The Two Scouts by Arthur Quiller-Couch
II. The Barber-Surgeon of Sabugal
So, leaving my two comrades to follow up and detect the true object of Marmont's campaign, I headed south for Badajos. The roads were heavy, the mountain torrents in flood, the only procurable horses and mules such as by age or debility had escaped the strictest requisitioning. Nevertheless, on the 4th of April I was able to present myself at Lord Wellington's headquarters before Badajos, and that same evening started northwards again with his particular instructions. I understood (not, of course, by direct word of mouth) that disquieting messages had poured in ahead of me from the allied commanders scattered in the north, who reported Ciudad Rodrigo in imminent peril; that my news brought great relief of mind; but that in any case our army now stood committed to reduce Badajos before Soult came to its relief. Our iron guns had worked fast and well, and already three breaches on the eastern side of the town were nearly practicable. Badajos once secured, Wellington would press northward again to teach Marmont manners; but for the moment our weak troops opposing him must even do the best they could to gain time and protect the magazines and stores.
At six o'clock then in the evening of the 4th, on a fresh mount, I turned my back on the doomed fortress, and crossing the Guadiana by the horse ferry above Elvas, struck into the Alemtejo.
On the 6th I reached Castello Branco and found the position of the Allies sufficiently serious. Victor Alten's German cavalry were in the town--600 of them--having fallen back before Marmont without striking a blow, and leaving the whole country four good marches from Rodrigo exposed to the French marauders. They reported that Rodrigo itself had fallen (which I knew to be false, and, as it turned out, Marmont had left but one division to blockade the place); they spoke openly of a further retreat upon Vilha Velha. But I regarded them not. They had done mischief enough already by scampering southward and allowing Marmont to push in between them and the weak militias on whom it now depended to save Almeida with its battering train, Celorico and Pinhel with their magazines, and even Ciudad Rodrigo itself; and while I listened I tasted to myself the sarcastic compliments they were likely to receive from Lord Wellington when he heard their tale.
Clearly there was no good to be done in Castello Branco, and the next morning I pushed on. I had no intention of rejoining Captain McNeill; for, as he had observed on parting--quoting some old Greek for his authority--"three of us are not enough for an army, and for any other purpose we are too many," and although pleased enough to have a kinsman's company he had allowed me to see that he preferred to work alone with Jose, who understood his methods, whereas mine (in spite of his compliments) were unfamiliar and puzzling. I knew him to be watching Marmont, and even speculated on the chances of our meeting, but my own purpose was to strike the Coa, note the French force there and its disposition, and so make with all serviceable news for the north, where Generals Trant and Wilson with their Portuguese militia were endeavouring to cover the magazines.
Travelling on mule-back now as a Portuguese drover out of work, I dodged a couple of marauding parties below Penamacor, found Marmont in force in Sabugal at the bend of the Coa, on the 9th reached Guarda, a town on the top of a steep mountain, and there found General Trant in position with about 6,000 raw militiamen. To him I presented myself with my report--little of which was new to him except my reason for believing Ciudad Rodrigo safe for the present; and this he heard with real pleasure, chiefly because it confirmed his own belief and gave it a good reason which it had hitherto lacked.
And here I must say a word on General Trant. He was a gallant soldier and a clever one, but inclined (and here lay his weakness) to be on occasion too clever by half. In fact, he had a leaning towards my own line of business, and naturally it was just here that I found him out. I am not denying that during the past fortnight his cleverness had served him well. He had with a handful of untrained troops to do his best for a group of small towns and magazines, each valuable and each in itself impossible of defence. His one advantage was that he knew his weakness and the enemy did not, and he had used this knowledge with almost ludicrous success.
For an instance; immediately on discovering the true line of Marmont's advance he had hurried to take up a position on the lower Coa, but had been met on his march by an urgent message from Governor Le Mesurier that Almeida was in danger and could not resist a resolute assault. Without hesitation Trant turned and pushed hastily with one brigade to the Cabeca Negro mountain behind the bridge of Almeida, and reached it just as the French drew near, driving 200 Spaniards before them across the plain. Trant, seeing that the enemy had no cavalry at hand, with the utmost effrontery and quite as if he had an army behind him, threw out a cloud of skirmishers beyond the bridge, dressed up a dozen guides in scarlet coats to resemble British troopers, galloped with these to the glacis of Almeida, spoke the governor, drew off a score of invalid troopers from the hospital in the town, and at dusk made his way back up the mountain, which in three hours he had covered with sham bivouac fires.
These were scarcely lit when the governor, taking his cue, made a determined sortie and drove back the French light troops, who in the darkness had no sort of notion of the numbers attacking them. So completely hoaxed, indeed, was their commander that he, who had come with two divisions to take Almeida, and held it in the hollow of his hand, decamped early next morning and marched away to report, the fortress so strongly protected as to be unassailable.
Well this, as I say, showed talent. Artistically conceived as a ruse de guerre, in effect it saved Almeida. But a success of the kind too often tempts a man to try again and overshoot his mark. Now Marmont, with all his defects of vanity, was no fool. He had a strong army moderately well concentrated; he had, indeed, used it to little purpose, but he was not likely, with his knowledge of the total force available by the Allies in the north, to be seriously daunted or for long by a game of mere impudence. In my opinion Trant, after brazening him away from Almeida, should have thanked Heaven and walked humbly for a while. To me even his occupation of Guarda smelt of dangerous bravado, for Guarda is an eminently treacherous position, strong in itself, and admirable for a force sufficient to hold the ridges behind it, but capable of being turned on either hand, affording bad retreat, and, therefore, to a small force as perilous as it is attractive. But I was to find that Trant's enterprise reached farther yet.
To my description of Marmont's forces he listened (it seemed to me) impatiently, asking few questions and checking off each statement with "Yes, yes," or "Quite so." All the while his fingers were drumming on the camp table, and I had no sooner come to an end than he began to question me about the French marshal's headquarters in Sabugal. The town itself and its position he knew as well as I did, perhaps better. I had not entered it on my way, but kept to the left bank of the Coa. I knew Marmont to be quartered there, but in what house or what part of the town I was ignorant. "And what the deuce can it matter?" I wondered.
"But could you not return and discover?" the general asked at length.
"Oh, as for that," I answered, "it's just as you choose to order."
"It's risky of course," said he.
"It's risky to be sure," I agreed; "but if the risk comes in the day's work I take it I shall have been in tighter corners."
"Excuse me," he said with a sort of deprecatory smile, "but I was not thinking of you; at least not altogether." And I saw by his face that he held something in reserve and was in two minds about confiding it.
"I beg that you won't think of me," I said simply, for I have always made it a rule to let a general speak for himself and ask no questions which his words may not fairly cover. Outside of my own business (the limits of which are well defined) I seek no responsibility, least of all should I seek it in serving one whom I suspect of over-cleverness.
"Look here," he said at length, "the Duke of Ragusa is a fine figure of a man."
"Notoriously," said I. "All Europe knows it, and he certainly knows it himself."
"I have heard that his troops take him at his own valuation."
"Well," I answered, "he sits his horse gallantly; he has courage. At present he is only beginning to make his mistakes; and soldiers, like women, have a great idea of what a warrior ought to look like."
"In fact," said General Trant, "the loss of him would make an almighty difference."
Now he had asked me to be seated and had poured me out a glass of wine from his decanter. But at these words I leapt up suddenly, jolting the table so that the glass danced and spilled half its contents.
"What the dickens is wrong?" asked the general, snatching a map out of the way of the liquor. "Good Lord, man! You don't suppose I was asking you to assassinate Marmont!"
"I beg your pardon," said I, recovering myself. "Of course not; but it sounded--"
"Oh, did it?" He mopped the map with his pocket handkerchief and looked at me as who should say "Guess again."
I cast about wildly. "This man cannot be wanting to kidnap him!" thought I to myself.
"You tell me his divisions are scattered after supplies. I hear that the bulk of his troops are in camp above Penamacor; that at the outside he has in Sabugal under his hand but 5,000. Now Silveira should be here in a couple of days; that will make us roughly 12,000."
"Ah!" said I, "a surprise?" He nodded. "Night?" He nodded again. "And your cavalry?" I pursued.
"I could, perhaps, force General Bacellar to spare his squadron of dragoons from Celorico. Come, what do you think of it?"
"I do as you order," said I, "and that I suppose is to return to Sabugal and report the lie of the land. But since, general, you ask my opinion, and speaking without local knowledge, I should say--"
"Excuse me, but I will send you my opinion in four days' time." And I rose to depart.
"Very good, but keep your seat. Drink another glass of wine."
"Sabugal is twenty miles off, and when I arrive I have yet to discover how to get into it," I protested.
"That is just what am going to tell you."
"Ah," said I, "so you have already been making arrangements?"
He nodded while he poured out the wine. "You come opportunely, for I was about to rely on a far less ruse hand. The plan, which is my own, I submit to your judgment, but I think you will allow some merit in it."
Well, I was not well-disposed to approve of any plan of his. In truth he had managed to offend me seriously. Had an English gentleman committed my recent error of supposing him to hint at assassination, General Trant (who can doubt it?) would have flamed out in wrath; but me he had set right with a curt carelessness which said as plain as words that the dishonouring suspicion no doubt came natural enough to a Spaniard. He had entertained me with a familiarity which I had not asked for, and which became insulting the moment he allowed me to see that it came from cold condescension. I have known a dozen combinations spoilt by English commanders who in this way have combined extreme offensiveness with conscious affability; and I have watched their allies--Spaniards and Portuguese of the first nobility--raging inwardly, while ludicrously impotent to discover a peg on which to hang their resentment.
I listened coldly, therefore, leaving the general's wine untasted and ignoring his complimentary deference to my judgment. Yet the neatness and originality of his scheme surprised me. He certainly had talent.
He had found (it seemed) an old vine-dresser at Bellomonte, whose brother kept a small shop in Sabugal, where he shaved chins, sold drugs, drew teeth, and on occasion practised a little bone-setting. This barber-surgeon or apothecary had shut up his shop on the approach of the French and escaped out of the town to his brother's roof. As a matter of fact he would have been safer in Sabugal, for the excesses of the French army were all committed by the marauding parties scattered up and down the country-side and out of the reach of discipline, whereas Marmont (to his credit) sternly discouraged looting, paid the inhabitants fairly for what he took, and altogether treated them with uncommon humanity.
It was likely enough, therefore, that the barber-surgeon's shop stood as he had left it. And General Trant proposed no less than that I should boldly enter the town, take down the shutters, and open business, either personating the old man or (if I could persuade him to return) going with him as his assistant. In either case the danger of detection was more apparent than real, for so violently did the Portuguese hate their invaders that scarcely an instance of treachery occurred during the whole of this campaign. The chance of the neighbours betraying me was small enough, at any rate, to justify the risk, and I told the General promptly that I would take it.
Accordingly I left Guarda that night, and reaching Bellomonte a little after daybreak, found the vine-dresser and presented Trant's letter.
He was on the point of starting for Sabugal, whither he had perforce to carry a dozen skins of wine, and with some little trouble I persuaded the old barber-surgeon to accompany us, bearing a petition to Marmont to be allowed peaceable possession of his shop. We arrived and were allowed to enter the town, where I assisted the vine-dresser in handling the heavy wine skins, while his brother posted off to headquarters and returned after an hour with the marshal's protection. Armed with this, he led me off to the shop, found it undamaged, helped me to take down the shutters, showed me his cupboards, tools, and stock in trade, and answered my rudimentary questions in the art of compounding drugs--in a twitter all the while to be gone. Nor did I seek to delay him (for if my plans miscarried, Sabugal would assuredly be no place for him). Late in the afternoon he left me and went off in search of his brother, and I fell to stropping my razors with what cheerfulness I could assume.
Before nightfall my neighbours on either hand had looked in and given me good evening. They asked few questions when I told them I was taking over old Diego's business for the time, and kept their speculations to themselves. I lay down to sleep that night with a lighter heart.
The adventure itself tickled my humour, though I had no opinion at all of the design--Trant's design--which lay at the end of it. This, however, did not damp my zeal in using eyes and ears; and on the third afternoon, when the old vine-dresser rode over with more wine skins, and dropped in to inquire about business and take home a pint of rhubarb for the stomach-ache, I had the satisfaction of making up for him, under the eyes of two soldiers waiting to be shaved, a packet containing a compendious account of Marmont's dispositions with a description of his headquarters. My report concluded with these words:--
"With regard to the enterprise on which I have had the honour to be consulted I offer my opinion with humility. It is, however, a fixed one. You will lose two divisions; and even a third, should you bring it."
On the whole I had weathered through these three days with eminent success. The shaving I managed with something like credit (for a Portuguese). My pharmaceutics had been (it was vain to deny) in the highest degree empirical, but if my patients had not been cured they even more certainly had not died--or at least their bodies had not been found. What gravelled me was the phlebotomy. Somehow the chance of being called upon to let blood had not occurred to me, and on the second morning when a varicose sergeant of the line dropped into my operating chair and demanded to have a vein opened, I bitterly regretted that I had asked my employer neither where to insert the lancet nor how to stop the bleeding. I eyed the brawn in the chair, so full of animal life and rude health--no, strike at random I could not! I took his arm and asked insinuatingly, "Now, where do you usually have it done?" "Sometimes here, sometimes there," he answered. Joy! I remembered a bottle of leeches on the shelf. I felt the man's pulse and lifted his eyelids with trembling fingers. "In your state," said I, "it would be a crime to bleed you. What you want is leeches." "You think so?" he asked--"how many?" "Oh, half-a-dozen--to begin with." In my sweating hurry I forgot (if I had ever known) that the bottle contained but three. "No," said I, "we'll start with a couple and work up by degrees." He took them on his palm and turned them over with a stubby forefinger. "Funny little beasts!" said he and marched out of the shop into the sunshine. To this day when recounting his Peninsular exploits he omits his narrowest escape.
I can hardly describe the effect of this ridiculous adventure upon my nerves. My heart sank whenever a plethoric customer entered the shop, and I caught fright or snatched relief even from the weight of a footfall or the size of a shadow in my doorway. A dozen times in intervals of leisure I reached down the bottle from its shelf and studied my one remaining leech. A horrible suspicion possessed me that the little brute was dead. He remained at any rate completely torpid, though I coaxed him almost in agony to show some sign of life. Obviously the bottle contained nothing to nourish him; to offer him my own blood would be to disable him for another patient. On the fourth afternoon I went so far as to try him on the back of my hand. I waited five minutes; he gave no sign. Then, startled by a footstep outside, I popped him hurriedly back in his bottle.
A scraggy, hawk-nosed trooper of hussars entered and flung himself into my chair demanding a shave. In my confusion I had lathered his chin and set to work before giving his face any particular attention. He had started a grumble at being overworked (he was just off duty and smelt potently of the stable), but sat silent as men usually do at the first scrape of the razor. On looking down I saw in a flash that this was not the reason. He was one of the troopers whose odd jobs I had done at the Posada del Rio in Huerta, an ill-conditioned Norman called Michu--Pierre Michu. Since our meeting, with the help of a little walnut juice, I had given myself a fine Portuguese complexion with other small touches sufficient to deceive a cleverer man. But by ill-luck (or to give it a true name, by careless folly) I had knotted under my collar that morning a yellow-patterned handkerchief which I had worn every day at the Posada del Rio, and as his eyes travelled from this to my face I saw that the man recognised me.
There was no time for hesitating. If I kept silence, no doubt he would do the same; but if I let him go, it would be to make straight for headquarters with his tale. I scraped away for a second or two in dead silence, and then holding my razor point I said, sharp and low, "I am going to kill you."
He turned white as a sheet, opened his mouth, and I could feel him gathering his muscles together to heave himself out of the chair; no easy matter. I laid the flat of the razor against his flesh, and he sank back helpless. My hand was over his mouth. "Yes, I shall have plenty of time before they find you." A sound in his throat was the only answer, something between a grunt and a sob. "To be sure" I went on, "I bear you no grudge. But there is no other way, unless--"
"No, no," he gasped. "I promise. The grave shall not be more secret."
"Ah," said I, "but how am I to believe that?"
"I must have even a little more than that." I made him swear by the faith of a soldier and half-a-dozen other oaths which occurred to me as likely to bind him if, lacking honour and religion, he might still have room in his lean body for a little superstition. He took every oath eagerly, and with a pensive frown I resumed my shaving. At the first scrape he winced and tried to push me back.
"Indeed no," said I; "business is business," and I finished the job methodically, relentlessly. It still consoles me to think upon what he must have suffered.
When at length I let him up he forced an uneasy laugh. "Well, comrade, you had the better of me I must say. Eh! but you're a clever one--and at Huerta, eh?" He held out his hand. "No rancour though--a fair trick of war, and I am not the man to bear a grudge for it. After all war's war, as they say. Some use one weapon, some another. You know," he went on confidentially, "it isn't as if you had learnt anything out of me. In that case--well, of course, it would have made all the difference."
I fell to stropping my razor. "Since I have your oath--" I began.
"That's understood. My word, though, it is hard to believe!"
"You had best believe it, anyway," said I; and with a sort of shamefaced swagger he lurched out of the shop.
Well, I did not like it. I walked to the door and watched him down the street. Though it wanted an hour of sunset I determined to put up my shutters and take a stroll by the river. I had done the most necessary part of my work in Sabugal; to-morrow I would make my way back to Bellomonte, but in case of hindrance it might be as well to know how the river bank was guarded. At this point a really happy inspiration seized me. There were many pools in the marsh land by the river--pools left by the recent floods. Possibly by hunting among these and stirring up the mud I might replenish my stock of leeches. I had the vaguest notion how leeches were gathered, but the pursuit would at the worst give me an excuse for dawdling and spying out the land.
I closed the shop at once, hunted out a tin box, and with this and my bottle (to serve as evidence, if necessary, of my good faith) made my way down to the river side north of the town. The bank here was well guarded by patrols, between whom a number of peaceful citizens sat a-fishing. Seen thus in line and with their backs turned to me they bore a ludicrous resemblance to a row of spectators at a play; and gazing beyond them, though dazzled for a moment by the full level rays of the sun, I presently became aware of a spectacle worth looking at.
On the road across the river a squadron of lancers was moving northward.
"Hallo!" thought I, "here's a reconnaissance of some importance." But deciding that any show of inquisitiveness would be out of place under the eyes of the patrols, I kept my course parallel with the river's, at perhaps 300 yards distance from it. This brought me to the first pool, and there I had no sooner deposited my bottle and tin box on the brink than beyond the screen of the town wall came pushing the head of a column of infantry.
Decidedly here was something to think over. The column unwound itself in clouds of yellow dust--a whole brigade; then an interval, then another dusty column--two brigades! Could Marmont be planning against Trant the very coup which Trant had planned against him? Twenty miles--it could be done before daybreak; and the infantry (I had seen at the first glance) were marching light.
I do not know to this day if any leeches inhabit the pools outside Sabugal. It is very certain that I discovered none. About a quarter of a mile ahead of me and about the same distance back from the river there stood a ruinous house which had been fired, but whether recently or by the French I could not tell; once no doubt the country villa of some well-to-do townsman, but now roofless, and showing smears of black where the flames had licked its white outer walls. Towards this I steered my way cautiously, that behind the shelter of an outbuilding I might study the receding brigades at my leisure.
The form of the building was roughly a hollow square enclosing a fair-sized patio, the entrance of which I had to cross to gain the rearward premises and slip out of sight of the patrols. The gate of this entrance had been torn off its hinges and now lay jammed aslant across the passage; beyond it the patio lay heaped with bricks and rubble, tiles, and charred beams. I paused for a moment and craned in for a better look at the debris.
And then the sound of voices arrested me--a moment too late. I was face to face with two French officers, one with a horse beside him. They saw me, and on the instant ceased talking and stared; but without changing their attitudes, which were clearly those of two disputants. They stood perhaps four paces apart. Both were young men, and the one whose attitude most suggested menace I recognised as a young lieutenant of a line regiment (the 102nd) whom I had shaved that morning. The other wore the uniform of a staff officer, and at the first glance I read a touch of superciliousness in his indignant face. His left hand held his horse's bridle, his other he still kept tightly clenched while he stared at me.
"What the devil do you want here?" demanded the lieutenant roughly in bad Portuguese. "But, hallo!" he added, recognising me, and turned a curious glance on the other.
"Who is it?" the staff officer asked.
"It's a barber; and I believe something of a surgeon. That's so, eh?" He appealed to me.
"In a small way," I answered apologetically.
The lieutenant turned again to his companion. "He might do for us; the sooner the better, unless--"
"Unless," interrupted the staff officer with cold politeness, "you prefer the apology you owe me."
The lieutenant swung round again with a brusque laugh. "Look here, have you your instruments about you?"
For answer I held up my bottle with the one absurd leech dormant at the bottom. He laughed again just as harshly.
"That is about the last thing to suit our purpose. Listen"--he glanced out through the passage--"the gates won't be shut for an hour yet. It will take you perhaps twenty minutes to fetch what is necessary. You understand? Return here, and don't keep us waiting. Afterwards, should the gates be shut, one of us will see you back to the town."
I bowed without a word and hurried back across the water meadow. Along the river bank between the patrols the anglers still sat in their patient row. And on the road to the north-west the tail of the second brigade was winding slowly out of sight.
Once past the gate and through the streets, I walked more briskly, paused at my shop door to fit the key in the lock, and was astonished when the door fell open at the push of my hand.
Then in an instant I understood. The shop had been ransacked--by that treacherous scoundrel Michu, of course. Bottles, herbs, shaving apparatus all was topsy-turvy. Drawers stood half-open; the floor was in a litter.
I had two consolations: the first that there were no incriminating papers in the, house; the second that Michu had clearly paid me a private visit before carrying his tale to headquarters. Otherwise the door would have been sealed and the house under guard. I reflected that the idiot would catch it hot for this unauthorised piece of work. Stay! he might still be in the house rummaging the upper rooms. I crept upstairs.
No, he was gone. He had left my case of instruments, too, after breaking the lock and scattering them about the floor. I gathered them together in haste, descended again, snatched up a roll of lint, and pausing only at the door for a glance up and down the street, made my escape post haste for the water meadow.
In the patio I found the two disputants standing much as I had left them, the staff officer gently and methodically smoothing his horse's crupper, the lieutenant with a watch in his hand.
"Good," said he, closing it with a snap, "seventeen minutes only. By the way, do you happen to understand French?"
"A very little," said I.
"Because, as you alone are the witness of this our little difference, it will be in order if I explain that I insulted this gentleman."
"Somewhat grossly," put in the staff officer.
"Somewhat grossly, in return for an insult put upon me--somewhat grossly--in the presence of my company, two days ago, in the camp above Penamacor, when I took the liberty to resent a message conveyed by him to my colonel--as he alleges upon the authority of the marshal, the Duke of Ragusa."
"An assertion," commented the staff officer, "which I am able to prove on the marshal's return and with his permission, provided always that the request be decently made."
They had been speaking in French and meanwhile removing their tunics. The staff officer had even drawn off his riding boots. "Do you understand?" asked the lieutenant.
"A little," said I; "enough to serve the occasion."
"Excellent barber-surgeon! Would that all your nation were no more inquisitive!" He turned to the staff officer. "Ready? On guard, then, monsieur!"
The combat was really not worth describing. The young staff officer had indeed as much training as his opponent (and that was little), but no wrist at all. He had scarcely engaged before he attempted a blind cut over the scalp. The lieutenant, parrying clumsily, but just in time, forced blade and arm upward until the two pointed almost vertically to heaven, and their forearms almost rubbed as the pair stood close and chest to chest. For an instant the staff officer's sword was actually driven back behind his head; and then with a rearward spring the lieutenant disengaged and brought his edge clean down on his adversary's left shoulder and breast, narrowly missing his ear. The cut itself, delivered almost in the recoil, had no great weight behind it, but the blood spurted at once, and the wounded man, stepping back for a fresh guard, swayed foolishly for a moment and then toppled into my arms.
"Is it serious?" asked the lieutenant, wiping his sword and looking, it seemed to me, more than a little scared.
"Wait a moment," said I, and eased the body to the ground. "Yes, it looks nasty. And keep back, if you please; he has fainted."
Being off my guard I said it in very good French, which in his agitation he luckily failed to remark.
"I had best fetch help," said he.
"I'll run for one of the patrols; we'll carry him back to the town."
But this would not suit me at all. "No," I objected, "you must fetch one of your surgeons. Meanwhile I will try to stop the bleeding; but I certainly won't answer for it if you attempt to move him at once."
I showed him the wound as he hurried into his tunic. It was a long and ugly gash, but (as I had guessed) neither deep nor dangerous. It ran from the point of the collar-bone aslant across the chest, and had the lieutenant put a little more drag into the stroke it must infallibly have snicked open the artery inside the upper arm. As it was, my immediate business lay in frightening him off before the bleeding slackened, and my heart gave a leap when he turned and ran out of the patio, buttoning his tunic as he went.
It took me ten minutes perhaps to dress the wound and tie a rude bandage; and perhaps another four to pull off coat and shoes and slip into the staff officer's tunic, pull on his riding boots over my blue canvas trousers--at a distance scarcely discernible in colour from his tight-fitting breeches--and buckle on his sword-belt. I had some difficulty in finding his cap, for he had tossed it carelessly behind one of the fallen beams, and by this time the light was bad within the patio. The horse gave me no trouble, being an old campaigner, no doubt, and used to surprises. I untethered him and led him gently across the yard, picking my way in a circuit which would take him as far as possible from his fallen master. But glancing back just before mounting, to my horror I saw that the wounded man had raised himself on his right elbow and was staring at me. Our eyes met; what he thought--whether he suspected the truth or accepted the sight as a part of his delirium--I shall never know. The next instant he fell back again and lay inert.
I passed out into the open. The warning gun must have sounded without my hearing it, for across the meadow the townspeople were retracing their way to the town gate, which closed at sunset. At any moment now the patrols might be upon me; so swinging myself into the saddle I set off at a brisk trot towards the gate.
My chief peril for the moment lay in the chance of meeting the lieutenant on his way back with the doctor; yet I must run this risk and ride through the town to the bridge gate, the river being unfordable for miles to the northward and trending farther and farther away from Guarda; and Guarda must be reached at all costs, or by to-morrow Trant's and Wilson's garrisons would have ceased to exist. My heart fairly sank when on reaching the gate I saw an officer in talk with the sentry there, and at least a score of men behind him. I drew aside; he stepped out and called an order to his company, which at once issued and spread itself in face of the scattered groups of citizens returning across the meadow.
"Yes, captain," said the sentry, answering the question in my look," they are after a spy, it seems, who has been practising here as a barber. They say even the famous McNeill."
I rode through the gateway and spurred my horse to a trot again, heading him down a side street to the right. This took me some distance out of my way, but anything was preferable to the risk of meeting the lieutenant, and I believed that I had yet some minutes to spare before the second gunfire.
In this I was mistaken. The gun boomed out just as I came in sight of the bridge gate, and the lieutenant of the guard appeared clanking out on the instant to close the heavy doors. I spurred my horse and dashed down at a canter, hailing loudly:--
"A spy!--a barber fellow; here, hold a minute!"
"Yes, we have had warning half an hour ago. Nobody has passed out since."
"At the gate below," I panted, "they sighted him; and he made for the river--tried to swim it. Run out your men and bring them along to search the bank!"
He began to shout orders. I galloped through the gate and hailed the sentry at the tete du pont. "A spy!" I shouted--"in the river. Keep your eyes open if he makes the bank!"
The fellow drew aside, and I clattered past him with a dozen soldiers at my heels fastening their belts and looking to their muskets as they ran. Once over the bridge I headed to the right again along the left bank of the river.
"This way! This way! Keep your eyes open!"
I was safe now. In the rapidly falling dusk, still increasing the distance between us, I led them down past the town and opposite the astonished patrols on the meadow bank. Even then, when I wheeled to the left and galloped for the high road, it did not occur to them to suspect me, nor shall I ever know when first it dawned on them that they had been fooled. Certainly not a shot was sent after me, and I settled down for a steady gallop northward, pleasantly assured of being at least twenty minutes ahead of any effective pursuit.
I was equally well assured of overtaking the brigades, but my business, of course, was to avoid and get ahead of them. And with this object, after an hour's brisk going, I struck a hill-track to the left which, as I remembered (having used it on my journey from Badajoz), at first ran parallel with the high road for two miles or more and then cut two considerable loops which the road followed along the valley bottom.
Recent rains had unloosed the springs on the mountain side and set them chattering so loudly that I must have reined up at least a score of times before I detected the tramp of the brigades in the darkness below me. Of the cavalry, though I rode on listening for at least another two miles, I could hear no sound. Yet, as I argued, they could not be far distant; and I pushed forward with heart elate at the prospect of trumping Marmont's card, for I remembered the staff officer's words, "on the marshal's return." I knew that Marmont had been in Sabugal no longer ago than mid-day; and irregular and almost derogatory as it might be thought for a marshal of France to be conducting a night surprise against a half-disciplined horde of militia, I would have wagered my month's pay that this was the fact.
And then, with a slip of my horse on the stony track, my good fortune suddenly ended, and smash went my basket of eggs while I counted the chickens. The poor brute with one false step came down heavily on his near side. Quick as I was in flinging my foot from the stirrup, I was just a moment too late; I fell without injury to bone, but his weight pinned me to earth by the boot, and when I extricated myself it was with a wrenched ankle. I managed to get him to his feet, but he had either dislocated or so severely wrung his near shoulder that he could scarcely walk a step. It went to my heart to leave him there on the mountain side, but it had to be done, for possibly the fate of the garrison at Guarda depended on it.
I left him, therefore, and limped forward along the track until it took an abrupt turn around a shoulder of the mountain. Immediately below me, unless I erred in my bearings, a desolate sheep farm stood but a short distance above the high road. Towards this I descended, and finding it with no great difficulty, knocked gently at the back door. To my surprise the shepherd opened it almost at once. He was fully dressed in spite of the lateness of the hour, and seemed greatly perturbed; nor, I can promise you, was he reassured when, after giving him the signal arranged between Trant and the peasantry, I followed him into his kitchen and his eyes fell on my French uniform.
But it was my turn to be perturbed when, satisfied with my explanation, he informed me that a body of cavalry had passed along the road towards Guarda a good twenty minutes before. It was this had awakened him. "No infantry?" I asked.
He shook his head positively. He had been on the watch ever since. And this, while it jumped with my own conviction that the infantry was at least a mile behind me, gave me new hope. I could not understand this straggling march, but it was at least reasonable to suppose that Marmont's horse would wait upon his foot before attempting such a position as Guarda.
"I must push on," said I, and instructed him where to seek for my unfortunate charger.
He walked down with me to the road. My ankle pained me cruelly.
"See here," said he, "the senor had best let me go with him. It is but six miles, and I can recover the horse in the morning."
He was in earnest, and I consented. It was fortunate that I did, or I might have dropped in the road and been found or trodden on by the French column behind us.
As it was I broke down after the second mile. The shepherd took me in his arms like a child and found cover for me below a bank to the left of the road beside the stream in the valley bottom. I gave him my instructions and he hurried on.
Lying there in the darkness half an hour later I heard the tramp of the brigade approaching, and lay and listened while they went by.
I have often, in writing these memoirs, wished I could be inventing instead of setting down facts. With a little invention only, how I could have rounded off this adventure! But that is the way with real events. All my surprising luck ended with the casual stumble of a horse, and it was not I who saved Guarda, nor even my messenger, but Marmont's own incredible folly.
When my shepherd reached the foot of the ascent to the fortress he heard a drum beaten suddenly in the darkness above. This single drum kept rattling (he told me) for at least a minute before a score of others took up the alarm. There had been no other warning, not so much as a single shot fired; and even after the drums began there was no considerable noise of musketry until the day broke and the shepherd saw the French cavalry retiring slowly down the hill scarcely 500 yards ahead of the Portuguese militia, now pouring forth from the gateway. These were at once checked and formed up in front of the town, the French still retiring slowly, with a few English dragoons hanging on their heels. A few shots only were exchanged, apparently without damage. The man assured me that the whole 400 or 500 troopers passed within a hundred yards of him and so down the slope and out of his sight.
What had happened was this: Marmont, impatient at the delay of his two brigades of infantry (which by some bungle in the starting did not reach the foot of the mountain before daylight), had pushed his horsemen up the hill and managed to cut off and silence the outposts without their firing a shot. Encouraged by this he pressed on to the very gates of the town, and had actually entered the street when the alarm was sounded--and by whom? By a single drummer whom General Trant, distrusting the watchfulness of his militia, had posted at his bedroom door! Trant's servant entering with his coffee at daybreak brought a report that the French were at the gates; the drummer plied his sticks like a madman; other drummers all over the town caught up their sticks and tattooed away without the least notion of what was happening; the militia ran helter-skelter to their alarm post; and the French marshal, who might have carried the town at a single rush and without losing a man, turned tail! Such are the absurdities of war.
But in fancy I sometimes complete the picture and see myself, in French staff officer's dress, boldly riding up to the head of the French infantry column and in the name of the, Duke of Ragusa commanding its general to halt. True, I did not know the password--which might have been awkward. But a staff officer can swagger through some small difficulties, as I had already proved twice that night. But for the stumble of a horse--who knows? The possibility seems to me scarcely more fantastic than the accident which actually saved Guarda.