of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 6 - Foreign Service
A MONTH or two more found
Ronald with his comrades, after being landed at Lisbon, pursuing their
route through Portugal to join their regiment, then campaigning in
Estremadura with the division of Sir Rowland Hill.
Everywhere the ravages of
the ruthless French were visible as they marched onwards. At Santarem,
Punhete, Abrantes, and many other places, they viewed with surprise and
pity the pale features of the starving inhabitants, the fire-blackened
walls, the roofless streets or utterly-deserted villages, from which
everything had been carried off or given to destruction by the French in
their retreat. Ancient churches and stately convents had been turned into
stables, where cavalry horses and baggage-mules chewed their wretched
forage of chopped straw, and reposed on the lettered stones, beneath which
slept the proud cavaliers and brave Hidalgos of old Lusitania.
When they looked on these
scenes of desolation, and considered the desecration of everything,
whether sacred or profane, their hearts grew sick within them, and they
thought of the happy isle which they had left behind, where such horrors
are unknown unknown to the mercantile citizens, who grudge so much the
miserable pittance received by the poor soldier.
In their route through
these places, they were welcomed by no sign of merriment, no joyful
cheering, from those whom they had come to free from the iron grasp of
Buonaparte; they were greeted with no welcome save the sepulchral tolling
of some cathedral or chapel bell the waving of white kerchiefs or veils
from the grated lattice of some convent which had escaped the ravagers,
when their walls rung to the sound of the drum and war-pipe the muttered
benison of some old Padre, as he viewed with surprise the bare knees, the
wild and martial garb, of the men of Albyn, and the gigantic proportions
of the officer who commanded them. Major Campbell was a handsome
Highlander, of a most muscular make and Herculean form. His dark hair was
becoming grizzled, for he was nearly fifty years of age, and his nut-brown
cheek had been tanned by the sun and storm in many a varied clime. From
the strength of his arm and the length of his sword (a real Andrea
Ferrara, with the maker's name on the blade), he was a most uncomfortable
antagonist at close quarters, as many of the French and others had found
to their cost; but Campbell never drew his Andrea unless when he found
himself pressed, but made use of a short oak stick, furnished with a heavy
knob at the end, which he had cut in one of the wild forests of
Argyleshire, and always retained and carried with him, as a relic and
memorial of his native mountains.
It was towards the end of a
chilly day in the spring of 1812, that the major's detachment halted in
the ancient city of Albuquerque, where they spent their first night in
Spain. This old frontier town is situated in the slope of the Sierra de
Montanches, a ridge of mountains in Estremadura. By a miracle, or little
short of it, it had escaped better than other places the ravages of the
French, who had left the roofs on all the houses, which were, however,
gutted of everything of value. In general the outrages of Napoleon's
troops were less flagrant in Spain than in Portugal, from a wish to
conciliate the former, and render them, as of old, friends and allies.
Owing to the eminence on which the city is situated, its streets are much
cleaner than those of Spanish towns generally, where the thoroughfares are
cleared of the mud and filth that encumber them by the rain, which in
Albuquerque, when it falls heavily, sweeps everything down the causewayed
slopes to the bed of the Guadiana, which flows past the foot of the city.
An ancient castle, as old probably as the days of Roderick, ' the last of
the Goths,' stands upon the summit of a rock above the town ; and around
its base are the streets, ill-paved, dark, and narrow, well-fitted for
Spanish deeds of assassination and robbery. By an order from the alcalde,
the Highlanders were billeted upon different houses, and Ronald Stuart and
Major Campbell were both quartered in the same mansion, the patron of
which, Senor Narvaez Cifuentes (as he styled himself), kept a shop for
retailing the country wine. Many goodly pigskins filled with it were
ranged upon the rickety shelves of his store, from the ruinous rafters of
which hung some thousands of tempting bunches of dried grapes, and many of
these fell kindly down at Campbell's feet when the old house shook with
his heavy tread.
The patron, in appearance,
was not quite what one should wish a host to be, especially in a strange
country. His stature was low, his face was so swarthy as to resemble that
of a negro in darkness; his moustaches were thick, fierce, and black,
mingling with the matted hair of his huge bullet-head. He wore a long
stiletto (openly) in the yellow worsted sash which encircled his waist,
and the haft of a knife appeared within the breast of his doublet, or sort
of vest with sleeves, which was, like the rest of his attire, in a very
dilapidated condition; and, altogether, the Senor Narvaez Cifuentes
displayed more of the bravo or bandit than the saint in his appearance.
He was, nevertheless, a
rattling jolly sort of fellow, especially for a Spaniard; he sung songs
and staves without number to entertain his guests, who scarcely
comprehended a word of them; and to show his loyalty, emptied many a horn
to the health of Ferdinand VII., to the freedom of Spain, and to the
eternal confusion of the French, compelling, with rough and unceremonious
hospitality, Stuart and the major to do so likewise, until they had
well-nigh each imbibed the contents of a pigskin, the common vessel for
containing wine in Spain, where neither bottles nor flasks are used, but
the simple invention of a pigskin, sewn up with the hair inside, which,
when full, looks not unlike the bag of the Scottish piper, from its black,
bloated, and greasy appearance.
Almost reeling with the
effects of their potations, they were shown by the patron to their
chamber, where their bedding consisted only of a blanket and mattress.
'What the mischief is the
meaning of this, Senor Patron, Mr. Narvaez, or what is your title?'
stammered the major, holding the flickering candle over the miserable
couch; ''tis all over blood. What does it mean? We soldados are not so
fond of slaughter as to relish a bed of this sort.' This strange
exclamation recalled Ronald's wandering senses, and on surveying their
humble pallet, he beheld it stained with blood, which, though hard and
dry, appeared to have been recently shed, and in no small quantity.
'Campbell, here has been
some foul work,' said he, instinctively laying his hand on his
basket-hilt. 'Make the fellow explain.'
'Holloa, Mr. Cifuentes;
tell us all about it, or I'll beat the pipeclay out of your tattered
doublet, and that without parley,' vociferated the inebriated major,
flourishing his short cudgel over the head of their host.
'Dios mio, senors! Ha! ha!
what a noise you make about a few red spots; 'tis French Malaga,' replied
the other, laughing heartily, as if something tickled his fancy
exceedingly. 'But I will tell you the tale as it happened, as you appear
so anxious about it. The last time the French were in Albuquerque, I had
four of their officers billeted upon me by our dog of an alcalde. They
were merry and handsome young sparks of the chasseurs, and I plied them
well with the contents of half-a-dozen pigskins, until they could scarcely
stand, and then led them here for their repose ; and they all four slept
upon this very pallet. In the night-time I and two other comrades,
guerillas of Don Salvador de Zagala's band, stole softly in upon them, and
plunged our stilettos into their hearts; they died easily, being overcome
with wine and the fatigue of a long march, and our strokes were deadly and
sure. Carrying off all their chattels, we hid for some days in the forest
of Albuquerque until the enemy had retired, when I returned, and was
surprised to find my caza but little the worse. The carrion, which we had
tossed into the street in our flight, had been carried away, and buried by
Dombrouski's corps with military honours.
'So now, senors, you see I
am a true patriot, a loyal Spaniard, and that you have nothing to
suspect me for. All Albuquerque knows the story of the four chasseurs, and
praises me for the deed. I will turn up the mattress to hide the marks,
and you will repose in all comfort upon it. As all this was related in
Spanish, but little of it was understood by Ronald, who, however,
comprehended enough to make him regard with detestation and horror the man
who coolly confessed that he had slain four helpless fellow-beings in cold
blood, and exulted in the narration of the deed with the feeling of one
who had acted a most meritorious part. The satisfaction of the patriotic
patron seemed considerably damped by the expression which he saw depicted
in the features of his hearers.
'I do not believe you: this
cannot be true,' said they, at one and the same time.
'Madre de Dios! I call the
mother of God to witness that it is. Why, senor, the men were only
Frenchmen, and you would have taken their lives yourselves.'
'In the open field, when
equally armed; but we should not have stolen upon them in the night, and
butchered them in their sleep, as you say you did. And you shall die for
it, you base Spanish dog!' cried Ronald furiously, as he unsheathed his
'Hold, Stuart, my lad!'
cried the major, who was perfectly sobered by this time; 'it is beneath a
soldier and gentleman to draw on so vile a scoundrel as this: I will deal
with him otherwise. Look ye, Senor Narvaez,' said Campbell, turning to the
Spaniard, who had started back at the sight of Ronald's glittering blade,
and eyed them both with a savage scowl, while his hand grasped the hilt of
his poniard, ' you had better betake yourself again to your friends in the
forest of Albuquerque, and get clear of the city by morning, or I may have
interest enough with the corregidor or alcalde to have you hanged like a
scarecrow by the neck. So retire now, fellow, at once, and leave us.'
'Demonios/' cried he,
grinding his teeth; 'am I not master of my own house? Carajo,
senor------'The rest was cut short by the summary mode of ejectment put in
force by the major. Seizing him by the throat, he dragged him to the door,
and in spite of all his struggles, for the Spaniard, though a stout
ruffian, was not a match for the gigantic Highlander, hurled him to the
lower landing-place of the old wooden stair, and tossing the mattress
after him, shut and bolted the door.
'I can scarcely believe the
tale to be true which this fellow has told us,' observed Ronald, as they
composed themselves to rest upon the hard boards, with no other covering
than their gay regimentals.
'I entertain no doubt of
its truth. He called to witness one whom a Spaniard names only on most
solemn occasions. But we must seek some sleep: 'tis two in the morning by
my watch, and we march in three hours. The boards are confoundedly hard,
and I am too sleepy to prick for a soft place. Diavolo! what a time we
have wasted with that tattered vagabond! But good-night, Stuart: we will
talk this matter over on the march to-morrow.'
Campbell stretched his
bulky form on the boards, with his cudgel and long claymore beside him,
and turning his face to the wall was soon in a deep slumber, as a certain
noise proceeding from his nostrils indicated. But it was not so with the
younger soldier, who courted in vain the influence of the drowsy god whose
power had overwhelmed the senses of his comrade.
The fumes of the unusual
quantity of wine which he had taken were mounting into Ronald's head, and
he lay watching the pale light of the stars through the latticed windows.
Frightful faces, which he traced in the stains on the discoloured wall,
seemed to peer through the gloom upon him, and every rumbling sound that
echoed through the old mansion caused him to start, grip his sword, and
look about, for the vivid idea of the poor chasseurs, who had been
assassinated in that very chamber, haunted him continually, causing him to
shudder. When he thought, also, that he had spent the night in carousal
with a murderous bravo, he resolved to be more circumspect in what company
he would trust his person, in future, while in Spain.
From a sleep into which he
had sunk, he was soon awakened by the warning pipe for the march, which
passed close beneath the window, and then grew fainter in sound as
Macdonuil-dhu strode on, arousing his comrades from their billets, and the
wild notes died away in the dark and narrow streets of the city. The major
sprang up at the well-known sound ; and Ronald, although wearied and
to follow him.
'Confound this fashion of
Lord Wellington's! this marching always an hour before daybreak,' muttered
Campbell. ' The morning is so chilly and cold, that my very teeth chatter,
and the devil! my canteen is empty,' he added, shaking the little wooden
barrel which went by that name, and one of which every officer and soldier
on service carried slung in a shoulder-belt. 'If you have nought in yours,
Stuart, we must leave the house of the honourable Senor Narvaez Cifuentes
without our doch-an-d/ioris, as we say at home in poor old Scotland, where
men may sleep quietly at night, without fear of getting a dirk put into
their wame. Shake your canteen, my boy! Is there a shot in the locker?'
Luckily for the thirsty
commander, Ronald's last day's allowance of ration rum was untouched, and
they now quaffed it between them to the regimental toast, 'Here's to the
Highlandmen, shoulder to shoulder!' a sentiment well known among the
Scottish mountaineers as a true military toast.
They now proceeded
downstairs, where they found their patron seated in his wine-store,
surrounded by the well-filled skins; he sat beside a rickety old table, on
which he leaned with the clumsy and careless air that so well became his
appearance; his chin rested on his hand, and his tangled black hair fell
over his face, but from between the locks he eyed them with a gaze of
intense ferocity as they entered. Campbell sternly shook his stick over
his head, and tossing towards him a few reals for their last night's
entertainment, passed with Ronald into the street, where the soldiers were
On leaving behind the town
of Albuquerque, the sound of distant firing in front warned them of their
nearer approach to the p!ace of their destination, and the scene of actual
hostilities. As they advanced, the sharp but scattered reports of
musketry, and now and then the deeper boom of a field-piece, came floating
towards them on the breeze which swept along the level places; but an
eminence, upon which the ancient castle of Zagala is situated, obstructed
their view of the hostile operations, and they pressed eagerly forward to
gain the height, full of excitement and glee.
'Welcome to Spain!' cried
an officer of the 13th Light Dragoons, who came galloping up from the
rear, and reined in his jaded charger by the side of the marching
Highlanders for a few minutes. 'There is brave sport going on in front;
press forward, my boys, and you may be in at the death, as we used to say
at home in old Kent.'
'What is going on in
advance? asked the major. 'Are ours engaged?'
'I have little doubt that
they are: Cameron never lags behind, you know. I was left in the rear at
Albuquerque on duty, and am now hurrying forward to join the 13th, who
belong to Long's cavalry brigade. They are now driving a party of
plundering French out of La Nava; you will have a view of the whole affair
when you gain the top of the hill. But I must not delay here: adieu!' and
dashing the spurs into his horse, he disappeared behind the ruinous
'Forward, men! double
quick. Let us gain the head of the brae,' cried Campbell, urging forward
with cudgel and spur a miserable Rosinante, which he had procured at
Carrying their muskets at
the long trail, the Highlanders advanced with that quick trot so habitual
to the Scottish mountaineers, which soon brought them beneath the
grass-grown battlements and mouldering towers of Zagala, from the eminence
of which they now had an extensive view to the southward.
The horizon extended to
about six or eight leagues, and all within that ample circle was waste and
barren land, where the plough had been unknown for an age, and where
nought seemed to flourish but weeds and little laurel-bushes. There was no
trace of habitation around the plain, but far off appeared the deserted
village of La Nava, near a leafless cork-wood, the bare boughs presenting
but a poor background to roofless walls and solitary rafters. There was
something chilling in so dreary a prospect, but most of the plains in the
same province present a similar aspect, because in no part of Spain is
agriculture more neglected than in Estremadura. It was early in the spring
of the year, and traces of vegetation were becoming visible ; the wood
near La Nava was, as I have said, bare and leafless, but a few stunted
shrubs by the wayside gave signs of budding. The ruddy sun was setting in
the west behind the lofty Sierra de Montanches, the dark ridges of which
rose behind the high city and castled rock of Albuquerque: the sky in
every direction was of a clear cold blue, save around the sun, where large
masses of gold and purple clouds seemed resting on the curved outline of
the mountains, over which and through every opening the rays fell aslant,
and were reflected by the arms of the troops who occupied the level plain,
over which shone the long line of its setting splendour. From the height
of Zagala they beheld the operations in front.
A party of five hundred
French infantry were rapidly retreating towards the cork-wood, exposed to
the continual fire of two twelve-pound field-pieces and the charges of the
cavalry brigade under General Long, who took every opportunity of breaking
among the little band through the gaps formed by the cannon-shot, which
made complete lanes through their compact mass. The French retired with
admirable coolness and bravery, keeping up a hot and rapid fire from four
sides on the cavalry, who often charged them at full speed, brandishing
their sabres, but were forced to recoil; and no sooner was a gap made in
the face of a solid square by the fall of a file, than it was instantly
filled by another. And thus leaving behind them a line of killed and
wounded, they continued their retreat towards Merida, where their main
body lay, disputing every foot of ground with desperate courage until they
reached the cork-wood, which being unfavourable for the movements of the
cavalry, the latter were obliged to retire with considerable loss.
'Hurrah!' cried Campbell,
flourishing his stick; 'I have not seen this sort of work for this year
and more. You see, Stuart, that a solid square of bold infantry may laugh
at a charge of horse, who must recoil from their bayonets like water from
a rock. There are the 9th and 13th Light Dragoons, and the fire of the
French seems to have cooled their chivalry a little, and shown them that a
sabre is as nothing against brown Bess, with a bayonet on her muzzle.'
They are retiring towards us, after doing, however, all that brave hearts
could do. Poor fellows ! many of them are lying rolling about wounded and
in agony, or already dead, near the skirts of that confounded copse by
which the frog-eaters have escaped. But where are ours ? I do not see
'Yonder they are, major,'
replied Ronald, 'halted on the level place behind the ruined village. I
see the bonnets of the Highlanders, and the colours.'
'Ay, I see them now. Yonder
they are, sure enough; and the old Half-hundred, and the 71st, the light
bobs, with the tartan trews and hummel bonnets, all as spruce as ever,
bivouacked comfortably on the bare earth as of old. We shall have the
pleasure of passing the night without even a tent to keep the dew off us.
Carajo! as the Spaniard says; you will now taste the delights of
soldiering in good earnest, as I did in Egypt with old Sir Ralph
'We are seen by them. I
hear the sound of the pipes, and they are waving their bonnets in
welcome,' said Alister Macdonald.
'Blow up your bags,
Macdonuil-dhu, and let them hear the bray of the drones,' cried Campbell,
whacking the sides of his nag to urge her onward. ' Push forward, brave
lads! we will be with Fassifern and our comrades in a few minutes more.'
Skirting the miserable
village of La Nava, they soon arrived at the ground over which the
advanced picquet of the enemy had retired. Two dead bodies attracted the
eye of Ronald as he passed over them, and being the first men he had ever
seen slain, and in so revolting a manner, they made an impression on his
mind which was not easily effaced. They were young and good-looking men,
and the same cannon-shot had mowed them both down. A complete hole was
made in the body of one, and his entrails were scattered about; the legs
of the other were carried away, and lay a few yards off, with a ball near
them half buried in the turf. Their grenadier caps, each adorned with a
brass eagle and red plume, had fallen off, and the frightful distortion of
their livid features, with the wild glare of their white and glassy eyes,
struck Ronald with a feeling of horror and compassion, which it was long
ere he could forget. 'Queer work this!' said the major, coolly looking at
them over his horse's flank, ' and you don't seem to admire it much,
Stuart; but you are a young soldier yet, and will get used to it
by-and-by. Nothing hardens either the heart or the hide so much as a
campaign or two. I learned that in Egypt.'
'Puir callants! what would
their mothers think, were they to see their bairns as they lie here noo?'
soliloquized Evan, looking after them ruefully.
'It would be an awfu' sicht
for them, or ony o' the peaceable folk at hame,' replied another soldier.
'But what can these twa queer chields wi' the muckle brimmed hats be
wanting wi' them?'
'The Spanish dogs! Would to
heaven I might be allowed to shoot them dead,' vociferated Campbell,
making a motion with his hand towards the bear-skin covering of his
holsters. 'The scoundrels! they are come to rob and strip the dead.'
Two Spanish peasants had
approached the bodies, about which they exercised their hands so busily,
that they soon plundered them of knapsacks, accoutrements, uniform, and
everything, leaving the mutilated bodies stripped to the skin and exposed
on the plain, while they made off towards La Nava with their spoil. A few
minutes' more marching brought the major's detachment to the spot where
the brigade of General Howard was halted on a piece of waste moorland,
where the three corps had piled their arms, and were making such
preparations for bivouacking for the night as could be made by men who had
neither tent to cover them, nor couch to repose on but the bare and cold
No tents at that time, or
for long afterwards, were served out by the British Government to our
troops in Spain, and their privations and misery were of course greatly
increased by the want of proper means of encamping. The men were lying
about in all directions, worn out and exhausted with the load they had
carried and the fatigue of a long march ; and the officers were reposing
among them without ceremony. Apart from them all, on the right of the
line, Colonel Cameron, of Fassifern, stood holding his caparisoned horse
by the bridle, as was his usual custom, aloof alike from his officers and
soldiers. He was a proud and strict commander, who kept the former 'at the
staffs end,' as the military saying is, behaving to them in a manner at
once haughty, cold, and distant ; and yet withal he was a good officer, a
brave soldier, and beloved by his regiment, which would have stood by him
to the last man. He was a well-made figure, above the middle height ; his
features were handsome, and his hair was fair and curly. There was ever a
proud and fiery sort of light in his dark blue eyes, which, when he was
excited, were wont to sparkle and flash with a peculiar brilliancy an
expression which never failed to produce its due effect upon beholders. To
him the major reported his arrival, and introduced the officers one by
He eyed Ronald Stuart, of
whom he had heard previously, with a keen Highland glance, and asked some
questions about his family and his father.
'I have often heard of the
Stuarts of Lochisla,' said he, 'but have never had the pleasure of seeing
one till now. Sir John Stuart, of the Tower, saved the life and honour of
my grandfather Lochiel, at the risk of his own, on the bloody field of
Culloden. I am happy to have the descendant of so brave a man an officer
of the Gordon Highlanders.'
colonel,' said the major, presenting Alister.
'Macdonald? Ah!' said
Cameron, bowing, 'your family is not unknown to me. I have had letters
from Glengarry, and all the Macdonalds of the Isles, respecting you;' and
thus he went on, as there was scarcely an officer introduced to him whose
family was not well known in the North. After some little conversation,
Ronald withdrew to where the officers were grouped around the bulky figure
of Campbell, asking a hundred questions about the news from home, etc.
There was scarcely an
officer or private of the new-comers but was met and greeted by some
kinsman or old friend, whose canteen or ration rum, or Lisbon wine, was at
his service; and loud were the shouts of laughter and merriment that arose
on all sides. Eager and earnest were the inquiries about village homes and
paternal hearths in 'the land of the mountain and the flood,' and to many
a Jean, Jessy, and Tibby, were the wooden canteens drained to their dregs;
but although the fun 'grew fast and furious' amongst many, there were some
whose hearts grew sad at the intelligence which their comrades brought, of
some gray head, which they loved and revered, being laid in the dust in
some old and well-remembered kirk-yard; or of a faithless Jenny, who
preferred a lover at home to one far away in Spain.
As the shades of night
darkened over the plain of La Nava, the sounds died away; and stretching
their bare legs on the dewy earth, the hardy Highlanders reposed between
the pyramids of firelocks and bayonets that glittered in the red glare of
the watch-fires, lighted at certain distances throughout the bivouac,
which became quiet for the night, after strong picquets had been posted in
the direction of Merida, where fifteen hundred French, under the command
of General Dombrouski (a Pole in Buonaparte's service), were quartered.
Rolled up in a cloak and blanket, Ronald laid himself down like the rest,
with the basket-hilt of his claymore for a pillow, and clay for his bed;
but to sleep in a situation so new and uncomfortable was almost
impossible, and he often raised his head to view the strange scene around
The ruddy blaze of the
fires was cast upon the worn uniform, faded tartan, and sun-burnt knees
and faces of the soldiers, giving a strong light and shade, which
increased the picturesque and romantic appearance of the bivouac. The arms
of the sentries flashed in the light, as they paced slowly to and fro on
their posts; and farther off were seen the motionless forms of the cavalry
videttes appearing like black equestrian statues in the distance, standing
perfectly still, with their long dark cloaks flowing over their horses'
flanks; but as the night grew darker, and the light of the watch-fires
waned, these distant objects could be no longer discerned.
The bright stars were
twinkling in the dark blue sky, and among them a red planet in the west
(the Tonthena of Ossian) which Ronald used to watch for hours at midnight
from the battlements of the tower at Lochisla, while listening to the
ancient tales of war or woe related by Donald Iverach.
He thought sadly of his
home, and of poor Alice Lisle. He gazed upon her miniature until the
flickering light of the fire failed him, and then dropped into an uneasy
slumber, from which he was startled more than once by the deep howling of
wild dogs, or other animals, from that part of the plain where the dead
bodies of the slain lay uninterred.
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