The Two Scouts by Arthur Quiller-Couch
III. The Parole
Marmont's night attack on Guarda, though immediately and even absurdly unsuccessful, did, in fact, convince Trant that the hill was untenable, and he at once attempted to fall back upon Celorico across the river Mondego, where lay Lord Wellington's magazines and very considerable stores, for the moment quite unprotected.
Marmont had from four to six thousand horsemen and two brigades of infantry. The horse could with the utmost ease have headed Trant off and trotted into Celorico while the infantry fell on him, and but for the grossest blundering the militia as a fighting force should have been wiped out of existence. But blunders dogged Marmont throughout this campaign. Trant and Wilson marched their men (with one day's provisions only) out of Guarda and down the long slopes toward the river. Good order was kept for three or four miles, and the head of the column was actually crossing by a pretty deep ford when some forty dragoons (which Trant had begged from Bacellar to help him in his proposed coup upon Sabugal, and which had arrived from Celorico but the day before) came galloping down through the woods with a squadron of French cavalry in pursuit, and charging in panic through the rearguard flung everything into confusion. The day was a rainy one, and the militia, finding their powder wet, ran for the ford like sheep. The officers, however, kept their heads and got the men over, though with the loss of two hundred prisoners. Even so, Marmont might have crossed the river on their flank and galloped into Celorico ahead of them. As it was, he halted and allowed the rabble to save themselves in the town. While blaming his head I must do justice to his heart and add that, finding what poor creatures he had to deal with, he forbade his horsemen to cut down the fugitives, and not a single man was killed.
Foreseeing that Trant must sooner or later retreat upon Celorico--though ignorant, of course, of what was happening--I was actually crossing the river at the time by a ford some four miles above, not in the French staff officer's uniform which I had worn out of Sabugal, but in an old jacket lent me by my friend the shepherd. By the time I reached the town Wilson had swept in his rabble and was planting his outposts, intending to resist and, if this became impossible, to blow up the magazines before retiring. Trant and Bacellar with the bulk of the militia were continuing the retreat meanwhile towards Lamego.
I need only say here that Wilson's bold front served its purpose. Once, when the French drove in his outposts, he gave the order to fire the powder, and a part of the magazine was actually destroyed when Marmont (who above all things hated ridicule, and was severely taxing the respect of his beautiful army by these serio-comic excursions after a raw militia) withdrew his troops and retired in an abominable temper to Sabugal.
How do I know that Marmont's temper was abominable? By what follows.
On March 30th I had left my kinsman, Captain Alan McNeill, with his servant Jose at Tammanies. They were to keep an eye on the French movements while I rode south and reported to Lord Wellington at Badajoz. It was now April 16th, and in the meanwhile a great deal had happened; but of my kinsman's movements I had heard nothing. At first I felt sure he must be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Marmont's headquarters; but even in Sabugal itself no hint of him could I hear, and at length I concluded that having satisfied himself of the main lines of Marmont's campaign he had gone off to meet and receive fresh instructions from Wellington, now posting north to save the endangered magazines.
On the evening of the 16th General Wilson sent for me.
"Here is a nasty piece of news," said he. "Your namesake is a prisoner."
"In Sabugal; but it seems he was brought there from the main camp above Penamacor. Trant tells me that you are not only namesakes but kinsmen. Would you care to question the messenger?"
The messenger was brought in--a peasant from the Penamacor district. Out of his rambling tale one or two certainties emerged. McNeill--the celebrated McNeill--was a prisoner; he had been taken on the 14th somewhere in the pass above Penamacor, and conveyed to Sabugal to await the French marshal's return. His servant was dead--killed in trying to escape, or to help his master's escape. So much I sifted out of the mass of inaccuracies. For, as usual, the two McNeills had managed to get mixed up in the story, a good half of which spread itself into a highly coloured version of my own escape from Sabugal on the evening of the 13th; how I had been arrested by a French officer in a back shop in the heart of the town; how, as he overhauled my incriminating papers, I had leapt on him with a knife and stabbed him to the heart, while my servant did the same with his orderly; how, having possessed ourselves of their clothes and horses, we had ridden boldly through the gate and southward to join Lord Wellington; and a great deal more equally veracious. As I listened I began to understand how legends grow and demigods are made.
It was flattering; but without attempting to show how I managed to disengage the facts, I will here quote the plain account of them, sent to me long afterwards by Captain Alan himself:--
Captain Alan McNeill's Statement.
"You wish, for use in your Memoirs, an account of my capture in the month of April, 1811, and the death of my faithful servant, Jose. I imagine this does not include an account of all our movements from the time you left us at Tammames (though this, too, I shall be happy to send if desired), and so I come at once to the 14th, the actual date of the capture.
"The preceding night we had spent in the woods below the great French camp, and perhaps a mile above the mouth of the pass opening on Penamacor. All through the previous day there had been considerable stir in the camp, and I believed a general movement to be impending. I supposed Marmont himself to be either with the main army or behind in his headquarters at Sabugal, and within easy distance. It never occurred to me--nor could it have occurred to any reasonable man--to guess, upon no evidence, that a marshal of France had gone gallivanting with six thousand horse and two brigades of infantry in chase of a handful of undrilled militia.
"My impression was that his move, if he made one, would be a resolute descent through Penamacor and upon Castello Branco. As a matter of fact, although Victor Alten had abandoned that place to be held by Lecor and his two thousand five hundred militiamen, the French (constant to their policy of frittering away opportunities) merely sent down two detachments of cavalry to menace it, and I believe that my capture was the only success which befel them.
"Early on the 14th, and about an hour before these troops (dragoons for the most part) began to descend the pass, I had posted myself with Jose on one of the lower ridges and (as I imagined) well under cover of the dwarf oaks which grew thickly there. They did indeed screen us admirably from the squadrons I was watching, and they passed unsuspecting within fifty yards of us. Believing them to be but an advance guard, and that we should soon hear the tramp of the main army, I kept my shelter for another ten minutes, and was prepared to keep it for another hour, when Jose--whose eyes missed nothing--caught me by the arm and pointed high up the hillside behind us.
"'Scouts!' he whispered. 'They have seen us, sir!'
"I glanced up and saw a pair of horsemen about two gunshots away galloping down the uneven ridge towards us, with about a dozen in a cluster close behind. We leapt into saddle at once, made off through the oaks for perhaps a couple of hundred yards, and then wheeling sharply struck back across the hillside towards Sabugal. We were still in good cover, but the enemy had posted his men more thickly than we had guessed, and by-and-by I crossed a small clearing and rode straight into the arms of a dragoon. Providentially I came on him with a suddenness which flurried his aim, and though he fired his pistol at me point-blank he wounded neither me nor my horse. But hearing shouts behind him in answer to the shot, we wheeled almost right-about and set off straight down the hill.
"This new direction did not help us, however; for almost at once a bugle was sounded above, obviously as a warning to the dragoons at the foot of the pass, who halted and spread themselves along the lower slopes to cut us off. Our one chance now lay in abandoning our horses and crawling deep into the covert of the low oaks where cavalry would have much ado to follow. This we promptly did, and for twenty minutes we managed to elude them, so that my hopes began to grow. But unhappily a knot of officers on the ridge above had watched this manoeuvre through their telescopes, and now detached small parties of infantry down either side of the pass to beat the covers. Our hiding place quickly became too hot, and as we broke cover and dashed across another small clearing we were spied again by those on the ridge, who shouted to the soldiers and directed the chase by waving their caps. For another ten minutes we baffled them, and then crawling on hands and knees from a thicket where we could hear our enemies not a dozen yards away beating the bushes with the flat of their swords, we came face to face with a second party advancing straight upon us. I stood up straight and was on the point of making a last desperate run for it when I saw Jose sink on his face exhausted.
"'Do not shoot!' I called to the officer. 'We have hurt no man, monsieur.'--For it is, as you know, a fact that in our business I strongly disapprove of bloodshed, and in all our expeditions together Jose had never done physical injury to a living creature.
"But I was too late. The young officer fired, and though the ball entered my poor servant's skull and killed him on the instant, a hulking fellow beside him had the savagery to complete what was finished with a savage bayonet-thrust through the back.
"I stood still, fully expecting to be used no more humanely, but the officer lowered his pistol and curtly told me I was his prisoner. By this time the fellows had come up from beating the thicket behind and surrounded me. I therefore surrendered, and was marched up the hill to the camp with poor Jose's body at my heels borne by a couple of soldiers.
"In all the hurry and heat of this chase I had found time to wonder how our pursuers happened to be so well posted. For a good fortnight and more--in fact, since my escape across the ford at Huerta--I could remember nothing that we had done to give the French the slightest inkling that we were watching them or, indeed, were anywhere near. And yet the affair suggested no casual piece of scouting, but a deliberate plan to entrap somebody of whose neighbourhood they were aware.
"Nor was this perplexity at all unravelled by the general officer to whose tent they at once conveyed me--a little round white-headed man, Ducrot by name. He addressed me at once as Captain McNeill, and seemed vastly elated at my capture.
"'So we have you at last!' he said, regarding me with a jocular smile and a head cocked on one side, pretty much after the fashion of a thrush eyeing a worm. 'But, excuse me, after so much finesse it was a blunder--hein?'
"Now finesse is not a word which I should have claimed at any time for my methods,[A] and I cast about in my memory for the exploit to which he could be alluding.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.--Here the captain, in his hurry to pay me a compliment, does himself some injustice. Finesse, to be sure, was not generally characteristic of his methods, but he used it at times with amazing dexterity, as, for instance, the latter part of this very adventure will prove, if I can ever prevail on him to narrate it. On the whole I should say that he disapproved of finesse much as he disapproved of swearing, but had a natural aptitude for both.]
"'It is the mistake of clever men,' continued General Ducrot sagely, 'to undervalue their opponents; but surely after yesterday the commonest prudence might have warned you to put the greatest possible distance between yourself and Sabugal.'
"'Sabugal?' I echoed.
"'Oh, my dear sir, we know. It was amusing--eh!--the barber's shop? I assure you I laughed. It was time for you to be taken; for really, you know, you could never have bettered it, and it is not for an artist to wind up by repeating inferior successes.'
"For a moment I thought the man daft. What on earth (I asked myself) was this nonsense about Sabugal and a barber's shop? I had not been near Sabugal; as for the barber's shop it sounded to me like a piece out of the childish rigmarole about cutting a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie. Some fleeting suspicion I may have had that here was another affair in which you and I had again managed to get confused; but if so the suspicion occurred only to be dismissed. A fortnight before you had left me on your way south to Badajoz, and you will own that to connect you with something which apparently had happened yesterday in a barber's shop in Sabugal was to overstrain guessing. Having nothing to say, I held my tongue; and General Ducrot put on a more magisterial air. He resented this British phlegm in a prisoner with whom he had been graciously jocose and fell back on his national belief that we islanders, though occasionally funny, are so by force of eccentricity rather than by humour.
"'I do not propose to deal with you myself,' he announced. 'At one time and another, sir, you have done our cause an infinity of mischief, and I prefer that the Duke of Ragusa should decide your fate. I shall send you therefore to Sabugal to await his return.'
"This gave me my first intimation that Marmont was neither in Sabugal nor with his main army. That same afternoon they marched me off to the town and set me under guard in a house next door to his headquarters.
"Marmont returned from Celorico (if my memory serves me) on the afternoon of the 17th. I was taken before him at once. He treated me with the greatest apparent kindness, hoped I had suffered no ill-usage, and wound up by inviting me to dinner. A couple of hours later I was escorted to headquarters, where, on entering the room where he received his guests, I found him in conversation with a young staff officer who wore his arm in a sling.
"The marshal turned to me at once, and very gaily. 'I understand,' said he with a smile, 'that I have no need to introduce you to Captain de Brissac.'
"I looked from him to the young officer in some bewilderment, and saw in a moment that Captain de Brissac was certainly not less bewildered than I.
"'But Monsieur le Marechal--but this is not the man!'
"'Not the man?'
"'Most decidedly not. The man of whom I spoke was dark and not above middle height. He spoke Portuguese like a native, and belonged to a class altogether different. It would be impossible for this gentleman to disguise himself so.'
"For a moment Marmont seemed no less puzzled than we. Then he broke out laughing again.
"'Ah! of course; that will have been Captain McNeill's servant--the poor fellow who was killed,' he added more gravely. 'I am told, sir, that this servant shared and furthered most of your adventures?'
"'He did indeed, M. le Marechal,' said I; 'but excuse me if I am at a loss--'
"The Duke interrupted me by laughing again and laying a hand on my shoulder as an orderly announced dinner. 'Rest easy, my friend, we know of all your little tricks.' And at table he amused himself and more and more befogged me by a precise account of my haunts and movements. How I had kept a barber's shop in Sabugal under his very nose; what disguises I used (and you know that I never used a disguise in my life); how my servant had assisted M. de Brissac in a duel and afterwards escaped in his uniform--with much more, and all of it news to me. My astonished face merely excited his laughter; he set it down to my eccentricity. But after dinner, when M. de Brissac had taken his departure, Marmont crossed his handsome legs and came to business.
"'Sir,' said he, 'I am going to pay you a compliment. We have suffered heavily through your cleverness; and although Lord Wellington may choose to call you a scouting officer, you must be aware (and will forgive me for reminding you) that I might well be excused for calling you by an uglier name.'
"You may be sure I did not like this. You may also remember how at Huerta on the occasion of our first meeting the question of disguise came up between us, and how I assured you that to me, with my Scottish face and accent, a disguise would be worse than useless. Well, that was true enough so far as it went; but I fear that in my anxiety not to offend your feelings I spoke less than the whole truth, for I have always held that in our business as soon as a man resorts to disguise his work ceases to be legitimate scouting. It may be no less justifiable and even more useful, but it is no longer scouting. I admit the distinction to be a nice one;[A] and I have sometimes asked myself, when covering my uniform with my dark riding cloak, 'What, after all, is a disguise?' Nevertheless, I had always observed it, and standing before Marmont now in His Majesty's scarlet, which (as I might have told him) I had never discarded either to further a plan or to avoid a danger, I put some constraint on myself to listen in silence on the merest off-chance that my silence might help an affair with which the marshal assumed my perfect acquaintance, while I could only surmise that somehow you were mixed up in it, and therefore presumably it aimed at some advantage to our arms. I did keep silence, however, though without so much as a bow to signify that I assented.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.--I should think so indeed! To me the moral difference, say, between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding under a wig is not worth discussing outside a seminary.]
"'But you are a gentleman,' Marmont continued, 'and I propose to treat you as one. You will be sent in safe custody to France, and beyond this I propose to take no revenge on you--but upon one condition.'
"'The condition is you give me your parole that on your journey through Spain to France you not only make no effort to escape, but will not consent to be rescued should the attempt be made by any of the partidas in hope of reward.'
"I considered this for a moment. 'That is not a small thing to require, since Wellington may be reasonably expected to offer a round price for my recapture.'
"The marshal laughed not too pleasantly. 'Truly,' said he, 'I have heard that Scotsmen are hard bargainers. But considering that I could have you shot out of hand for a spy, I believed I was offering you generous terms.'
"Well, that was unfortunately true; so after a few seconds' pause I answered, 'Monsieur le Duc, by imposing these terms on me you at any rate pay me a handsome compliment. I accept it and give you my word.'
"Upon this parole, then, on the 19th I began my journey towards France and captivity, escorted only by M. Gerard, a young lieutenant of dragoons, and one trooper. The rest you know."
(Conclusion of Captain McNeill's Statement.)
As I have said, the bare news of my kinsman's capture and of poor Jose's death reached me at Celorico on the 16th, late in the evening. Knowing that Lord Wellington was by this time well on his way northward, and believing that for more than one reason the captain's fate would concern him deeply--feeling, moreover, some compunction at the toils I had all innocently helped to wind about an honest man--I at once sought and obtained leave from General Wilson to ride southward to meet the Commander-in-Chief with the tidings, and if necessary solicit his help in a rescue. The captain (on this point the messenger was precise) had been taken to Sabugal to await Marmont's return. I did not know that Marmont was actually at that moment on his way thither, but I thought him at least likely to be returning very soon. To be sure he might decide to shoot Captain Alan out of hand. My recent performances gave him a colourable excuse, unless the prisoner could disassociate himself from these and prove an alibi, which under the circumstances and without the help of Jose's evidence he could scarcely hope to do. I built, however, some faith on Marmont's known humanity, of which in his pursuit of the militia he had just given striking proof. The longer I weighed the chances the more certain I became that Marmont would treat him as an ordinary prisoner of war and send him up to France under escort.
Why, then (the reader may ask), did I lose time in seeking Lord Wellington instead of making my way at once to the north and doing my best to incite the partidas to attempt a rescue somewhere on the road north of Burgos, or even between Valladolid and Burgos? My answer is that such an affair would certainly turn on the question of money. The French held the road right away to the Pyrenees, not so strongly perhaps as to forbid hope, but strongly enough to make an attempt upon it risky in the extreme. The bands of Mendizabal, Mina, and Merino were kept busy by Generals Bonnet and Abbe; for a big convoy they might be counted on to exert themselves, but for a single prisoner they as certainly had no time to spare without the incitement of such a reward as only the Commander-in-Chief could offer.
Accordingly I made my way south to Castello Branco and reached it on the 18th, to find Lord Wellington arrived there and making ready to push on as soon as overtaken by the bulk of his troops. I had always supposed him to cherish a peculiar liking for my kinsman, but was fairly astonished by the emotion he showed.
"Rescued? Of course he must be rescued!" He broke off to use (I must confess) some very strong words upon Trant's design against Marmont and the tomfoolery, as he called it, which had taken me into Sabugal, and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over "the best scouting officer in my service; the only man of the lot, sir, who knows his business." Lord Wellington could, when he lost his temper, be singularly unjust. I strove to point out that my "tomfoolery" in Sabugal had as a matter of fact put a stop to the very scheme of General Trant's which he condemned. He cut me short by asking if I proposed to argue with him.
"Ride back, sir. Choose the particular blackguard who can effect your purpose, and inform him that on the day he rescues Captain McNeill I am his debtor for twelve thousand francs."
The speech was ungracious enough, but the price more than I had dared to hope for. Feeling pretty sure that in his lordship's temper a word of thanks would merely invite him to consign my several members to perdition, I bowed and left him. Twenty minutes later I was on the road and galloping north again.
Before starting from Celorico I had sent the peasant who brought news of Captain Alan's plight back to Sabugal with instructions to discover what more he could, and bring his report to Bellomonte on my northward road not later than the 20th. On the afternoon of the 19th when I rode into that place I could hear no news of him. But late in the evening he arrived with word that "the great McNeill" had been sent off under escort towards Salamanca. Of the strength of that escort he could tell me nothing, and had very wisely not stayed to inquire; he had picked up the news from camp gossip and brought it at once, rightly judging that time was more valuable to me just now than detailed information.
His news was doubly cheering; it assured me that my kinsman still lived, and also that by riding to secure Lord Wellington's help I had not missed my opportunity. Yet there was need to hurry, for I had not only to fetch a long circuit by difficult paths before striking the road to the Pyrenees,--I had to find the partidas, persuade them, and get them on to the road ahead of their quarry.
I need not describe my journey at length. I rode by Guarda, Almeida, Ledesma, keeping to the north of the main road, and travelling, not by day only, but through the better part of each night. Beyond the ford of Tordesillas, left for the while unguarded, I was in country where at any moment I might stumble on the guerilla bands, or at least get news of them. The chiefs most likely for my purpose were "the three M's"--the curate Merino, Mina and Mendizabal. Of these, the curate was about the biggest scoundrel in Spain. I learned on my way that having lately taken about a hundred prisoners near Aranda, he had hanged the lot, sixty to avenge three members of the local junta put to death by the French, and the rest in proportion of ten for every soldier of his lost in the action. From dealing with such a blackguard I prayed to be spared. And by all accounts Mina ran him close for brutal ferocity. I hoped, therefore, for Mendizabal, but at Sedano I heard that Bonnet, after foiling an attack by him on a convoy above Burgos, had beaten him into the Asturias, where his scattered bands were now shifting as best they could among the hills. Merino was in no better case, and my only hope rested on Mina, who after a series of really brilliant operations, helped out by some lucky escapes, had on the 7th with five thousand men planted himself in ambush behind Vittoria, cut up a Polish regiment, and mastered the same enormous convoy which had escaped the curate and Mendizabal at Burgos, releasing no less than four hundred Spanish prisoners and enriching himself to the tune of a million francs, not to speak of carriages, arms, stores, and a quantity of church plate.
This was no cheerful hearing, since so much in his pocket must needs lessen the attractiveness of my offer of twelve thousand francs. And, indeed, when I found him in his camp above the road a little to the east of Salvatierra his first answer was to bid me go to the devil. Although for months he had only supported his troops on English money conveyed through Sir Howard Douglas, this ignorant fellow snapped his dirty fingers at the mention of Wellington and, flushed with a casual triumph, had nothing but contempt for the allied troops who were saving his country while he and his like wasted themselves on futile raids. I can see him now as he sat smoking and dangling his legs on a rock in the midst of his unwashed staff officers.
"For an Englishman," he scoffed, "I won't say but twelve thousand francs is a high price to pay. Unfortunately, it is no price for my troops to earn. Here am I expecting at any moment a convoy which is due from the Valencia side, and Lord Wellington asks me to waste my men and miss my chance for the sake of a single redcoat. He must be a fool."
Said I, nettled, "For a Spaniard you have certainly acquired a rare suit of manners. But may I suggest that their rarity will scarcely prove worth the cost when your answer comes to Lord Wellington's ears."
He glared at me for a moment, during which no doubt he weighed the temptation of shooting me against the probable risk. Then his features relaxed into a grin, and withdrawing the chewed cigarette from his teeth he spat very deliberately on the ground. "The interview," he announced, "is ended."
I took my way down the hillside in no gay mood. I had travelled far; my nerves were raw with lack of sleep. I judged myself at least a day ahead of any convoy with which the captain could be travelling, even though it had moved with the minimum of delay. But where in the next two days was I to find the help which Mina had refused? To be sure I had caught up at Sedano a flying rumour that the curate Merino had eluded Bonnet, broken out of the Asturias, and was again menacing the road above Burgos. I had come across no sign of him on my way, yet could hit on no more hopeful course than to hark back along the road on the chance of striking the trail of a man who as likely as not was a hundred miles away.
It was about nine in the morning when Mina gave me his answer, and at three in the afternoon I was scanning the road towards Miranda de Ebro from a hill about a mile beyond Arinez (the same hill, in fact, where General Gazan's centre lay little more than a year afterwards on the morning of the battle of Vittoria). I had been scanning the road perhaps for ten minutes when my heart gave a jump and my hand, I am not ashamed to confess, shook on the small telescope. To the south-west, between me and Nanclares three horsemen were advancing at a walk, and the rider in the middle wore a scarlet jacket.
It took me some seconds to get my telescope steady enough for a second look, and with that I wheeled my horse, struck spur and posted back towards Salvatierra as fast as the brute would carry me through the afternoon heat.
I reached Mina's camp again at nightfall, and found the chief seated exactly as I had left him, still smoking and still dangling his legs. Were it not that he now wore a cloak against the night air I might have supposed him seated there all day without stirring, and the guard who led me to him promised with a grin that I was dangerously near one of those peculiar modes of death which his master passed his amiable leisure in inventing.
At the sight of me Mina's eyebrows went up and he chuckled, "Indeed," said he, "it has been a dull day, and I have been regretting that I let you off so easily this morning."
"This morning," I said, "I made you an offer of twelve thousand francs. You replied that you considered it too little for the services of your army. Perhaps it was; but you will admit it to be pretty fair pay for the services of a couple of men."
"Hullo!" He eyed me sharply. "What has happened?"
"That," I answered, "is my secret. Lend me a couple of men, say, for forty-eight hours. In return, on producing this paper, you receive twelve thousand francs; that is, as soon as Lord Wellington has assured himself on my report that you received the paper from me and did as I requested."
"Two men? This begins to look like business."
"It is business," said I curtly. "To your patriotism I should not have troubled to appeal a second time."
He warned me to keep a civil tongue in my head; but I knew my man, and within half-an-hour I rode out of his camp with two of his choicest ruffians, one beside me and one ahead to guide me through the darkness.
Now at Vittoria the road towards Irun and the frontier runs almost due north for some distance and then bends about in a rough arc towards the east. Another road runs almost due east from Vittoria to Pamplona. The first road would certainly be taken by my kinsman and his escort: Mina's camp lay above the second: but, a little way beyond, at Alsasua, a third road of about five leagues joins the two, and by this short cut I was certain of heading off our quarry.
There was no call to hurry. If, as I judged likely, the party meant to sleep the night at Vittoria, I had almost twenty-four hours in hand. So we rode warily, on the look-out for French vedettes, and reaching Beasain a little before two in the morning took up a comfortable position on the hillside above the junction of the roads.
At dawn we shifted into better shelter--a shepherd's hut, dilapidated and roofless--and eked out a long day with tobacco and a greasy pack of cards. A few bullock carts passed along the road below us, the most of them bound westward, and perhaps half-a-dozen peasants on mule-back. At about four in the afternoon a French patrol trotted by. As the evening drew on I began to feel anxious.
A little before sunset I sent off one of my ruffians--Alonso something-or-other (I forget his magnificent surname)--to scout along the road. He had been gone half-an-hour when his fellow, Juan Gallegos, flung down his cards in the dusk--the more readily perhaps because he held a weak hand--and pricked up his ears.
"Horses!" he whispered, and after a pause nodded confidently. "Three horses!"
We picked up our muskets and crept down towards the road. Halfway down we met Alonso ascending with the news. Yes, there were three horsemen on this side of Zumarraga and coming at a trot. One of them wore a red coat.
"Be careful, then, how you pick them off. The man in red must not be hurt; the money depends on that."
They nodded. Night was now falling fast, yet not so fast but that as the horsemen came up I could distinguish Captain Alan. He was riding on the left beside the young French officer, the orderly about six yards behind. As they came abreast of us Juan let fly, and the orderly's horse pitched forward at once and fell, flinging his man, who struck the road and lay either stunned or dead. At the noise of the report the other horses shied violently and separated, thus giving us our chance without danger to the prisoner. Alonso and I fired together, and rushed out upon the officer, who groaned in the act of wheeling upon us. One of the bullets had shattered his sword arm. Within the minute we had him prisoner, the captain not helping us at all.
"What is this?" he demanded in Spanish, peering at me out of the dusk and breaking off to quiet his frightened horse. "What is this, and who are you?"
"Well, it looks like a rescue," said I; "and I am your kinsman, Manus McNeill, and have been at some pains to effect it."
"You!" he peered at me. "I thank you," said he, "but you have done a bad evening's work. I am on parole, as a man so clever as you might have guessed by the size of my escort."
"We will talk of that later," I answered, and sent Juan and Alonso off to examine the fallen trooper. "Meanwhile the man here has fainted. Oblige me by helping him a little way up the hill, or by leading his horse while I carry him. The road here is not healthy."
Captain Alan followed in silence while I bore my burden up to the hut. Having tethered the horses outside, he entered and stood above me while I lit a lantern and examined the young officer's wound.
"Nothing serious," I announced, "a fracture of the forearm and maybe a splintered bone. I can fix this up in no time."
"You had better leave it to me and run," my kinsman answered. "This M. Gerard is an amiable young man and a friend of mine, and I charge myself to see him safe to Tolosa to-night. What are you doing?"
"Searching for his papers."
"I forbid it."
"Alain mhic Neill," said I, "you are not yet the head of our clan." And I broke the seal of a letter addressed to the Governor of Bayonne. "Ah! I thought as much," I added, having glanced over the missive. "It seems, my dear kinsman, that my knowledge of the Duke of Ragusa goes a bit deeper than yours. Listen to this: 'The prisoner I send you herewith is one Captain McNeill, a spy and a dangerous one, who has done infinite mischief to our arms. I have not executed him on the spot out of respect to something resembling an uniform which he wears. But I desire you to place him at once in irons and send him up to Paris, where he will doubtless suffer as he deserves' ..."
Captain Alan took the paper from me and perused it slowly, biting his upper lip the while. "This is very black treachery," said he.
"It acquits you at any rate."
"Of my parole?" He pondered for a moment; then, "I cannot see that it does," he said. "If the Duke of Ragusa chooses to break an implied bond with me it does not follow that I can break an explicit promise to him."
"No? Well, I should have thought it did."
At once my kinsman put on that stiff pedantic tone which had irritated me at Huerta. "I venture to think," said he, "that no McNeill would say so unless he had been corrupted by traffic with the Scarlet Woman."
"Scarlet grandmother!" I broke out. "You seem to forget that I have ridden a hundred leagues to effect this rescue, for which, by the way, Lord Wellington offers twelve thousand francs. I have promised them to the biggest scoundrel in Spain; but because he happens to be even a bigger scoundrel than the Duke of Ragusa must I break my bond with him and let you go to be shot for the sake of your silly punctilio?"
I spoke with heat, and bent over the groaning officer. My kinsman rubbed his chin. "What you say," he replied, "demands a somewhat complicated answer, or rather a series of answers. In the first place, I thank you sincerely for what you have done, and not the less sincerely because I am going to nullify it. I shall, perhaps, not cheat myself by believing that a clansman's spirit went some way to help your zeal"--here I might well have blushed in truth, for it had not helped my zeal a peseta. "I thank Lord Wellington, too, for the extravagant price he has set upon my services, and I beg you to convey my gratitude to him. As for being shot, I might answer that my parole extends only to the Pyrenees; but I consider myself to have extended it tacitly to my young friend here, who has treated me with all possible consideration on the journey; and I shall go to Bayonne."
He spoke quietly and in the most matter-of-fact voice. But I have often thought since of his words; and often when I call up the figure of Marmont in exile at Venice, where, as he strode gloomily along the Riva dei Schiavoni, the very street urchins pointed and cried after him, "There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon!" I call up and contrast with it the figure of this humble gentleman of Scotland in the lonely hut declining simply and without parade to buy his life at the expense of a scruple of conscience.
"But," he continued, "I fancy I may persuade M. Gerard at least to delay the delivery of that letter, in which case I see my way at least to a chance of escape. For the rest, these partidas have been promised twelve thousand francs for a service which they have duly rendered. My patrimony is not a rich one, but I can promise that this sum, whether I escape or not, shall be as duly paid. Hush!" he ended as I sprang to my feet, and Juan and Alonso appeared in the doorway supporting the trooper, who had only been stunned after all.
"We did not care to kill him," Juan explained blandly, "until we had the senor's orders."
"You did rightly," I answered, and glanced at my kinsman. His jaw was set. I pulled out a couple of gold pieces for each. "An advance on your earnings," said I. "My orders are that you leave the trooper here with me, ride back instantly to your chief, report that your work has been well done and successfully, and the money for which he holds an order shall be forwarded as soon as I return and report to Lord Wellington in Beira."