The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter VIII. The Siege of Mansfeld
"Will it please your worship at once to repair to the castle?" the leader of the townspeople said. "The count has just sent down to inquire into the reason of the alarm."
"Yes," Malcolm replied, "I will go at once. In the meantime, sir, I pray you to see to the wants of my soldiers, who have taken a long night march and will be none the worse for some refreshment. Hast seen aught of the Imperialists?"
"They are at a village but a mile distant on the other side of the town," the citizen said. "Yesterday we counted eighteen villages in flames, and the peasants who have come in say that numbers have been slain by them."
"There is little mercy to be expected from the butchers of Magdeburg," Malcolm replied; "the only arguments they will listen to are steel and lead, and we will not be sparing of these."
A murmur of assent rang through the townsfolk who had gathered round, and then the burgomaster himself led Malcolm up the ascent to the castle. The news that the newcomers were a party of Scots had already been sent up to the castle, and as Malcolm entered the gateway the count came forward to welcome him.
"You are welcome indeed, fair sir," he said. "It seems almost as if you had arrived from the clouds to our assistance, for we had heard that the Swedish king and his army were encamped around Old Brandenburg.
"His majesty has moved west, I hear," Malcolm said; "but we have been a month away from the camp. My detachment consisted of a body of invalids who came up among the hills to get rid of the fever which was playing such havoc among our ranks. I am glad to say that all are restored, and fit as ever for a meeting with the Imperialists. I heard but yestereven that you were expecting an attack, and have marched all night to be here in time. My party is a small one, but each man can be relied upon; and when it comes to hard fighting twenty in good soldiers may turn the day."
"You are heartily welcome, sir, and I thank you much for coming to our aid. The townspeople are determined to do their best, but most of them have little skill in arms. I have a score or two of old soldiers here in the castle, and had hoped to be able to hold this to the end; but truly I despaired of a successful defence of the town. But enter, I pray you; the countess will be glad to welcome you.
Malcolm accompanied the count to the banquet hall of the castle. The countess, a gentle and graceful woman, was already there; for indeed but few in Mansfeld had closed an eye that night, for it was possible that the Imperialists might attack without delay. By her side stood her daughter, a girl of about fourteen years old. Malcolm had already stated his name to the count, and the latter now presented him to his wife.
"We have heard so much of the Scottish soldiers," she said as she held out her hand, over which Malcolm bent deeply, "that we have all been curious to see them, little dreaming that a band of them would appear here like good angels in our hour of danger."
"It was a fortunate accident which found me within reach when I heard of the approach of the Imperialists. The names of the Count and Countess of Mansfeld are so well known and so highly esteemed through Protestant Germany that I was sure that the king would approve of my hastening to lend what aid I might to you without orders from him."
"I see you have learned to flatter," the countess said smiling. "This is my daughter Thekla."
"I am glad to see you," the girl said; "but I am a little disappointed. I had thought that the Scots were such big fierce soldiers, and you are not very big -- not so tall as papa; and you do not look fierce at all -- not half so fierce as my cousin Caspar, who is but a boy."
"That is very rude, Thekla," her mother said reprovingly, while Malcolm laughed gaily.
"You are quite right, Fraulein Thekla. I know I do not look very fierce, but I hope when my moustache grows I shall come up more nearly to your expectations. As to my height, I have some years to grow yet, seeing that I am scarce eighteen, and perhaps no older than your cousin."
"Have you recently joined, sir?" the countess asked.
"I have served through the campaign," Malcolm replied, "and have seen some hard knocks given, as you may imagine when I tell you that I was at the siege of New Brandenburg."
"When your soldiers fought like heroes, and, as I heard, all died sword in hand save two or three officers who managed to escape."
"I was one of the three, countess; but the tale is a long one, and can be told after we have done with the Imperialists. Now, sir," he went on, turning to the count, "I am at your orders, and will take post with my men at any point that you may think fit."
"Before doing that," the count said, "you must join us at breakfast. You must be hungry after your long march, and as I have been all night in my armour I shall do justice to it myself. You will, of course, take up your abode here. As to other matters I have done my best, and the townspeople were yesterday all told off to their places on the walls. I should think it were best that your band were stationed in the marketplace as a reserve, they could then move to any point which might be seriously threatened. Should the Imperialists enter the town the citizens have orders to fall back here fighting. All their most valuable goods were sent up here yesterday, together with such of their wives and families as have not taken flight, so that there will be nothing to distract them from their duty."
"That is good," Malcolm said. "The thought that one is fighting for home and family must nerve a man in the defence, but when the enemy once breaks in he would naturally think of home first and hasten away to defend it to the last, instead of obeying orders and falling back with his comrades in good order and discipline."
The meal was a cheerful one. Malcolm related more in detail how he and his detachment happened to be so far removed from the army.
Just as the meal came to an end a drum beat in the town and the alarm bells began to ring. The count and Malcolm sallied out at once to the outer wall, and saw a small party of officers riding from the village occupied by the Imperialists towards the town.
"Let us descend," the count said. "I presume they are going to demand our surrender."
They reached the wall of the town just as the Imperialist officers approached the gate.
"In the name of his majesty the emperor," one of them cried out, "I command you to open the gate and to surrender to his good will and pleasure."
"The smoking villages which I see around me," Count Mansfeld replied, "are no hopeful sign of any good will or pleasure on the part of his majesty towards us. As to surrendering, we will rather die. But I am willing to pay a fair ransom for the town if you will draw off your troops and march away."
"Beware, sir!" the officer said. "I have a force here sufficient to compel obedience, and I warn you of the fate which will befall all within these walls if you persist in refusing to admit us."
"I doubt not as to their fate," the count replied; "there are plenty of examples before us of the tender mercy which your master's troops show towards the towns you capture.
"Once again I offer you a ransom for the town. Name the sum, and if it be in reason such as I and the townspeople can pay, it shall be yours; but open the gates to you we will not."
"Very well," the officer said; "then your blood be on your own heads." And turning his horse he rode with his companions back towards the village.
On their arrival there a bustle was seen to prevail. A hundred horsemen rode off and took post on an eminence near the town, ready to cut off the retreat of any who might try to escape, and to enter the town when the gates were forced open. The other two hundred men advanced on foot in a close body towards the principal gate.
"They will try and blow it open with petards," Malcolm said. "Half of my men are musketeers and good shots, and I will, with your permission, place them on the wall to aid the townsfolk there, for if the gate is blown open and the enemy force their way in it will go hard with us."
The count assented, and Malcolm posted his musketeers on the wall, ordering Sergeant Sinclair with the remainder to set to work to erect barricades across the street leading from the gate, so that, in case this were blown in, such a stand might be made against the Imperialists as would give the townspeople time to rally from the walls and to gather there.
The Imperialists heralded their advance by opening fire with pistols and musketoons against the wall, and the defenders at once replied. So heavy was the fire that the head of the column wavered, many of the leading files being at once shot down, but, encouraged by their officers, they rallied, and pushed forward at a run. The fire of the townspeople at once became hurried and irregular, but the Scots picked off their men with steady aim. The leader of the Imperialists, who carried a petard, advanced boldly to the edge of the ditch. The fosse was shallow and contained but little water, and he at once dashed into it and waded across, for the drawbridge had, of course, been raised. He climbed up the bank, and was close to the gate, when Malcolm, leaning far over the wall, discharged his pistol at him. The ball glanced from the steel armour.
Malcolm drew his other pistol and again fired, this time more effectually, for the ball struck between the shoulder and the neck at the junction of the breast and back pieces, and passed down into the body of the Austrian, who, dropping the petard, fell dead; but a number of his men were close behind him.
"Quick, lads!" Malcolm cried. "Put your strength to this parapet. It is old and rotten. Now, all together! Shove!"
The soldiers bent their strength against the parapet, while some of the townspeople, thrusting their pikes into the rotten mortar between the stones, prised them up with all their strength. The parapet tottered, and then with a tremendous crash fell, burying five or six of the Imperialists and the petard beneath the ruins.
A shout of exultation rose from the defenders, and the Imperialists at once withdrew at full speed. They halted out of gunshot, and then a number of men were sent back to the village, whence they returned carrying ladders, some of which had been collected the day before from the neighbouring villages and others manufactured during the night. The enemy now divided into three parties, which advanced simultaneously against different points of the wall.
Notwithstanding the storm of shot poured upon them as they advanced, they pressed forward until they reached the wall and planted their ladders, and then essayed to climb; but at each point the stormers were stoutly met with pike and sword, while the musketeers from the flanking towers poured their bullets into them.
The troops proved themselves worthy of their reputation, for it was not until more than fifty had fallen that they desisted from the attempt and drew off.
"Now we shall have a respite," Malcolm said. "If there are no more of them in the neighbourhood methinks they will retire altogether, but if they have any friends with cannon anywhere within reach they will probably send for them and renew the attack."
The day passed quietly. Parties of horsemen were seen leaving the village to forage and plunder the surrounding country, but the main body remained quietly there. The next day there was still no renewal of the attack, but as the enemy remained in occupation of the village Malcolm guessed that they must be waiting for the arrival of reinforcements. The following afternoon a cloud of dust was seen upon the plain, and presently a column of infantry some four hundred strong, with three cannon, could be made out. The townspeople now wavered in their determination. A few were still for resistance, but the majority held that they could not attempt to withstand an assault by so strong a force, and that it was better to make the best terms they could with the enemy.
A parlementaire was accordingly despatched to the Imperialists asking what terms would be granted should the place surrender.
"We will grant no terms whatever," the colonel in command of the Imperialists said. "The town is at our mercy, and we will do as we will with it and all within it; but tell Count Mansfeld that if he will surrender the castle as well as the town at once, and without striking another blow, his case shall receive favourable consideration."
"That will not do," the count said. "They either guarantee our lives or they do not. I give not up my castle on terms like these, but I will exercise no pressure on the townspeople. If they choose to defend themselves till the last I will fight here with them; if they choose to surrender they can do so; and those who differ from their fellows and put no faith in Tilly's wolves can enter the castle with me."
The principal inhabitants of the town debated the question hotly. Malcolm lost patience with them, and said: "Are you mad as well as stupid? Do you not see the smoking villages round you? Do you not remember the fate of Magdeburg, New Brandenburg, and the other towns which have made a resistance? You have chosen to resist. It was open to you to have fled when you heard the Imperialists were coming. You could have opened the gates then with some hope at least of your lives; but you decided to resist. You have killed some fifty or sixty of their soldiers. You have repulsed them from a place which they thought to take with scarce an effort. You have compelled them to send for reinforcements and guns. And now you are talking of opening the gates without even obtaining a promise that your lives shall be spared. This is the extremity of folly, and all I can say is, if you take such a step you will well deserve your fate."
Malcolm's indignant address had its effect, and after a short discussion the townspeople again placed themselves at the count's disposal, and said that they would obey his orders.
"I will give no orders," the count said. "My Scottish friend here agrees with me that it is useless to try to defend the town. We might repulse several attacks, but in the end they would surely break in, for the walls are old and weak, and will crumble before their cannon. Were there any hope of relief one would defend them to the last, but as it is it would be but a waste of blood, for many would be slain both in the defence and before they could retreat to the castle; therefore we propose at once to withdraw. We doubt not that we can hold the castle. Any who like to remain in their houses and trust to the tender mercy of Tilly's wolves can do so."
There was no more hesitation, and a cannonball, the first which the Imperialists had fired, at that moment crashed into a house hard by, and sharpened their decision wonderfully.
"I have no great store of provisions in the castle," the count said, "and although I deem it not likely that we shall have to stand a long siege we must be prepared for it. There are already more than 700 of your wives and children there, therefore while half of the force continue to show themselves upon the walls, and so deter the enemy from attempting an assault until they have opened some breaches, let the rest carry up provisions to the castle. Any houses from which the women have fled are at once to be broken open. All that we leave behind the enemy will take, and the less we leave for them the better; therefore all stores and magazines of food and wine must be considered as public property. Let the men at once be divided into two bodies -- the one to guard the walls, the other to search for and carry up provisions. They can be changed every three or four hours."
The resolution was taken and carried into effect without delay. Most of the horses and carts in the town had left with the fugitives, those that remained were at once set to work. The carts were laden with large barrels of wine and sacks of flour, while the men carried sides of bacon, kegs of butter, and other portable articles on their heads. The Imperialists, seeing the movement up the steep road to the castle gate, opened fire with their arquebuses, but the defenders of the wall replied so hotly that they were forced to retire out of range. The cannon played steadily all day, and by nightfall two breaches had been effected in the wall and the gate had been battered down.
But by this time an ample store of provisions had been collected in the castle and as the Imperialists were seen to form up for the assault the trumpet was sounded, and at the signal the whole of the defenders of the walls left their posts and fell back to the castle, leaving the deserted town at the mercy of the enemy. The Imperialists raised a shout of triumph as they entered the breaches and found them undefended, and when once assured that the town was deserted they broke their ranks and scattered to plunder.
It was now quite dark, and many of them dragging articles of furniture into the streets made great bonfires to light them at their work of plunder. But they had soon reason to repent having done so, for immediately the flames sprang up and lighted the streets, flashes ran round the battlements of the castle, and a heavy fire was opened into the streets, killing many of the soldiers. Seeing the danger of thus exposing the men to the fire from the castle, the Imperialist commander issued orders at once that all fires should be extinguished, that anyone setting fire to a house should be instantly hung, and that no lights were to be lit in the houses whose windows faced the castle.
Foreseeing the possibility of an attack from the castle, the Austrians placed a hundred men at the foot of the road leading up to it, and laid their three cannon loaded to the muzzle to command it.
"Have you not," Malcolm asked the count, "some means of exit from the castle besides the way into the town?"
"Yes," the count said, "there is a footpath down the rock on the other side."
"Then," Malcolm said, "as soon as they are fairly drunk, which will be before midnight, let us fall upon them from the other side. Leave fifty of your oldest men with half a dozen veteran soldiers to defend the gateway against a sudden attack; with the rest we can issue out, and marching round, enter by the gate and breaches, sweeping the streets as we go, and then uniting, burst through any guard they may have placed to prevent a sortie, and so regain the castle."
The count at once assented. In a short time shouts, songs, the sound of rioting and quarrels, arose from the town, showing that revelry was general. At eleven o'clock the men in the castle were mustered, fifty were told off to the defence with five experienced soldiers, an officer of the count being left in command. The rest sallied through a little door at the back of the castle and noiselessly descended the steep path. On arriving at the bottom they were divided into three bodies. Malcolm with his Scots and fifty of the townspeople formed one. Count Mansfeld took the command of another, composed of his own soldiers and fifty more of the townspeople. The third consisted of eighty of the best fighting men of the town under their own leaders. These were to enter by the gate, while the other two parties came in by the breaches. The moment the attack began the defenders of the castle were to open as rapid a fire as they could upon the foot of the road so as to occupy the attention of the enemy's force there, and to lead them to anticipate a sortie.
The breach by which Malcolm was to enter was the farthest from the castle, and his command would, therefore, be the last in arriving at its station. When he reached it he ordered the trumpeters who accompanied him to sound, and at the signal the three columns rushed into the town uttering shouts of "Gustavus! Gustavus!"
The Imperialists in the houses near were slaughtered with scarcely any resistance. They were for the most part intoxicated, and such as retained their senses were paralysed at the sudden attack, and panic stricken at the shouts, which portended the arrival of a relieving force from the army of the King of Sweden. As the bands pressed forward, slaying all whom they came upon, the resistance became stronger; but the three columns were all headed by parties of pikemen who advanced steadily and in good order, bearing down all opposition, and leaving to those behind them the task of slaying all found in the houses.
Lights flashed from the windows and partly lit up the streets, and the Imperialist officers attempted to rally their men; but the Scottish shouts, "A Hepburn! A Hepburn!" and the sight of their green scarves added to the terror of the soldiers, who were convinced that the terrible Green Brigade of the King of Sweden was upon them.
Hundreds were cut down after striking scarce a blow in their defence, numbers fled to the walls and leapt over. The panic communicated itself to the party drawn up to repel a sortie. Hearing the yells, screams, and shouts, accompanied by the musketry approaching from three different quarters of the town, while a steady fire from the castle indicated that the defenders there might, at any moment, sally out upon them, they stood for a time irresolute; but as the heads of the three columns approached they lost heart, quitted their station, and withdrew in a body by a street by which they avoided the approaching columns. On arriving at the spot Malcolm found the guns deserted.
"The town is won now," he said. "I will take my post here with my men in case the Austrians should rally; do you with the rest scatter over the town and complete the work, but bid them keep together in parties of twenty."
The force broke up and scattered through the town in their work of vengeance. House after house was entered and searched, and all who were found there put to the sword; but by this time most of those who were not too drunk to fly had already made for the gates.
In half an hour not an Imperialist was left alive in the town. Then guards were placed at the gate and breaches, and they waited till morning. Not a sign of an Imperialist was to be seen on the plain, and parties sallying out found that they had fled in the utmost disorder. Arms, accoutrements, and portions of plunder lay scattered thickly about, and it was clear that in the belief that the Swedish army was on them, the Imperialists had fled panic stricken, and were now far away. Upwards of two hundred bodies were found in the streets and houses.
A huge grave was dug outside the walls, and here the fallen foes were buried. Only three or four of the defenders of the town were killed and a score or so wounded in the whole affair. Although there was little fear of a return, as the Imperialists would probably continue their headlong flight for a long distance, and would then march with all haste to rejoin their main army with the news that a strong Swedish force was at Mansfeld, the count set the townspeople at once to repair the breaches.
The people were overjoyed with their success, and delighted at having preserved their homes from destruction, for they knew that the Imperialists would, if unsuccessful against the castle, have given the town to the flames before retiring. The women and children flocked down to their homes again, and although much furniture had been destroyed and damage done, this was little heeded when so much was saved.
All vied in the expression of gratitude towards Malcolm and his Scots, but Malcolm modestly disclaimed all merit, saying that he and his men had scarcely struck a blow.
"It is not so much the fighting," the count said, "as the example which you set the townsmen, and the spirit which the presence of you and your men diffused among them. Besides, your counsel and support to me have been invaluable; had it not been for you the place would probably have been carried at the first attack, and if not the townspeople would have surrendered when the enemy's reinforcements arrived; and in that case, with so small a force at my command I could not have hoped to defend the castle successfully. Moreover, the idea of the sortie which has freed us of them and saved the town from destruction was entirely yours. No, my friend, say what you will I feel that I am indebted to you for the safety of my wife and child, and so long as I live I shall be deeply your debtor."
The following day Malcolm with his party marched away. The count had presented him with a suit of magnificent armour, and the countess with a gold chain of great value. Handsome presents were also made to Sergeant Sinclair, who was a cadet of good family, and a purse of gold was given to each of the soldiers, so in high spirits the band marched away over the mountains on their return to the village.