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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 20 - Another Night at Merida


THE conversation which ensued on the close of the major's story was interrupted by the clatter of a horse trotting along the causewayed street.

'That must be my batman, Jock Pentland, with my horse for the rounds,' said Campbell impatiently. 'I am sure I told the Lowland loon not to come till the bells of San Sebastian rang the hour of ten.'

'It is a dragoon, I think; but the night is so dark I am not certain,' said Ronald, as he drew back from the open window. 'He has dismounted here.'

At that moment the door opened, and the host appeared bearing a long candle in his hand, flaring and sputtering in the currents of air, while he, bowing very low, introduced the Condé de Truxillo, who advanced towards them, making his long staff-plume sweep the tiles of the floor at every bow he gave.

'Welcome, noble condé!' said Stuart, rising and introducing him to the rest.

'Ah, Don Ronald, are you here? I am indeed proud to see you.'

'You come upon us most unexpectedly, condé.'

'I have been in my saddle all day,' replied the other, casting himself languidly into a chair, 'and have this moment come from the quarters of Sir Rowland Hill, for whom I had despatches------'

'From Lord Wellington?'

'Yes, caballeros.'

'And Ciudad Rodrigo? cried they eagerly.

'Has fallen------'

'Fallen?'

'Two days ago.'

'Hurrah! Well done, Lord Wellington!' cried Bevan, draining his glass.

'The devil!' muttered Campbell; 'then we shall have no fighting with Marmont.'

'He has retreated to Salamanca,' said the condé, 'abandoning to its fate the fortress, which I saw the gallant Inglesos carry by storm in the course of half an hour,—killing, wounding, and capturing three thousand of the enemy.'

'Glorious news, Don Balthazzar,' said Ronald. 'But refresh yourself; here is sherry, and there Malaga, with cigars in abundance. After you have rested, we shall be glad to hear an account of the assault.'

'I thank you, senor caballero,' said the count, providing himself.

'What is our loss?' asked Campbell. 'Have many officiates y soldados fallen?'

'What the allies suffered I have never heard,—at least 'twas not known when I left for Castello Branco; but two brave general officers have been slain.'

'Their names, condé?'

'Crawfurd and Mackinnon; one fell dead while I was speaking to him.'

'Gallant fellows they were, and countrymen of our own, too !' said Campbell, gulping down the sherry with a dolorous sigh. 'But 'tis the fortune of war; every bullet has its billet,—their fate to-day may be ours to-morrow.'

During a long discussion which ensued upon the news brought by the condé, the latter applied himself to the remnants of the tocino and huevos, with infinite relish.

'I wonder what the despatches for Sir Rowland may contain?' observed Captain Bevan, supposing that the condé might throw some light on the matter; but the hungry Espanol was too busy to reply.

'Most likely an order to retrace our steps,' replied Campbell. 'I would wager my majority against a maravedi that you will find it to be the case.'

'Very probably. The devil! we are a mere corps of observation just now?'

'It was not wont to be so with the second division,' observed Kennedy.

'Never mind,' replied Campbell; ' it will be our turn in good time. I drink this horn to our most noble selves------Hah! there are the bells of San Sebastian. I must be off to visit these confounded pickets; my horse will be here immediately.'

The major rose and buckled on Andrea, surveying with a sour look the long line of equidistant fires which were glowing afar off, marking the chain of outposts, around the base of the mountain, and along the level plain.

'Here comes my batman, Jock,' said he, looking into the street. 'Pentland, my man; is that you?'

'Ay, sir!' replied a soldier, dressed in his white shell-jacket and kilt, as he rode a horse up to the door and dismounted.

'You are a punctual fellow. Desire Senor Raphael, the innkeeper, to give you a canteen full of aguardiente. Are the holsters on, the pistols loaded, and fresh fiinted?'

'A's richt, sir,' replied the groom, raising his hand to his flat bonnet.

'I will see you again, lads, when we get under arms in the morning,' said Campbell, enveloping himself in an immense blue cloak.

'How, major! Are you so fond of bivouacking that you mean to sleep with the out-pickets?'

'Not quite, Alister; but I mean to finish the night at Fassifern's billet, and fight our battles and broils in Egypt over again for the entertainment of his host, a rich old canon, who is said to have in his cellars some of the best wine on this side of the peak of Ossian.'

'Do not forget, senor, to make the reverend padre's borachio-skins gush forth like a river,' said the condé.

'A priest would as soon part with his heart's blood, as his wine to a stranger.'

'I am too old a soldier to require that advice, Balthazzar,' said Campbell, wrapping his mantle around his gigantic figure, which the Spaniard surveyed with a stare of surprise. 'I regret you have not all invitations; but be as much at home here as you can, and be careful how you trust yourselves within any of Senor Raphael's couches. Peninsular—pardon, condé—I mean Portuguese posadas, are none of the most cleanly; and if you would wish to avoid being afflicted with sarna for twelve months to come, it would be quite as safe and pleasant to repose on the floor.'

'The sarna! major,' exclaimed Stuart; 'what does that mean?'

'We give a less classical name for it at home in the land o' cakes,' said Campbell, as he descended the stair, making the place shake with his heavy tread; 'but you will discover to your cost what it means, if you are rash enough to sleep between the sheets of any bed in the posadas of this country.'

Don Balthazzar returned next morning to rejoin Lord Wellington's staff at Ciudad Rodrigo.

His despatches contained an order to Sir Rowland Hill to return into Spanish Estremadura, the retreat of Marshal Marmont rendering the presence of the second division unnecessary in Portugal. Many were sadly disappointed when this order was read next morning in the hollow squares of regiments,—all having been in high spirits, and filled with enthusiasm at the prospect of a brush with the enemy before the expected capitulation of the celebrated fortress; but there was no help for it,—obedience being the first duty of a soldier. On the march towards Merida again, they consoled themselves with the hope that the Marshal Duke of Dalmatia, General Drouet, or some of the commanders in their front, would make them amends by showing fight. The British army had now been supplied with tents sent out to them from Britain; and they had the prospect of encamping with what they considered tolerable comfort during the summer campaign, and not lying, like the beasts of the field, without a shelter from the inclemency of the weather.

The same degree of coldness and hauteur was yet maintained between Ronald and Louis Lisle, who never addressed each other but when compelled by military duty to do so; and only then in the most distant terms, and studied style of politeness. The quarrel which had ensued on their first meeting was yet rankling in the hearts of both, and their fiery Scottish pride was fast subduing the secret feeling of friendship which still lurked in the breast of each. The weather had become very warm, and the soldiers suffered excessively from the burning heat of the sun and the extreme scarcity of water, when traversing the wild and arid plains of Estremadura. Their rations were of such an indifferent quality, and so very scant, as barely to sustain life ; and Ronald Stuart, although a stout young Highlander, felt often so much exhausted, that his heavy broadsword nearly dropped more than once from his hand.

If such was his situation, what must that have been of the poor private soldiers, laden as they were with their heavy arms, ammunition, and accoutrements,—knapsack, greatcoat, blanket, haversack, and canteen, —a load weighing nearly eighty pounds! Day after day they marched forward in the face of the scorching sun,—hot, fierce, and glaring, hanging above them in the blue and cloudless vault, withering the grass beneath their feet, and causing the earth to gape and crack as if all inanimate nature were athirst for rain and moisture. Every breath of air they inhaled seemed hot and suffocating, like the fiery blast which gushes from an oven when the door is opened.

More than once on the march had Ronald relieved Louis by carrying his heavy standard, when he was almost sinking with exhaustion; but the want of water was the chief misery endured. The supply with which they filled their wooden canteens at the public fountains of Albuquerque, Zagala, and La Nava became during the march heated and tainted, sickly to the taste, and unrefreshing.

Now and then, when a spring was passed on the line of march, the soldiers, unrestrained by discipline, crowded eagerly and wildly about it, striving furiously, almost at drawn bayonets, for the first canteenful, until the place became a clay puddle, and further contention was useless.

'Oh for ae sough o' the cauler breeze that blaws ower the braes o' Strathonan!' Evan would often exclaim, as he wiped away the perspiration that streamed from under his bonnet; 'or a single mouthfu' o' the Isla, where it rins sae cauld and deep at Corrie-avon, or the foaming swirl at the linn o' Avondhu, for my tongue is amaist burnt to a cinder. Gude guide us, Maister Ronald, this is awfu'.'

'O'ds, man, Iverach, if I was again on the bonnie Ochil or Lomond hills,' said a Lowlander, 'de'il ding me gin I wad gie ower driving sheep and stots to follow the drum.'

'Or staun to pe shoot at for twa pawbees ta hoor,—teevil take it!' added a Gordon from Garioch.

'Hear to the greedy kite!' exclaimed the Lowlander. 'An Aberdonian is the chield to reckon on the bawbees.'

'Teevil and his tam pe on you and yours !' cried the Gordon angrily. 'Oich, oich! it's well kent that a Fifeman would rake hell for a bodle, and skin------'

The commanding voice of Colonel Cameron, exclaiming: 'Silence, there, number four company ! silence on the march !' put an instant end to the controversy.

'Hot work this, Stuart, very. Beats Egypt almost,' Campbell would say, as he rode past at times.

Various were the emotions which agitated Ronald's breast, when he beheld before him the windings of the Guadiana and the well-known city of Merida, which was again in possession of the French. The jealous feeling with which he regarded Alice Lisle caused him to look forward with almost unalloyed pleasure to the expected meeting with his winning and beautiful patrona; and it was with a secret sensation of satisfaction —of triumph, perhaps, of which, however, he almost felt ashamed—that he had witnessed the proud blood mantling in the cheek of young Louis, when he (Ronald) was rallied by Alister, Kennedy, and others, about his residence at Merida, and the favour he had found with Donna Catalina. At the fountain where Stuart had been regaled by the muleteers, a fierce struggle ensued among the soldiers for a mouthful of water. The French troops had maliciously destroyed the pipe and basin; the water, in consequence, gushed across the pathway, where the current had now worn a channel. Although the whole of General Long's brigade of cavalry had passed through it, rendering it a thick and muddy puddle, yet so intense was the thirst of the soldiers, that an angry scramble ensued around it to fill canteens, or obtain a mouthful to moisten their tongues, which were swollen, and clove to their palates. By dint of the most strenuous exertions, Evan Iverach had supplied his master's canteen with the sandy liquid, neglecting to fill his own, although, poor fellow, he was perishing with thirst. Ronald had placed it to his lips, but found the water so much saturated with sand, that it was impossible almost to taste it. He was replacing the spigot in the little barrel, when the exclamation of: 'My God! I shall certainly faint with exhaustion. Soldiers, I will give a guinea for a drop of water—only a single drop,' pronounced in a remarkably soft and musical English accent, arrested his attention; and, on looking up, he perceived a young lady, attired in a fashionable riding-habit and hat, pressing her graceful Andalusian horse among the Highlanders, who were crushing and jostling around the mutilated fountain. The wind blew up her lace veil, discovering a quantity of fair silky curls falling around a face which was very pretty and delicate, but thin, apparently from the fatigue and privations which were making many a stout soldier gaunt and bony. Many who had filled their vessels at the fountain held them towards her; but she gratefully took Ronald's, thanking him by a smile from the finest blue eyes in the world.

'I am afraid it is impossible you can drink it,' said he, as he held her bridle, 'it is so thick with clay and animalculæ.'

'It is very bad, certainly; but yet better than nothing,' replied the lady, as she drank of it, quenching her burning thirst eagerly. 'Ah, dear sir! I regret to deprive you of it ; but accept my kindest thanks in return. My name is Mrs. Evelyn ; Mr. Evelyn, of the 9th Light Dragoons, will return you a thousand thanks for your kindness to me. But 1 must ride fast, if I would see him again before they attack Merida; and so, sir, good-morning!'

She struck her Andalusian with her little riding-rod, and bowing gracefully, galloped along the line of the infantry column towards where the horse-brigade were forming, previously to attacking seven hundred foot, which, with a strong party of steel-clad cuirassiers, occupied the city. Every eye was turned on the young lady as she flew along the line of march, with her long fair ringlets, her lace veil, and the skirt of her riding-habit waving wide and free about her.

'God's blessing on her bonnie face!'

'Her een are as blue and bricht as the vera lift aboon!' exclaimed the soldiers, charmed with her beauty and grace.

'What a happy fellow Evelyn is to possess so fine a girl!' said Captain Bevan.

'How famously she manages that Andalusian horse!'

'Had Evelyn been a wise man, he would have left her at home in Kent. He has a splendid property there—a regular old baronial hall, with its mullioned windows and rookery, surrounded by lawns and fields, where myriads of flies buzz about the ears of the gigantic plough-horses in the warm weather. How foolish to bring a delicate English lady from her luxurious home, to undergo the ten thousand miseries incident to campaigning!'

'But what on earth can have brought her up from the rear just now, when her husband's corps are about to drive the enemy from their position?'

'There goes Long!' said Campbell, exultingly flourishing his stick. 'Keep up your hearts, my boys! It will be our turn, in a few minutes, to give them a specimen of what we learned when in Egypt with Sir Ralph.'
It was Sir Rowland Hill's earnest desire to capture this small party of the enemy ; for which purpose the cavalry were ordered to ford the Guadiana at some distance below the ruined bridge, to outflank them, and, if possible, to cut off their retreat. The French battalion of infantry, dressed in blue uniform with white trousers (rather unusual, the French troops being generally very dirty in their persons when on service), were seen in position on the opposite side of the river, drawn up in front of some orange plantations, while their squadron of cuirassiers occupied the avenues of the city, where their brass casques, steel corselets, and long straight swords were seen flashing in the noonday sun. While the rest of the division halted, the first brigade, consisting of the 50th and 71st Highland Light Infantry, 92nd Highlanders, and Captain Blacier's German Rifle company, commanded by Major-general Howard, were ordered to advance with all speed upon the town; while the 9th and 13th English Light Cavalry, and King's German Hussars, boldly plunging into the Guadiana, swam their horses across the stream under a fire from the carbines of the cuirassiers, who, on finding their flank thus turned, fired one regular volley, which unhorsed for ever many of Long's brigade, and then fled at full speed. At the same time the battalion of infantry disappeared, without firing a shot, among the groves in their rear.

'Forward! double quick;' was the word; and, with their rustling colours bending forward on the breeze, the first brigade pressed onward at their utmost speed down the descent towards the city, and through its deserted streets, making their echoes ring to the clank of accoutrements, and the rapid and rushing tread of many feet. The ultimate escape of the enemy was favoured by the delay caused in providing planks to cross the blown-up arch of the Roman bridge. Rafters and flooring were, without ceremony, torn from some neighbouring houses, thrown hurriedly across the gap, and onward again swept the impatient infantry, eager to come up with, to encounter, and capture this little band, which had so adroitly eluded them. But for that evening they saw them no more; and, after a fruitless pursuit for some miles, returned to Merida wearied and fatigued, when the shadows of night had begun to darken the sky and scenery.

Followed by ours, the enemy's cavalry had retired at a gallop along the level road to Almendralejo; often they turned on the way to shout 'Vive I'Empereur!' to brandish their swords, or fire a shot, which now and then stretched a British dragoon rolling in the dust. As the first brigade were returning towards Merida, a mournful episode in my narrative came under their observation,—one which calls forth all the best feelings of the soldier, when the wild excitement of the hour of conflict has passed away. Near one of those rude wooden crosses, so common by the wayside in Spain, placed to mark the spot where murder has been committed, lay an English troop-horse in the agonies of death ; the froth and blood, oozing from its quivering nostrils, rolled around in a puddle, while, kicking faintly with its hoofs, it made deep indentations in the smooth grassy turf. Beside it lay the rider, with his glittering accoutrements scattered all about. His foot was entangled in the stirrup, by which he appeared to have been dragged a long way, as his uniform was torn to pieces, and his body was soiled with clay and dust. A carbine shot had passed through his brain, and he was lying stark and stiff; his smart shako had rolled away, and the features of a dashing English dragoon,—the once gay Evelyn, were exposed to view. Beside the corse, weeping in speechless sorrow and agony, sat his wife,—the same interesting young lady who had that morning drunk from Ronald's canteen at the fountain. Her face was ashy pale,—pale even as that of her dead soldier,—and she seemed quite unconscious of the approach of the Highlanders, who could not be restrained from making an involuntary halt. Her hat and veil had fallen off, permitting her fair curls to stream over her neck and shoulders - she uttered no sound of woe or lamentation, but sat with her husband's head resting on her lap, gazing on his face with a wild and terrible expression, while her little white hands were bedabbled with the blood which clotted his curly hair. From Merida she had seen him unhorsed, and dragged away in the stirrup by his frightened steed, which had also been wounded. With shrieks and outcries, she had tracked him by the blood for two miles from the town, until the exhausted charger sunk down to die, and she found her husband thus.

Colonel Cameron, on approaching, sprang from his horse, and raised her from the ground, entreating her to return to Merida, as night was approaching, and to be left in so desolate a place was unsafe and un-advisable. But she protested against being separated from the corpse of her husband, and, as it was impossible to leave her there, Cameron gave orders to carry Mr. Evelyn's remains to Merida. A temporary bier was made in the usual manner, by fastening a blanket to two regimental pikes : in this the dead officer was placed, and borne off by two stout Highlanders. Mrs. Evelyn mounted her Andalusian, which Evan Iverach had adroitly captured while it was grazing quietly at some distance; and Cameron, riding beside her, gallantly held her bridle-rein as they proceeded towards the city. It was totally dark when the brigade, forming close columns of regiments, halted in the now desolate Plaza.

The soldiers were instantly dismissed to their several billets.

That which Ronald had received was upon the hovel of a poor potter, residing near the convent of San Juan; but instead of going thither, he made straight towards the house of the old Prior de Villa Franca, at the corner of the Calle de Guadiana, earnestly hoping, as he wended on his way, that it had escaped the heartless ravages he saw on every side of him.

'I will show this fiery Master Lisle of ours that I have more than one string to my bow, as well as the fickle Alice,' he muttered aloud, and in a. tone of gaiety which I must own he did not entirely feel.

That morning the mails had been brought up from Lisbon, and both Louis and himself had received letters from home; and Ronald concluded that there was still no letter from Alice, as Louis had, as usual, not addressed him during all that day. Old Mr. Stuart's letter was far from being a satisfactory one to his son.

'Inchavon,' said he, in one part of it, 'has now taken upon him the title of Lord Lisle, and has gained a great landed property in the Lothians. As these people rise, we old families seem to sink. All my affairs are becoming more inextricably involved ; the rot has destroyed all my sheep at Strathonan, and a murrain has broken out among our black Argyleshires. The most of the tenants have failed to pay their rents; the farm towns of Tilly-whumle and Blaw-wearie were burned last week —fifteen hundred pounds of a dead loss; and the damned Edinburgh lawyers are multiplying their insolent threats, their captions and homings, for my debts there; and all here at home is going to wreck, ruin, and the devil! I trust that you keep the Hon. Louis Lisle at a due distance; I know you will, for my sake. Folk hereabout say his sister is to be married to Lord Hyndford during some part of the next month.'

The last sentence Ronald repeated more than once through his clenched teeth, as he stumbled forward over the rough pavement of the marketplace. As he looked around him, his heart sickened at the utter silence and desolation which reigned everywhere; not a single light visible, save that of the silver moon and twinkling stars.

As he approached the well-known mansion where he had spent so many delightful hours, the gaunt appearance of the gable, the roofless walls, the fallen balconies, the shattered casements, informed him at once that ' the glory had departed.'

The house had been completely gutted by fire ; and Ronald, while he gazed around him, recalled the old tales of Sir Ian Mhor's days, when the savage cohorts of Cumberland (Cumberland the bloody and the merciless) were let loose over the Scottish highlands. In the garden, the flower-beds were trampled down and destroyed,—the shubbery laid waste,—the marble fountain was in ruins, and the water rushing like a mountain torrent through Catalina's favourite walk. The utmost labour had been expended to ruin and destroy everything,—Don Alvaro's rank and bravery having rendered him particularly odious to the soldiers of the usurper, Joseph Buonaparte. Fragments of gilded chairs, hangings, and books were tossing about in all directions. Some of the latter Ronald took up, and saw by the light of the moon that they had belonged to Catalina's little library (books are a scarce commodity in Spain), and were her most favourite authors. There was the romance of 'Amadis de Gaul,' written by that good and valiant knight, Vasco de Loberia, 'Lopez de Ruedas,' 'Armelina,' 'Eusenia,' 'Los Enganados,' all separate works, and other dramas and pastorals. But one richly-bound little book, printed at Salamanca, the 'Vidas de los Santos,' upon which her own hand had written her name, he kept as a remembrance,—he scarcely required one,—and bestowing a hearty malediction on the French, against whom he now felt the bitterest personal enmity, he left the place with an anxious and heavy heart, intending to question the first Espanol he should meet as to the fate of the family of Villa Franca. He encountered several in the streets, but none could give him the least information ; and as he was weary with the fatigues of the day, he retired to his billet at the house of the potter. On the way thither, a ray of light shining through a low-barred window, and the wailing as of one in deep distress, attracted his attention. On looking in, he perceived the ladylike and graceful figure of Mrs. Evelyn bending over a table, on which, muffled up in a cavalry cloak, lay the cold remains of him she loved with her whole heart. A weary dragoon, booted and accoutred, lay asleep in one corner; in another were grouped some Irish soldiers' wives, smoking and sipping aguardiente, while they listened in silence to the sorrowful moanings of the young lady, and the lowly-muttered yet earnest prayer which a poor Cistertian padre, almost worn out with years and privation, offered up for the soul of the deceased, around whose bier he had placed several candles, which he had consecrated by lighting them at the shrine of San Juan. The chamber was ruinous and desolate, without either fire or furniture. It was, in sooth, a sad and strange situation for the poor girl, whose fair head rested on the bosom of the slain ; and Ronald, as he turned away, thought of what her gay and fashionable friends at home would have said could they have seen her then,—bowed down in absorbing sorrow, without a friend to comfort her, and surrounded by squalid misery and desolation.

*  *  *  *  *

About daybreak next morning, Evelyn was buried hastily in a grassy spot among the ruins of the castle of Merida,—the alcalde having piously objected to the burial of a heretic in consecrated ground. Without other shroud but his tattered and bloody uniform,—without other coffin than his large military cloak,—he was lowered into the hastily-made tomb. The chaplain of the brigade performed the burial service, and he was hurriedly covered up. A volley of carbines from his troop, and the sobs of his young widow as she stood by, leaning on the arm of Fassifern, were the last requiem of the English dragoon.


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