish, and had thus eighteen regiments of British infantry.
At Frankfort he was joined by the Marquis of Hamilton, who had done splendid service with the troops under his command. He had driven the Imperialists out of Silesia, and marching south, struck such fear into them that Tilly was obliged to weaken his army to send reinforcements to that quarter. By the order of Gustavus he left Silesia and marched to Magdeburg. He had now but 3500 men with him, 2700 having died from pestilence, famine, and disease. He assisted General Banner in blockading the Imperialist garrison of Magdeburg, and his losses by fever and pestilence thinned his troops down to two small regiments; these were incorporated with the force of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and the Marquis of Hamilton joined the staff of Gustavus as a simple volunteer.
The king now determined to conquer the Palatinate, which was held by a Spanish army. He drove them before him until he reached the Rhine, where they endeavoured to defend the passage by burning every vessel and boat they could find, and for a time the advance of the Swedes was checked. It was now the end of November, the snow lay thick over the whole country, and the troops, without tents or covering, were bivouacked along the side of the river, two miles below Oppenheim. The opposite bank was covered with bushes to the water's edge, and on an eminence a short distance back could be seen the tents of the Spaniards.
"If it were summer we might swim across," Nigel Graheme said to Malcolm; "the river is broad, but a good swimmer could cross it easily enough."
"Yes," Malcolm agreed, "there would be no difficulty in swimming if unencumbered with arms and armour, but there would be no advantage in getting across without these; if we could but get hold of a boat or two, we would soon wake yonder Spaniards up."
The next morning Malcolm wandered along the bank closely examining the bushes as he went, to see if any boats might be concealed among them, for the fishermen and boatmen would naturally try to save their craft when they heard that the Imperialists were destroying them. He walked three miles up the river without success. As he returned he kept his eyes fixed on the bushes on the opposite bank. When within half a mile of the camp he suddenly stopped, for his eye caught something dark among them. He went to the water's edge and stooped, the better to see under the bushes, and saw what he doubted not to be the stern of a boat hauled up and sheltered beneath them. He leapt to his feet with a joyful exclamation. Here was the means of crossing the river; but the boat had to be brought over. Once afloat this would be easy enough, but he was sure that his own strength would be insufficient to launch her, and that he should need the aid of at least one man. On returning to camp he called aside the sergeant of his company, James Grant, who was from his own estate in Nithsdale, and whom he knew to be a good swimmer.
"Sergeant," he said, "I want you to join me in an enterprise tonight. I have found a boat hauled up under the bushes on the opposite shore, and we must bring her across. I cannot make out her size; but from the look of her stern I should say she was a large boat. You had better therefore borrow from the artillerymen one of their wooden levers, and get a stout pole two or three inches across, and cut half a dozen two foot lengths from it to put under her as rollers. Get also a plank of four inches wide from one of the deserted houses in the village behind us, and cut out two paddles; we may find oars on board, but it is as well to be prepared in case the owner should have removed them."
"Shall I take my weapons, sir?"
"We can take our dirks in our belts, sergeant, and lash our swords to the wooden lever, but I do not think we shall have any fighting. The night will be dark, and the Spaniards, believing that we have no boats, will not keep a very strict watch. The worst part of the business is the swim across the river, the water will be bitterly cold; but as you and I have often swum Scotch burns when they were swollen by the melting snow I think that we may well manage to get across this sluggish stream."
"At what time will we be starting, sir?"
"Be here at the edge of the river at six o'clock, sergeant. I can get away at that time without exciting comment, and we will say nothing about it unless we succeed."
Thinking it over, however, it occurred to Malcolm that by this means a day would be lost -- and he knew how anxious the king was to press forward. He therefore abandoned his idea of keeping his discovery secret, and going to his colonel reported that he had found a boat, and could bring it across from the other side by seven o'clock.
The news was so important that Munro at once went to the king. Gustavus ordered three hundred Swedes and a hundred Scots of each of the regiments of Ramsay, Munro, and the Laird of Wormiston, the whole under the command of Count Brahe, to form up after dark on the river bank and prepare to cross, and he himself came down to superintend the passage. By six it was perfectly dark. During the day Malcolm had placed two stones on the edge of the water, one exactly opposite the boat, the other twenty feet behind it in an exact line. When Gustavus arrived at the spot where the troops were drawn up, Malcolm was taken up to him by his colonel.
"Well, my brave young Graheme," the king said, "so you are going to do us another service; but how will you find the boat in this darkness? Even were there no stream you would find it very difficult to strike the exact spot on a dark night like this."
"I have provided against that, sir, by placing two marks on the bank. When we start lanterns will be placed on these. We shall cross higher up so as to strike the bank a little above where I believe the boat to be, then we shall float along under the bushes until the lanterns are in a line one with another, and we shall know then that we are exactly opposite the boat."
"Well thought of!" the king exclaimed. "Munro, this lieutenant of yours is a treasure. And now God speed you, my friend, in your cold swim across the stream!"
Malcolm and the sergeant now walked half a mile up the river, a distance which, judging from the strength of the current and the speed at which they could swim, would, they thought, take them to the opposite bank at about the point where the boat was lying. Shaking hands with Colonel Munro, who had accompanied them, Malcolm entered the icy cold water without delay. Knowing that it was possible that their strength might give out before they reached the opposite side, Malcolm had had two pairs of small casks lashed two feet apart. These they fastened securely, so that as they began to swim the casks floated a short distance behind each shoulder, giving them perfect support. The lever and paddles were towed behind them. The lights in the two camps afforded them a means of directing their way. The water was intensely cold, and before they were halfway across Malcolm congratulated himself upon having thought of the casks. Had it not been for them he would have begun to doubt his ability to reach the further shore, for although he would have thought nothing of the swim at other times his limbs were fast becoming numbed with the extreme cold. The sergeant kept close to him, and a word or two was occasionally exchanged.
"I think it is colder than our mountain streams, Grant?"
"It's no colder, your honour, but the water is smooth and still, and we do not have to wrestle with it as with a brook in spate. It's the stillness which makes it feel so cold. The harder we swim the less we will feel it."
It was with a deep feeling of relief that Malcolm saw something loom just in front of him from the darkness, and knew that he was close to the land. A few more strokes and he touched the bushes. Looking back he saw that the two lights were nearly in a line. Stopping swimming he let the stream drift him down. Two or three minutes more and one of the tiny lights seemed exactly above the other.
"This is the spot, Grant," he said in a low voice; "land here as quietly as you can."