The long and bloody war of
the Peninsula had now been brought to a final close, and the troops looked
forward with impatience to the day of embarkation for their homes. The
presence of the allied army was no longer necessary in France; but the
British forces yet lingered about the Garonne, expecting the long-wished
and long-looked-for route for Britain. The Gordon Highlanders were
quartered at Muret, a small town on the banks of the Garonne, and a few
miles from Toulouse. One evening, while the mess were discussing, over
their wine, the everlasting theme of the probable chances of the corps
being ordered to Scotland, the sound of galloping hoofs and the clank of
accoutrements were heard in the street of the village. A sergeant of the
First Dragoons, with the foam-bells hanging on his horse's bridle, reined
up at the door of the inn where the officers of the Highlanders had
established a temporary mess-house. Old Dugald Cameron was standing at the
door, displaying his buirdly person to a group of staring villagers, with
whom he was at, tempting to converse in a singular mixture of broad
northern Scots, Spanish, and French, all of which his hearers found not
The horseman dashed up to the door with the splendid air of the true
English dragoon, and with an importance which caused the villagers to
shrink back. Inquiring for Colonel Cameron, he handed to Dugald two long
official packets; and after draining a deep hornful of liquor which the
Celt brought him, he wheeled his charger round, and rode slowly away.
'Letters frae the toon o' Toulouse, sir,' said
Dugald, as, with his flat bonnet under his arm, and smoothing down his
white hair, he advanced to Fassifern's elbow, and laid the despatches
before him; after which he retired a few paces, and waited to hear the
contents, in which he considered he had as much interest as anyone
present. The clamour and laughter of the mess-room were instantly hushed,
and every face grew grave, from the ample visage of Campbell, who was
seated on the colonel's right-hand, down to the fair-cheeked ensigns (or
Johnny New-comes), who always ensconced themselves at the foot of the
table, to be as far away as possible from the colonel and seniors.
'Fill your glasses, gentlemen,' said Cameron,
as he broke the seal of the first despatch; ''fill a bumper, and drink "to
a fair wind." My life on't, 'tis the route, and we shall soon have Old
England on our lee!'
'Praise Heaven 'tis come at last!' said Campbell, filling up his glass
with bright sparkling sherry. 'I never hailed it with greater joy, even in
Egypt. But what says Sir Arthur—the marquis, I mean?
"Tis the route!' replied Cameron, draining his
glass. 'To-morrow, at daybreak, we march for Toulouse.'
'Hurrah!' said the major. 'We shall have the
purple heather under our brogues in a week more. Hoigh! Here's to the
Highlandmen, shoulder to shoulder!' Every glass was reversed, while a
round of applause shook the room.
'We embark on the Garonne,' continued Cameron,
consulting the document. 'Flat-bottomed boats will convey us down the
river, and we shall sail in transports for Cork.'
'Hech! how, sirs? Cork?' exclaimed Campbell,
in a tone of disappointment. 'Demonios! as the dons say; and are we not
going home to our own country,—to the land of the bannock and bonnet?'
'Ireland is our destination. A famous place to
soldier in, as I know from experience, major.'
'I love poor Paddy well enough,' said
Campbell: ' who is there that would not, that has seen a charge of the
Connaught Rangers, or the 87th? Regular devils they are for fighting. But
we were sent home to braid Scotland after Egypt; and we saw service there,
gentlemen. Old Ludovick Lisle, and Cameron there, could tell you that. But
the other paper, colonel; what is it about?'
'A despatch for General the Condé Penne
Villamur, at Elizondo. It is to be forwarded instantly by the first
officer for duty: who is he?' ' Stuart,' said the adjutant.
'The deuce take your memory!' said Stuart
testily, as this announcement fell like a thunderbolt upon him: 'you seem
to have the roster all by heart. Colonel, is it possible that I am really
to travel nearly a hundred miles, and to cross those abominable Pyrenees
again, after fighting my way to Toulouse?'
'Without doubt,' replied Fassifern dryly. 'You
will have the pleasure of seeing Spain once more, and again paying your
respects to the gazelle-eyed senoritas and pompous senores.'
'I would readily dispense with these
pleasures. But might not Wellington have sent an aide or a dragoon with
seems not to think so. There is no help, Ronald, my man. You would not
throw your duty on another. Obedience is the first—you know the adage:
'tis enough. You can rejoin us at Toulouse, where we embark in eight days
from this.' ' Eight days?'
'Make good use of your nag: you will require
one, of course. Campbell will lend you his spare charger "Egypt," as he
utmost pleasure,' said the major, filling up his glass. 'But look well to
him by the way, for he is an especial good piece of horseflesh as ever was
foaled, or any man found for nothing on that memorable day of June, on the
plains of Vittoria. But when I remember the airing you took with my steed
at Almarez, I cannot lend you Egypt without entertaining some secret fears
of never beholding him again.'
'Have no fears for Egypt, major,' said Ronald,
laughing. 'I will restore him without turning a hair of his glossy coat.'
'Then, Stuart, you must march forthwith,' said
Cameron; 'the marquis's despatch must be carried onward without delay. You
must reach St. Gaudens by sunrise.'
Dugald was despatched to desire Jock Pentland,
the major's batman, to caparison Egypt; and meanwhile Stuart hurried to
his billet, where he hastily selected a few necessaries for his journey,
and packed them in a horse-valise. In case of accidents, he indited a
hasty letter for Lochisla; but, for reasons given in another chapter, it
never reached those for whom it was destined.
To his servant, Allan Warristoun, poor Evan's
successor, he abandoned the care of his baggage, desiring him to have it
all in readiness against the hour of march on the morrow. He belted his
sword and dirk tightly to his waist, and examined the holsters, to see if
the pistols were freshly flinted and in good order; after which he
examined his ammunition, well knowing that the more lead bullets and the
less loose cash he had about him, the better for travelling on such unsafe
ground as the Lower Pyrenees. He remembered that the whole of these waste
places were infested by hordes of lawless banditti, composed of all the
rascal crew of Spain,—guerillas, whose trade was at an end, broken or
deserted soldiers, unfrocked monks, fugitive presidiarios, or convicts,
bravoes, valientes, and vagabonds of every kind, with which the long war,
the absence of order and law, together with the loose state of Spanish
morals, had peopled every part of the country. While the remembrance of
these gentlemen passed through his mind, Stuart again examined his arms
and horse-equipage carefully, and mounting, rode forth along the dark,
straggling street of Muret. From the mess-room window there was handed to
him a parting bumper of sherry, which he drank in the saddle.
'Good-bye, Lisle!' said he, waving his hand; '
bid Virginia adieu for me. And now good-bye, lads; good-bye to ye all;'
and, striking spurs into Egypt, he galloped off.
'He is a fine fellow, and keeps his seat as
well as any cavalier of the prado at Madrid,' said the major, watching
Ronald's retreating figure as long as he could see it by the starlight.
'He is a fine fellow, and I wish he was safe back again among us. He has a
long and perilous path before him, over those d------d Pyrenees ; and ten
to one he never returns again from among those black-browed and uncanny
dons. We all know Spanish ingratitude, sirs!' The worthy major knew not
how prophetically he spoke.
Next morning the regiment marched to Toulouse,
and remained eight days, awaiting the arrival of the boats and other small
craft to convey them down the Garonne, which becomes navigable at a short
distance from the city.
The eight days passed away, and Ronald Stuart
did not return. The eventful day arrived—the day of embarkation for home,
and the regiment paraded on the riverside without him. The officers
glanced darkly at each other, and the colonel shook his head sorrowfully,
as if he deemed that all was not right; and a murmured curse on the
Spaniards was muttered among the soldiers. The whole regiment, from
Fassifern down to the youngest drum-boy, regretted his absence, which gave
room for so many disagreeable constructions and surmises. Other corps were
parading at the same time, and in the stir, bustle, and confusion of
embarking men and horses, baggage, women, and children, his absence was
forgotten for a time. The cheers of the soldiers and the din of various
bands were heard everywhere. The time was one of high excitement, and joy
shone on every bronzed face as boat after boat got under way, and, with
its freight, moved slowly down the Garonne—' the silvery Garonne,' the
windings of which soon hid the bridge, the spires, the gray old
university, and the beautiful forests of Toulouse.