of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 23 - Almarez
It was Sir Rowland Hill's
intention, in order to keep his movements concealed from the enemy, to
march his troops in the night, and halt them before dawn in the wood of
Jarciejo, situate about half-way between Almarez and Truxillo.
On the night of the
intended departure from the latter place, Ronald sat late with the worthy
descendant of Pizarro, Captain Don Gonzago, listening to his long stories
about that 'famous and noble cavalier General Liniers, and the campaigns
of Buenos Ayres,' until the shrill bugles at the hour of midnight sounded
' the assembly' through the echoing streets of the city. In ten minutes
the whole of the troops destined to force the strong places of the French
were under arms, and the snapping of flints, the ringing of steel ramrods,
the tramp of cavalry and clash of artillery-guns, travelling caissons and
clattering tumbrils carrying the tools of sappers, miners, pioneers, etc.,
gave token of the coming strife.
Many a flickering light
from opened casements streamed into the dark street on the bronzed visages
and serried files of the passing troops, whom they greeted with many a
viva! or hurrah!
Departing from the ancient
house of Pizarro, Ronald hurried through the dark and strange streets
towards the muster-place, and twice on his way thither was his path
crossed by the priest mentioned in my last chapter; but the pale outline
of his figure eluded his search,the first time by disappearing under the
black piazzas of the town-house, and the second time in the deep gloomy
shadow of the cloisters of San Jago de Compostella, and although Ronald
eagerly longed to follow him, so much was he pressed for time, that he
found it impossible to do so.
Without the sound of drum
or horn, they began their midnight march, descending from Truxillo towards
the Almonte,the soldiers carrying with them, in addition to their heavy
accoutrements, axes, sledgehammers, and iron levers, to beat down
stockades and gates, and scaling-ladders to aid the assault; which
cumbersome implements they bore forward by turns during the dreary
Oh, the indescribable
annoyances and weariness of such a march ! To feel one's self overpowered
with sleep, and yet be compelled to trudge on through long and unknown
routes and tracts of countryseeing with heavy and half-closed eyes the
road passing by like a running stream, no sound breaking the monotonous
tread of the marching feet-to drop asleep for a moment, and be
unpleasantly aroused by your nodding head coming in contact with the
knapsack of a front fileto trudge on, on, on, while every limb and fibre
is overcome with lassitude, and having the comfortable assurance that many
will be knocked on the head before daybreak, while your friends at home
are lying snugly in bed, not knowing or caring a jot about the matter.
Before dawn the detachments
were secreted and bivouacked in the wood of Jarciejo, where they remained
the whole day, keeping close within its recesses, as they were now in the
immediate neighbourhood of the enemy, upon whose strongholds a
night-attack was determined to be made. Before morning broke, Ronald had
an opportunity of bringing to a parley the monk who appeared to dog him in
so mysterious and sinister a manner.
Standing under the dark
shade of a large chestnut, as if for concealment, he suddenly espied the
glimmer of his long and floating gray cassock. The young Highlander
agilely sprung forward, and caught him by the cope, when, as usual, he was
about to fly.
'Well, reverend padre, I
have caught you at last! How now, senor?'
'What mean you, caballero?'
asked the priest gruffly, turning boldly upon him.
'Priest! I demand of you,'
replied the other angrily, 'your intentions? Your following me about thus
cannot be for good: answer me at once, if you dare! I will drag you to the
quarter-guard, and have you unfrocked,by Heaven I will, if you answer me
'Hombre, I understand you
not,' said the priest insolently. 'Unhand my cope, senor officiate, or,
demonio! I have a dagger'
'A dagger! How, you
rascally padre! dare you threaten me?'
'Why not, if you grasp me
thus?' answered he in a tone, the deepness and ferocity of which caused
Ronald to start. 'Unhand me, senor cavalier, or it may be the worse for
you in the end. I am a holy priest of el Convento de todos Santos, at
Merida, and bear a letter from the corregidor to Sir Rowland Hill, who has
employed me as his guide.'
'I believe you not : you
are no priest, but some cursed spy of Soult's, and if so, shall hang
before sunrise. Draw back his cowl!' said Stuart to the soldiers, who
Madre de Dios!' cried the other, evidently in tribulation, ' touch it not,
lest ye commit a grievous sin. I am under a vow, which ye comprehend not.
Unhand me, noble cavalier! I am but a poor priest, and may not contend
with armed soldiers.'
The gruff voice of the
priest died away in a whining tone; and at this crisis, up came the
brigade-major, saying that Sir Rowland wished to speak with the guide,
adding that he was astonished to find an officer brawling with a monk, and
expounded, for Ronald's benefit, the whole of the prosy passages in
general orders relating to 'guides,' 'conciliation of the Spaniards,'
The priest broke away, and
followed him through the wood, bestowing as he departed a hearty
malediction on Ronald as a sacrilegious heretic, who, although he valued
it not a rush, was surprised at such an ebullition of wrath from a
friar,a character in Spain generally so meek, humble, and conciliating.
The dagger, too ! The
mention of it had aroused all his suspicion, and he resolved to watch the
reverend father more narrowly in future ; and yet General Hill must have
been well assured of his honour and veracity, before he would trust to his
guidance on so important an occasion as the present.
Arrangements having been
made for a night attack upon the enemy, the troops were again under arms
at dusk, mustered and called together from the dingles of the wood, as
noiselessly as possible by voices of orderlies, and not by note of bugle
or bagpipe. Formed in three columns, they quitted the forest of Jarciejo,
and followed the route pointed out by the guide.
Another long and weary
night-march was before them,a night that might have no morning for some
of them ; but they entertained not such dismal reflections, and remembered
only a high spirit of emulation, which the recent captures of Ciudad
Rodrigo and Badajoz called forth. The night was intensely dark, not a star
lit the vast black dome of heaven, and each column, guided by a Spaniard
who knew the country well, set out upon its separate march. The first,
composed of the gallant 28th (familiarly known as the slashers) and 34th
regiments, with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores, under the orders of
General Chowne, were directed to take by storm the tower of Miravete,a
fortress crowning the summit of a rugged hill, rising on one side of the
mountain pass to which it gave its name, and through which the road to
The second column,
commanded by General Long, was directed to storm the works erected by the
garrison of Miravete across the pass, which consisted of a strong gate,
with breastwork and palisadoes, loop-holed for musketry, and defended by
General Howard's, or the
first brigade, formed the third column, composed of the 50th regiment, the
71st Highland Light Infantry, and the Gordon Highlanders, together with
some artillery. These marched by the mountains; the priest acting as their
guide to the forts at the bridge of Almarez, which they were ordered to
'take at the point of the bayonet.' Sir Rowland Hill accompanied them,
riding beside the gray padre, who had been accommodated with a mule, with
a dozen bells jangling at its bridle.
The night, as I have
already said, was intensely dark; a general blackness enveloped the whole
surrounding scenery, and the summits of the gloomy mountains among which
they marched could scarcely be discerned from the starless sky that closed
behind them like a vast sable curtain. Many hours more than the general
had ever calculated upon were spent on the way, and numerous suspicions of
the guide's knowledge or veracity were entertained ; yet to all questions
he replied with some monkish benediction, muttered in a snuffling tone,
and insisted that the route he led them was the nearest to the village of
But many a malediction did
the heavily-armed soldiers bestow on their monkish guide, and the desolate
and toilsome way he led them. Struggling through dark denies and narrow
gorges, encumbered with fallen trees and rugged masses of rock, twisted
brushwood and thickets, every one of which might, for aught they knew,
contain a thousand riflemen in ambush,through toilsome and slippery
channels of rushing streams,over immense tracts of barren mountainous
waste, they were led during the whole of that night, the priest's gray
cope and cassock waving in the gloom as he rode at the head of the column,
appearing like the ignis-fatuus, which led them about until, at last, when
morning was drawing near, the column halted in the midst of a deep swamp,
which took some ankle deep, and others above their leggings or gartered
hose, in water,the reverend padre declaring, by the sanctity of every
saint in the calendar, he knew not whereabouts they were. A
scarce-smothered malison broke out from front to rear, and the soldiers
stamped their feet in the water from pure vexation. Close column was now
formed on the 50th regiment, and Sir Rowland questioned the padre in so
angry a tone that the whole brigade heard him.
'Hold the bridle of his
mule, and cut him down should he attempt to fly,' said he to his orderly
dragoon. 'And now, senor padre, answer me directly, and attempt not to
prevaricate; for by Heaven if you do, you will find your cassock no
protection from the halberds or a musket-shot, one or other you shall
feel without ceremony.'
'Noble caballero,' urged
'Silence ! This night you
have played the traitor to Ferdinand, to Spain, and to us. Is it not so?
'No, senor general,'
replied the other stoutly.
instrumentality, the attack on Almarez has failed.
'Ira se en humo!* replied
the priest doggedly.
'Do you mock us, rascal?'
'No, cavalier; but no true
Spaniard likes to be questioned thus imperiously.'
'You speak somewhat boldly
for a priest. But daylight is already breaking, and we must retire into
concealment, or abandon the attempt altogether. Point out some track by
which we may retreat, or, priest and Spaniard as you are, I will order a
drum-head court-martial, and have you shot as a traitor and spy, or
leaguer with the enemy.'
'Gracios excelenze!' urged
'Your entreaties are of no
avail. You have deceived us, with the usual treachery of your nation,
'By San Juan, I have not,
general! The robe I wear, and the letter of the corregidor of Merida,
sufficiently attest my veracity. I have erred through ignorance, not
'It will end in smoke 'a
'I pray it may be so,' said
Sir Rowland, in a kinder tone. 'God forbid I should wrong an honest man!
But where lies the village of Almarez'
At that moment the flash of
a cannon a long way down the mountains, among whose shattered peaks the
report was reverberated, answered the question.
By the time which elapsed
between the sight of the flash and the sound of the report, it seemed to
be fired about a mile distant. 'The morning gun,that is Almarez,'
muttered the soldiers.
'Caballeros y soldados!'
cried the priest with sudden energy, 'I have been no traitor, as you seem
to suppose me. In truth i knew not the road,by San Jago de Compostella, I
did not! To-morrow night, without fail, I will guide you to the gates of
Almarez. I tell you this as truly as that every maravedi of my reward
shall go to the shrine of my good Lady of Majorga, whom some rogues have
lately plundered of her robes.'
'Unhand his bridle,' said
Sir Rowland; ' I must believe him. Major, what think you?'
'There is no alternative,'
replied the major of brigade; 'but as the regulations say, "Guides cannot
be too jealously watched; and, again, in page.'
"Tis a waste of time to
expound the regulations to a man whose knowledge is confined to his Bible
and mass-book,' replied the general with a smile. 'We will retire up the
mountains, and lie concealed till favoured again by the darkness. Let the
column break into sections, and move off left in front. Colonel Cameron,
your Highlanders will lead the way.'
A solitary place of
concealment was gained among the rugged mountains of the Lina, where the
bivouac was hidden from the sentinels on the castle of Miravete.
The officers anxious to
lead that most desperate, but gallant, of all military enterprises, the
forlorn hope in the intended assault, were requested to send their names
to the general. In spite of all that Macdonald and his more cautious
friends could say to dissuade Ronald from so heedlessly exposing himself
to danger, the fiery young Highlandman offered to lead the storming-party.
He well knew how great was the danger, and how little the chance of escape
attending those who headed the forlorn band ; but he was animated by no
ordinary feelings, and spurred on by the most powerful of all human
passions,love and ambition. With these inspiring his soul, what is it
that a brave man feels himself unequal to encounter and overcome? Ronald
was also eager to distinguish himself, to gain the favour of the general,
the applause of the troops, the freedom of Catalina, and the
admirationalas! he could no longer look for the loveof Alice Lisle.
The brigade-major informed
him (not forgetting to add a stave of the regulations thereto) that his
namesake, Captain Stuart, of the 50th regiment, had likewise sent his name
as a candidate for the desperate honour, and had been, of course,
accepted, in consequence of his superior rank, adding that Sir Rowland
would not forget Mr. Stuart in the next affair of the same kind, and that
on the present occasion he might, if he chose, attend the storming-party
as a supernumerary, as it was very likely the first fire would knock its
leader on the head. With this Ronald was obliged to be contentedrather
chagrined, however, to find that he had exposed himself to the same
danger, without a chance of obtaining the same honour.
During that day the ground
was carefully examined and reconnoitred. The rugged bed of a dried-up
stream, which led from the summits of the Lina to the Tagus at Almarez was
chosen as the surest line of route on the next occasion.
Almarez was a miserable
little Spanish village, consisting of two rows of huts or cottages,
leading to an ancient bridge, which had been recently blown up, but the
want of which the French supplied by a strong pontoon, extending between
their forts on each side of the river,the one named Ragusa, and the other
Napoleon. The latter tete-du-pont was strongly entrenched, and defended by
nine pieces of heavy cannon and five hundred men; Ragusa was a regular
work, defended by an equal number of men and iron guns. A large square
tower, rising in the midst like a keep, added greatly to the strength of
After remaining for three
days bivouacked among the solitary mountains of the .Lina (a ridge or
sierra which runs parallel with the Tagus), about ten o'clock on the
evening of the last the third column got under arms, and making a circuit
among the hills under guidance of the priest, to avoid Miravete, arrived
at the bed of the stream, which, in the darkness, was their surest guide
to Almarez. But before reaching this place, either by the ignorance or
treachery of their guide, they were again led astray, and spent another
night marching about in the darkness and solitude of these dreary sierras.
It was close on dawn of day before they gained the village of Almarez at
the base of the hills, by descending the rough channel of the rill, a long
and toilsome path, admitting but one file abreast, as the rocks rose
abruptly on each side of it, and the passage was encumbered by large
stones, projecting roots and trunks of fallen trees, which caused many of
the soldiers to be hurt severely, by falling in the dark as they toiled
on, bearing, in addition to their arms, the scaling-ladders, the hammers,
levers, and other implements for the assault on the gates of the titer
The intention of taking
Almarez by surprise was frustrated by the garrison in the castle of
Miravete. General Chowne's column having made an assault on the outworks
of the place, its soldiers, to alarm the forts at the bridge, sent off
scores of rockets in fiery circles through the inky-black sky; beacons of
tar-barrels blazed on every turret, and red signal-lights glared in every
embrasure of the embattled tower, purpling the sky above and the valley
below, flaring on the hideous rents, yawning chasms, and precipitous
fronts of the huge basaltic rocks among which it is situated, and some of
which, covered with foliage, overhang the dark blue waters of the Tagus.
In some places the basaltic crags reared their fronts to the height of
several hundred feet above the straggling route of the third column. The
scene was wild, splendid, picturesque, and impressively grand, such as few
men have looked on, the dark sky, the tremendous scenery, and the tower
blazing with its various lights and fires, while the peals of musketry
from the assailants and the assailed reverberated among the hills, the
outlines of which were now distinctly visible,their sides dotted here and
there by flocks of Merino sheep, goats, etc., which had escaped the
forage-parties of the enemy.
General Hill was now
perfectly aware that an attempt to carry the forts by surprise was
frustrated, as the assault upon them all should have commenced at once;
yet, relying on the mettle and chivalry of his gallant troops, worn out as
they were by their night-marches, he did not hesitate to make the effort,
although he knew that the garrisons of the tetes-du-pont would be under
arms for his reception. Within an hour of daybreak the three regiments had
quitted their path, and formed in order at some little distance from the
scene of intended operations.
All was still and dark.
Before them lay the quiet little village of Almarez, with its orange-trees
and vineyards, and with its ruined bridge, the broad abutments and piers
of the centre arch of which hang over the Tagus, whose deep dark waters
swept sluggishly on, rippling against the jarring and heaving boats of the
pontoon bridge which the foe had thrown across the river a little lower
down, and at each end of which appeared the rising mounds, crownedthe
nearest by Fort Napoleon, and that on the other side by the extended
trenches and lofty tower of Ragusa.
All was singularly and
ominously still within the forts: none appeared stirring except the
sentries, whose figures against the sky were discerned moving to and fro
on the bastions, or standing still to watch the lights of Miravete, which
were yet blazing afar off among the dark mountains of the sierra.
Preparations were now made
for the attack. The colours were uncased and thrown upon the breeze; the
flints and priming were examined. The 6th regiment of the Portuguese line,
and two companies of German riflemen under Captain Blacier, were ordered
to form the corps-de-reserve, and moved behind a rising ground, which
would cover them from the enemy's fire; while the three British regiments,
formed in two columns, pressed forward pell-mell upon the tetes-du-pont.
Now indeed was the moment of excitement, and the pulsation of every heart
became quicker. But the soldiers placed the utmost reliance upon the skill
and gallantry of their leader and colonels. At the head of the 50th
regiment was Stuart, a man whose perfect coolness and apathy in the
hottest actions surprised all, and formed a strong contrast to the
enthusiastic spirit of gallant Cadogan of the Highland Light Infantry, and
to the proud sentiments of chivalry, martial fire, and reckless valour
which animated Cameron of Fassifern.
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