Chapter XII. A Dangerous Mission

Captain Nelson at once took Terence under his charge.

"You certainly look as if you wanted a new uniform," he said. "You must have had an awfully rough time of it. If only for the sake of policy, we ought to get you into a new one as soon as possible, for the very sight of yours would be likely to demoralize the whole division by affording a painful example of what they might expect on a campaign."

Terence laughed. "I know I look a perfect scarecrow. Do you think that you can find me something? I really don't know what I should have done if I had not had my greatcoat, for I could never have ventured to walk through the street from the little inn where I put up my horse, if I could not have hidden myself in it."

"I can, fortunately, put you in the right way without difficulty. There is a man here who has made a business of buying up uniforms. I believe he sends most of them to England, where they would certainly fetch a good deal more than he gave for them; but I know that he keeps a stock by him, for there is a constant demand. The work out in the country here does for a uniform in no time, and many men who, before marching for the frontier, parted with all their extra kit for a song, are glad enough to write to him for a fresh outfit at three times the price he gave them two or three months before."

"I wonder they don't send their surplus outfit back to England direct," Terence said.

"Well, you see, there is the risk of the things being lost or stolen on the way home, or being ruined by damp before they are wanted again. Besides, a man thinks there is no saying whether he shall ever want them again, or how long the war will last, and is glad to take anything he can get to save himself any further bother about them."

Terence was fortunate in being able to buy an undress uniform, with facings similar to those of his own regiment, and to lay in a stock of underclothes at a very much lower price than he could have purchased them for even at home. Before leaving the shop he put on his new uniform and left the old one to be thrown away.

"Now," Captain Nelson said, when they left the shop, "it is just our lunch time. You must come with me and tell us all about your wonderful march and the fight at the end of it."

"I was going down to see about my horse."

"Oh, that is all right! I sent down an orderly to bring him up to our stables. There, this is where we mess," he said, stopping before a hotel. "We find it much more comfortable than having it in a room at head-quarters. Besides, one gets away from duty here. Of course, the chief knows where we are, and can send for us if we are wanted; but one gets off being set to do a lot of office work in the evening, and we find ourselves much more free and comfortable when we haven't got two or three of the big-wigs of the staff. So they have a little mess of their own there, and we have a room kept for ourselves here."

There were more than a dozen officers assembled when the two entered the room, where a meal was laid; for Captain Nelson had looked into the hotel for a moment on their way to the tailor's, to tell his companions who Terence was, and to say that he should bring him in to lunch. They had told some of their acquaintances. Terence was introduced all round, and as soon as the first course was taken off the table he was asked many questions as to the march and battle; and by the time when, an hour later, the party broke up, they had learned the leading incidents of the campaign.

"You may guess how anxious we were here," one of them said, "when Moore's last despatch from Salamanca arrived, saying that he intended to advance, and stating his reasons. Then there was a long silence; all sorts of rumours reached us. Some said that, aided by a great Spanish army, he had overthrown Napoleon, and had entered Madrid; others, again, stated that his army had been crushed, and he, with the survivors, were prisoners, and were on their way to the frontier--in fact, we had no certain news until three days ago, when we heard of the battle, his death, and the embarkation of the army, and its sailing for England. The last was a terrible blunder."

"Only a temporary one, I should think," Captain Nelson said. "From Mr. O'Connor's account of the state of the army, I should think that it is just as well that they should have gone home to obtain an entirely new rig-out; there would be no means of fitting them out here. A fortnight ought to be enough to set them up in all respects, and as we certainly shall not be able to march for another month--"

"For another three months, you mean, Nelson."

"Well, perhaps for another three months, the delay will not matter materially."

"It won't matter at all, if the French oblige us by keeping perfectly quiet, but if Soult menaces Portugal with invasion from the north, Lapisse from the centre, and Victor from the south, we may have to defend ourselves here in Lisbon before six weeks are out."

"Personally, I should not be sorry," another said, "if Soult does invade the north and captures Oporto, hangs the bishop, and all the Junta. It would be worth ten thousand men to us, for they are continually at mischief. They do nothing themselves, and thwart all our efforts. They are worse than the Junta here--if that is possible--and they have excited the peasants so much against us that they desert in thousands as fast as they are collected, while the population here hate us, I believe, quite as much as they hate the French. But why they should do so Heaven knows, when we have spent more money in Portugal than the whole country contained before we came here."

After the party had broken up, Captain Nelson took Terence to Mr. Villiers, who, on reading the general's letter and hearing from Terence how Romana was situated, at once said that he would hand over to him 20,000 dollars to take to the Spanish general.

"How am I to carry it, sir? It will be of considerable weight, if it is in silver."

"I will obtain for you four good mules," Mr. Villiers said, "and an escort of twelve Portuguese cavalry under an officer."

"May I ask, sir, that the money shall be packed in ammunition-boxes, and that no one except the officer shall know that these contain anything but ammunition?"

"You have no great faith in Portuguese honesty, Mr. O'Connor."

"As to their honesty as a general thing, sir, I express no opinion," Terence said, bluntly; "as to the honesty of their political partisans, I have not a shadow of belief. Moreover, there is no love lost between them and the Spaniards, and though possibly money for any of the Portuguese leaders might be allowed to pass untouched by others--and even of this I have great doubt--I feel convinced that none of them would allow it to go out of the country for the use of the Spaniards if they could lay hold of it by the way."

"Those being your sentiments, sir, I think that it is a pity the duty is not intrusted to some officer of broader views."

"I doubt whether you would find one, sir; especially if he has, like myself, been three or four months in the country. I have simply accepted the duty, and not sought it, and should gladly be relieved of it. General Romana sent me here with a despatch, and it is my duty, unless General Cradock chooses another messenger, to carry back the reply, and anything else with which I may be intrusted. I have for the past three months been incessantly engaged on arduous and fatiguing duty. I have ridden for the last nine days by some of the worst roads to be found in any part of the world, I should say, and have before me the same journey. Besides, if I receive the general's orders to that effect, I may have to stay with the Spanish general, and in that case shall, I am sure, be constantly upon the move, and that among wild mountains. If this treasure is handed over to me I shall certainly do my best to take it safely and to defend it, if necessary, with my life; but it is assuredly a duty of which I would gladly be relieved. But that, sir, it seems to me, is a question solely for the commander-in-chief."

Mr. Villiers gazed in angry surprise at the young ensign; then thinking, perhaps, that he would put himself in the wrong, and as his interferences in military matters with Sir John Cradock had not met with the success he desired for them, he checked the words that rose to his lips, and said, shortly: "The convoy will be ready to start from the treasury at daybreak to-morrow."

"I shall be there--if so commanded by General Cradock."

As soon as they had left the house Captain Nelson burst into shout of laughter.

"What is it?" Terence asked, in surprise.

"I would not have missed that for twenty pounds, O'Connor; it is the first bit of real amusement I have had since I landed. To see Villiers--who regards himself as the greatest man in the country, who not only thinks that he regulates every political intrigue in Spain and Portugal, but assumes to give the direction of every military movement also, and tries to dictate to the general on purely military matters--quietly cheeked by an ensign, is the best thing I ever saw."

"But he has nothing to do with military matters, has he?"

"No more than that mule-driver there, but he thinks he has; and yet, even in his own political line, he is the most ill-informed and gullible of fools, even among the mass of incompetent agents who have done their utmost to ruin every plan that has been formed. I doubt whether he has ever been correct in a single statement that he has made, and am quite sure that every prophecy he has ventured upon has been falsified, every negotiation he has entered into has failed, and every report sent home to government is useful only if it is assumed to be wrong in every particular; and yet the man is so puffed up with pride and arrogance that he is well-nigh insupportable. The Spaniards have fooled him to the top of his bent; it has paid them to do so. Through his representations the ministry at home have distributed millions among them. Arms enough have been sent to furnish nearly every able-bodied man in Spain, and harm rather than good has come of it. Still, he is a very great man, and our generals are obliged to treat him with the greatest civility, and to pretend to give grave consideration to the plans that, if they emanated from any other man, would be considered as proofs that he was only fit for a mad-house. And to see you looking calmly in his face and announcing your views of the Spanish and Portuguese was delightful." And Captain Nelson again burst into laughter at the recollection.

Terence joined in the laugh. "I had no intention of offending him," he said. "Of course I have often heard how he was pressing General Moore to march into Spain, and promising that he should be met by immense armies that were eager and ready to drive the French out of that country, and were only waiting for his coming to set about doing so. I know that the brigadier and his staff used to talk about what they called Villiers' phantom armies, but as I only said what everyone says who has been in Spain, it never struck me that I was likely to give him serious offence."

"And if you had thought so, I don't suppose it would have made any difference, O'Connor."

"I don't suppose it would," Terence admitted; "and perhaps it will do him good to hear a straightforward opinion for once."

"It will certainly do him no harm. Now, you had better tell the chief that you are to have the money. I should think that he will probably send a trooper with you as your orderly. Certainly, he has no reason to have a higher opinion of the Portuguese than you have."

"I will go back with you, Captain Nelson; but as you were present, will you kindly tell the general? I don't like bothering him."

"Certainly, if you wish it."

On arriving at head-quarters Terence sat down in the anteroom and took up an English paper, as he had heard no home news for the last three months. Presently Captain Nelson came out from the general's room and beckoned to him. He followed him in. Four or five officers of rank were with the general, and all were looking greatly amused when he entered.

"So you have succeeded in obtaining money for Romana," the general said.

"Yes, sir, there was no difficulty about it. Mr. Villiers asked me a few questions as to the situation on the frontier, and at once said that I should have L5,000 to take him."

"Captain Nelson tells us that you were unwise enough to express an opinion as to the honesty of the Portuguese escort that he proposed to send with you."

"I said what I thought, General, and had no idea that Mr. Villiers would take it as an offence, as he seemed to."

"Well, he has his own notions on these things, you see," he general said, dryly, "and they do not exactly coincide with our experience; but then Mr. Villiers claims to understand these people more thoroughly than we can do."

Terence was silent for a moment. "I only went by what I have seen, you know," he said, after a pause, "and certainly had no intention of angering Mr. Villiers. But it seemed to me that, as I was responsible for taking this money to Romana, it was my duty to suggest a precaution that appeared to me necessary."

"Quite right, quite right; and it is just as well, perhaps, that Mr. Villiers should occasionally hear the opinions of officers of the army frankly expressed. Certainly, I think that the precaution you suggested was a wise one, and if Mr. Villiers does not do so, I will see that it is carried out.

"I have asked Captain Nelson to go with you, taking the treasure, to the barracks and see that the money is taken out of the cases and repacked in ammunition-boxes. It would be unwise in the extreme to tempt the cupidity of any wandering parties that you might fall in with by the sight of treasure-cases. Your suggestion quite justifies the opinion that I had formed of you from the brief narrative that you gave me of the battle of Corunna. For the present, gentlemen, I have appointed Mr. O'Connor as an extra aide-de-camp on my staff. He served in that capacity with Brigadier-general Fane from the time that the troops marched from here, which is in itself a guarantee that he must, in the opinion of that general, be thoroughly fit for the work.

"I think, Mr. O'Connor, that, going as you will as an officer on my staff, it is best that you should be accompanied by a couple of troopers, and I have just spoken to Colonel Gibbons, who will detach two of his best men for that service. In addition to your being in charge of the treasure, you will also carry a despatch from myself to General Romana, with suggestions as to his co-operation in harassing the advance of the French. I will not detain you further now. Don't forget the dinner hour."

A large party sat down to table. There were the officers Terence had seen there in the afternoon, and several colonels and heads of departments of the army, and Terence, although not shy by nature, felt a good deal embarrassed when, as soon as the meal was concluded, several maps were, by the general's orders, placed upon the table, and he was asked to give as full an account as he was able of the events that had happened from the time General Moore marched with his army from Salamanca, and so cut himself off from all communication.

It was well that Terence had paid great attention to the conversations between General Fane and the officers of the brigade staff, had studied the maps, and had made himself, as far as he could, master of the details of the movements of the various divisions, and had gathered from Fane's remarks fair knowledge of General Moore's objects and intentions. Therefore, when he had overcome his first embarrassment, he was able to give a clear and lucid account of the campaign, and of the difficulties that Moore had encountered and overcome in the course of his retreat. The officers followed his account upon the maps, asked occasional questions, and showed great interest in his description of the battle.

When he had done, Sir John Cradock said: "I am sure, gentlemen, that you all agree with me that Mr. O'Connor has given us a singularly clear and lucid account of the operations of the army, and that it is most creditable that so young an officer should have posted himself up so thoroughly, not only in the details of the work of his own brigade, but in the general plans of the campaign and the movements of the various divisions of the army."

There were also hearty compliments from all the officers as they rose from the table.

"I doubt, indeed, Sir John," one of them said, "whether we should ever have got so clear an account as that he has given from the official despatches. I own that I, for one, have never fully understood what seemed a hopeless incursion into the enemy's country, and I cannot too much admire the daring of its conception. As to the success which has attended it, there can be no doubt, for it completely paralysed the march of the French armies, and has given ample time to the southern provinces of Spain to place themselves in a position of defence. If they have not taken advantage of the breathing time so given them, it is their fault, and in no way detracts from the chivalrous enterprise of Moore."

"No, indeed," Sir John agreed; "the conception was truly an heroic one, and one that required no less self-sacrifice than daring. There are few generals who would venture on an advance when certain that it must be followed by a retreat, and that at best he could but hope to escape from a terrible disaster. It is true that he gained a victory which, under the circumstances, was a most glorious one, but this was the effect of accident rather than design. Had the fleet been in Corunna when he arrived, he would have embarked at once, and in that case he would have been attacked with ferocity by politicians at home, and would have been accused of sacrificing a portion of his army on an enterprise that everyone could have seen was ordained to be a failure before it commenced."

"Did you know General Fane personally before you were appointed to his staff?"

"No, General; he commanded the brigade of which my regiment formed part, and of course I knew him by sight, but I had never had the honour of exchanging a word with him."

"Then, may I ask why you were appointed to his staff, Mr. O'Connor?"

Terence hesitated. There was nothing he disliked more than talking of what he himself had done. "It was a sort of accident, General."

"How an accident, Mr. O'Connor? Your conduct must have attracted his attention in some way."

"It was an accident, sir," Terence said, reluctantly, "that General Fane happened to be on board Sir Arthur Wellesley's ship at Vigo when my colonel went there to make a report of some circumstances that occurred on the voyage."

"Well, what were these circumstances?" the general asked. "You have shown us that you have the details of a campaign at your finger ends, surely you must be able to tell what those circumstances were that so interested General Fane that he selected you to fill a vacancy on his staff."

Terence felt that there was no escape, and related as briefly as he could the account of the engagement with the two privateers, and of their narrow escape from being captured by a French frigate.

"That is a capital account, Mr. O'Connor," Sir John Cradock said, smiling, as he brought it to a conclusion. "But, so far, I fail to see your particular share in the matter."

"My share was very small, sir."

"I think I can fill up the facts that Mr. O'Connor's modesty has prevented him from stating," one of the officers said.

"It happened that before we sailed from Ireland six weeks ago, an officer of the Mayo Fusiliers, who had been invalided home in consequence of a wound, dined at our mess, and he told the story very much as Mr. O'Connor has told it, but he added the details that Mr. O'Connor has omitted. Restated that really the escape of the wing of the regiment was entirely due to an ensign who had recently joined--a son of one of the captains of the regiment. He said that, in the first place, when the cannon were found to be so honeycombed with rust that it would have been madness to attempt to fire them, this young officer suggested that they should be bound round with rope just like the handle of a cricket bat. This suggestion was adopted, and they were therefore able to pour in the broadside that crippled the lugger and brought her sails down, leaving her helpless under the musketry fire of the troops. In the second place, when the ship was being pounded by the other privateer without being able to make any reply, and must shortly have either sunk or surrendered, this young officer suggested to one of the captains that the lugger, lying helpless alongside, should be boarded, and her guns turned on the brig, a suggestion that led not only to the saving of the ship, but the capture of the brig itself.

"Lastly, when the French frigate hove in sight, the troops were transferred to the two prizes, and were about to make off, in which case one of them would almost certainly have been captured. He suggested that they should hoist French colours, and that both should be set to work to transfer some of the stores from the ship to the privateers. This suggestion was adopted, with the result that on the frigate approaching, and seeing, as was supposed, two French privateers engaged in rifling a prize, she continued on her way without troubling herself further about them. Sir Arthur Wellesley issued a most laudatory notice of Mr. O'Connor's conduct in general orders."

Most of those present remembered seeing the order, now that it was mentioned, and the general, turning to Terence, who was colouring scarlet with embarrassment and confusion, said, kindly:

"You see, we have got at it after all, Mr. O'Connor. I am glad that it came from another source, for I do not suppose that we should have got all the facts from you, even by cross-questioning. You may think, and I have no doubt that you do think, that you received more credit than you deserved for what you consider were merely ideas that struck you at the moment; but such is not my opinion, nor that, I am sure, of the other officers present. The story which we have just heard of you, and the account that you have given of the campaign, afford great promise, I may almost say a certainty, of your attaining, if you are spared, high eminence in your profession.

"Your narrative showed that you are painstaking, accurate, and intelligent. The facts that we have just heard prove you to be exceptionally quick in conceiving ideas, cool in action, and able to think of the right thing at the right time--all qualities that are requisite for a great commander. I warmly congratulate you, that at the very commencement of your career you should have had the opportunity afforded you for showing that you possess these qualities, and of gaining the warm approbation of men very much older than yourself, and all of wide experience in their profession. I am sorry now that you are starting to-morrow on what I cannot but consider a useless, as well as a somewhat dangerous, undertaking. I should have been glad to have utilized your services at once, and only hope that you will erelong rejoin us."

So saying, he rose. The hour was late, for Terence's description of the campaign and battle had necessarily been a very long one, and the party at once broke up, all the officers present shaking the lad warmly by the hand.

"You are a lucky fellow, O'Connor," Captain Nelson said, as he accompanied him to his room, in which a second bed had been set up for the young ensign's accommodation. "You will certainly get on after this. There were a dozen colonels and two generals of brigade among the party, and I fancy that there is not one of them that will not bear you in mind and say a good word for you, if opportunity occurs, and Sir John himself is sure to push you on. I should say that not an officer of your rank in the army has such good chances, and you look such a lad, too. You did not show it so much when you first arrived; of course you were fagged and travel-stained then, but now I should not take you for more than seventeen. Indeed, I suppose you are not, as you only joined the service six months ago."

"No; I am not more than seventeen," Terence said, quietly, not thinking it necessary to state that he wanted a good many months yet to that age, for to do so would provoke questions as to how he obtained his commission before he was sixteen. "But, you see, I have had a good many advantages. I was brought up in barracks, and I suppose that sharpens one's wits a bit. When I was quite a young boy I used to be a good deal with the junior officers; of course, that made me older in my ideas than I should have been if I had always associated with boys of my own age. Still, it has been all luck, and though Sir John was kind enough to speak very warmly about it, I really can't see that I have done anything out of the way."

"Luck comes to a good many fellows, O'Connor, but it is not every one who has the quickness to make the most of the opportunity. You may say that they are only ideas; but you see you had three valuable ideas, and none of your brother officers had them, and you cannot deny that your brains worked more quickly than those of the others.

"Well, we may as well turn in at once, as we have all got to be up before daylight. I am very glad that Sir John has given you a couple of troopers. It will make you feel a good deal more comfortable anyhow, even if you don't get into any adventure where their aid may be of vital importance."

"It will indeed; alone I should have very little influence with the Portuguese guard. These might be perfectly honest themselves, but they might not be at all disposed to risk their lives by offering any opposition to any band that might demand the ammunition they would believe were in the cases. I was twice stopped by bands of scantily armed peasants on my way down, and although they released me on seeing the letter that I carried to the general, it was evident that they felt but little good-will towards us, and had I had anything about me worth taking, my chance of reaching Lisbon would have been small."

"The Junta of Oporto has spared no pains in spreading all sorts of atrocious lies against us ever since the escort of the French prisoners interfered to save them from the fury of the populace, though perhaps the peasants in this part of the country still feel grateful to us for having delivered them from the exactions of the French.

"In the north, where no French soldier has set foot, they have been taught to regard us as enemies to be dreaded as much as the French. Up to the present time all the orders for the raising of levies have been disregarded north of the Douro, and though great quantities of arms have been sent up to Oporto, I doubt whether a single musket has been distributed by the Junta. That fellow Friere, the general of what they call their army, is as bad as any of them. I hope that if Soult comes down through the passes he will teach the fellow and his patrons a wholesome lesson."

"And do you think that the troops here will march north to defend Oporto?"

"I should hardly think that there is a chance of it. Were our force to do so, Lisbon would be at the mercy of Victor and of the army corps at Salamanca. Cuesta is, what he calls, watching Victor. He is one of the most obstinate and pigheaded of all the generals. Victor will crush him without difficulty, and could be at Lisbon long before we could get back from Oporto. No, Lisbon is the key of the situation; there are very strong positions on the range of hills between the river and the sea at Torres Vedras, which could be held against greatly superior forces. The town itself is protected by strong forts, which have been greatly strengthened since we came. The men-of-war can come up to the town, aid in its defence, and bring reinforcements; and provisions can be landed at all times.

"The loss of Lisbon would be a death-blow to Portuguese independence, and you may be sure that the ministry at home would eagerly seize the opportunity of abandoning the struggle here altogether. Do you know that at the present moment, while urging Sir John Cradock to take the offensive with only 15,000 men against the whole army of France in the Peninsula, they have had the folly to send a splendid expedition of from thirty to forty thousand good troops to Holland, where they will be powerless to do any good, while their presence here would be simply invaluable. Well, we will not enter upon that subject to-night; the folly and the incapacity of Mr. Canning and his crew is a subject that, once begun, would keep one talking until morning."