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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 54 - Cameron of Fassifern


As soon as the military traveller presented himself before the cathedral of St. Gudule, the lustre streaming from the sixteen illuminated chapels of which filled the surrounding streets with a light rivalling that of day, a dense crowd gathered around him, barring his passage on every side, and clamorously demanding, 'What news from the army?'

It was with the utmost difficulty that he could make these terrified cits understand that he was bound for the field, and wished to know which way the British troops had marched. His only reply from them was, 'The French—the French are coming on!' Fear had besotted them. He told them they would serve Belgium better by getting arms and joining her allies, than by thronging the streets like frightened sheep. This was answered by a groan, and the feeble cry of 'Vivat!'

Cursing them for cowards, in his impatience to get on, he spurred his horse upon the crowd, and drove them back. By their increasing number, an officer of the Brunswick Oels corps, who was riding down the street at full speed, was likewise stopped; and having a little knowledge of the English language, he learned Ronald's dilemma, and invited him to be his companion, as he was following the route of the army. They galloped through the Namur gate, and in five minutes Brussels, with its lights and din, fear and uproar, was far behind them. They were pressing at full speed along the road leading to the then obscure village of Waterloo. It wound through the dark forest of Soignies; the oak, the ash, and the elm were in full foliage, and, for many miles of the way, their deep shadows rendered the road as dreary as can be conceived.

The speed at which the travellers rode completely marred any attempt at conversation, and the only sounds which broke the silence were their horses' hoofs echoing in the green glades around them. When at intervals the moonlight streamed between the clouds and the trees, Ronald turned to survey his companion, whose singular equipment added greatly to the gloomy effect produced by the dark forest, which stretched around them for many miles in every direction.

The cavalry officer belonged to the Brunswick troops, who, with their duke, had made a vow to wear mourning until the death of their late prince and leader should be avenged. His horse, his harness, his accoutrements and uniform, were all of the deepest black, and a horsehair plume of the same sable hue floated above the plate of his shako, which was ornamented by a large silver skull and cross-bones, similar to the badge worn by our 17th Lancers. A death's head was grinning on his sabretache, on his holsters, his horse's forehead, and breastplate, and the same grim badge looked out of every button on his coat. He was rather stately in figure for a German, and a tall and sombre-looking fellow, with large dark eyes, lank moustaches, and a solemn visage. His tout ensemble rendered him altogether as ghastly and melancholy a companion as the most morbid or romantic mind could wish to ride with through a gloomy wood at midnight, with strange paths and darkness behind, and a battle-field in front.

After riding for about six miles in silence, a muttered ejaculation from both announced their observation of a flash which illuminated the sky. It was ' the red artillery,' and every instant other flashes shot vividly athwart the firmament, like sheet lightning ; and soon afterwards the sound of firing was heard, but faint and distant. It was a dropping fire, and caused, probably, by some encounter of stragglers or outposts.

At daybreak, on approaching the village of Waterloo, they met a horse and cart, driven along the road at a rapid trot by a country boor, clad in a leathern cap and blue frock, having his shoes and garters adorned with gigantic rosettes of yellow and red tape. His car contained the bloody remains of the brave Duke of Brunswick, who at four in the evening had been mortally wounded, when heroically charging at the head of his cavalry in front of Les Quatre Bras. The hay-cart of a Flemish clodpole was now his funeral bier. The bottom was covered with the red stream, forced by the rough motion of the car from the wound, which, being in the breast, was distinctly visible, and a heavy mass of coagulated blood was plastered around the starred bosom and laced lapels of the uniform coat. An escort of Black Brunswickers, sorrowing, sullen, and war-worn, surrounded it with their fixed bayonets. The boor cracked his whip and whistled to his horse, replacing his pipe philosophically, and apparently not caring a straw whether it was the corse of a chivalric prince or a bag of Dutch turf that his conveyance contained.

Ronald reined up his horse, and touched his bonnet in salute to the Brunswick escort; but the rage and sorrow of the cavalry officer, on beholding the lifeless body of his sovereign and leader, were such as his companion never beheld before. He muttered deep oaths and bitter execrations in German, and holding aloft his sabre, he swore that he would revenge him or perish. At least from his actions Stuart interpreted his language thus. He jerked his heavy sabre into its steel scabbard, and touching his cap as a parting salute, drove spurs into his horse, and dashing along the forest pathway, disappeared. Ronald followed him for a little way, but finding that he was careering forward like a madman, abandoned the idea of attempting to overtake him.

Daylight was increasing rapidly, but he felt that dreamy and drowsy sensation which is always caused by want of sleep for an entire night. He endeavoured to shake off these feelings of weariness and oppression, for everything around announced that he was approaching the arena of a deadly and terrible conflict. His heart beat louder and his pulses quickened as he advanced. Dense clouds of smoke, from the contest of the preceding evening, yet mingled with the morning mist, overhung the position of Quatre Bras, and, pressed down by the heavy atmosphere, rolled over the level surface of the country. At every step he found a dead or a dying man, and crowds of wounded stragglers, officers, rank-and-file, on horse and on-foot, were pouring along in pain and misery to Brussels, bedewing every part of the road with the dark crimson which trickled from their undressed wounds. These were all sufferers in the fierce contest at Quatre Bras on the preceding evening. The village of Waterloo was deserted by its inhabitants, for, like a pestilence, war spread desolation with death in its path, and the fearful Flemings had fled, scared by the roar of the distant artillery.

The wounded were unable to give any account of the engagement, save that Brunswick was slain, and the British had not yet lost the day. He was informed that his regiment was in the ninth brigade of infantry, commanded by Major-general Sir Dennis Pack; and that he would find them, with their kilted comrades the 42nd, and 44th English Regiment, somewhere near the farm of Les Quatre Bras, bivouacked in a corn-field.

The speaker was an officer of the 1st Regiment, or Royal Scots. He was severely wounded on the head and arm, and was making his way to Brussels on foot, bleeding and in great agony, as his scars had no other bandages than two hastily-adjusted handkerchiefs. He leant for support on the arm of a soldier of the 44th, who was also suffering from a wound. The Royal Scot begged of Stuart to lend him a few shillings, adding that he had spent all his money at Brussels, and would be totally destitute when he returned thither, as he had not a farthing to procure even a mouthful of food.

Stuart gave him a few guineas, nearly all the loose change in his purse, but rendered a greater service in lending his horse, which could be of no further use to himself, as he was now close to the arena of operations. The officer mounted with many thanks, and promised to return the animal to the headquarters of the Highlanders—a promise which he did not live to fulfil; and the steed probably became the prey of some greedy boor of Soignies. By his accent he knew the officer to be his countryman, and he looked back for a short time, watching him, as his horse, led by the honest Yorkshireman of the 44th, threaded its way among the straggling crowd that covered the road.

There was an indescribable something in the face of this officer which seemed like part of a long-forgotten dream, that some casual incident may suddenly call to remembrance. He surely had never seen him before, and yet his voice and features seemed like those of an old friend, and he felt well pleased with himself for the attention he had shown him. He inquired his name among the wounded soldiers of the Royals.

'He's Ensign Menteith of ours, sir,' said one, saluting with the only hand that war had left him.

'We've many Menteiths,' said another, who lay by the roadside. 'Cluny is his Christian name, sir.'

It was, then, his cousin, the son of Sir Colquhoun Menteith, that he had so singularly encountered and befriended. They had not met for eighteen years, since they were little children, and now beheld each other for the last time on the field of Waterloo. He was about to turn and make himself known, but Menteith had proceeded so far, that his figure was lost amid the crowd which accompanied him; but he hoped to meet him again—a hope which was never realized, for he expired by the wayside, close to the entrance of the forest of Soignies. Feeling his heart saddened and softened by a thousand recollections of his childhood, which this interview had awakened, Ronald turned his face towards Quatre Bras, taking a solitary path among some thickets, to avoid the disagreeable sights of human pain and misery which he encountered on every yard of the main road.

The morning was hazy, and everywhere dense clouds of vapour were curling upward from the earth, exhaled by the heat of the sun, which, as the day advanced, became intense, while the air was oppressive and sultry: but a great change came over the face of nature about twelve o'clock at noon.

While passing through the copsewood which bordered the highway beyond the village of Waterloo, Ronald heard the wail of a bagpipe, arising up from the woodlands, and wildly floating through the still air of the summer morning. He stopped and listened breathlessly, while the stirred blood within him mounted to his cheek. The last time he heard that instrument, it was awakening the echoes in the woods of Toulouse. But the strain was different now. It was played sadly and slowly, with all the feeling of which its wild reeds are capable; and the air was an ancient dirge from the Isle of the Mist—Oran au Aiog, or 'The Song of Death,' and Stuart's breast became filled with soft melancholy, and with wonder to hear this solemn measure of the Highland isles played in such a place, and at such a time. The cause was soon revealed.

On suddenly turning a point of the road, which was lined on each side by thick thorns and tall poplars, he beheld Æneas or Angus Macvurich, a piper of the 92nd, stalking, with the slow and stately air peculiar to his profession, before a rudely-formed waggon, in which lay a wounded officer, over whom a cloak was cast to defend him from the fierce rays of the sun. Stuart, the assistant-surgeon, rode behind, and beside it came old Dugald Mhor Cameron, with his head bare and his silver tresses floating on the wind, while he hid his face in the end of the tartan plaid. A Highland soldier led by the bridle the horse which drew the vehicle—a rough country car of the clumsiest construction, and a wretched jolting conveyance it must have been for a man enduring the agony of a complicated gunshot wound. Anxiety and woe were depicted in every face of the advancing group, and the Highlander who led the horse turned round every moment to look upon the sufferer in the car.

Ronald knew all the sad truth at once. On his meeting it, the cavalcade halted, the lament ceased, and a murmur of greeting arose from the Highlanders—all, except old Dugald, who stared at him with eyes of wonder and vacancy.

It was the colonel, brave Cameron, whom they were bearing away,— as many of his ancestors had been borne, from his last battle-field to his long home. He was not dead, but lay motionless on his back pale and bloody, with his sword (rolled up in a plaid for a pillow) placed under his head. His eyes were closed, his cheeks were sunken and ghastly, and the thick curls of his brown hair were dabbled with blood and soiled with clay. Notwithstanding his familiarity with scenes of blood, Ronald could not help shrinking on beholding the leader whom he loved so dearly, and whom so many brave men had followed, stretched thus helplessly, with the hand of the grim king upon him.

'Stuart, this is a sorrowful meeting,' said Ronald in a low voice, as he pressed the hand of his old friend the medico. 'Our good and gallant colonel------'

'Aich! ay,—the cornel—the cornel—the cornel,' muttered Dugald in a whimpering voice. He seemed besotted with grief. 'I kent, this time yesterday, that it was to happen ere the nicht fell. The lift was blue, and the sun was bricht; but a wreath descended on my auld een, and a red cloud was before me wherever I turned,—aboon me when I looked up, and below me when I looked doon; and I kent that death was near my heart, for the power of the taisch was upon me. Aich! ay! Lie you there, John Cameron? Few there were like you,—few indeed!' And the old man bowed down his wrinkled face between his bare knees, and wept bitterly.

'Poor Fassifern!' whispered the surgeon; 'he will never draw sword again.'

'Is he mortally wounded?' asked Ronald, in the same low tone.

'Yes. Ere noon he will have departed to a better place. But in this world he has been amply avenged.'

This was spoken in a hasty whisper. The doctor's breast was too full of regret to have much room for astonishment at his suddenly meeting his brother-officer, but he inquired from whence he had now come.

'I have come on the spur from Ostend,' answered Ronald, 'outstripping many detachments on the march; for I have been very impatient to be with the old corps again. But this is sad news after my long absence. And what of the rest of the regiment? Have there been many casualties?'

'We have suffered severely,—lost nearly as many as at Alba de Tormes; but I know not the exact number. Return with me a few yards, and aid us in procuring a comfortable place for the colonel, and I will tell you all the regimental news in time. The corps is bivouacked in front of Les Quatre Bras, over yonder, and they will not likely get under arms for some hours yet. You can join, and report your arrival in the course of the day.'

The sound of their voices caused Cameron to open his heavy eyes, and on beholding Ronald, a ray of their old fire sparkled in them. He stretched out his hand, and Ronald grasped it gently, but affectionately. Cameron attempted to speak, but his tongue failed in its office, and on his lips the half-formed words died away in faint mutterings.

As they entered the village of Waterloo, the surgeon related that, on the preceding evening, a battalion of the enemy had taken possession of a large two-storied house on the Charleroi road. From the windows and garden walls of this place they kept up an incessant fire of musketry on the British troops in its vicinity until Lord Wellington ordered Fassifern, with his Highlanders, to dislodge them with the bayonet.

After a sharp contest, the place was taken by storm; but Cameron, while leading the assault, was shot through the body by a bullet from a barricaded window in the upper story, fired by a chasseur, who, however, ultimately gained nothing by the exploit. The eagle eye of Cameron's revengeful follower, Dugald Mhor, had marked the slayer ; and when the house was entered, and the garrison were rushing from room to room and from passage to stair, combating for death and life, he dragged him from amid the bristling bayonets of his comrades, and twice plunged his long dirk into his bosom, sending it home, till the double-edged blade protruded through his goat-skin knapsack behind ; and the Highlanders were so infuriated by the loss of their leader, that butt and bayonet were used freely, until scarcely a man was left alive in the place.

'Nae quarter! Remember the colonel! Death an' dule to every man o' them!' were cries with which they encouraged each other during the conflict.

The best house in Waterloo being selected, the colonel was borne into it, and placed in an apartment, which seemed to be a sort of parlour, facing the Brussels road. It was a snug little cottage, with walls of bright red brick, a thatched roof, and yellow door and shutters, with red panels. Numerous arbours and rails of trellis-work, painted green and white, encircled it; and a forest of tall hollyhocks, peonies, roses, and other large and glaring flowers were blooming about it, and glistening gaily in the meridian sun; while gorgeous tulips and anemones were waving in thousands from plots and parterres, arrayed in all the summer glory of a Dutch garden. But these were miserably trod down, as the Highlanders bore the colonel up the narrow pebbled walk to the door, which being locked, was opened by the rough application of a stone from the highway. The inmates had fled, and the mansion was empty.

The colonel was laid upon the floor,—there was not a bed in the place, all the furniture having been carried off. His sorrowing old follower knelt down on his bare knees beside him, supporting his head, while he poured forth interjections and prayers in Gaelic.

'I can do nothing more for his wound; it is already dressed,' whispered the surgeon to Ronald, who was eager to perform some office by which he might serve the invalid, or assuage some of his torments; but nothing could be done, and he was compelled to stand by, an idle spectator, while the brave spirit of his friend hovered between life and eternity. 'He is sinking fast,' continued the doctor, in the same whispering voice. 'Alas! the regiment will never see his like again.'

'Where is Angus Macvurich?' asked the colonel in a low voice, but a firm one, and as if all his energies were returning.

The piper answered by a loud snifter, or half-stifled sob.

'Oich! he's speakin' like himsel again. Ye'll no dee just this time,— will ye, noo? Oh, say ye'll no!' said old Dugald, bending over him in an agony of sorrow, and gazing on his face as a father would have done. 'We'll baith gang hame,—ay, gang hame thegithir yet to Fassifern, among the green hills of the bonnie north country. Ochone! woe to the day we ever left it,—woe!'

'No, Dugald, my good, my dear old man; I shall never behold the fair Highland hills again. My hour is come, and death is creeping into my heart, slowly but surely. Oh that I might die among my kindred! It is a sad and desolate feeling to know that one must be buried in a distant land, and unheeding strangers will tread on the place of our repose. 'Tis sad to die here, and to find a grave so far away from home, from the land of the long yellow broom and the purple heather. Tell me, gentlemen, did my Highlanders storm the house on the Charleroi road?'

'Ay, please your honour,' said the piper,' an' sticket every man they fand below the riggin o't.'

'Those excepted who laid down their arms,' added the surgeon. 'But the house was gallantly stormed, colonel.'

'Well done, the Gael! Well done, my good and brave soldiers!' cried the invalid.

There was a long pause, which nothing broke save the loud breathing of the wounded Highlander, until in feeble accents, he said:

'Come near me, Macvurich; I would hear the blast of the pipe once more ere I die. Play the ancient death-song of the Skye men; my forefathers have often heard it without shrinking.'

'Oran au Aiog? said the piper, raising his drones.

The colonel moved his hand, and Macvurich began to screw the pipes and sound a prelude on the reeds, whose notes, even in this harsh and discordant way, caused the eyes of the Highlander to flash and glare, as it roused the fierce northern spirit in his bosom.

'He ordered that strange old tune to be played from the first moment I declared his wound to be mortal,' said the surgeon in a low voice. 'It is one of the saddest and wildest I ever heard.'

'Hold me up, Dugald; I would say something,' muttered Cameron.

'Ah! Stuart—I mean Ronald Stuart—I have much to say and to ask you; but my voice fails me, and my tongue falters—and—and—'utterance failed him for a moment. 'But tell me, gentlemen, what news from the front? Alas! I should have asked that before. But tell me, while I can hear your voices—have the enemy been defeated?'

'They have been driven from the position at Les Quatre Bras,' replied Doctor Stuart; 'our troops are everywhere victorious.'

'Then Cameron can die in happiness,' said he firmly, as he sunk back. 'Oh! I hope my dear country will think I have served her faithfully!' [These were his dying words. In recompense for his great services, a baronetcy was granted to his family. In 1815 his aged father received the title of Sir Evan Cameron, Bart., of Fassifem.]

His lips quivered as if twitched by a spasm, and he muttered some imaginary order to keep shoulder to shoulder, to prepare to charge; and drooping his head upon the shoulder of Dugald Mhor, he expired at about one o'clock in the afternoon.

A cry of agony, sharp and shrill, like that of a girl rather than of an old man of eighty, burst from the lips of Dugald, who bent his wrinkled and sunburnt visage over the face of the colonel until he touched it; and he wept and sobbed bitterly, uttering uncouth ejaculations, and saying strange things, such as only an aged Highlander (whose mind was filled with all the deep impressions of mountain manners and past ages) would have said.

Anon he drew himself up erect, cast his disordered plaid about his towering figure, and gazed around him with eyes in which there gleamed a strange light and unsettled expression. He seemed the very beau ideal of a Gaelic seer; and Macvurich, who imagined that he beheld some dark vision of the second sight, drew back with respect and awe, not un-mingled with a slight degree of fear.

What wild vision crossed the disordered brain of the aged vassal I know not, but he tossed his arms towards it, and a torrent of blood gushed forth from his mouth and nostrils; he tottered towards the corse of Cameron, and sunk on the floor beside it, a dying man. Ronald sprang forward and lifted him up, but he never spoke again, and expired, making several ineffectual signs to Macvurich to play; but the piper was kneeling on the floor near the corse of his leader, and beheld them not.

Angus Macvurich was a stern old Highlander from Brae-Mar, browned with the sun of Egypt and the Peninsula. He had gained scars in Denmark, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal. Since Cameron had joined the regiment as a young ensign, they had served together, and he had seen blood enough shed to harden his heart; but now he was kneeling down near the dead body, covering his brown face with his hands, to conceal tears,—of which, perhaps, he felt ashamed. The memory of days long passed away—of some old acts of kindness, or of his colonel's worth, were crowding thick and full upon his mind, and the veteran was weeping like a girl.

Stuart was deeply moved with this scene of death and woe. Not having been in the action, his heart had not been roused, or its fibres strung to that pitch of callousness or excitement requisite to enable one to look coolly on such scenes. He shrouded the remains of Cameron in the ample plaid of his faithful and departed follower, and, after covering them decently but hastily up, he prepared to retire. Yet, ere he went, he returned again to lift the tartan screen, and 'To gaze once more on that commanding clay, Which for the last, but not the first, time bled.'

His breast became heated, and he felt strange vindictive longings for battle and revenge, such as are seldom felt until one has been engaged for at least half an hour. Desiring Macvurich to remain by the bodies until they could be prepared for interment, he quitted the cottage, and, accompanied by his namesake the surgeon, set out on the way to the bivouacs of the army.

Each was occupied with his own sad reflections on the scene they had just witnessed, and they walked forward for some time in silence. After awhile, Stuart recapitulated his adventures and the story of his disappearance, which afforded ample scope for conversation until they drew near Quatre Bras, when the miserable objects they encountered at every step rendered it impossible to converse longer with ease or pleasure. The whole road was covered and blocked up with the unfortunate wounded travelling towards Brussels, some in the waggons of the Train, hundreds on foot, and hundreds crawling along the earth, covered with dust and blood, dragging their miserable bodies past like crushed worms; while their cries and ejaculations to God for mercy, and to man for aid and for water, formed a horrible medley, surpassing the power of description.


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