Chapter XVII: A Robber's Den
 

"What mean you by knocking thus furiously?" the landlord of the little inn asked angrily.

"What mean you by keeping your door shut in the face of travellers on such a night as this?" Hector replied, even more loudly. "Are honest men to be kept waiting in the rain while you are taking no steps to let them in?"

"How could I tell that you are honest men?" the landlord retorted.

"Because if we had not been honest men we should long before this have battered your door down, as indeed I was just going to do when you opened it."

"Well, come in," the landlord said with an evil smile. "Maybe you would have done better to have passed on."

He showed them into the taproom, where two or three rough men were sitting.

"What did these fellows mean by knocking so loudly?" one of them asked angrily.

"It means," Hector replied, "that travellers have a right to claim shelter of an inn; and indeed, inn or no inn, no one would refuse shelter to travellers on such a night as this is going to be." And his words were emphasized by a crash of thunder overhead.

"You crow pretty loud, young fellow," the man growled.

"I speak loud because I have right on my side. I desire to quarrel with no man; but one need indeed be a saint to keep one's temper when one is kept standing outside a door with the rain coming down in great drops, and threatening in another minute to come in bucketfuls. It is all the worse when, as you see, one has a sick comrade with one."

The man spoke in a low voice to the three others seated at the table with him. "May I ask whither you were journeying when thus caught in the storm?" he asked in a more civil tone than he had hitherto used.

"Certainly you may. We were in haste to get on to Gunzenhausen by morning, as a friend of ours has work ready for us there. We did not expect this storm when we left Eichstadt just before the gates closed, and as the nights are short we thought we would push straight through."

"You are woodmen, I see."

"Ay, woodmen and charcoal burners."

"You are not from this part, at least, judging from your tongue."

"Nor, I fancy, are you," Hector replied.

"No," the other said. "In times like these every one is liable to be driven from home either because the troops of one army or another have plundered and destroyed everything, or perhaps because he has been forced into the ranks."

"That is just our case, and you will understand that in times like these, as you say, no one cares to answer questions on the part of strangers. But we have no particular cause of concealment. We have both been in the army, and, as you see, have left it, and have our reasons for wishing to travel at night, when there is no chance of falling in with troops whose officers might ask inconvenient questions. As, thanks to our host and you, we are nearly wet through, we will thank him to get ready as quick as may be two flagons of hot beer, and if he has got a couple of eggs to beat up in each of them, so much the better."

The landlord left the room, and a minute or two later the man who had spoken to Hector got up and went out.

"These men are up to no good," Hector whispered to Paolo as they sat down on a bench at a table some little distance from that at which the other men were seated. "I am sorry now that I asked for the liquor, it was necessary to order something. I should not be surprised if they drug it. Do you put yours to your lips, and then groan as if it hurt you too much to try to swallow, and leave it standing in front of you. I will pretend to drink mine, and will manage to pour it away on the floor. Presently do you lean forward on to the table and appear to fall asleep. As I am in the corner, I will lean back and seem to go off also. Unless I am greatly mistaken this is a regular thieves' den. Keep one hand on the butt of a pistol. We will both keep awake for a time, and if nothing comes of it we will then watch by turns. It is clear that they suspect that we are not what we seem."

The men at the other table were talking together in low voices, and, listening intently, Hector could hear a murmur of voices in the room behind him.

"There were more than two voices there," he whispered presently to Paolo. The latter nodded, for he too had been listening. Presently the landlord returned with the two flagons of hot beer, which were set down on the table before them. The room was lighted only by a torch stuck in a cresset on the wall, and Hector had purposely seated himself as far from this as possible. Paolo took up his mug, raised it to his lips, and then set it down again with a sudden cry.

"I am afraid that you will not be able to take it," Hector said aloud.

"What is the matter with your comrade?" the landlord asked.

"He has a terrible abscess in his jaw, and is unable to speak or to swallow."

The landlord took the torch from its place and walked over and looked at Paolo's cheek. "There is no mistake about that," he said. "It is indeed a terrible swelling, and the cheek looks almost raw."

"He has put liniments on it," Hector said, "but they seem to have done him harm rather than good. However, he is not so bad as he was, and I hope that the abscess will break ere long."

The landlord fastened the torch up again, and said in a low tone to the other men: "There is no doubt about his face being bad." As he turned away from the table he stood between Hector and the other men, and the former seized the opportunity of pouring the contents of his mug against the wall by his knee, knowing that as the floor was of earth it would soak it up at once. From time to time he lifted the mug to his lips, until he apparently drained it. Then half closing his eyes he leant up against the corner. Paolo had already laid his head down on the table, and after a time both breathed heavily and regularly. Half an hour later one of the men rose noiselessly and left the room. Two or three minutes afterwards he returned with the host, the man who had gone out before, and two others.

"Seven against two," Hector thought to himself. "However, we shall have the advantage of a surprise." He touched Paolo with his foot to assure himself that he had not really gone off to sleep, but the responsive movement showed that he also was on his guard. The man who had first left the room and one of the others drew their long knives and stepped quietly forward, while the others, also with bared weapons, prepared to support them if necessary. Hector waited until the two leaders were close, then he exclaimed sharply, "Now!" at the same moment throwing forward his hand with the pistol. Two reports rang out at the same moment, and the men pitched heavily forward. A yell of surprise and fury broke from the others, but ere they could step over their fallen comrades, Hector and his companion stood erect with their second pistols in their right hands and their axes ready for action in their left.

Hector's second shot took effect on the landlord, Paolo's apparently missed, for the other four rushed forward. Hector dashed the table aside, and he and Paolo, poising their heavy axes, rushed forward to meet their assailants.

"Mind the beams," Hector shouted, as with a sweeping side blow he clove in the head of one opponent. But the warning came too late. Paolo struck a downward blow, the axe caught the low beams of the ceiling, and it flew from his hand. His opponent sprang upon him. Paolo caught the man's right wrist as he struck at him with his knife, and drew his own from his girdle. His assailant threw his other arm round him, and, grappling, they fell on to the ground. Hector could do nothing to assist him, for the other two men were trying to circle round him, keeping beyond the swing of his axe but watching for an opportunity to spring upon him. Keeping his back against the wall he made feints against them. Presently one of the men passed between him and the two antagonists struggling on the ground. Suddenly they rolled over and over, coming in contact with him from behind and almost throwing him over. Before he could recover from the shock Hector's axe struck him below the ear.

The other man would have turned and made for the door, but Hector knew that it was important that he should not escape and carry the news to others of his party, who might be in the forest. He therefore sprang after him, and before the wretch could open the door struck him between the shoulders with his long knife. As he did so Paolo sprung up with a shout.

"Thank God that you are alive, Paolo! I was afraid that he might have killed you."

"No, no, master. I had him by the wrist too firmly for that, and my knife did its work almost directly. But with those two fellows hovering round I should have been at their mercy had I tried to get on my feet. So I kept on struggling until I saw my opportunity, and then as that fellow's back was turned I rolled over against him, and so gave you the chance that you were waiting for. Well, master, it has been a sharp business."

"It has indeed. Now the first thing is to see if there is anyone else in the house, and the next to look about for some clothes for you to put on, for those you wear are covered with blood. Then we must be off, and put as many miles between us and this place before morning as we can."

A brief search showed that the place was empty, save for the dead in the taproom. An old doublet belonging to the landlord was found hanging up in the loft where he slept. Taking off his outer garments, Paolo put this on.

"It is lucky I kept my breeches on under the others," he said, "for I certainly could not have gone into a town with these stained things on. I suppose there is some money hidden somewhere, but we have not time to look. You may be sure that many a traveller has been murdered here."

"I quite agree with you, but we have certainly no time to spare to hunt for it. Let us be off at once."

Reloading their pistols and carefully wiping their axes they went out by a door at the back of the house, for neither cared to re-enter the scene of the slaughter. Before doing so, however, they took a long draught from the landlord's beer barrel, to make up for the drink of which they had deprived themselves. The storm had passed, and the stars were shining brightly. They met nobody on their way until within two or three miles of Gunzenhausen; it was found that the haft of Paolo's axe was deeply stained with blood; and he threw it away on issuing from the wood, as it did not accord well with his present attire, which was rather that of a discharged soldier or a worker in cities than of a countryman. Soon after eight o'clock they approached the town. They were now greatly fatigued, for they had done two long days' marches without any sleep between them, and turning off from the road they made their way to a little clump of trees, and there threw themselves down in the shade and slept until late in the afternoon.

"I think that after our experience of last night, Paolo," Hector said, as they walked towards the town, "we had better wait until we can join some party going to Hall before we leave this place. From what I hear, the road is a great deal more infested with bands of lawless men than that along which we have come."

"Then, master, I think we had certainly better wait, for I don't want anything worse than we had yesterday."

They went to a small inn, had supper, and then lay down on some straw in an outhouse and slept soundly until morning. Then they breakfasted, and as there was no one else in the room Paolo was able to eat freely. Presently the landlord came in, and Hector entered into conversation with him.

"We want to go on to Hall," he said. "We have friends there, and we are obliged to leave home because we should be taken for the army."

"Well, I don't think that you will find yourself better off at Hall than here. They are catching up every ablebodied young fellow and putting him into the ranks, and as you both look strong and active, except for your comrade's face, you are both likely to be seized as soon as you enter Hall, especially if you have no papers to show."

"We are not thinking of entering Hall, landlord. Our friends live a few miles away, and they will hide us till the army moves away from these parts."

"That will be before long, thank the saints! There is news that a great French army marched from Spires three days ago, and there is like to be a great fight before long; and if the French are beaten Merci will chase them back to the Rhine, recapture all the towns that they have taken, and perhaps enter Alsace."

"Which way do they say that the French are marching?"

"They took the road to Weisloch. Some think that they will come through Wimpfen, and then by Weinsberg here, unless Merci bars the way. Others again think that they will make their way down through Stuttgart. Five hundred men march from here tomorrow to Hall, whence they go on to Heilbronn to strengthen the garrison there. All the waggons in the town and country round have been fetched in to carry their stores and baggage and a convoy of ammunition. I should say that you could not do better than go on with the waggons. No one is likely to ask you any questions, for it will be thought that you are drivers."

"Thank you very much," Hector said; "that would certainly be a capital plan. We were afraid of going through the forests alone."

"Yes, and you were right. They are full of marauders. A party of troopers arrived here from Eichstadt yesterday evening. They stopped to get a drink at a cabaret in the forest, and on entering found seven men lying dead, and no one living to say how they got there. That some, if not all, were robbers was evident from the fact that, on the bodies being searched, articles evidently plundered from travellers were found upon all of them. An examination was made of the house, and considerable quantities of plunder found hidden. Searching in the forest behind, several mounds of earth, evidently graves, were discovered. The landlord himself was among the killed, for one of the troopers, who had before stopped at the house, recognized him. It was supposed that the brigands were killed by some other party with whom they had quarrelled. Three of them were shot and two killed by tremendous blows from an axe, and as neither pistols nor axes were found in the room it is clear that those within had been killed by some other band."

The next morning, when the column started, Hector and Paolo fell in among the carts, and rendered good service on the road by helping to move them when the wheels of the waggons stuck fast at spots where the road crossed marshy valleys. So bad was the journey that it occupied two days. Then the waggons were parked outside the walls of Hall, a guard being placed round them to prevent desertion. The troops slept inside the town. At daybreak the next morning their march was arrested by an officer riding out from the town, saying that news had arrived on the previous evening that the French were marching upon Heilbronn, that General Merci was concentrating his army there to oppose the passage of the river, and that the troops were to push on with all speed, leaving their baggage train at Hall. Hector at once decided that, with the Bavarian army gathering in front, it would be madness to endeavour to push on, and that indeed it would be far better to fall back until the direction of the French march was fully determined, when they could make a detour and come down upon their flank without having to pass through the Bavarian army. He did not, however, care about remaining in Hall, which might be occupied by the Bavarians if they fell back, and they therefore, after entering the town with the waggons, purchased a store of provisions, and, going out again, established themselves in a small farmhouse, whose occupants had deserted it and fled into the town upon hearing that the French were but some thirty miles distant.

Every day Hector went into the place to gather news, and learned that Wimpfen had been captured by the French by a sudden assault, and that they had crossed the Neckar. On returning he at once started with Paolo, but on approaching the Neckar learned that the French had marched on to Rothenburg. They fell in, however, with a detachment which had been left on the Neckar. Hector found among them several officers to whom he was known, and, borrowing Paolo's money, fitted himself and follower out again, bought a couple of horses that had been captured from the Bavarians, who had, he learned, retired to Franconia, and set out to join the army. Rothenburg had been, he found out on his arrival, captured in a few hours, and the main body of the French had marched to Dinkelsbuhl, and there he came up with them. He had learned from the party on the Neckar of the defection of Konigsmark and the Swedes, and that Conde and Turenne's united army did not exceed twenty thousand men, and, as he knew, that of Merci was at least equal to it in strength. His first question on entering the camp was as to the quarters of his own regiment, and he at once rode there. As soon as he was recognized the men ran to him, cheering wildly, and so great was the tumult that Turenne himself, whose headquarters were but a short distance away, rode to the spot to enquire the cause of the tumult. When he saw Hector surrounded by his cheering soldiers he passed through the crowd, and, reaching him, shook him warmly by the hand.

"I had hoped that we might have made an exchange for you during the winter, colonel, but I had not thought it possible that I should see you again before that time; for in the first place, we captured no prisoners in this campaign, but, on the contrary, have had many of our own officers taken; and in the second place, we have been too busy ever since Marienthal to enter into negotiations. You have, I suppose, given them the slip, you and that varlet of yours, for I see him over there."

"Yes, marshal; we had no very great difficulty in getting away. I have been very well treated, and until I heard that you were again taking the offensive, I had no reason to fret over my imprisonment."

"Well, you have joined us just in time, for at any moment we may fight a great battle. When you have leisure this evening come over to my tent. I shall be glad to hear how you managed to escape, and any news you have gained as to Merci's force and intentions."

As soon as the marshal had ridden off, his officers pressed round him, but before speaking to them individually Hector said a few words to the men, thanking them for the greeting they had given him, and saying that he was glad indeed to be back among them. Then he talked for a time to the officers, two or three of whom, after saying a few words apart to Captain de Thiou, had hurried away. Half an hour later de Thiou said:

"I have no doubt that you will be glad of supper, colonel. Ours is just prepared, and we hope that you will join us."

"I am hungry, de Thiou, now I come to think of it, for except a crust of bread this morning I have not touched anything today."

"It is fortunate that we are better off than usual," de Thiou said. "We had the luck to buy a pig from one of Weimar's troopers. The cavalry get the best of it, for though there are orders against pillaging, there is no doubt that a good deal of it goes on; and, marching as we have been, there is no one to see that orders are strictly carried out. However, we have benefited by it this afternoon."

Accompanying de Thiou, Hector was surprised to find that at a short distance in front of the spot where the regiment was bivouacked a large arbour had been erected.

"I did not notice this as I rode in," he said.

"It was not even thought of then, colonel; it was begun a few minutes after you rode up, and the men have worked right willingly, and fortunately there was a copse hard by. I may say that it was the men's own idea. I had given orders that a table should be made of any materials that came to hand, and one of the men started the idea of building an arbour over it, and as many hands make quick work it has, as you see, been constructed in little over half an hour."

As the evening was warm the front of the arbour had been left open. Inside, a rough table had been constructed of empty casks, planks taken from the bottom of the waggons, and a couple of doors from cottages near, while powder barrels served as seats.

"Now, colonel, will you take the head of the table?" de Thiou said.

"Certainly not, de Thiou. I am your guest upon this occasion, so do you take that place, and I will sit upon your right hand."

"I only wish that we could have given you a dinner like those you so often gave us at St. Denis."

"I shall enjoy it as much as if it were a royal feast," Hector said, seating himself; "for indeed since I escaped from Ingoldstadt some ten days ago I have been living on black bread, sausage, and cheese."

The meal was a joyous one, for at the assault of Rothenburg on the previous day several barrels of wine had been captured by the soldiers of the regiment. These had been bought from them by the officers, who had feared that some of the men might drink to excess, and so damage the reputation which the regiment had obtained for sobriety and discipline. One of these had been broached, and this and the pork afforded an excellent supper even though the bread was of the worst possible quality. When the meal was over, de Thiou stood up and proposed the health of the colonel, and congratulated him most warmly upon his escape from the enemy, expressing the extreme satisfaction of all the men as well as officers at his return. The toast was drunk with enthusiasm, and Hector briefly returned thanks. Then, in accordance with the general request, he related the particulars of his escape from Ingoldstadt and of his journey. Paolo, who had been waiting behind his master's chair, came in for warm praise for the share he had taken in the matter.

"I certainly did not think when I first, against the advice of everyone, took Paolo as my lackey five years ago, that he would turn out so valuable a servant as he has done," Hector said as de Thiou handed a goblet of wine to the man. "He has been more than a servant, he has taken part in all my adventures, and truly I regard him as my friend. Indeed, gentlemen, had it not been for him I certainly should not be here tonight, for my own money gave out altogether at Hall, and I had to borrow from his store the means of buying clothes and horses."

"By the way, colonel," de Thiou said, "from the day that you were captured I have drawn your pay for you, knowing that if it fell into arrear you would have had hard work in getting it, so that I have now three months of your money in the regimental chest."

"Thank you, de Thiou, it will be very welcome; though Paolo would not have been a very hard creditor."

At eight o'clock the party broke up, and Hector walked across to Turenne's quarters. The latter had just returned from a consultation with the other generals.

"We shall open our trenches here tonight; the place is of some importance, as it is on the direct road to Nordlingen, and it is as well not to leave it behind us. This, however, we shall do, if news comes that Merci is marching to give us battle before that city, which we expect he will do. The Imperialists will like to fight there, for it was the scene of their great victory over the Duke of Weimar and the Swedes."

"We must hope that we shall reverse matters this time, marshal."

"We must hope so," the latter said gravely; "if we fight on a fair field I have no misgivings whatever. But Merci always takes up strong positions and entrenches himself, and Enghien is so anxious to fight that he will do so at a disadvantage rather than wait until we can meet them on even terms. You know what happened at Freiburg, where we lost some nine thousand men and gained no great advantage; while if we had moved round and threatened their line of retreat the enemy must have fallen back at once, we should have obtained our object without the loss of a man, and might possibly have fallen upon Merci in his retreat, and well nigh annihilated his army. Do not think, Campbell, that I am for a moment underestimating Enghien's genius. It is extraordinary, and in the hour of battle he is superb, not only from his extreme personal bravery, but from the quickness with which he grasps every point, seizes upon the spot where a blow can be best delivered, and snatches victory, where another would see only defeat before him. But he is reckless of life so long as he carries his point, and rather than lose a day in turning the enemy's position and so forcing him to relinquish it, will sacrifice whole regiments by marching straight against the most formidable entrenchments. Had he but patience in addition to his own splendid qualities, I think he would be the greatest military genius the world has ever seen. And now let me hear what happened to you after you left my side that night after Marienthal."

Hector again related his adventures. Turenne laughed at the account of his escape, hidden under the flour bags.

"It was a good scheme," he said; "and it was well that you had that lackey of yours with you, for I do not think that you could ever have managed it unaided."

"I am sure I could not, marshal; it was entirely his suggestion, and he arranged all the details splendidly. He was equally valuable in another way afterwards;" and he described the fight in the cabaret.

"That was more dangerous than taking part in a pitched battle; seven against two are heavy odds indeed, though you had the advantage of weapons. The fellow has a ready wit to think of rolling against the man who was waiting for a chance of running in and stabbing you; he would have made his fortune somehow even if he had not had the good luck to fall in with you. In some respects you resemble each other; you both have enterprise, quickness, and daring, but he lacks your studious habits, your determination to master everything connected with your profession, and your ability to turn your knowledge to account. He would have made a good soldier, an excellent leader of an irregular corps, but he would never have gained distinction. Well, I am very glad to have had a quiet talk with you; it takes one out of one's worries and anxieties. By the way, I had a letter from Mazarin; it reached me while I was at Spires. He said he was sorry to hear that you had been taken prisoner, and requested me to make an exchange for you as soon as possible, even if I had to give a general officer for you, for he was very deeply your debtor, and had the highest esteem for you. What have you been doing to make him your debtor? You never mentioned anything of the sort to me."

"The matter was to some degree a state one, marshal, or I should have told you of it; but as it took place nearly a year ago, and the circumstances are altogether changed, I can mention them to you in confidence -- for even now, were it known, it might make me some powerful enemies." He then related how it was that he had thwarted the attempt on Mazarin's life.

"That was a piece of singular good fortune," Turenne said. "Mazarin is a staunch friend and a bitter enemy. I owe him no goodwill, for he has behaved shamefully to de Bouillon, refusing to hand to him the estates for which he exchanged his principality of Sedan; but I do not permit myself to allow family interests to weigh with me against my duties to France. Truly, as you say, it were well to hide your share in a business that sent De Beaufort and a score of others to prison, and a dozen members of powerful families into exile; it might well cause you serious trouble were it known. You did well to keep the matter to yourself, and you did specially well to refuse to accept any personal honour, for had you done so Mazarin's enemies would at once have connected that fact with the discovery of the plot."

On returning to his regiment, Hector found that an order had come just after he left, for four companies to march down under the guidance of an engineer officer to begin work on the trenches. De Thiou, knowing that he had gone to the marshal's, had gone down with the four leading companies. The other infantry regiments had furnished similar contingents, showing that the siege was to be pushed forward with all haste.

"Enghien does not allow the grass to grow under his feet," Captain Mieville said. "We stormed Wimpfen a few hours after our arrival before it; we carried Rothenburg in a single night, and I expect that by tomorrow evening we shall be masters of this place."

In the morning four more companies went down to relieve those who had been at work all night, and these had made great progress when, in the afternoon, the news came that Merci was marching with all his strength towards Nordlingen. Trumpets at once sounded to recall the troops from the trenches, a meal was hastily cooked, and at sunset the army marched for Nordlingen. All night they pushed on through the forest, and just as the leading squadrons emerged from it on to the plain, Merci's forces were seen issuing out from the forest facing them. Both armies at once formed in order of battle.

Enghien, anxious to attack, rode forward with Turenne, de Gramont, and Geis to reconnoitre the ground. It was found that between the armies there was a small river, with great pools and swamps on either side, and that the only approaches were by narrow and winding paths where two horsemen could scarcely ride abreast. Even Enghien felt that it would be madness to venture upon an attack. His artillery opened fire, that of the Bavarians replied, and the cannonade was continued till nightfall, inflicting a certain amount of loss on either side but in no way altering the position. Seeing that a battle could not be brought on here, Enghien marched two hours before daybreak for Nordlingen. At nine the army came down on to the great plain in front of that town, but he found that Merci had been beforehand with him, and had already taken up a strong position two leagues away, and between him and the city, and that his troops were already at work throwing up intrenchments. The prince ordered all the baggage to be left behind, and at once marched against the enemy. At four o'clock they were facing each other. Merci had, as usual, chosen his position with great judgment. In the middle of the plain rose two little hills about a thousand yards apart. On the hill on his left stood the castle of Allersheim, and here Merci's left wing, under General John de Werth, was posted; while at Weinberg his right, commanded by General Gleen, took up its station. The main body of the army, under Merci himself, lay behind a village a couple of hundred yards beyond the hills, and at the head of the passage between them. He had his cavalry on his two wings, his infantry in the centre, and had thrown forward some regiments to hold the village. On the two hills he had planted his cannon, sheltered by intrenchments, and in a position to sweep the entrance to the valley.

His army consisted of between fourteen and fifteen thousand men, that of Enghien of seventeen thousand. After examining the position a council of war was held. Turenne was strongly against attacking the enemy in a position of such strength, but Enghien as usual overruled his opinion. Turenne then urged that the cavalry on the wings should not charge up the hills and attack the positions held there until the enemy's centre had been defeated, and his advice in this respect was taken. The generals then separated and rode to their respective commands. De Gramont commanded the right wing, consisting of all the French cavalry, and having as a second line a reserve consisting of four battalions of infantry and six squadrons of horse commanded by Chevalier de Chabot. Turenne commanded the left, which consisted of his own army, with twelve squadrons of Weimar's cavalry, with the Hessian army -- six battalions and six squadrons -- as a second line. The centre, consisting of ten battalions and five squadrons of horse, was commanded by Count de Marsin. Enghien took no special command, preferring to remain free to go where his presence was most needed.