The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIII. Captured by the Peasants
Malcolm Graheme was not present at the siege of Ingolstadt. The orders after crossing the Lech had been very strict against straggling, so soon as the disposition of the country people was seen; but it is not easy to keep a large column of troops in a solid body. The regiments in the march indeed, under the eye of the officers, can be kept in column, but a considerable number of troops are scattered along the great convoy of wagons containing the tents, stores, and ammunition of the army, and which often extends some miles in length. Even if the desire for plunder does not draw men away, many are forced to fall behind either from sickness, sore feet, or other causes.
The number of these was comparatively small in the army of Gustavus, for discipline was strict and the spirit of the troops good. As soon, however, as it was found that every straggler who fell into the hands of the peasantry was murdered under circumstances of horrible atrocity it became very difficult for the officers to keep the men together, so intense was their fury and desire for vengeance against the savage peasantry, and on every possible occasion when a village was seen near the line of march men would slip away and slay, plunder, and burn.
Gustavus endeavoured to repress these proceedings. He shared the indignation of his troops at the barbarous conduct of the peasantry, but throughout the war he always tried to carry on hostilities so as to inflict as little loss and suffering as possible upon noncombatants. This state of warfare too between his troops and the country people added to his difficulties, for the peasantry drove off their cattle and burned their stacks, and rendered it necessary for provisions and forage to be carried with the army. Parties were therefore sent out on the flanks of the column for the double purpose of preventing soldiers stealing off to plunder and burn, and of picking up stragglers and saving them from the fury of the peasants.
A strong rear guard followed a short distance behind the army. It was accompanied by some empty wagons, in which those who fell out and were unable to keep up with the march were placed. Two days after the advance from the Lech, Malcolm was in charge of a small party on the right flank of the column. There was no fear of an attack from the enemy, for the Swedish horsemen were out scouring the country, and the Imperialists were known to have fallen back to Ingolstadt. The villages were found deserted by the male inhabitants, the younger women too had all left, but a few old crones generally remained in charge. These scowled at the invaders, and crossing themselves muttered curses beneath their breath upon those whom their priests had taught them to regard as devils. There was nothing to tempt the cupidity of the soldiers in these villages. Malcolm's duty was confined to a casual inspection, to see that no stragglers had entered for the purpose of procuring wine.
The day's march was nearly over when he saw some flames rise from a village a short distance away. Hurrying forward with his men he found a party of ten of the Swedish soldiers who had stolen away from the baggage guard engaged in plundering. Two peasants lay dead in the street, and a house was in flames.
Malcolm at once ordered his detachment, who were twenty strong, to arrest the Swedes and to march them back to the columns. While they were doing this he went from house to house to see that none of the party were lurking there. At the door of the last house of the village three women were standing.
"Are any of the soldiers here?" he asked.
The women gave him an unintelligible answer in the country patois, and passing between them he entered the cottage. On the table stood a large jug of water, and lifting it he took a long draught. There was a sudden crash, and he fell heavily, struck down from behind with a heavy mallet by one of the women. He was stunned by the blow, and when he recovered his senses he found that he was bound hand and foot, a cloth had been stuffed tightly into his mouth, and he was covered thickly with a heap of straw and rubbish. He struggled desperately to free himself, but so tightly were the cords bound that they did not give in the slightest.
A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead as he reflected that he was helpless in the power of these savage peasants, and that he should probably be put to death by torture. Presently he could hear the shouts of his men, who, on finding that he did not return, had scattered through the village in search of him. He heard the voice of his sergeant.
"These old hags say they saw an officer walk across to the left. The captain may have meant us to march the prisoners at once to the column, and be waiting just outside the village for us, but it is not likely. At any rate, lads, we will search every house from top to bottom before we leave. So set to work at once; search every room, cupboard, and shed. There may be foul play; though we see no men about, some may be in hiding."
Malcolm heard the sound of footsteps, and the crashing of planks as the men searched the cottages, wrenched off the doors of cupboards, and ransacked the whole place. Gradually the sound ceased, and everything became quiet. Presently he heard the sound of drums, and knew that the regiment which formed the rear guard was passing.
It was bitterness indeed to know that his friends were within sound of a call for aid, and that he was bound and helpless. The halting place for the night was, he knew, but a mile or two in advance, and his only hope was that some band of plunderers might in the night visit the village; but even then his chances of being discovered were small indeed, for even should they sack and burn it he would pass unnoticed lying hidden in the straw yard. His captors were no doubt aware of the possibility of such a visit, for it was not until broad daylight, when the army would again be on its forward march, that they uncovered him.
Brave as Malcolm was he could scarce repress a shudder as he looked at the band of women who surrounded him. All were past middle age, some were old and toothless, but all were animated by a spirit of ferocious triumph. Raising him into a sitting position, they clustered round him, some shook their skinny hands in his face, others heaped curses upon him, some of the most furious assailed him with heavy sticks, and had he not still been clothed in his armour, would then and there have killed him.
This, however, was not their intention, for they intended to put him to death by slow torture. He was lifted and carried into the cottage. There the lacings of his armour were cut, the cords loosened one by one, sufficient to enable them to remove the various pieces of which it was composed, then he was left to himself, as the hags intended to postpone the final tragedy until the men returned from the hills.
This might be some hours yet, as the Swedish cavalry would still be scouring the country, and other bodies of troops might be marching up. From the conversation of the women, which he understood but imperfectly, Malcolm gathered that they thought the men would return that night. Some of the women were in favour of executing the vengeance themselves, but the majority were of opinion that the men should have their share of the pleasure.
All sorts of fiendish propositions were made as to the manner in which his execution should be carried out, but even the mildest caused Malcolm to shudder in anticipation. His arms were bound tightly to his side at the elbows, and the wrists were fastened in front of him, his legs were tied at the knees and ankles. Sometimes he was left alone as the women went about their various avocations in the village, but he was so securely bound that to him as to them his escape appeared altogether impossible. The day passed heavily and slowly. The cloth had been removed from his mouth, but he was parched with thirst, while the tightly bound cords cut deeply into his flesh.
He had once asked for water, but his request had been answered with such jeers and mockery that he resolved to suffer silently until the last. At length the darkness of the winter evening began to fall when a thought suddenly struck him. On the hearth a fire was burning; he waited until the women had again left the hut. He could hear their voices without as they talked with those in the next cottage. They might at any moment return, and it was improbable that they would again go out, for the cold was bitter, and they would most likely wait indoors for the return of the men.
This then was his last opportunity. He rolled himself to the fire, and with his teeth seized the end of one of the burning sticks. He raised himself into a sitting position, and with the greatest difficulty laid the burning end of the stick across the cords which bound his wrists. It seemed to him that they would never catch fire. The flesh scorched and frizzled, and the smoke rose up with that of the burning rope. The agony was intense, but it was for life, and Malcolm unflinchingly held the burning brand in its place until the cords flew asunder and his hands were free. Although almost mad with the pain, Malcolm set to work instantly to undo the other ropes. As soon as one of his arms was free he seized a hatchet, which lay near him, and rapidly cut the rest. He was not a moment too soon, for as he cut the last knot he heard the sound of steps, and two women appeared at the door.
On seeing their prisoner standing erect with an axe in his hand they turned and fled shrieking loudly. It was well for Malcolm that they did so, for so stiff and numbed were his limbs that he could scarcely hold the axe, and the slightest push would have thrown him to the ground.
Some minutes passed before, by stamping his feet and rubbing his legs he restored circulation sufficiently to totter across the room. Then he seized a brand and thrust it into the thatch of the house, having first put on his helmet and placed his sword and pistols in his belt. His hands were too crippled and powerless to enable him to fasten on the rest of his armour. He knew that he had no time to lose. Fortunately the women would not know how weak and helpless he was, for had they returned in a body they could easily have overpowered him; but at any moment the men might arrive, and if he was found there by them his fate was sealed.
Accordingly as soon as he had fired the hut he made his way from the village as quickly as he could crawl along. He saw behind him the flames rising higher and higher. The wind was blowing keenly, and the fire spread rapidly from house to house, and by the time he reached the road along which the army had travelled the whole village was in flames. He felt that he could not travel far, for the intense sufferings which he had endured for twenty-four hours without food or water had exhausted his strength.
His limbs were swollen and bruised from the tightness of the cords, the agony of his burned wrists was terrible, and after proceeding slowly for about a mile he drew off from the broad trampled track which the army had made in passing, and dragging himself to a clump of trees a short distance from the road, made his way through some thick undergrowth and flung himself down. The night was intensely cold, but this was a relief to him rather than otherwise, for it alleviated the burning pain of his limbs while he kept handfuls of snow applied to his wrists.
Two hours after he had taken refuge he heard a number of men come along the road at a run. Looking through the bushes he could see by their figures against the snow that they were peasants, and had no doubt that they were the men of the village who had returned and at once started in pursuit of him.
An hour later, feeling somewhat relieved, he left his hiding place and moved a mile away from the road, as he feared that the peasants, failing to overtake him, might, as they returned, search every possible hiding place near it. He had no fear of the track being noticed, for the surface of the snow was everywhere marked by parties going and returning to the main body. He kept on until he saw a small shed. The door was unfastened; opening it he found that the place was empty, though there were signs that it was usually used as a shelter for cattle.
A rough ladder led to a loft. This was nearly full of hay. Malcolm threw himself down on this, and covering himself up thickly, felt the blood again begin to circulate in his limbs. It brought, however, such a renewal of his pain, that it was not until morning that fatigue overpowered his sufferings and he fell asleep.
It was late in the afternoon when he woke at the sound of shouts and holloaing. Springing to his feet he looked out between the cracks in the boards and saw a party of forty or fifty peasants passing close by the shed. They were armed with hatchets, scythes, and pikes. On the heads of four of the pikes were stuck gory heads, and in the centre of the party were three prisoners, two Swedes and a Scot. These were covered with blood, and were scarcely able to walk, but were being urged forward with blows and pike thrusts amid the brutal laughter of their captors.
Malcolm retired to his bed full of rage and sorrow. It would have been madness to have followed his first impulse to sally out sword in hand and fall upon the ruffians, as such a step would only have ensured his own death without assisting the captives.
"Hitherto," he said to himself, "I have ever restrained my men, and have endeavoured to protect the peasants from violence; henceforward, so long as we remain in Bavaria, no word of mine shall be uttered to save one of these murderous peasants. However, I am not with my company yet. The army is two marches ahead, and must by this time be in front of Ingolstadt. I have been two days without food, and see but little chance of getting any until I rejoin them, and the whole country between us is swarming with an infuriated peasantry. The prospect is certainly not a bright one. I would give a year's pay to hear the sound of a Swedish trumpet."
When darkness had fairly set in Malcolm started on his way again. Although his limbs still smarted from the weals and sores left by the cords they had now recovered their lissomeness; but he was weak from want of food, and no longer walked with the free elastic stride which distinguished the Scottish infantry. His wrists gave him great pain, being both terribly burned, and every movement of the hand sent a thrill of agony up the arm. He persisted, however, in frequently opening and clenching his hands, regardless of the pain, for he feared that did he not do so they would stiffen and he would be unable to grasp a sword. Fortunately the wounds were principally on the upper side of the thumbs, where the flesh was burned away to the bone, but the sinews and muscles of the wrists had to a great extent escaped.
He had not journeyed very far when he saw a light ahead and presently perceived the houses of a village. A fire was lit in the centre, and a number of figures were gathered round it.
"Something is going on," Malcolm said to himself; "as likely as not they have got some unfortunate prisoner. Whatever it be, I will steal in and try to get some food. I cannot go much further without it; and as their attention is occupied, I may find a cottage empty."
Making his way round to the back of the houses, he approached one of the cottages in the rear. He lifted the latch of the door and opened it a little. All was still. With his drawn sword he entered. The room was empty; a fire burned on the hearth, and on the table were some loaves which had evidently been just baked. Malcolm fell upon one of them and speedily devoured it, and, taking a long draught of rough country wine from a skin hanging against the wall, he felt another man.
He broke another loaf in two and thrust the pieces into his doublet, and then sallied out from the cottage again. Still keeping behind the houses he made his way until he got within view of the fire. Here he saw a sight which thrilled him with horror. Some eight or ten peasants and forty or fifty women were yelling and shouting. Fastened against a post in front of the fire were the remains of a prisoner. He had been stripped, his ears, nose, hands, and feet cut off, and he was slowly bleeding to death.
Four other men, bound hand and foot, lay close to the fire. By its flames Malcolm saw the green scarves that told they were Scotchmen of his own brigade, and he determined at once to rescue them or die in the attempt. He crept forward until he reached the edge of the road; then he raised a pistol and with a steady aim fired at one of the natives, who fell dead across the fire.
Another shot laid another beside him before the peasants recovered from their first surprise. Then with a loud shout in German, "Kill -- kill! and spare none!" Malcolm dashed forward. The peasants, believing that they were attacked by a strong body, fled precipitately in all directions. Malcolm, on reaching the prisoners, instantly severed their bonds.
"Quick, my lads!" he exclaimed; "we shall have them upon us again in a minute."
The men in vain tried to struggle to their feet -- their limbs were too numbed to bear them.
"Crawl to the nearest cottage!" Malcolm exclaimed; "we can hold it until your limbs are recovered."
He caught up from the ground some pikes and scythes which the peasants had dropped in their flight, and aided the men to make their way to the nearest cottage. They were but just in time; for the peasants, finding they were not pursued, had looked round, and seeing but one opponent had gained courage and were beginning to approach again. Malcolm barred the door, and then taking down a skin of wine bade his companions take a drink. There were loaves on the shelves, and these he cut up and handed to them.
"Quick, lads!" he said; "stamp your legs and swing your arms, and get the blood in motion. I will keep these fellows at bay a few minutes longer."
He reloaded his pistols and fired through the door, at which the peasants were now hewing with axes. A cry and a heavy fall told him that one of the shots had taken effect. Suddenly there was a smell of smoke.
"They have fired the roof," Malcolm said. "Now, lads, each of you put a loaf of bread under his jerkin. There is no saying when we may get more. Now get ready and sally out with me. There are but six or eight men in the village, and they are no match for us. They only dared to attack us because they saw that you couldn't walk."
The door was opened, and headed by Malcolm the four Scotchmen dashed out. They were assailed by a shower of missiles by the crowd as they appeared, but as soon as it was seen that the men were on foot again the peasants gave way. Malcolm shot one and cut down another, and the rest scattered in all directions.
"Now, lads, follow me while we may," and Malcolm again took to the fields. The peasants followed for some distance, but when the soldiers had quite recovered the use of their limbs Malcolm suddenly turned on his pursuers, overtaking and killing two of them. Then he and his men again continued their journey, the peasants no longer following. When at some distance from the village he said:
"We must turn and make for the Lech again. It is no farther than it is to Ingolstadt, and we shall find friends there. These peasants will go on ahead and raise all the villagers against us, and we should never get through. What regiment do you belong to, lads?" for in the darkness he had been unable to see their faces.
"Your own, Captain Graheme. We were in charge of one of the wagons with sick. The wheel came off, and we were left behind the convoy while we were mending it. As we were at work, our weapons laid on the ground, some twenty men sprang out from some bushes hard by and fell upon us. We killed five or six of them, but were beaten down and ten of our number were slain. They murdered all the sick in the wagons and marched us away, bound, to this village where you found us. Sandy McAlister they had murdered just as you came up, and we should have had a like horrible fate had you been a few minutes later. Eh, sir! but it's an awful death to be cut in pieces by these devils incarnate!"
"Well, lads," Malcolm said, "we will determine that they shall not take us alive again. If we are overtaken or met by any of these gangs of peasants we will fight till we die. None of us, I hope, are afraid of death in fair strife, but the bravest might well shrink from such a death as that of your poor comrade. Now let us see what arms we have between us."
Malcolm had his sword and pistols, two of the men had pikes, the other two scythes fastened to long handles.
"These are clumsy weapons," Malcolm said. "You had best fit short handles to them, so as to make them into double handed swords."
They were unable to travel far, for all were exhausted with the sufferings they had gone through, but they kept on until they came upon a village which had been fired when the troops marched through. The walls of a little church were alone standing. It had, like the rest of the village, been burned, but the shell still remained.
"So far as I can see," Malcolm said, "the tower has escaped. Had it been burned we should see through the windows. We may find shelter in the belfry."
On reaching the church they found that the entrance to the belfry tower was outside the church, and to this, no doubt, it owed its escape from the fire which had destroyed the main edifice. The door was strong and defied their efforts to break it in.
"I must fire my pistol through the lock," Malcolm said. "I do not like doing so, for the sound may reach the ears of any peasants in the neighbourhood; but we must risk it, for the cold is extreme, and to lie down in the snow would be well nigh certain death."
He placed his pistol to the keyhole and fired. The lock at once yielded and the party entered the door.
"Before we mount," Malcolm said, "let each pick up one of these blocks of stone which have fallen from the wall. We will wedge the door from behind, and can then sleep secure against a surprise."
When the door was closed one of the men, who was a musketeer, struck some sparks from a flint and steel on to a slow match which he carried in his jerkin, and by its glow they were enabled to look around them. The stone steps began to ascend close to the door, and by laying the stones between the bottom step and the door they wedged the latter firmly in its place. They then ascended the stairs, and found themselves in a room some ten feet square, in which hung the bell which had called the village to prayers. It hung from some beams which were covered with a boarded floor, and a rough ladder led to a trapdoor, showing that there was another room above. The floor of the room in which they stood was of stone.
"Now, lads," Malcolm said, "two of you make your way up that ladder and rip up some of the planks of the flooring. See if there are any windows or loopholes in the chamber above, and if so stuff your jerkins into them; we will close up those here. In a few minutes we will have a roaring fire; but we must beware lest a gleam of light be visible without, for this belfry can be seen for miles round.
Some of the boards were soon split up into fragments; but before the light was applied to them Malcolm carefully examined each window and loophole to be sure that they were perfectly stopped. Then the slow match was placed in the centre of a number of pieces of dry and rotten wood. One of the men kneeling down blew lustily, and in a few seconds a flame sprang up. The wood was now heaped on, and a bright fire was soon blazing high.
A trapdoor leading out on to the flat top of the tower was opened for the escape of the smoke, and the party then seated themselves round the fire, under whose genial warmth their spirits speedily rose. They now took from their wallets the bread which they had brought away with them.
"If we had," one of the soldiers said, "but a few flasks of Rhine wine with us we need not envy a king."
"No," Malcolm replied, "we are better off at present than our comrades who are sleeping in the snow round the watchfires; but for all that I would that we were with them, for we have a long and dangerous march before us. And now, lads, you can sleep soundly. There will be no occasion to place a watch, for the door is securely fastened; but at the first dawn of light we must be on our feet; for although I do not mean to march until nightfall, we must remove the stoppings from the windows, for should the eye of any passing peasant fall upon them, he will guess at once that some one is sheltering here, and may proceed to find out whether it be friend or foe."
Having finished half their bread, for Malcolm had warned them to save the other half for the next day, the men lay down round the fire, and soon all were sound asleep.