of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 28 - A Single Combat
It was a delightful summer
morning: there was an exhilarating freshness in the air, which raised the
spirits of Stuart, as the distance increased between him and the scene of
his sorrows. The merry birds were hopping and chirping about from spray to
spray ; the wild flowers which blossomed by the wayside were giving forth
their richest perfume, and expanding their dewy cups and leaves to the
warmth of the rising sun. Behind him lay the dark wood of Jarciejo, and
above it arose the curved ridges of the Lina,their bright tints mellowed
by distance as they stretched away towards New Castile. Before him lay a
long tract of beautiful country, tufted woods and vineyards, with here and
there yellow cornfields, rocks surmounted by old feudal strongholds, most
of them ruinous, and in many places by the roadside the blackened remains
of the cottages of the paisanos marked the ruthless devastations made by
Massena in his retreat some time before.
Ronald would have
contemplated with delight the varying of the landscape as he rode along,
but for the sorrow which pressed heavy upon his heart, intermingled with
certain fears of what his reception might be at the regiment after so
unaccountable a desertion, and in what light it might be viewed by his
brother officers. Full of these exciting ideas, at times he drove his
horse furiously forward, as if he strove to leave his thoughts behind him,
and shorten as much as possible the distance between himself and his
comrades. He longed to behold the embattled towers, the slender spires and
belfries of Truxillo, where he hoped to find his comrades and explain his
singular disappearance; but Truxillo was yet leagues distant.
A faint chorus came
floating on the breeze towards him as he rode along, and swelled out into
a bold and merry strain on his nearer approach. The cracking of whips and
jingle of innumerable bells announced a train of muleteers, who came in
view a few seconds afterwards, and gave a boisterous cheer at sight of the
scarlet uniform. According to the custom of the muleteers during hot
weather, they all wore large cotton handkerchiefs, knotted round their
heads, under their sombreros; their tasselled jackets were flying open,
and their broad shirt-collars, stiff with flowers and needlework, were
folded over their shoulders, displaying every bare and brawny neck. The
train halted, and Ronald recognised his old acquaintance, Lazaro Gomez,
the master muleteer, who took off his beaver with one hand, while he
reined-in the leading mule with the other. Lazaro's speculations appeared
to have been successful. His jacket was now of fine green velvet, covered
with tinsel lace and garnished with about six dozen of those brass
bell-buttons with which the muleteers are so fond of adorning their
'Well, Micer Lazaro,' said
Stuart, 'why do you drive your cattle so fast during the heat of the day,
when they should be enjoying a siesta under the greenwood? They are likely
to drop before you reach the forest of Jarciejo.'
'Par Diez! I hope not,
senor,' replied the muleteer, in evident trepidation at the idea. 'They
shall reach Jarciejo,we are ruined else; and I trust, in this perilous
time, that the gracious senora, our Lady of Majorga,' crossing himself and
looking upwards, 'will not forget the honest muleteer, that never passed
her shrine without bestowing on it a handful of mara-vedis. She will put
mettle in the legs of his mules, and enable them to save his hard-earned
goods and chattels.'
'How, Micer Gomez,what is
the matter? You seem much excited.'
'Santissima Casa! is it
possible that you know not the reason, senor? El demonio! I thought you
had ten thousand British at your back. The whole country round about is in
possession of the French, and hard work we have had since we left Truxillo
to escape being plundered of every maravedi. And only think, senor, what a
loss I should have suffered! Why, there are thirty skins of the best wine
of Ciudad Real on the black mule,Capitana, we call her,she takes the
lead ; as many skins of the olive-oil of Lebrija, the best in Spain, on
the pad of the second, Bocaneyra, or " the black muzzle," as we name it.'
'The Frenchthe French at
Truxillo!' exclaimed Ronald, in astonishment. 'Where, then, is Sir Rowland
Hill with his troops?'
'On his march for Merida,
senor; and by this time many a league beyond Villa Macia. On the third
muleCastana, we name her from her colourthere are twenty arrobas of corn
from the Huertz of Orihuela, all for the nuns of Santa Cruz, and worth in
'Are the enemy in great
force hereabouts?' asked Ronald, who felt considerably concerned for his
'Truly, senor, I know not;
but their light cavalry are riding in every direction. Some say that
Marshal Soult, and others that the Count D'Erlon, has entered Estremadura,
and that the British are all cut to pieces.'
'That I do not believe.'
'Nor I;no, by the bones of
the Cid Campeador, 'tis not likely. But as I was saying, senor, twenty
arrobas of corn------'
'Twenty devils! Halt, Micer
Lazaro: if you stay to tell over the inventory of your goods, you are not
likely to escape the claws of the enemy, a party of whom I see on the top
of the hill yonder.'
A volley of curses broke
from the muleteers at this intelligence. A party of cavalry in blue
uniform appeared on the road, descending an eminence at some distance, and
the glitter of their weapons, as they flashed in the sun, was seen between
the branches of the trees. Crack went the whips.
Diez! we are plundered and ruined!' cried the mule-drivers, as they lashed
their long-eared cattle into a trot. 'The rich oil, the wine and corncarajo!to
be pillaged by the base French! But what is to be done? Were they under
the roof of the Santissima Casa, which the blessed angels brought from
Galilee to Loretto, they would not be safe. Forward, Capitana! gallant
mule; sure of foot and long of wind. Hoa, Pedro de Puebla! keep up your
black-muzzled sloth; we will flay its flanks with our whips else. Farewell
to you, senor! Our Lady del Pilar aid us! we are in a sad pickle.' And
off they went, without farther ceremony, at their utmost speed, running by
the side of their mules, and lashing them lustily, leaving Stuart looking
steadily at the advancing party of horse, but dubious what course to
He could not
stoop to have recourse to a deliberate flight; and as the enemy was
between him and his friends, it was necessary to elude them by any means.
Reigning back his horse, he withdrew beneath the cover of a thicket beside
the road. He was scarcely esconced among the foliage when about twenty
chasseurs à cheval, with their short carbines resting on their thighs and
their officer riding in front, wheeled round a corner of the road, and
passed his place of concealment at an easy pace. As soon as they were
hidden by the windings of the road and the heavy green foliage which
overshadowed it, Stuart emerged from his cover, and continued his route at
a hard gallop towards Truxillo, which, however, he determined to avoid by
a detour, in case of falling in with more of the French. He had not ridden
a quarter of a mile, before a sudden angle of the path, which now passed
under the cool shade of several vine-trellises, brought him abruptly face
to face with two French officers, whose horses were trotting along at a
very ambling rate. On seeing him, they instantly drew up, while their
faces assumed an expression of unmeasured surprise. They were not above
twelve yards distant. Ronald likewise drew his bridle, and unsheathing his
sword, reconnoitred the Gauls, between whom a few words passed. One was a
pale and thin man, in a staff uniform embroidered with oak-leaves. He
carried his right arm in a black silk sling. The other was a dashing
officer of cuirassiers, a man of singularly fine and muscular proportions
; he was mounted on a powerful black war-horse, and wore a high brass
helmet, with the Imperial eagle on its crest, and a plume of black
horse-hair floating over it. He was accoutred with a bright steel cuirass
and back-plate, and leather jack-boots which came above the knees. Both
wore splendid epaulettes and aiguillettes, and were covered on the breast
with medals and military orders of knighthood ; indeed, there were few
French officers who were not so.
Ronald saw at a glance that the heavy dragoon
would be his opponent, and he felt some unpleasant doubts as to the issue
of a conflict with a practised cavalry officer, and one thus sheathed in a
panoply of steel and leather, while he himself had nothing to protect him
from the blade of his adversary but his thin regimental coat and tartan
with the wounded arm moved his horse to the roadside, while the cuirassier
twirled his moustaches with a grim smile, and unsheathed his glittering
weapona species of long and straight backsword, worn by the French
cavalry, and desired Ronald imperiously to surrender without striking a
coup férir, Monsieur Officier.
Finding that he was not understood, and that
Stuart prepared to defend himself, he reined his steed back a little way;
and then, dashing his spurs into its flanks, came thundering forward at
full speed, shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!' with his long blade uplifted,
intending to hurl his adversary into eternity by a single stroke. But
Stuart, by an adroit management of his horse's bridle, made a demi-volte
or half-turn to his left, at the same time stooping his head, to avoid the
Frenchman's sweeping stroke, which whistled harmlessly through the air;
while he in return dealt him a back-handed blow on the crest of his helmet
as he passed him in his career, which at once tumbled him over his horse's
head and stretched him senseless in the dust, while his sword fell from
his grasp, and broke in a dozen pieces. Elated with this sudden and
unlooked-for success, Ronald brandished his claymore aloft, and rushed on
to the next officer ; but drew back and lowered the point of his weapon on
perceiving the startled and indignant look of the veteran, who held up his
on, sir!' said Ronald, substituting Spanish for French, of which he
scarcely knew above a dozen words. 'I might, if I chose, make you
prisoner; but I wish not to take advantage of your being wounded. Pass on,
sir; the road is open before you.'
The Frenchman appeared to understand him
imperfectly, but, raising his cocked hat, he prepared at once to take the
benefit of the permission.
'Adieu, Monsieur de Mesmai!' said he, on
passing his fallen comrade, adding something in a whisper, fragments of
which only reached Ronald.
'Malheurs, mon amià la guerrecomme à la
guerreretournez et reprenez-vouschasseurs à cheval,' and he galloped
off. Ronald was half tempted to ride after and cut him down, and thus
securely stop his intention of returning with the twenty light horsemen,
as he supposed he meant to do, for the disjointed fragments he had heard
implied an understanding between them.
'Ah, la malice du diable!' cried the
cuirassier, as he endeavoured to rise. 'Come, Senor Cuirassier,' said
Ronald in Spanish; 'I believe I am to consider you a prisoner on parole.'
'Diablement!' muttered the Frenchman, rubbing
his sore bones. 'Come, to horse. Get into your saddle, and without delay.
Do not imagine I will parley here long enough to permit your cunning old
comrade to bring up the light dragoons to your rescue.'
The Gaul still delayed to move, declaring that
so severe were his bruises he was unable to rise.
'Monsieur,' said Ronald sternly, placing his
hand in his basket-hilt, 'I believe you not; 'tis a mere trick! And if you
do not instantly mount, I shall be tempted to try if that iron harness of
yours is proof against a stab from such a blade as this.'
Thus angrily urged, the cuirassier, with a
sullen look, and some trouble evidently, mounted his horse, gave his
parole of honour, and tossing the flints from his pistols, threw away with
a curse his empty scabbard, and prepared to follow his captor, who
inquired about his hurts and bruises with a frank kindness, to which the
other replied by cold and haughty monosyllables ; and his displeasure
appeared to increase, when Ronald, instead of continuing on the Truxillo
road, struck at once across the country to make a detour, thus cutting off
any chance which the Frenchman had of being rescued by the chasseurs,
should his companion bring them back for that purpose. Stuart was secretly
well-pleased at the capture he had made, and doubted not that the French
capitan would make a very timely peace-offering to Cameron, who would be
the reverse of well-pleased at his long absence.
'Cheer up, Monsieur de MesmaiI think your
friend named you De Mesmai,' said he; 'there is no use in being cast down
about this malheur. Such happen daily to our brothers in arms, on both
And it is a wonder our cases are not reversed, when my opponent was so
accomplished a chevalier.'
De Mesmai twirled his black moustaches,
shrugged his shoulders till his epaulettes touched his ears, and made no
reply,but gave an anxious glance behind them.
"Tis no use looking for your friend and his
chasseurs: they will scarcely find us, since we are so far from the main
road. So, I pray you, give yourself no further concern about them.'
To this taunting injunction, the Frenchman
answered only by a stern military frown. He was a man above forty years of
age, and his figure was a model of combined strength and symmetry.
Exposure to the sun had turned the hue of his face to something between
deep red and dark brown,the former was particularly apparent in a deep
scar across the cheek, which he endeavoured to hide by the curl of his
moustache. He appeared to view his captor with any feeling but a friendly
one; indeed, it was galling, that an accomplished cavalry officer like
himself should have been unhorsed and compelled to surrender by one whom
he regarded as a raw soldier,a mere stripling ; but, as his head had good
reason to know, a very stout one!
'And so Monsieur de Mesmai is your name?'
observed Stuart, endeavouring to lead him into conversation. 'Surely I
have heard it before.
''Tis not unlikely, monsieur. I am pretty well
known on both sides of the Pyrenees ; and permit me to acquaint you, that
it was no common feat of yours to unhorse me as you did to-day. But as for
my name, it has made a noise in the public journals once or twice. You may
have heard it at Almarez,I commanded in the tower of Ragusa.'
'I now remember; but it was not very kind of
you to cut the pontoon, and thus destroy the retreat of D'Estouville and
'Charity begins at home. You know that vulgar adage,strictly English I
believe it is,' retorted the cuirassier haughtily. 'Sacre bleu! 'tis
something new for a French officer to be schooled by a British, in the
rules of military honour.
'Nothing new in the least, sir!' retorted the
other in the same tone of pique. 'Military honour! What think you of the
poisoned balls, which our troops say yours use so freely?'
'Sacré nom de Dieu!' exclaimed the cuirassier
hoarsely, while his cheek grew absolutely purple; ' 'tis false, monsieur;
I tell you 'tis false! 'Tis a lie of the base mercenary German Legion, or
the rascally Portuguese. Surely British soldiers would never say so of
Frenchmen? Think you, monsieur, that we, whose bayonets have flashed at
Austerlitz and Jena,think you, that we now would have recourse to mean's
so foul? Sucré! to poison our bullets like the cowardly Indians,and now
at this time, when, under Heaven and the great Emperor's guidance, the
rustle of the banners of France has shaken the world to its centre? I trow
'It has been
rumoured by our soldiers, however; but I rely too much on the honour of
Frenchmen, to imagine that they would resort to such dastardly means of
maiming an enemy.'
'Monsieur, were we otherwise situated, I would put this matter to the
sharper test of cold iron,' replied De Mesmai, who was much ruffled at the
mention of the poisoned balls; 'but a time may yet come, and for he
present. I accept your apology. As for the story of the poisoned balls,
doubtless you are indebted for it to the base Germansmercenary dogs! whom
their beggarly princes and little mightinesses sell by thousands to fight
the battles of all nations.'
'In our service we have a legion of several
thousands, and they are excellent troops.'
'Monsieur, we have many legions. But the
German is without chivalry or sentiment, and fitted only for the mere
mechanical part of war. They fight for their daily pay: honour they value
not; to them 'tis as moonshine in the wateran unsubstantial glitter.'
'You are severe, Captain De Mesmai.'
'I cannot speak of them in more gentle terms,
when I remember that all the German prisoners you take from us invariably
change banners, and enlist in your service. Several battalions have been
raised among the Scotch military prisons of late. And these Germansbah!
But to the devil with them!'
'By-the-byewho was your friend, with his arm
in the sling? An officer of some rank, evidently?'
'Truly he is. I am glad you did not take him
instead of me. Ah, monsieur, you have outwitted yourself confoundedly.
What a prize he would have been to present to your general! That officer
was Monsieur le Comte D'Erlon.'
'D'Erlon!' exclaimed Ronald; 'would to Heaven
he would return!'
'With the sabres of twenty chasseurs à cheval glittering behind him?
'No, certainly. But oh! had I only guessed his
rank and fame, he should not have escaped me. I would either have taken or
cut him down in his saddle.'
'That would have been a pity, for he is a
famous old fellow; but it would have left the comtesse a widow, with I
know not how many thousand livres in the year. I know she looks with
favourable eye on me,but, sacré bleu! 'tis all in vain. I don't like
ladies that are verging towards forty years.'
'You seem to have recovered your equanimity of
perfectly; but my head rings like a belfry, with that cut you gave me.'
'So that old officer, with his arm slung, was
really the famous D'Erlon, of whom we have heard so much"
'The gallant old count himself. He received a
stroke from a spent pistol-ball a day or two past, which disabled his
sword-arm ; otherwise you would have had an encounter with him also.'
'I shall ever curse my thoughtlessness in
having permitted him to escape.'
The cuirassier laughed exultingly.
'I amdiable! I was his aide-de-camp; and we
had merely crossed the Tagus last night with a subdivision of chasseurs,
to make a reconnoissance; and we were returning leisurely in the rear of
our party, when you so unluckily fell in with us, like some wandering
'Excuse me, monsieur; but as I perceive that your sabretache is very full
of something, if you have any of the Count D'Erlon's despatches or papers,
I must consider it my duty to request that you will intrust them to my
the bomb! That you may present them to your general?'
'I believe he is every inch a true soldier;
and were he here, would be welcome to share the contents of my sabretache
; but as he is not, we will divide them honestly at the kettle-drum head.
Here, you see, is a roast fowl, famously stuffed with sage and garlic,
which yesterday afternoon I carried off from the dinner-table of a fat
canon of Torbiscoso, when just about to carve, and very much aghast the
padre looked when I seized it unceremoniously. Here also is a bottle of
pomard,rare stuff, as you will find. I took it out of D'Erlon's holsters
not above four hours ago. He always keeps a bottle in one, and a pistol in
the other. A knowing old campaigner, ventre St. Gris! And now, since you
have reminded me of the sabretache, let us to luncheon.'
The pomard and the fowl were shared together ;
and had any stranger beheld them as they jogged along, he would never have
imagined that they had been engaged in mortal strife an hour before.
'Ah, this horrible garlic; the taste of it
would madden a Parisian chef de cuisine,' observed De Mesmai. 'I drink to
the health of senor, the reverend canon of Torbiscoso, who has provided
for us this especial good luncheon. Come, my friend, you do not drink; you
are as melancholy as if you had lost your love, while I am as merry as if
I had just buried my wife. But why should I be cast down in spirits? The
old count cannot do without me, and will soon get me exchanged : he might
as well lose his head as Maurice de Mesmai. I save him a world of trouble
by drinking his wine, smoking his cigars, making up his despatches, in
which I take especial care that my name is always duly commended to the
notice of the Emperor. I study the localities for camps, and always make
them in the neighbourhood of convents. Apropos of convents: I love better
to capture and sack them than anything else. 'Tis such delightful
hide-and-seek sort of work, to pull the fair garrison from the nooks and
niches where they hide from us. I have a score of nuns across this very
saddle-bow; and, but for your cursed interruption,excuse me,
monsieur,would by this time have had the abbess of the Jarciejo convent.
An immensely fine creature, upon my honour, with a neck and just beautiful
enough to turn the heads of messieurs their eminences the cardinals. A
glorious creature, in fact, and as kind a one as may be met with on a long
day's march. I had marked her for a prize, and D'Erlon had never dared to
say me nay ; otherwise he would have had to provide himself with another
seemed to have recovered that buoyancy of temper so natural to Frenchmen,
and he chatted on in this gay and unconnected manner, and sang snatches of
military and tavern songs, until they arrived, when evening was
approaching, at Villa Macia, where it was necessary that they should halt
for the night. Here they received information that Sir Rowland Hill, with
the troops returning from Almarez, had passed through two days before. In
so small a village there was no alcalde to order them a billet, and no inn
at which they could procure one otherwise; and while standing in the
street, irresolute how to act, they were surrounded by a crowd of swarthy
villagers, who greeted Ronald with many a hearty viva! but regarded the
disarmed Frenchman with lowering looks of hatred and hostility, to which
he replied by others of defiance and contempt. El cura, the rector or
curate of the place, a reverend-looking old churchman, with a bald head, a
few gray hairs, and a wrinkled visage, approached them with his shovel-hat
in his hand, and invited them to partake of the shelter afforded by his
humble roof, to which the Gaul and the Briton were alike welcome. The
horses were accommodated in an outhouse behind the cottage, while the
curate introduced his guests into his best apartment,a room floored with
tiles, which had just been cooled by the application of a water-sprinkler.
Nets of onions, oranges, and innumerable bunches of grapes hung from the
rude rafters of the roof, waving in the fresh evening breeze which blew
through the open window. Drawings of various kinds, particularly
landscapes, adorned the walls of the room, in which, if poverty was
everywhere apparent, there was an extreme air of neatness and cleanliness,
not often to be met with in houses of such a class in Spain.
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