The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. A Timely Rescue
Although unaware how much more formidable the task before them had become, the peasants were disheartened by their defeat, and even the boldest hesitated at the thought of again attacking foes so formidably posted. None of those who had returned were able to explain what was the obstacle which had checked their advance. All that they could tell was, that those before them had fallen, in some cases even before they were touched by the spears of the defenders. This mystery added to the dread which the assault of so difficult a position naturally inspired, and some hours were spent in discussing how the next attack should be made. Many indeed were strongly in favour of remaining quietly around the tower and starving its defenders into surrendering.
Others advocated an attempt to stifle them by heaping green wood and damp straw round the tower; but the more timid pointed out that many would be killed in carrying out the task by the firearms of the besieged, and that even were the combustibles placed in position and lighted the success of the experiment would be by no means certain, as the besieged might stuff up all the orifices, or at the worst might obtain sufficient fresh air on the top of the tower to enable them to breathe.
"You are forgetting," one of the peasants exclaimed, "the powder wagon which broke down as Count Tilly retreated from the Lech. Did we not carry off the powder barrels and hide them, partly to prevent them falling into the hands of these accursed Swedes, partly because the powder would last us for years for hunting the wolf and wild boar? We have only to stow these inside the tower to blow it into the air."
The idea was seized with shouts of acclamation. Most of the peasants who had assisted in carrying off the contents of the wagon were present, and these started instantly to dig up the barrels which they had taken as their share of the booty. The shouts of satisfaction and the departure of forty or fifty men at full speed in various directions did not pass unnoticed by the garrison of the tower.
"They have got a plan of some sort," Malcolm said; "what it is I have no idea, but they certainly seem confident about it. Look at those fellows throwing up their caps and waving their arms. I do not see how we can be attacked, but I do not like these signs of confidence on their part, for they know now how strong our position is. It seems to me that we are impregnable except against artillery."
Unable to repress his uneasiness Malcolm wandered from window to window watching attentively what was going on without, but keeping himself as far back as possible from the loopholes; for the men with muskets kept up a dropping fire at the openings, and although their aim was poor, bullets occasionally passed in and flattened themselves against the opposite walls.
"There is a man returning," he said in about half an hour; "he is carrying something on his shoulder, but I cannot see what it is."
In another ten minutes the man had reached the group of peasants standing two or three hundred yards from the church, and was greeted with cheers and waving of hats.
"Good heavens!" Malcolm exclaimed suddenly, "it is a barrel of powder. They must have stripped some broken down ammunition wagon. This is a danger indeed."
The men grasped their weapons and rose to their feet at the news, prepared to take any steps which their young officer might command, for his promptitude and ingenuity had inspired them with unbounded confidence in him.
"We must at all hazards," he said after a few minutes thought, "prevent them from storing these barrels below. Remove the barricade of bodies and then carry the door down the stairs. We must fix it again on the bottom steps. The bottom stair is but a foot or two inside the doorway; if you place it there it will hinder their rushing up to attack you, and your pikes, as you stand above it, will prevent any from placing their barrels inside.
"I will take my place at the loophole as before. We cannot prevent their crawling round from behind as they did to light the faggots; but if they pile them outside, they may blow in a hole in the wall of the tower, but it is possible that even then it may not fall. Two will be sufficient to hold the stairs, at any rate for the present. Do you, Cameron, take your place on the tower, and drop stones over on any who may try to make their way round from behind; even if you do no harm you will make them careful and delay the operation, and every hour now is of consequence."
Malcolm's instructions were carried out, and all was in readiness before the peasants, some of whom had to go considerable distances, had returned with the powder.
The lesson of the previous evening had evidently not been lost upon the peasants, for Malcolm saw a tall man who was acting as their leader wave his hand, and those who had brought the powder started to make a detour round the church. Malcolm, finding that no movement was being made towards the front, and that at present he could do nothing from his loophole, ran up to the top of the tower and took his place by the soldier who was lying down on the roof and looking over the edge.
Presently the first of the peasants appeared round the corner of the main building, and dashed rapidly across to the angle of the tower. Two heavy stones were dropped, but he had passed on long before they had reached the bottom. Man after man followed, and Malcolm, seeing that he could do nothing to stop them, again ran down. As he did so he heard a scream of agony. The leading peasants had reached the doorway, but as they dashed in to place their barrels of powder they were run through and through by the spears of the pikemen. They fell half in and half out of the doorway, and the barrels rolled some distance away. Those behind them stopped panic stricken at their sudden fall. Several of them dropped their barrels and fled, while others ran round the angle of the tower again, coming in violent contact with those following them; all then hurried round behind the church. Malcolm stamped his feet with vexation.
"What a fool I am," he muttered, "not to have thought of a sortie! If we had all held ourselves in readiness to spring out, we might have cut down the whole of them; at any rate none would have got off with their barrels."
This unexpected failure greatly damped the spirit of the peasants, and there was much consultation among them before any fresh move was made. As he saw that they were fully occupied, and paying no heed to the tower, Malcolm said to his men:
"I am going outside; prepare to help me up over the door again quickly if necessary.
Leaving his sword behind him, he took a leap from the step above the inclined plane and landed at the bottom, and at once threw himself down outside. With his dagger he removed the hoops of one of the barrels, and scattered the contents thickly along the front of the tower. None of the peasants perceived him, for there were many bodies lying round the foot of the tower; and even had any looked that way they would not have noticed that one prone figure had been added to the number.
Crawling cautiously along Malcolm pushed two other barrels before him, and opening them as before, spread the contents of one upon the ground near the side of the tower, and the other by the hinder face. The thick black layer on the snow would have told its tale instantly to a soldier, but Malcolm had little fear of the peasants in their haste paying attention to it. When his task was completed he crawled back again to the door and laid a train from the foot of the slide to the powder without.
"I will remain here," he said, "for the present. Do one of you take your place in the belfry. Tell Cameron to shout down to you what is passing behind, and do you run instantly down the stairs to tell me."
The peasants advanced next time accompanied by a strong force of their armed comrades. As before they came round from behind, intending to stack their barrels in the angle there. As the bearers of the first two or three powder barrels came round the corner Cameron shouted the news, and the soldier below ran down to Malcolm, who fired his pistol into the train. A broad flash of fire rose round the tower followed instantaneously by two heavy explosions. There was silence for an instant, and then a chorus of shrieks and yells.
The powder barrels borne by the two first men had exploded, their heads having been knocked in previously to admit of their ignition. Some thirty of the peasants were killed or terribly mutilated by the explosion, and the rest took to their heels in terror, leaving their wounded comrades on the ground.
The echoes of the explosion had scarce died away when a shout of terror broke from the main body of peasants, and Malcolm saw them flying in all directions. An instant afterwards the ringing sound of the Swedish trumpets was heard, and a squadron of horse galloped down full speed. The peasants attempted no resistance, but fled in all directions, hotly pursued by the Swedes, who broke up into small parties and followed the fugitives cross the country cutting down great numbers of them. The Swedish leader at once rode up to the foot of the tower, where Malcolm had already sallied out.
"I am glad indeed I am in time, Captain Graheme; we have ridden without drawing rein since your messenger arrived at four o'clock this morning."
"Thanks indeed, Captain Burgh," Malcolm replied. Your coming is most welcome; though I think we have given the peasants so hot a lesson that they would not have attacked us again, and by tightening our waistbelts we could have held on for another three or four days."
"I see that you have punished them heavily," the Swedish officer said, looking round at the bodies; "but what was the explosion I heard?"
"You will see its signs behind the tower," Malcolm said as he led the way there. "They tried to blow us up, but burnt their own fingers."
The scene behind the tower was ghastly. Some thirty peasants lay with their clothes completely burned from their bodies, the greater portion of them dead, but some still writhing in agony. Malcolm uttered an exclamation of horror.
"It were a kindness to put these wretches out of their misery," the Swede said, and dismounting he passed his sword through the bodies of the writhing men. "You know I am in favour of carrying on the war as mercifully as may be," he continued turning to Malcolm, "for we have talked the matter over before now; and God forbid that I should strike a fallen foe; but these poor wretches were beyond help, and it is true mercy to end their sufferings."
"They have had a heavy lesson," Malcolm said; "there are eleven more dead up in the belfry, which they tried to carry by storm, and a dozen at least crushed by stones.
"You and your three men have indeed given a good account of yourselves," Captain Burgh exclaimed; "but while I am talking you are fasting. Here is a bottle of wine, a cold chicken, and a manchet of bread which I put in my wallet on starting; let us breakfast, for though I do not pretend to have been fasting as you have, the morning ride has given me an appetite. I see your fellows are hard at work already on the viands which my orderly brought for them in his havresack; but first let us move away to the tree over yonder, for verily the scent of blood and of roasted flesh is enough to take away one's appetite, little squeamish as these wars have taught us to be."
Captain Burgh asked no questions until Malcolm had finished his meal. "I have plenty more food," he said, "for we have brought three led horses well laden; but it were better that you eat no more at present, tis ill overloading a fasting stomach. My men will not be back from the pursuit for a couple of hours yet, for they will not draw rein so long as their horses can gallop, so excited are they over the tales of the horrible cruelties which have been perpetrated on all our men who have fallen into the hands of the peasants, so now you can tell me in full the tale of your adventures. I had no time to ask any questions of your sergeant, for we were called up and sent off five minutes after he arrived with the news that you with three men were beleaguered here by a party of peasants."
Malcolm related the whole incidents which had befallen him since he had been suddenly felled and made captive by the women in the hut in the village. The Swede laughed over this part of the adventure.
"To think," he said, "of you, a dashing captain of the Green Brigade, being made captive by a couple of old women. There is more than one gallant Scot, if reports be true, has fallen a captive to German maidens, but of another sort; to be taken prisoner and hid in a straw yard is too good."
"It was no laughing matter, I can tell you," Malcolm said, "though doubtless it will serve as a standing jest against me for a long time; however, I am so thankful I have got out of the scrape that those may laugh who will."
When Malcolm finished his story Captain Burgh said: "You have managed marvellously well indeed, Graheme, and can well afford to put up with a little laughter anent that matter of the women, for in truth there are few who would with three men have held a post against four or five hundred, as you have done --ay, and fairly defeated them before I came on the scene. That thought of yours of laying the door upon the stairs was a masterly one, and you rarely met and defeated every device of the enemy.
"Now, if you will, I will mount this stronghold of yours with you, and see exactly how it stands, for I shall have to tell the tale a score of times at least when I get back to camp, and I can do it all the better after I have seen for myself the various features of the place."
By the time they had mounted the top of the tower and Captain Burgh had fully satisfied himself as to the details of the defence the troopers began to return. Their horses were far too fatigued with the long ride from the camp and the subsequent pursuit to be able to travel farther. Fires were accordingly lit, rations distributed, and a halt ordered till the following morning, when, at daybreak, they returned to the Lech.
Two days later Malcolm and his men marched forward with a brigade which was advancing to reinforce the army under Gustavus, and reached Ingolstadt on the day when the king raised the siege, and accompanied him on his march to Munich.
Malcolm on rejoining was greeted with great pleasure by his comrades, who had made up their minds that he had in some way fallen a victim to the peasants. The noncommissioned officers and men of his party had been severely reprimanded for leaving the village without finding him. In their defence they declared that they had searched every house and shed, and, having found no sign of him, or of any struggle having taken place, they supposed that he must have returned alone. But their excuses were not held to be valid, the idea of Malcolm having left his men without orders being so preposterous that it was held it should never have been entertained for a moment by them.
"I shall never be anxious about you again," Nigel Graheme said, when Malcolm finished the narrative of his adventures to the officers of his regiment as they sat round the campfire on the evening when he rejoined them. "This is the third or fourth time that I have given you up for dead. Whatever happens in the future, I shall refuse to believe the possibility of any harm having come to you, and shall be sure that sooner or later you will walk quietly into camp with a fresh batch of adventures to tell us. Whoever of us may be doomed to lay our bones in this German soil, it will not be you. Some good fairy has distinctly taken charge of you, and there is no saying what brilliant destiny may await you."
"But he must keep clear of the petticoats, Graheme," Colonel Munro laughed; "evidently danger lurks for him there, and if he is caught napping again some Delilah will assuredly crop the hair of this young Samson of ours."
"There was not much of Delilah in that fury who felled me with a mallet, colonel," Malcolm laughed; "however, I will be careful in future, and will not give them a chance."
"Ah! it may come in another form next time, Malcolm," Munro said; "this time it was an old woman, next time it may be a young one. Beware, my boy! they are far the most dangerous, innocent though they may look."
A laugh ran round the circle.
"Forewarned forearmed, colonel," Malcolm said sturdily, "I will be on my guard against every female creature, young or old, in future. But I don't think that in this affair the woman has had much to boast about -- she and her friends had best have left me alone."
"That is so, Malcolm," the colonel said warmly. "You have borne yourself well and bravely, and you have got an old head on those young shoulders of yours. You are as full of plans and stratagems as if you had been a campaigner for the last half century; and no man, even in the Green Brigade, no, not Hepburn himself, could have held that church tower more ably than you did. It will be a good tale to tell the king as we ride on the march tomorrow, for he loves a gallant deed, and the more so when there is prudence and good strategy as well as bravery. He has more than once asked if you have been getting into any new adventures, and seemed almost surprised when I told him that you were doing your duty with your company. He evidently regards it as your special mission to get into harebrained scrapes. He regards you, in fact, as a pedagogue might view the pickle of the school."
There was a general laugh at Malcolm's expense.
"I don't know how it is I am always getting into scrapes," the lad said half ruefully when the laugh subsided. "I am sure I don't want to get into them, colonel, and really I have never gone out of my way to do so, unless you call my march to help the Count of Mansfeld going out of my way. All the other things have come to me without any fault of my own."
"Quite so, Graheme," the colonel said smiling; "that's always the excuse of the boy who gets into scrapes. The question is, Why do these things always happen to you and to nobody else? If you can explain that your whole case is made out. But don't take it seriously, Malcolm," he continued, seeing that the lad looked really crestfallen.
"You know I am only laughing, and there is not a man here, including myself, who does not envy you a little for the numerous adventures which have fallen to your lot, and for the courage and wisdom which you have shown in extricating yourself from them."
"And now, please, will you tell me, colonel," Malcolm said more cheerfully, "why we are turning our backs upon Ingolstadt and are marching away without taking it? I have been away for ten days, you know, and it is a mystery to me why we are leaving the only enemy between us and Vienna, after having beaten him so heartily a fortnight since, without making an effort to rout him thoroughly."
"Maximilian's position is a very strong one, my lad, and covered as he is by the guns of Ingolstadt it would be even a harder task to dislodge him than it was to cross the Lech in his teeth. But you are wrong; his is not the only army which stands between us and Vienna. No sooner is old Tilly dead than a greater than Tilly appears to oppose us. Wallenstein is in the field again. It has been known that he has for some time been negotiating with the emperor, who has been imploring him to forgive the slight that was passed upon him before, and to again take the field.
"Wallenstein, knowing that the game was in his hands, and that the emperor must finally agree to any terms which he chose to dictate, has, while he has been negotiating, been collecting an army; and when the emperor finally agreed to his conditions, that he was at the conclusion of the peace to be assured a royal title and the fief of a sovereign state, he had an army ready to his hand, and is now on the point of entering Bohemia with 40,000 men."
"What his plans may be we cannot yet say, but at any rate it would not do to be delaying here and leaving Germany open to Wallenstein to operate as he will. It was a stern day at Leipzig, but, mark my words, it will be sterner still when we meet Wallenstein; for, great captain as Tilly undoubtedly was, Wallenstein is far greater, and Europe will hold its breath when Gustavus and he, the two greatest captains of the age, meet in a pitched battle."
At Munich the regiments of Munro and Spynie were quartered in the magnificent Electoral Palace, where they fared sumptuously and enjoyed not a little their comfortable quarters and the stores of old wines in the cellar. Sir John Hepburn was appointed military governor of Munich.
In the arsenal armour, arms, and clothing sufficient for 10,000 infantry were found, and a hundred and forty pieces of cannon were discovered buried beneath the floors of the palace. Their carriages were ready in the arsenal, and they were soon put in order for battle. For three weeks the army remained at Munich, Gustavus waiting to see what course Wallenstein was taking. The Imperialist general had entered Bohemia, had driven thence, with scarcely an effort, Arnheim and the Saxons, and formed a junction near Eger with the remnants of the army which had been beaten on the Lech; then, leaving a strong garrison in Ratisbon, he had marched on with an army of sixty thousand men.
He saw that his best plan to force Gustavus to loose his hold of Bavaria was to march on some important point lying between him and North Germany. He therefore selected a place which Gustavus could not abandon, and so would be obliged to leave Bavaria garrisoned only by a force insufficient to withstand the attacks of Pappenheim, who had collected a considerable army for the recovery of the territories of Maximilian. Such a point was Nuremberg, the greatest and strongest of the free cities, and which had been the first to open its gates to Gustavus. The Swedish king could hardly abandon this friendly city to the assaults of the Imperialists, and indeed its fall would have been followed by the general defection from his cause of all that part of Germany, and he would have found himself isolated and cut off from the North.
As soon as Gustavus perceived that Nuremberg was the point towards which Wallenstein was moving, he hastened at once from Munich to the assistance of the threatened city. The forces at his disposal had been weakened by the despatch of Marshal Horn to the Lower Palatinate, and by the garrisons left in the Bavarian cities, and he had but 17,000 men disposable to meet the 60,000 with whom Wallenstein was advancing. He did not hesitate, however, but sent off messengers at once to direct the corps in Swabia under General Banner, Prince William of Weimar, and General Ruthven, to join him, if possible, before Nuremberg.
Marching with all haste he arrived at Nuremberg before Wallenstein reached it, and prepared at once for the defence of the city. He first called together the principal citizens of Nuremberg and explained to them his position. He showed them that were he to fall back with his army he should be able to effect a junction with the troops under his generals, and would ere long be in a position to offer battle to Wallenstein upon more equal terms, but that were he to do so he would be forced to abandon the city to the vengeance of the Imperialists. He told them that did he remain before the city he must to a great extent be dependent upon them for food and supplies, as he would be beleaguered by Wallenstein, and should be unable to draw food and forage from the surrounding country; he could therefore only maintain himself by the aid of the cordial goodwill and assistance of the citizens.
The people of Nuremberg were true to the side they had chosen, and placed the whole of their resources at his disposal. Gustavus at once set his army to work to form a position in which he could confront the overwhelming forces of the enemy. Round the city, at a distance of about thirteen hundred yards from it, he dug a ditch, nowhere less than twelve feet wide and eight deep, but, where most exposed to an attack, eighteen feet wide and twelve deep. Within the circuit of this ditch he erected eight large forts and connected them with a long and thick earthen parapet strengthened with bastions. On the ramparts and forts three hundred cannon, for the most part supplied by the city of Nuremberg, were placed in position. As the camp between the ramparts and the town was traversed by the river Pegnitz numerous bridges were thrown across it, so that the whole force could concentrate on either side in case of attack. So vigorously did the army, assisted by the citizens, labour at these works, that they were completed in fourteen days after Gustavus reached Nuremberg.
It was on the 19th of June that the Swedish army arrived there, and on the 30th Wallenstein and Maximilian of Bavaria appeared before it with the intention of making an immediate assault. The works, however, although not yet quite completed, were so formidable that Wallenstein saw at once that the success of an assault upon them would be extremely doubtful, and, in spite of the earnest entreaties of Maximilian to lead his army to the assault, he decided to reduce the place by starvation. This method appeared at once easy and certain. The whole of the surrounding country belonged to the Bishop of Bamberg, who was devoted to the Imperialist cause, and he possessed all the towns, and strong places in the circle of country around Nuremberg. Wallenstein had brought with him vast stores of provisions, and could draw upon the surrounding country for the further maintenance of his army. It was only necessary then to place himself in a position where the Swedes could not attack him with a hope of success.
Such a position lay at a distance of three miles from Nuremberg, where there was a wooded hill known as the Alte Veste. Round this Wallenstein threw up a circle of defences, consisting of a ditch behind which was an interlacement of forest trees, baggage wagons, and gabions, forming an almost insurpassable obstacle to an attacking force. Within this circle he encamped his army, formed into eight divisions, each about seven thousand strong, while two considerable bodies of troops in the diocese of Bamberg and the Upper Palatinate prepared to oppose any forces approaching to the aid of Nuremberg, and the Croats, horse and foot, scoured the country day and night to prevent any supplies entering the city. Having thus adopted every means for starving out the beleaguered army and city, Wallenstein calmly awaited the result.