The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter XI. The Capture of Oppenheim
The two swimmers dragged themselves on shore, but for a minute or two could scarce stand, so numbed were their limbs by the cold. Malcolm took from his belt a flask of brandy, took a long draught, and handed it to his companion, who followed his example.
The spirit sent a glow of warmth through their veins, and they began to search among the bushes for the boat, one proceeding each way along the bank. They had not removed their leathern doublets before entering the water, as these, buoyed up as they were, would not affect their swimming, and would be a necessary protection when they landed not only against the cold of the night air but against the bushes.
Malcolm's beacon proved an accurate guide, for he had not proceeded twenty yards before he came against a solid object which he at once felt to be the boat. A low whistle called the sergeant to his side, bringing with him the rollers and paddles from the spot where they had landed. They soon felt that the boat was a large one, and that their strength would have been wholly insufficient to get her into the water without the aid of the lever and rollers. Taking the former they placed its end under the stern post, and placing a roller under its heel to serve as a pivot they threw their weight on the other end of the lever and at once raised the boat some inches in the air.
Grant held the lever down and Malcolm slid a roller as far up under the keel as it would go; the lever was then shifted and the boat again raised, and the process was continued until her weight rested upon three rollers. She was now ready to be launched, and as the bank was steep they had no doubt of their ability to run her down. An examination had already shown that their paddles would be needless, as the oars were inside her. They took their places one on each side of the bow, and applying their strength the boat glided rapidly down.
"Gently, Grant," Malcolm said, "don't let her go in with a splash. There may be some sentries within hearing."
They continued their work cautiously, and the boat noiselessly entered the water. Getting out the oars they gave her a push, and she was soon floating down the stream. The rowlocks were in their places, and rowing with extreme care so as to avoid making the slightest sound they made their way across the river. They were below the camp when they landed, but there were many men on the lookout, for the news of the attempt had spread rapidly.
Leaping ashore amidst a low cheer from a group of soldiers, Malcolm directed them to tow the boat up at once to the place where the troops were formed ready for crossing, while he and the sergeant, who were both chilled to the bone, for their clothes had frozen stiff upon them, hurried to the spot where the regiment was bivouacked. Here by the side of a blazing fire they stripped, and were rubbed with cloths by their comrades till a glow of warmth again began to be felt, the external heat and friction being aided by the administration of two steaming flagons of spiced wine. Dry clothes were taken from their knapsacks and warmed before the fire, and when these were put on they again felt warm and comfortable.
Hurrying off now to the spot where the troops were drawn up, they found that the boat had already made two passages. She rowed four oars, and would, laden down to the water's edge, carry twenty-five men. The oars had been muffled with cloths so as to make no sound in the rowlocks. A party of Munro's Scots had first crossed, then a party of Swedes. Malcolm and the sergeant joined their company unnoticed in the darkness. Each detachment sent over a boat load in turns, and when six loads had crossed it was again the turn of the men of Munro's regiment, and Malcolm entered the boat with the men. The lights still burned as a signal, enabling the boat to land each party almost at the same spot. Malcolm wondered what was going on. A perfect stillness reigned on the other side, and it was certain that the alarm had not yet been given.
On ascending the bank he saw in front of him some dark figures actively engaged, and heard dull sounds. On reaching the spot he found the parties who had preceded him hard at work with shovels throwing up an intrenchment. In the darkness he had not perceived that each of the soldiers carried a spade in addition to his arms. The soil was deep and soft, and the operations were carried on with scarce a sound. As each party landed they fell to work under the direction of their officers. All night the labour continued, and when the dull light of the winter morning began to dispel the darkness a solid rampart of earth breast high rose in a semicircle, with its two extremities resting on the riverbank.
The last boat load had but just arrived across, and the 600 men were now gathered in the work, which was about 150 feet across, the base formed by the river. The earth forming the ramparts had been taken from the outside, and a ditch 3 feet deep and 6 feet wide had been thus formed.
The men, who, in spite of the cold were hot and perspiring from their night's work, now entered the intrenched space, and sat down to take a meal, each man having brought two days' rations in his havresack. It grew rapidly lighter, and suddenly the sound of a trumpet, followed by the rapid beating of drums, showed that the Spaniards had, from their camp on the eminence half a mile away, discovered the work which had sprung up during the night as if by magic on their side of the river.
In a few minutes a great body of cavalry was seen issuing from the Spanish camp, and fourteen squadrons of cuirassiers trotted down towards the intrenchments. Soon the word was given to charge, and, like a torrent, the mass of cavalry swept down upon it.
Two-thirds of those who had crossed were musketeers, the remainder pikemen. The latter formed the front line behind the rampart, their spears forming a close hedge around it, while the musketeers prepared to fire between them. By the order of Count Brahe not a trigger was pulled until the cavalry were within fifty yards, then a flash of flame swept round the rampart, and horses and men in the front line of the cavalry tumbled to the ground. But half the musketeers had fired, and a few seconds later another volley was poured into the horsemen. The latter, however, although many had fallen, did not check their speed, but rode up close to the rampart, and flung themselves upon the hedge of spears.
Nothing could exceed the gallantry with which the Spaniards fought. Some dismounted, and, leaping into the ditch, tried to climb the rampart; others leapt the horses into it, and standing up in their saddles, cut at the spearmen with their swords, and fired their pistols among them. Many, again, tried to leap their horses over ditch and rampart, but the pikemen stood firm, while at short intervals withering volleys tore into the struggling mass.
For half an hour the desperate fight continued, and then, finding that the position could not be carried by horsemen, the Spanish commander drew off his men, leaving no less than 600 lying dead around the rampart of earth. There were no Spanish infantry within some miles of the spot, and the cavalry rode away, some to Maintz, but the greater part to Oppenheim, where there was a strong garrison of 1000 men.
A careful search among the bushes brought three more boats to light, and a force was soon taken across the river sufficient to maintain itself against any attack. Gustavus himself was in one of the first boats that crossed.
"Well done, my brave hearts!" he said as he landed, just as the Spanish horsemen had ridden away. "You have fought stoutly and well, and our way is now open to us. Where are Lieutenant Graheme and the sergeant who swam across with him?"
Malcolm and his companion soon presented themselves.
"I sent for you to your camp," the king said, "but found that you but waited to change your clothes, and had then joined the force crossing. You had no orders to do so."
"We had no orders not to do so, sire, but having begun the affair it was only natural that we should see the end of it."
"You had done your share and more," the king said, "and I thank you both heartily for it, and promote you, Graheme, at once to the rank of captain, and will request Colonel Munro to give you the first company which may fall vacant in his regiment. If a vacancy should not occur shortly I will place you in another regiment until one may happen in your own corps. To you, sergeant, I give a commission as officer. You will take that rank at once, and will be a supernumerary in your regiment till a vacancy occurs. Such promotion has been well and worthily won by you both."
Without delay an advance was ordered against Oppenheim. It lay on the Imperialist side of the Rhine. Behind the town stood a strong and well fortified castle upon a lofty eminence. Its guns swept not only the country around it, but the ground upon the opposite side of the river. There, facing it, stood a strong fort surrounded by double ditches, which were deep and broad and full of water. They were crossed only by a drawbridge on the side facing the river, and the garrison could therefore obtain by boats supplies or reinforcements as needed from the town.
The Green and Blue Brigades at once commenced opening trenches against this fort, and would have assaulted the place without delay had not a number of boats been brought over by a Protestant well wisher of the Swedes from the other side of the river. The assault was therefore delayed in order that the attack might be delivered simultaneously against the positions on both sides of the river. The brigade of guards and the White Brigade crossed in the boats at Gernsheim, five miles from the town, and marched against it during the night.
The Spaniards from their lofty position in the castle of Oppenheim saw the campfires of the Scots around their fort on the other side of the river, and opened a heavy cannonade upon them. The fire was destructive, and many of the Scots were killed, Hepburn and Munro having a narrow escape, a cannonball passing just over their heads as they were sitting together by a fire.
The defenders of the fort determined to take advantage of the fire poured upon their assailants, and two hundred musketeers made a gallant sortie upon them; but Hepburn led on his pikemen who were nearest at hand, and, without firing a shot, drove them back again into the fort. At daybreak the roar of cannon on the opposite side of the river commenced, and showed that the king with the divisions which had crossed had arrived at their posts. The governor of the fort, seeing that if, as was certain, the lower town were captured by the Swedes, he should be cut off from all communication with the castle and completely isolated, surrendered to Sir John Hepburn.
The town had, indeed, at once opened its gates, and two hundred men of Sir James Ramsay's regiment were placed there. Hepburn prepared to cross the river with the Blue and Green Brigades to aid the king in reducing the castle -- a place of vast size and strength -- whose garrison composed of Spaniards and Italians were replying to the fire of Gustavus. A boat was lying at the gate of the fort.
"Captain Graheme," Hepburn said to Malcolm, "take with you two lieutenants and twenty men in the boat and cross the river; then send word by an officer to the king that the fort here has surrendered, and that I am about to cross, and let the men bring over that flotilla of boats which is lying under the town wall."
Malcolm crossed at once. After despatching the message to the king and sending the officer back with the boats he had for the moment nothing to do, and made his way into the town to inquire from the officers of Ramsay's detachment how things were going. He found the men drawn up.
"Ah! Malcolm Graheme," the major in command said, "you have arrived in the very nick of time to take part in a gallant enterprise."
"I am ready," Malcolm said; "what is to be done?"
"We are going to take the castle, that is all," the major said.
"You are joking," Malcolm laughed, looking at the great castle and the little band of two hundred men.
"That am I not," the major answered; "my men have just discovered a private passage from the governor's quarters here up to the very gate of the outer wall. As you see we have collected some ladders, and as we shall take them by surprise, while they are occupied with the king, we shall give a good account of them."
"I will go with you right willingly," Malcolm said; but he could not but feel that the enterprise was a desperate one, and wished that the major had waited until a few hundred more men had crossed. Placing himself behind the Scottish officer, he advanced up the passage which had been discovered. Ascending flight after flight of stone stairs, the column issued from the passage at the very foot of the outer wall before the garrison stationed there were aware of their approach. The ladders were just placed when the Italians caught sight of them and rushed to the defence, but it was too late. The Scotch swarmed up and gained a footing on the wall.
Driving the enemy before them they cleared the outer works, and pressed so hotly upon the retiring Imperialists that they entered with them into the inner works of the castle, crossing the drawbridge over the moat which separated it from its outer works before the garrison had time to raise it.
Now in the very heart of the castle a terrible encounter took place. The garrison, twelve hundred strong, ran down from their places on the wall, and seeing how small was the force that had entered fell upon them with fury. It was a hand to hand fight. Loud rose the war cries of the Italian and Spanish soldiers, and the answering cheers of the Scots mingled with the clash of sword on steel armour and the cries of the wounded, while without the walls the cannon of Gustavus thundered incessantly.
Not since the dreadful struggle in the streets of New Brandenburg had Malcolm been engaged in so desperate a strife. All order and regularity was lost, and man to man they fought with pike, sword, and clubbed musket. There was no giving of orders, for no word could be heard in such a din, and the officers with their swords and half pikes fought desperately in the melee with the rest.
Gradually, however, the strength and endurance of Ramsay's veterans prevailed over numbers. Most of the officers of the Imperialists had been slain, as well as their bravest men, and the rest began to draw off and to scatter through the castle, some to look for hiding places, many to jump over the walls rather than fall into the hands of the terrible Scots.
The astonishment of Gustavus and of Hepburn, who was now marching with his men towards the castle, at hearing the rattle of musketry and the din of battle within the very heart of the fortress was great indeed, and this was heightened when, a few minutes later, the soldiers were seen leaping desperately from the walls, and a great shout arose from the troops as the Imperial banner was seen to descend from its flagstaff on the keep. Gustavus with his staff rode at once to the gate, which was opened for him; and on entering he found Ramsay's little force drawn up to salute him as he entered. It was reduced nearly half in strength, and not a man but was bleeding from several wounds, while cleft helms and dinted armour showed how severe had been the fray.
"My brave Scots," he exclaimed, "why were you too quick for me?"
The courtyard of the castle was piled with slain, who were also scattered in every room throughout it, five hundred having been slain there before the rest threw down their arms and were given quarter. This exploit was one of the most valiant which was performed during the course of the whole war. Four colours were taken, one of which was that of the Spanish regiment, this being the first of that nationality which had ever been captured by Gustavus.
After going over the castle, whose capture would have tasked his resources and the valour of his troops to the utmost had he been compelled to attack it in the usual way, Gustavus sent for the officers of Ramsay's companies and thanked them individually for their capture.
"What! you here, Malcolm Graheme!" Gustavus said as he came in at the rear of Ramsay's officers. "Why, what had you to do with this business?"
"I was only a volunteer, sire," Malcolm said. "I crossed with the parties who fetched the boats; but as my instructions ended there I had nought to do, and finding that Ramsay's men were about to march up to the attack of the castle, I thought it best to join them, being somewhat afraid to stop in the town alone."
"And he did valiant service, sire," the major said. "I marked him in the thick of the fight, and saw more than one Imperialist go down before his sword."
"You know the story of the pitcher and the well, Captain Graheme," the king said, smiling. "Some day you will go once too often, and I shall have to mourn the loss of one of the bravest young officers in my army."
There was no rest for the soldiers of Gustavus, and no sooner had Oppenheim fallen than the army marched against Maintz. This was defended by two thousand Spanish troops under Don Philip de Sylvia, and was a place of immense strength. It was at once invested, and trenches commenced on all sides, the Green Brigade as usual having the post of danger and honour facing the citadel. The investment began in the evening, but so vigorously did the Scotch work all night in spite of the heavy musketry and artillery fire with which the garrison swept the ground that by morning the first parallel was completed, and the soldiers were under shelter behind a thick bank of earth.
All day the Imperialists kept up their fire, the Scots gradually pushing forward their trenches. In the evening Colonel Axel Lily, one of the bravest of the Swedish officers, came into the trenches to pay a visit to Hepburn. He found him just sitting down to dinner with Munro by the side of a fire in the trench. They invited him to join them, and the party were chatting gaily when a heavy cannonball crashed through the earthen rampart behind them, and, passing between Hepburn and Munro, carried off the leg of the Swedish officer.
Upon the following day the governor, seeing that the Swedes had erected several strong batteries, and that the Green Brigade, whose name was a terror to the Imperialists, was preparing to storm, capitulated, and his soldiers were allowed to march out with all their baggage, flying colours, and two pieces of cannon. Eighty pieces of cannon fell into the hands of the Swedes. The citizens paid 220,000 dollars as the ransom of their city from pillage, and the Jews 180,000 for the protection of their quarters and of their gorgeous synagogue, whose wealth and magnificence were celebrated; and on the 14th of December, 1631, on which day Gustavus completed his thirty-seventh year, he entered the city as conqueror.
Here he kept Christmas with great festivity, and his court was attended by princes and nobles from all parts of Germany. Among them were six of the chief princes of the empire and twelve ambassadors from foreign powers. Among the nobles was the Count of Mansfeld, who brought with him his wife and daughter. Three days before Christmas Hepburn's brigade had been moved in from their bivouac in the snow covered trenches, and assigned quarters in the town, and the count, who arrived on the following day, at once repaired to the mansion inhabited by the colonel and officers of Munro's regiment, and inquired for Malcolm Graheme.
"You will find Captain Graheme within," the Scottish soldier on sentry said.
"It is not Captain Graheme I wish to see," the count said, "but Malcolm Graheme, a very young officer."
"I reckon that it is the captain," the soldier said; "he is but a boy; but in all the regiment there is not a braver soldier; not even the colonel himself. Donald," he said, turning to a comrade, "tell Captain Graheme that he is wanted here."
In a short time Malcolm appeared at the door.
"Ah! it is you, my young friend!" the count exclaimed; "and you have won the rank of captain already by your brave deeds! Right glad am I to see you again. I have come with my wife, to attend the court of this noble king of yours. Can you come with me at once? The countess is longing to see you, and will be delighted to hear that you have passed unscathed through all the terrible contests in which you have been engaged. My daughter is here too; she is never tired of talking about her young Scottish soldier; but now that you are a captain she will have to be grave and respectful."
Malcolm at once accompanied the count to his house, and was most kindly received by the countess.
"It is difficult to believe," she said, "that 'tis but four months since we met, so many have been the events which have been crowded into that time. Scarce a day has passed but we have received news of some success gained, of some town or castle captured, and your Green Brigade has always been in the van. We have been constantly in fear for you, and after that terrible battle before Leipzig Thekla scarcely slept a wink until we obtained a copy of the Gazette with the names of the officers killed."
"You are kind indeed to bear me so in remembrance," Malcolm said, "and I am indeed grateful for it. I have often wondered whether any fresh danger threatened you; but I hoped that the advance of the Marquis of Hamilton's force would have given the Imperialists too much to do for them to disturb you."
"Yes, we have had no more trouble," the countess replied. "The villages which the Imperialists destroyed are rising again; and as after the flight of the enemy the cattle and booty they had captured were all left behind, the people are recovering from their visit. What terrible havoc has the war caused! Our way here led through ruined towns and villages, the country is infested by marauders, and all law and order is at an end save where there are strong bodies of troops. We rode with an escort of twenty men; but even then we did not feel very safe until we were fairly through Franconia. And so you have passed unwounded through the strife?"
"Yes, countess," Malcolm replied. "I had indeed a ball through my leg at Wurtzburg; but as it missed the bone, a trifle like that is scarcely worth counting. I have been most fortunate indeed."
"He is a captain now," the count said, "and to obtain such promotion he must have greatly distinguished himself. I do not suppose that he will himself tell us his exploits; but I shall soon learn all about them from others. I am to meet his colonel this evening at a dinner at the palace, and shall be able to give you the whole history tomorrow."
"But I want the history now," Thekla said. "It is much nicer to hear a thing straight from some one who has done it, than from any one else."
"There is no story to tell," Malcolm said. "I had been promised my lieutenancy at the first vacancy before I was at Mansfeld, and on my return found that the vacancy had already occurred, and I was appointed. I got my company the other day for a very simple matter, namely, for swimming across the Rhine with a barrel fixed on each side of me to prevent my sinking. Nothing very heroic about that, you see, young lady."
"For swimming across the Rhine!" the count said. "Then you must have been the Scottish officer who with a sergeant swam and fetched the boat across which enabled the Swedes to pass a body of troops over, and so open the way into the Palatinate. I heard it spoken of as a most gallant action."
"I can assure you," Malcolm said earnestly, "that there was no gallantry about it. It was exceedingly cold, I grant, but that was all."
"Then why should the king have made you a captain for it? You can't get over that."
"That was a reward for my luck," Malcolm laughed. "`Tis better to be lucky than to be rich, it is said, and I had the good luck to discover a boat concealed among the bushes just at the time when a boat was worth its weight in gold."
For an hour Malcolm sat chatting, and then took his leave, as he was going on duty, promising to return the next day, and to spend as much of his time as possible with them while they remained in the city.