The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV: A Prisoner
Jack, with his two troopers, rode away from the hospitable cottage of the priest in high spirits. He determined to avoid Saragossa, as he was not charged with any direct mission from the earl, and wished, therefore, to avoid any official intercourse with the leaders of the province. As soon as the marshal had marched, the people there had risen, had driven out the small French garrison left, and had resumed the management of their own affairs. Jack learned, however, that the city had not formally declared for King Charles. As the priest had told him would be the case, Jack encountered no bodies of armed men during the day; the country had a peaceful aspect, the peasants were working in the fields, and at the villages through which he passed the English uniforms excited a feeling of curiosity rather than of interest. He stopped at several of these and entered into conversation with the inhabitants. He found everywhere an intense hatred of the French prevailing, while but little interest was evinced in the respective claims of Charles and Philip.
After a very long ride he arrived, at nightfall, near the spot to which he was bound. In this neighborhood he observed a greater amount of watchfulness and preparation than had prevailed elsewhere. The men, for the most part, remained in their villages, and went about armed. Jack learned that an inroad by the Miquelets of Castile was deemed probable, and that it was thought possible that another French force might follow Tesse from Madrid to Barcelona.
It was late in the evening before Jack reached his destination, where, on his presenting his letter of introduction, he was most heartily received by the priest.
"Father Ignacio tells me," he said when he had read it, "that you are not only to be welcomed as an officer of the great English general, but that you are in every way deserving of friendship; he adds, too, that you are a first rate judge of wine, and that you can be trusted as an adviser upon knotty and difficult matters."
Jack laughed. "I only gave the good father my advice upon two points," he said; "the first was the admitting to terms of surrender of a body of French troops with whom he was engaged in battle when I arrived; the second was upon the important question of broaching or not broaching a hogshead of particularly good wine."
"If you advised that the hogshead should be broached," the priest said, smiling, "I can warrant that my good brother Ignacio followed your advice, and can well understand the respect in which he seems to hold your judgment. But do not let us stand talking here.
"Your men will find a stable behind the house where they can stand the horses. Alas! it is uninhabited at present, for my mule, the gentlest and best in the province, was requisitioned--which is another word for stolen--by the French as they passed through. My faithful beast! I miss her every hour of the day, and I doubt not that she misses me still more sorely. Tell me, senor, my brother Ignacio writes me that he has captured many animals from the French --was Margaretta among them? She was a large mule, and in good condition; indeed, there was some flesh on her bones. She was a dark chestnut with a white star on the forehead, a little white on her fore feet, and white below the hocks on the hind legs; she had a soft eye, and a peculiar twist in jerking her tail."
The manner of the priest was so earnest that Jack repressed a smile with difficulty.
"I did notice among the mules in one of the wagons one marked somewhat similarly to your description, and, if I mistake not, it, with another, fell to the share of the good priest; but I cannot say that it had much flesh upon its bones; indeed, it was in very poor case. Nor did I notice that its eyes were particularly soft, or that there was any peculiarity in the twitching of its tail."
"It may be Margaretta," the priest said with some excitement; "the poor beast would naturally lose flesh in the hands of the French, while as to the switch in the tail, it was a sign of welcome which she gave me when I took an apple or a piece of bread into her stable, and she would not be likely so to greet strangers. I will lose no time in writing to Ignacio to inquire further into the matter. Verily, it seems to me as if the saint had sent you specially here as a bearer of this good news."
Jack spent a pleasant evening with the priest, and learned much as to the state of things upon the frontier. The priest represented the Castilians as bitterly opposed to the claims of Charles; they had no grievances against the French, who had behaved with strict discipline in that province, and had only commenced their excesses upon crossing the frontier into Arragon. This they regarded, though wrongfully, as a hostile country; for, previous to their arrival, the people there had taken no part either way in the struggle, but the overbearing manner of Tesse, and the lax discipline of his troops, had speedily caused an intense feeling of irritation. Resistance had been offered to foraging parties of the French army, and the terrible vengeance which had been taken by Tesse for these acts had roused the whole province in a flame of insurrection.
"There are several bodies of French cavalry across the frontier," the priest said; "occasionally they make flying raids into Arragon, but, as you see, the people are armed, and prepared, and ready to give them a hot reception. The Castilians are like ourselves; if at any time an army should march in this direction against Madrid, the Miquelets will oppose them just as we should oppose the French, but they will not leave their homes to interfere with us, for they know well enough that did they do so we also should cross the line, and fire and destruction would be carried through all the villages on both sides of the border. So at present there is nothing to fear from Castile, but if your English general were to drive the French out of the country, he would have hard work ere he overcame the resistance of that province."
Just as day was breaking the next morning Jack was aroused by shouts in the streets, followed by the heavy trampling of horse. He sprang from the bed and threw on his cloak; as he was buckling on his sword one of the dragoons rushed into his room.
"We are surrounded, sir! I have just looked out, and there are French cavalry all round the house."
As he spoke there was a tremendous knocking at the door. The priest ran into the room. "We are betrayed," he said; "some one must have carried away the news last night of your arrival here, and it has come to the ears of the French cavalry on the other side. I ordered some men out last night to watch the road across the border, but the enemy must have ridden too fast for them to get here first."
"It cannot be helped," Jack said; "you had best open the door, or they will break it in in another minute. Make no resistance, lads," he said to the dragoons, for the second orderly had now joined them; "lay your swords down on the bed; we are caught this time, and must make our escape when we can. It is better, anyhow, to have fallen into the hands of the French than of the Spanish."
The sound of the knocking had ceased now, and there was a trampling and clamor of voices as the French soldiers poured into the house. Steps were heard ascending the stairs, the door opened, and the priest, accompanied by a French officer and followed by a number of soldiers, entered the room.
"You are my prisoner, sir," the French officer said.
"I am afraid there is no doubt of that," Jack said, speaking in Spanish; "here is my sword, sir. These two men are my orderlies, and, of course, also surrender. You will observe that we are all in uniform, that we are taken on the soil of Arragon, and that I am here in pursuance of my duty as an officer of the English army."
"You are alone?" the officer asked.
"Yes," Jack said; "there are, so far as I know, no other British but ourselves in Arragon."
"Then we were misinformed," the officer said; "the news was received last night that the Earl of Peterborough was himself here; and although it was but in the afternoon that we had heard that your general was at Valencia, his movements are so swift and erratic that, if we heard of him in Portugal one hour we should not be surprised to find him here the next." He stopped as shots were heard fired in the streets.
"You must excuse ceremony, sir," he said, "and mount at once with your men and accompany me. In ten minutes we shall have the whole country buzzing round us like wasps; and now that the object of my ride is accomplished, I don't wish to throw away my men's lives."
The horses were saddled without loss of time, and in two or three minutes Jack was trotting down the village in the midst of the French cavalry amid a scathing fire from behind the houses and walls.
The French officer rode at the head of his troop till well beyond the village, then reining in his horse, joined his prisoner.
"And now," he asked, "whom have I the honor of capturing?"
"I am Captain Stilwell," Jack replied, "one of the Earl of Peterborough's aides de camp."
"I am Captain de Courcy," the French officer said; "happily, although the French and English have taken opposite sides on this question, we can esteem and honor each other as brave and civilized adversaries. As for these Spanish scoundrels, they are no better than banditti; they murder us in our beds, they poison our wine, they as often as not burn us alive if we fall into their hands; they are savages, neither more nor less; and why Philip of Anjou, who could have had all the pleasures of life as a prince of the blood at Versailles, should covet the kingship of this country, passes my understanding. And now tell me about that paladin, your general. Peste, what a man! And you are one of his aides de camp? Why, if he drags you about everywhere with him, you must lead the life of a dog."
"When I last heard of the general he was at Valencia," Jack said. "But that was ten days since."
"Ten days!" the Frenchman said; "then by now he may be in London, or in Rome, or at Paris."
"With the wind favoring him he might be at Rome, but he could scarcely have arrived at either London or Paris."
"There is no saying," the French officer laughed. "Has he not three leagued boots, and can he not step from mountain to mountain? Does he not fly through a storm on a broomstick? Can he not put on a cap and make himself invisible? For I can tell you that our soldiers credit him with all these powers. Can he not, by waving his hand, multiply three hundred men into an army, spread them over a wide extent of country, and then cause them to sink into the ground and disappear? Our soldiers are convinced that he is in league with the evil one, even if he be not the gentlemen in black himself."
Jack joined in the laugh. "He is a wonderful man," he said, "though he cannot do all you credit him with. But he is absolutely tireless, and can do without sleep for any time; and yet to look at him no one would think that he was in any way a strong man. He is small, thin, and worn looking--in fact, almost insignificant in appearance, were it not for his keen eye and a certain lofty expression of face. My post is no sinecure, I can assure you, for the general expects all to be able to do as well as himself. But with a chief who never spares himself all are willing to do their best. Extreme as has been the labor of the troops, severe as have been their hardships, you will never hear a grumble; the men have most implicit confidence in him, and are ready to go anywhere and do anything he orders them."
"He is a marvel," the French officer said. "The way he took Barcelona, and then, with a handful of men, hunted our armies out of Catalonia and Valencia, was wonderful; and though it was at our cost, and not a little to our discredit, there is not an officer in the army but admires your general. Fortunately I was not in Barcelona when you laid siege to it, but I was with Las Torres afterward when you were driving us about like sheep. I shall never forget that time. We never knew when to expect an attack, what force was opposed to us, or from what direction you would come. I laugh now, but it was no joke then."
Three hours' riding took them into the little town from which the French cavalry had started in the middle of the night. On arriving there the French officer at once sent off a trooper to Madrid, reporting the prisoners he had taken, and forty-eight hours later he received orders to himself conduct his prisoners to Madrid.
Upon arriving there Jack was at once taken before the Duke of Berwick, who received him courteously, and asked him many questions concerning the force under the earl, the intentions of Barcelona to resist the two French armies now hurrying before it. To these questions Jack gave cautious answers. As to matters concerning which he was sure that the French must have accurate information, he replied frankly. Fortunately he was, as he truly said, in entire ignorance as to the plans of the earl, and as to Barcelona, he knew nothing whatever of what had taken place there from the day when he suddenly left with Peterborough.
"I would place you on your parole with pleasure," the duke said, "but I tell you frankly that in the present excited state of public feeling I do not think it will be safe for you to move through the streets unprotected. So many of our officers have been murdered in Saragossa and other places that the lower class of Spaniards would think it a meritorious action to take vengeance on an English officer. Of course I am well aware that the English have nothing to do with these atrocities, but the people in general are not able to draw nice distinctions. I shall send you to France on the first opportunity, to remain there till exchanged."
"Thank you, sir," Jack said; "I should prefer not being put on my parole, for I shall certainly escape if I have the opportunity. I should tell you, sir, that I have ridden through Arragon, and though I do not wish to excuse the murders perpetrated by the Spaniards, I must tell you that I cannot blame them; for, horrible as are their deeds, they are simply acts of retaliation for the abominable atrocities which Marshal Tesse allows and encourages his troops to perpetrate upon the population. I have the highest respect, sir, for the French nation, but if I were the Earl of Peterborough, and Marshal Tesse fell into my hands, I would hand him over to the Spaniards to be torn in pieces as he deserves."
"You speak boldly, sir," the duke said sternly.
"I feel what I say, sir," Jack replied. "I think it well that you, a general high in command under the French king, should know the atrocities perpetrated in his name by this man upon defenseless people. I could tell you, sir, a score of stories which I heard in Arragon, although I was but two days there, of massacre and murder which would make your blood run cold. I confess that personally I have no greater interest in King Charles than in King Philip. I have seen so much of the Austrian and his advisers that I believe that if the Earl of Peterborough were to seat him on his throne here tomorrow, he would be driven from the country a fugitive before many weeks were over; but in the same way I am convinced that Philip of Anjou will never be accepted by the Spanish as their king if his cause be stained by such atrocities as those carried out by Marshal Tesse in his name."
The duke then asked Jack if he had any objections to state the particular object for which he was sent into Arragon by his general; and Jack was glad to be able to say truthfully that the earl knew nothing of his being there, he having sent him simply to assist the Count of Cifuentes in barring the advance of the French army into Catalonia, and that when he had carried out that order he had ridden into Arragon on his own account, in order that he might, on his return to the earl, be able to give him an accurate description of the state of affairs in that province.
"Then so far as you know, Captain Stilwell, the Earl of Peterborough is still at Valencia, and has no intention of leaving that province at present."
"I can say truly, sir, that so far as I know the general had no intention of leaving Valencia; but as his decisions are generally taken instantaneously, and are a surprise to all about him, I should be sorry to assert that the earl remained in Valencia a quarter of an hour after I quitted the city."
"It matters little," the duke said, "the affair is rapidly approaching an end. Barcelona must surrender as soon as Tesse and the Duke de Noailles appear before it; the breaches are open, and there are not a thousand men in garrison. Barcelona once fallen, the cause of the Austrian is lost. Your general is already watched by an army four times as strong as his own, and the twenty thousand men under the marshal will compel him to take to his ships, and will stamp out the last embers of the insurrection. You agree with me, do you not?" he asked as Jack remained silent.
"Well, sir, it seems that it must be as you say, and I have only to reply that you have not reckoned upon the Earl of Peterborough. What he will do I do not pretend to say, but knowing him as I do, I can say that he will give you trouble. I don't think that anything can be considered as a certainty in which you have the Earl of Peterborough to reckon with."
"He is a great man," the duke said--"a great man, and has performed marvels; but there is a limit to the possibilities which one man can perform, and here that limit is passed. I shall give orders, Captain Stilwell, that your imprisonment is made as little disagreeable as possible, and that you have everything you require."
Jack expressed his thanks and retired. On leaving the room he was again taken charge of by Captain do Courcy and four of his troopers, and was conducted by him to the citadel.
The quarters assigned to Jack were by no means uncomfortable. A good meal was placed before him, and after he had finished it the governor of the citadel called upon him and told him that he was at liberty to go where he would within the walls, and that any wishes he might express he would do his best to comply with. Jack at once availed himself of his liberty by going out into the courtyard and thence on to the walls of the citadel. It was a strongly fortified and gloomy building, which has now ceased to exist. It covered a considerable portion of ground, and had at one time been a royal residence; the walls were strong and high, and sentries were placed on them at short intervals.
Jack saw at once there was little possibility of escape thence, and decided that he might as well abandon any idea of evasion for the present, and would trust to luck in escaping from his escort on the road to the frontier, or, if no opportunity then presented itself, from his prison in France. A week after his arrival he was surprised by being told that an officer wished to see him, and a minute later Major Ferre entered the apartment.
"I only arrived an hour ago," he said, "and learned that you were prisoner here. Who would have thought when we parted last, and you gave me my liberty, that on my arrival here I should find that you had already been a week a prisoner? Horses' legs move faster than men's, you see."
"It is the fortune of war," Jack said, smiling. "I am glad to see that you got out of Arragon safely."
"It was thanks to your seeing that we were provided with ammunition," the major said. "The peasants swarmed round us hotly more than once, and it was the fact that we had our arms and were ready to use them, quite as much as my assurances that we were prisoners on parole, and had promised not to serve in Spain until exchanged, that kept them from making an attack upon us; as it was we nearly came to blows several times. I marched that day till the men were ready to drop, and camped at a distance from a road in a lonely place. I dared not scatter my men in a village. The next day we kept steadily on and crossed the frontier into Castile, pretty well worn out, just at nightfall. I had to give my men two days' halt before we could go further, and we have since come by easy stages, which accounts for your being here so long before us. And now, is there anything that I can do for you? If there is, command my service to the utmost. I shall see the duke this afternoon, and shall tell him that I and my party are indebted to you for our lives. It is well for me that he is in command here instead of the marshal; he is a gentleman, and will respect the parole I gave for myself and my men; if it had been Tesse I might have had trouble, for as likely as not he would have scoffed at my promise, and ordered me and my men back to the front again, and then I should have been placed in a nice fix."
"The best thing you could do for me," Jack said, "would be to suggest to the marshal that he should exchange me against you. If he will let me take my two troopers I would throw in all your men. There will be no occasion to arrange it with our general; you gave your word to me, and I can give it you back again. As I am of no use to him, and you are, I should think he would consent."
"I should think so too," Major Ferre said, "and should be delighted, on both our accounts, if it could be managed."
Three hours later the major returned in high spirits.
"I have arranged the matter," he said, "and we are both free men. You can't stir out of here at present, because it would not be safe for you to go about Madrid; but I have orders to march tomorrow morning, in command of a convoy, to join Las Torres outside Valencia, so you can ride with me till we get near the town, and then join your people."
Jack was delighted, and the next morning set out with the convoy. His appearance, as he rode by the side of Major Ferre with his two orderlies behind him, excited the greatest surprise and curiosity in the various towns and villages through which they passed. The journey was a pleasant one, Major Ferre exerting himself in every way to make it as pleasant as possible. After four days' journey the convoy arrived within sight of Valencia. When they came to a place where the roads forked the major said:
"That is your way, my dear Stilwell. I hope that some day the fortunes of war will throw us together again, in some pleasant position where we can renew our friendship. Two miles on is a ford across the river, where, as the peasants tell me, two of your vedettes are posted; another hour's ride will take you to Valencia."
With a hearty goodby on both sides, Jack and his two dragoons rode off, and soon astonished the English vedettes by their appearance on the opposite bank of the river. A few words in English convinced the soldiers that it was no trick that was being played with them, and Jack rode across the ford and then galloped on to Valencia.
"Well, Captain Stilwell," the earl said as Jack entered his apartment, "what news do you bring me from Barcelona? I hear that Tesse has invested the town."
"My last news is from Madrid, general," Jack said; "I have had to stay a week in that city."
And he then proceeded to relate the series of events which had happened from the time he joined the Count of Cifuentes.
"I know I exceeded my duty, general," he said when he finished, "in going up into Arragon without orders; but I felt that I was of little use with the count, who handles the Miquelets well, and I thought that you would be glad of trustworthy information of the state of feeling in Arragon, and perhaps of Castile."
"You were quite right," the earl said, "and have done exceedingly well. Yours has been an adventure after my own heart, and you have just arrived here in time, for I am on the point of starting to do what I can to harass the besiegers of Barcelona."