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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 58 - France


It was on the morning of the 16th September that Ronald quitted Brussels, having under his command three hundred rank and file of the Gordon Highlanders, as many more of the 42nd, and fifty men of the Coldstream Guards. Three other officers were with him, but he was their senior both by rank and standing. They paraded in the park before the king's palace, in heavy marching order, about six o'clock in the morning, and, moving round the corner of the palace of the Prince of Orange, they proceeded along the boulevard, after passing through the Namur gate. As they quitted the city, with bayonets fixed and pipes playing before the fifty Coldstreams, who of course marched in front, they elicited shouts of applause from the Belgians, many of whom followed them for many miles on the Waterloo road, and several young women went much farther, so that they never returned at ail. Stuart had a very affectionate leave-taking with Widow Vandergroot, whose fat oily face was bedewed with tears at his departure.

Their route, for part of the way, lay through the forest of Soignies ; on quitting which they entered the plains of Waterloo, so lately the scene of that fierce contest in which the greatest empire in Europe had been lost and won. They were now treading on the hallowed ground of the field, and the murmur of conversation, which had arisen among the detachment the moment command to 'march at ease' had been given, now died away, and the soldiers trod on in silence, or spoke to each other only at intervals, and in whispers, for there was something in the appearance of the vast graveyard around them which caused strange feelings of sadness to damp the military pride that burned in every breast.

The morning was remarkably fine, with a pure air and almost cloudless sky. All nature looked bright and beautiful, and the rising sun cast the long shadows of every house and tree far across the level landscape, where everything was beginning to assume a warm autumnal tint.

The farm of La Haye Sainte, the fine old chateau of Hougoumont, and other houses, were all roofless and ruined, the walls breached and battered by cannon-shot; the parterres, the shrubberies, and orchards destroyed ; but on these wrecks of the strife they scarcely bestowed a look. As they marched over the ridge where the British infantry formed line, the sights which greeted them there caused the Highlanders—naturally thoughtful at all times—to become more so.

'No display of carnage, violence, and devastation could have had so pathetic an effect as the quiet orderly look of its fields, brightened with the sunshine, but thickly strewed with little heaps of upturned earth, which no sunshine could brighten. On these the eye instantly fell ; and the heart, having but a slight call made upon it from without, pronounced with more solemnity the dreadful thing that lay below, scarcely covered with a sprinkling of mould. In some spots they lay thick in clusters and long ranks; in others one would present itself alone; betwixt these, a black scathed circle told that fire had been employed to consume, as worthless refuse, what parents cherished, friends esteemed, and women loved. The summer wind, that shook the branches of the trees and waved the clover and gaudy heads of the thistles, brought along with it a foul stench, still more hideous to the mind than to the offended sense. The foot that startled the small bird from its nest among the grass disturbed at the same time some poor remnant of a human being, —either a bit of the showy habiliments in which he took pride, or of the warlike accoutrements which were his glory, or of the framework of his body itself, which he felt as comeliness and strength the instant before it became a mass of senseless matter.'

The ideas which appear to have pervaded the mind of the writer quoted were those of every man of that detachment—such, indeed, as the objects in their path, and the mournful scenes by which they were surrounded, could scarcely fail to inspire.

Marching by easy stages, they entered Mons, the strongly fortified capital of Hainaut. During the halt of two days here, most of the officers one evening attended the theatre,—a visit which nearly cost some of them their lives. The play was 'The Fall of Zutphen,' and the dresses of the actors were as ridiculous as their acting. The ferocious Duke of Alba was represented by a little fat Fleming, clad in a cocked-hat and old red coat; Frederick, his son, by a boor, en blouse, who smoked a pipe composedly during the performance. The Dutch troops were represented by a party of Belgian chasseurs, and the Spanish by a strong brigade of motley-garbed scene-shifters and candle-snuffers. At a part of the play where Frederick storms Zutphen, and orders his soldiers to give it to the flames, sparing neither sex nor age in the sack, some ashes dropped from the bowl of this ferocious commander's pipe, and, lighting among some sulphur and other ingredients kept for stage purposes, set the whole scenery in a blaze. Zutphen was in flames in earnest. The players rushed about in every direction, crying for help like distracted people; but the audience, supposing the conflagration to be a part of the play, applauded with increasing vehemence, till the flames of Zutphen began to extend from the stage to the other parts of the house, and the blazing wood tumbling about their ears warned the Flemings of their danger. A tremendous rush was made for the door. Stuart was thrown over by the press, and trod under their feet; and had not the officer who commanded a party of the Coldstream Guards menaced the citizens with his sword and rescued him, my narrative would probably have ended here. He dragged him out from the crowd, and they gained the street in safety.

The next stage was Bavay, in France. It is a little but very ancient town of French Hainaut; and the inhabitants, either actuated by loyalty to Louis XVIII. or by some remnant of that old friendship which the French had, or rather pretended to have had, for the Scots, received the Highland detachment with loud acclamations, and the entire population of the little city followed them through its gloomy old streets, till Ronald halted before the Hotel de Ville, where the magistrates distributed the billet-orders. The soldiers were treated with the utmost attention and kindness by the citizens ; and this was the more pleasant, because quite unexpected on entering the enemy's country. It was Ronald's lot to be quartered upon a manufacturer of those woollen commodities which, with iron-plate, are the principal commerce of Bavay. This worthy had a splendid residence outside the city, where his ample garden, orchard, etc., furnished every luxury that the delightful climate and fruitful soil of France could yield him. He received Stuart coldly, for he was one of those thorough-paced business mortals who consider the soldier a burden, a bore, a useless and unnecessary animal. His wife, a plump old dame, in a large French cap and ample petticoat, and mademoiselle her daughter, a lively and good-looking girl about twenty, seemed to think otherwise, and made all the preparations in their power to receive the soldier with attention. There is a mysterious something in the scarlet coat, which, to the feminine portion of this world, is quite irresistible.

The young lady made arrangements to give a little fete that evening, and all her female companions—everybody that was anybody in and about Bavay—were to be there, and the whole house was turned topsyturvy ; but she was woefully disappointed.

She had been singing and tinkling with the guitar and piano to Ronald for the greater part of the day, and he amused himself by sitting beside her, turning over the leaves of music-books and albums, saying soft little nothings all the while. Madame the mother often sang in accompaniment, and they had become quite like old acquaintances. But the gruff manufacturer of cotton hose and shirts had watched their proceedings with a louring eye, and towards evening he took up a new position, which cut short the preparations for the fete. He placed both mother and daughter in durance vile, by locking them up in some retired room; after which he rode off with the key in his pocket. Whether he was influenced by jealousy, or by national dislike, it is impossible to say, but the first is rather unlikely. Mademoiselle was tolerably agreeable, and had a very white hand for the daughter of a plebeian; but her mother was ugly enough to have frightened an old troop-horse, and monsieur, the cotton manufacturer of Bavay, need have given himself no uneasiness on her account. But the awkward affair made a great noise in the town, and the story was related with various pleasant additions and variations by the officers of the forty-twa on their arrival at Clichy camp, and there was many a hearty laugh at Ronald's expense in the mess-rooms of the ninth brigade.

Next mornings while the ladies were still under lock and key, the detachments quitted the ancient capital of theNervii,and marched for La Coteau. They were now in France: the boasted, ' the beautiful, the invincible, the sacred France,' inarching over it, treading upon its soil,—with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and all the pomp of war,—unobstructed and free as conquerors. The proud and triumphant feelings attendant on such circumstances conflicted in their breasts with the sentiments of Lord Wellington's order, desiring that the allied army were 'to remember that their respective sovereigns were the allies of his Majesty the King of France, and that therefore France must be considered as a friendly country.' The inhabitants of the towns, and the rural districts also, beheld them march on with apparent apathy; whatever their secret feelings might have been, they were admirably concealed. A few old friends of the Bourbons may be excepted, and these were chiefly old men and women, living in remote parts of the country. In some little villages they were received with shouts of welcome; in large towns, their drums and pipes gave forth the only sounds heard in the streets.

At Cambray, Stuart was agreeably surprised to find that, by certain changes which had taken place in the regiment, he had, as Lisle predicted, gained his ' spurs,' and was now regimental major.

'You may thank your lucky stars for this rapid promotion, Stuart,' said the Guardsman who had saved his life at Mons.

'I may thank death,—the slaughter of Maya, Vittoria, Orthes, Toulouse, and Waterloo rather,' replied Ronald. 'Certes! I have no reason to complain, though I have seen work, both hard and hot, while roughing it in the Peninsula.'

'But a major!' continued the other, 'and only three-and-twenty! Major! a rank ever associated with ease and good living, the gout, and six allowances of wine at the mess, with a belt of greater girth than that of any other man in the regiment! I congratulate you, my friend, and propose that we wet the commission.' And it was 'wetted' forthwith accordingly, in some excellent eau-de-vie. This promotion made Ronald completely happy; it was the more agreeable, because, like his accession to the property of his uncle, it was 'quite unlooked for. As for the death of the latter, he had neither reason to be glad nor very sorry; but he felt as merry as a man can be who has (suddenly succeeded to a handsome fortune, and he demonstrated the fact by tossing his bonnet a dozen of times to the ceiling, at which strange employment his friend of the Coldstreams surprised him in his billet at Brussels.

They continued their route by Peronne, Saint Quentin, by the handsome town of Compieègne on the Oise, and through Senlis. The beauty and fertility of the country through which they marched formed a continual theme of conversation and wonder. Often, for the space of thirty miles, their line of march would be overshadowed by a profusion of apple and pear trees, bordering the highway like one long and matchless .avenue. The trees were laden with ripe and tempting fruit; and, in those places where the harvest had commenced, all the inhabitants of the district, men, women, and children, were employed in beating the golden produce from the trees with long poles, and gathering it into vast heaps, which were borne off in carts or baskets to the cider-presses. Everywhere Nature seemed in her richest bloom and beauty, and the hawthorn-flower, the day-flower, the woodbine, and the honeysuckle filled the air with the most fragrant perfumes. The march from Brussels to Paris was perhaps the most agreeable that the soldiers had ever performed.

On the 26th of September the detachment arrived at Clichy, a village about two or three miles from Paris. Behind it the British camp was formed; and the long lines or streets of white canvas bell-tents pitched on the grassy bank sloping down to the Seine, all shining white as snow in the sun, and with 'the union' floating over them, formed an agreeable prospect amid the universal green of the scenery around. Guards and sentries were posted round the encampment at regular distances. The regiments were on their several evening parades, and a loud but somewhat confused medley of martial music was swelling from amid the tents, and floated away through the still evening air. On the smooth green banks, and by the sandy margin of the clear blue river, hundreds of soldiers' wives were engaged in the homely occupation of washing and bleaching for the troops; while swarms of healthy but ragged-looking children, belonging to the camp, gambolled and scampered about the green, sailed little ships on the river, played at hide-and-seek among the tubs, around the tents and sentries, as they made the welkin ring with shouts of hearty English merriment. Beyond the camp was seen the snug French village, with its picturesque and old-fashioned houses and still older trees, which had survived many generations of men. There was something very pleasing in the aspect of some of the ancient mansions, the high-bevelled roofs, with the upper stories projecting far above the lower,—the walls displaying a quantity of planks running up and down, and crossways, and the gables ornamented with a variety of gilt finials and weathercocks,—all showing the grotesque taste of a remote age. Still farther beyond Clichy rose the smoke and spires of Paris, which spread afar off like a wilderness of stone and lime, from which rose a murmur like that from a beehive,—the strange mingling but musical hum of a vast and distant city.

Ronald soon 'handed over' his detachment, and joined the group of his comrades on the evening parade. By them he was congratulated on his promotion and recovery, and received such an account of the delights of Paris and the neighbourhood of Clichy, that he regretted having been compelled to tarry so long at Brussels.


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