of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 8 - An Adventure
It was almost dusk when
they entered the vast and gloomy ruins of the amphitheatre, the appearance
of which was rendered doubly impressive by the sombre light in which it
was viewed. The broad arena where once the bold gladiator contended for
honour, or the wretched malefactor for his life, straining every desperate
energy in battle with the fiercest animals of the wilderness, was now
overgrown with grass, as were also the wide circles of seats rising from
it; and from the arcades of arches, from the mouldered cornices, the
shattered columns, and empty niches, waved weeds and nettles, showing how
vain was the pride of the founder and the architect, and telling that time
was too powerful for the mightiest work of human hands, that man's
labours, like himself, are perishable.
In some places great masses of masonry had
fallen down, where the clamps of iron and brass had mouldered away, and
ponderous architraves and fragments of friezes, bearing ornaments and
Roman inscriptions, ware lying in the centre of the arena, half buried in
the soil. All was silence and ruinous desolation now in the place where
once the beautiful, the brave, and the noble had witnessed and applauded
soul-stirring deeds of martial prowess, manly strength, and unequalled
cruelty and ferocity. Its vast arcades and empty galleries rang no more
with the flourish of the trumpet, the clash of cymbals, the shout which
greeted the triumphant victor in the lists, the yell or the dying groan of
his vanquished opponent.
From the grass-covered arena, around which
appeared the dark dens where lions, tigers, and other savage animals had
been confined, Ronald and his friend clambered up the stone seats, which
rose one above another like a flight of broad steps, until they gained the
uppermost corridor or gallery, which ran round the whole fabric on the
outside. From this eminence they obtained a view of the scenery below and
around them. Night had now set in, and darkness reigned in the streets of
Merida. Towering above the low roofs appeared the other remains of Roman
greatness, the noble arch which had rung so often to the tread of their
martial legions, and the shattered temple where marble gods had received
the fervent adoration of idolaters.
A thousand watch-fires cast their lurid glare
on the silent waters of the Guadiana, on the dark groves of olive
overhanging its glassy surface, on the lofty outline of the Roman bridge,
and on the black buildings of the adjacent town, from the bivouac of Sir
Rowland's division. The piles of burnished arms glittered in the light,
which was reflected by the bayonets of the sentries at the river-side, and
by the sabres of the far-off cavalry videttes, and of the advanced pickets
on its opposite side, keeping watch and ward on the road to Almendralejo.
A low hum of many mingled voices rose from the place where the soldiers
lay, mingled with the occasional neigh of a horse, the sharper sound of
the cavalry trumpet turning out the pickets, or the roll of a distant
infantry drum recalling stragglers echoing among the granite crags, and
dying away in the thickets by the water-side ; and nearer rang the more
discordant noise of laughter and reckless military merriment from the
wine-house in the neighbouring street.
'Yonder is the evening star glimmering above
the summit of the dark mountain to the southward of us,' observed Ronald,
in a low tone ; ' it rises twinkling just as I have seen it rising above
the noble Benmore, in Perthshire; and while I view its well-known
appearance, my heart fills with strange emotions. I can almost fancy
myself at home in the Highlands, at home in my father's house.'
' I am animated by similar feelings,' replied
Macdonald, in the same subdued voice. 'Many that love us dearly may at
this moment be watching it and thinking of us. Many a summer gloaming, in
my dismal moods, I have watched it rising amid the white breakers, and
shining above the ruined spire of Iona, while the empty arches of the
cathedral were illumined with the red flush of the setting sun. Ah,
Stuart! I know these places well ; my father dwells in Inch-kenneth, in
the wild and surf-beaten western isles. It is a sweet little place the
Inch, with dark foliage hanging from the tall rocks over the boiling
ocean. These ruins around us are all very well in their way, but I would
not give the Runic cross and the Culdee's cell, which cover the graves of
my ancestors, even for all the rains of Rome ! But let us not begin to
muse thus ; I shall become too melancholy to feel agreeable. We must
retrace our steps to the bivouac, for both fighting and hard marching are
before us in the morning, over the hills yonder,' said he, pointing in the
direction of Almendralejo, where a faint crimson streak illumined the dark
sky, caused probably by the watch-fires of D'Erlon's troops.
'What! do you think of returning to the den
where we cooked our splendid repast?'
'We should be eaten up by rats and the Spanish
mosquitoes before morning ; better the bivouac where our comrades stretch
their bare legs on the cold sod. Fassifern would ill like us seeking even
the shelter of a kennel, while he sleeps as usual under the heels of his
horse, with the pommel of his saddle for a pillow.'
'You speak of a kennel; I assure you,
Macdonald, that last night I envied the old barrel in which our household
dog at Lochisla takes his repose in the barbican. But we shall lose
ourselves here, the streets are so dark and strange.' As he spoke, they
had quitted the ruins of the amphitheatre, and entered a dark and silent
street leading towards the Plaza. It was empty, and its stillness was
broken only by the ripple of the Guadiana, chafing against the stone quay
at one end, past which its broad and rapid current flowed unceasingly.
' Have Sir Rowland and his staff quarters in
Merida?' ' I have not heard that they have. But hush ! we have something
here that savours of romance,' replied Macdonald, as they heard the notes
of a guitar sounding as if struck by a bold and firm hand ; and
immediately (the prelude being over) a fine, clear, and manly voice sang a
song, which, being in Spanish, was not understood by his listeners,
excepting the burden which he repeated at the end of every verse:
'Yo acuerdo de te, querida
cavaliero is this?' whispered Macdonald. 'I thought that these days of
serenading had passed away, even in Spain.'
'I know him; it is Alvaro de Villa Franca, a
captain of the Spanish cavalry. I see the tall outline of his figure now,
and I well know his helmet with the red horse-hair on its crest.'
'Keep under the shadow of the houses, Stuart ;
perhaps he may sing again. But he surely hears us; he is looking round.'
The form of the Spanish officer, the outline
of his high helmet, and his large bullion epaulettes, were now distinctly
visible. When his song ceased, a window above opened, a light flashed
through the shutters, and a lady appeared on the iron balcony; she clapped
her hands, and the dragoon drew near, when a conversation, carried on in
low and earnest tones, ensued. The don had placed his hand on the lower
part of the balcony, preparatory to swinging himself up, when a noise in
the street caused the lady to start away, and close the shutters of the
window with the utmost precipitation.
'Caramba! cried the Spaniard, fiercely turning
round and endeavouring to pierce the darkness which enveloped the stradi;
but nothing could be discovered. After a vain attempt again to obtain a
hearing from the lady, he took his guitar under his arm, and proceeded
leisurely down the street on the darkest side, as if to elude observation,
still humming the burden of his ditty, 'Adios guerida,' while his heavy
spurs and long steel scabbard clattered in accompaniment. The two British
officers had turned to pursue their way towards the Plaza, when a cry of 'Diavolo!
Ah, perrosladrones! Carajo!' burst from the Spaniard, followed
immediately by a clashing of steel blades, the noise of which drew Ronald
and Alister hastily to the spot. Here they found Don Alvaro, with his back
to the wall, contending fiercely with his single weapon against six armed
men, from whose swords and poniards he made the fire fly at every stroke
he dealt, keeping them at bay with admirable courage and skill.
'One, two, three six to one! the rascally
cowards ! Draw, Alister, draw and strike in,' cried Ronald, unsheathing
his sword an example which his companion was not slow in following, and
all three were soon engaged, two to one, against the assailants of Alvaro,
who were surprised at this unexpected attack, and fought with double
desperation to escape. The whole of Ronald's long-nourished love of
tumult, his fiery spirit and inherent fierceness, broke forth in this
martial fray, and indeed he was put to his mettle. No fewer than three of
the ruffians fell upon him pell-mell, cutting and thrusting with their
long blades, while they watched every opportunity to use the sharper
stilettoes which armed their left hands. Ronald's regimental gorget saved
him from one deadly thrust at his throat, and the thick folds of his
plaid, where they crossed the iron plate of his left epaulette-strap,
saved him from more than one downright blow. Sweeping his long claymore
round him, with both his hands clenched in its basket-hilt, he fought with
the utmost energy, but only on the defensive, and was compelled to retire
backwards step by step towards the quay of the Guadiana, where he must
have been inevitably drowned or slain, but for the timely interference of
a fourth sword, which, mingling its strokes with theirs, struck the three
Spanish blades to shivers. Two of the fellows immediately fled, and
plunging into the river swam to the opposite bank ; the third would have
followed, but Ronald, grasping him by the throat, adroitly struck the
poniard from his hand, and pinning him to the earth, placed his foot upon
his neck. At the same moment Alister Macdonald passed his long claymore
through the body of the fourth, who fell shrieking 'Santa Maria! O Dios!
O Dios! and almost instantly expired. The other two, who had been driven
far off by the Spanish officer, now fled, and the brawl was ended.
'Hot work this, gentlemen,' said Campbell, in
his usual jocular tone. It was his sword which had intervened so
opportunely between Ronald and destruction. 'The fray has been bravely
fought and gallantly finished.'
You have drawn your sword to-night for the
first time, Stuart, and proved yourself a lad of the proper stuff. Keep
your foot tight upon the growling scoundrel, and if he dares to stir, pin
him to the pavement. This affair beats hollow my brawl at Grand Cairo,
when we were in Egypt with Sir Ralph. By-the-bye, what did the fray begin
'I am sure I
cannot say,' replied Ronald, panting with his late exertion; 'but for your
prompt assistance, major, it might have ended otherwise. Alister, I am
glad you have disposed of your opponent in so secure a manner, yet his
horrid death-cry rings strangely in my ears.' A grim smile curled the
handsome features of Macdonald, who wiped his sword in his tartan plaid,
and jerked it into the sheath in silence.
'Senoresofficiates, I thank you for the good
service you have rendered me to-night,' said the Spanish officer in good
English while he made a low obeisance, 'and am happy that you have all
escaped unharmed; but we must dispose of this remaining villain. Be
pleased to stand aside, senor, that I may run him through the heart. A
fair thrust from the blade of a noble cavaliero is too good a death for
such a fellow.'
I should be sorry to thwart you in your pleasure, but have a little
patience, pray,' replied the major, laughing at the coolness of the don's
request, and parrying with his stick a thrust made at the bravo, who lay
prostrate under Ronald's foot. 'As this fellow's skin is whole, he may be
inclined to let you know his employer, or what all this row began about.'
'Right, senor; I had forgotten that. Dog!'
cried Don Alvaro, fiercely dashing his guitar into a thousand fragments on
the head of the bravo, ' tell me who employed your rascal hands against my
person ! You will not answer ? Well, we must prove what materials your
skin is made of. By Santiago ! I will have it flayed off you with a
red-hot sabre, if you do not confess! The tortures of the Inquisition will
be as nothing to what I will inflict on your miserable body, if you are
stubborn. Aid me, noble senors, in taking this wretch to the Convento de
San Juan de Merida, in the Plaza ; my troop is quartered there. 'Tis but a
pistol-shot from here.'
It was impossible to refuse. Don Alvaro tied
tightly with his silk sash the hands of the captive, who was dragged
without ceremony from street to street, to the entrance of a narrow dark
alley leading to the convent of Saint John, the front of which looked
towards the Plaza.
'Quien vive?' challenged, the Spanish trooper on sentry with his carbine
in the Gothic porch.
'Espana' returned the don, as they passed into the gloomy body of the
building,in the vast extent of which their footsteps awoke a thousand
'Ho ! there,
sargentos y soldados!' cried Alvaro. 'Pedro Gomez, a light a light!
Rouse do you hear me?'
A strange bustle immediately rose around them,
and a sargento appeared bearing a lamp, the light of which revealed his
brown uniform and browner features. They found themselves in the chapel of
the convent, and the red glare of the blazing lamp was cast on its fluted
columns, groined arches, and Gothic ornaments, giving a wild and romantic
appearance to the scene, which was heightened by the presence of Don
Alvaro's troop. About sixty fine Spanish steeds, with flowing tails and
manes, stood ranged on each side of the nave of the building, saddled and
bridled, bearing the carbines, holsters, and valises of their riders, who,
muffled in their long brown cloaks, with their swords and helmets beside
them, were sleeping among the horse-litter, or looking up surprised at the
interruption. Every man lay beside his horse, and their tall lances were
reared against the shafted pillars, from which military accoutrements,
curry-combs, horse-brushes, etc., were suspended from the necks of angels
and other effigies that adorned them.
'Pedro Gomez, raise the light,' said Alvaro,
'and let us see the face of this fellow, who to-night raised his hand
against the life of your captain.'
'Dios mio/' cried Pedro, placing the lamp
within an inch of the prisoner's nose.
'The villain Narvaez, by heavens!' exclaimed
Ronald, recoiling at the expression of indescribable hatred and ferocity
legible in the ruffian's countenance, while his eyes shone with the
sparkle of a demon's as the sullen glare of the lamp fell on their black
'How d'ye do,
Senor Cifuentes? Speak up, man. You are the very prince of rascals,' said
the major, giving him a prod in the stomach with his stick.
'What!' exclaimed Macdonald, scrutinizing him
with disgust and curiosity, ' is this the fellow you told us about? the
keeper of the wine-house at Albuquerque?'
'Ay, the same,' answered Ronald; 'a wretch who
slew in cold blood the French officers. But he shall not escape us now.'
'If I should, you shall live to repent it,
you shall, by the holy mother of God !' said the bold ruffian, with a
words made Don Alvaro acquainted with the story of Narvaez.
'Fellow!' said he sternly, 'I might almost
forgive you the slaughter of the four Frenchmen, I wish, however, that
it had been done less treacherously; but for this attempt on my own life
you shall hang, and that instantly, by San Juan of Merida! as a warning to
all low-born knaves to beware ere they draw their weapons on a noble
hidalgo. Diego de la Zarza, Pedro Gomez ! bring hither a horse-halter,
some of you,' cried he to the astonished troopers who crowded round. 'Run
this fellow up to the roof. Santos ! do you hear?'
He had scarcely spoken, before Pedro Gomez
cast his horse's halter over the neck of a gigantic stone angel, whose
extended wings, carved on a corbelled stone, supported one of the oak
beams of the roof, and prepared with ready hands a noose with a slip-knot
to encircle the neck of Narvaez, who beheld these summary preparations
with considerable trepidation ; and he would soon have swung a corse, but
for the interference of the three British officers, who, natives of a
clime where the passions are less violent than in Spain, revolted at the
idea of so sudden an execution.
'Stay, Don Alvaro, and put off his exit until
to-morrow,' said Campbell. 'I do not admire such quick despatch, although
I have seen a Turk's head fly off like a thistle's top, when I was in
Egypt with Sir Ralph.'
'It would be losing time in the morning, as we
march by daybreak,' replied the don; 'but worthless as the villain is, I
may alter my decree if he gives me the name of his base employer.'
'The husband of her whom you serenaded this
night in the Calle de San Juan,' answered Narvaez, in a guttural tone.
'What, the guerilla chief, Don Salvador Xavier
de Zagala? cried Alvaro furiously, his eyes flashing fire. 'Base coward!
my sword shall reach him ere long, if he is to be found on this side of
the Pyrenees, it shall, by the bones of the Cid! Your five rascal
comrades were guerillas of his band. I thought I knew the scarlet caps of
'Noble cavalier! do not forget your promise,' said Narvaez suppli-catingly.
'What is now your decree?'
'That you shall be shot in the morning instead
of being hanged tonight! Sargento Gomez, see this carried into execution
punctually, before the trumpets sound "to horse," as you value your life.'
With all the indifference that he assumed at
first, Cifuentes was a coward at heart, and piteous were the entreaties he
made for mercy, and the promises he gave of reformation for the future, if
the cavalier would spare his life ; but they were unheeded. The dragoons
thrust him into a narrow dormitory adjoining the chapel, and a sentinel,
with his carbine loaded, was placed at the door.
'Send for the Padre, Alvarez; and let him make
his peace with Heaven.'
'Noble senor, it will be difficult to find the
reverend Padre in his sober senses at this hour,' replied Gomez.
'You are right, Pedro; he
has no longer the Holy Inquisition, of terrible memory, to scare him from
his cups. This fellow may die easily enough, without the help of Latin.
Should he make the slightest attempt to escape, remember, Diego de la
Zarza, to shoot him dead without fail. And now, senors, let us retire, and
leave my troopers to repose, as we must be all in our saddles at crow of
be done with the fellow who lies dead in the street?' asked Ronald, as
they stumbled down the dark alley leading from the convent.
'What could we do with him, senor?' replied
the don, with surprise. 'The carcass will be found in the morning, and the
finder will bury it for the sake of the clothes, perhaps. To find a man
stabbed in the street is no marvellous matter in our Spanish towns. You
saw how little notice the clash of our swords attracted: scarcely a window
opened, and no person approached. We take these affairs coolly here,
'So it seems,
Don Alvaro,' said the major. 'But there is the clock of the town-house
striking the hour of eleven, and we have a weary route before us in the
morning; so the sooner we seek some place to roost in the better. I left
Colonel Cameron and the rest of ours preparing for repose, under the
bieldy side of a granite craig, but I fear you don't understand me, at
the confounded bivouac yonder; and the sooner we join them, the longer
rest we shall have.'
'You shall have no bivouacking to-night, senors. One gets quite enough of
it in these times; and when a good billet comes in the way, it should be
accepted. I reside in Merida; my family mansion is at the corner of the
Plaza: you shall pass the night with me there. My sister, Donna Catalina,
will be most happy to entertain the preservers of her brother, three
cavaliers who draw their swords for the freedom of Spain.'
'Certainly, Don Alvaro, we should be sorry to
slight your offer,' said the major. ' A comfortable quarter is a scarce
matter in Spain just now; and if Donna Catalina will not be incommoded, by
three soldados billeting themselves upon her mansion without notice, we
are very much at your service. When I was in Egypt in 1801, I remember an
adventure just such as------'
'Take care of the curb, major,' cried Ronald,
as the bulky field-officer tripped against the side of the pavement.
'Just such as this. We were quartered
Cairo,' interrupted Ronald ruthlessly; for he disliked the repetition of
long stories, which was a failing of the worthy major's, who lugged in
Egypt and Sir Ralph Abercrombie on all occasions. 'Ay, I remember the
story, and a capital one it is! But here is Don Alvaro's house.'
As he spoke, they halted before a large
mansion, ornamented with lofty columns and broad balconies, upon which the
tall windows opened : through the curtains bright rays of light streamed
into the dark street. Alvaro applied his hand to the large knocker hanging
on the entrance door, which appeared more like the portal of a prison than
that of an hidalgo's residence, being low, arched, and studded with iron
said a voice within.
'Gente de paz!' replied Alvaro, while the light from the passage flashed
through a little panel which was drawn aside, and through which they were
The door was immediately opened by an aged and
wrinkled female servant, whose bright black eyes contrasted strangely with
her skin, which was shrivelled and yellow as an old drumhead. Old Dame
Agnes, lamp in hand, led them along a passage, up a broad wooden
staircase, and into a noble and spacious apartment, which displayed the
usual combination of elegance and discomfort, so common in the houses of
Spanish nobles. The ceiling presented beautifully painted panels, and a
gorgeous cornice of gilt stucco, supported by pilasters of the Corinthian
order ; while the floor from which they rose was composed of large square
red tiles. Four large casements looked towards the Plaza; they were glazed
with glass, a luxury in Spain, but their shutters were rough deal
boards, which were barely concealed by the rich white curtains overhanging
them : the furniture was oak, massive, clumsy, and old as the days of
Don Quixote. Upon the panels of the ceiling, the bases of the pillars, and
other places, appeared the blazonry of coats armorial, displaying the
alliances of the family of Villa Franca.
On the table, beside a guitar, castanets,
music-books, etc., stood a large silver candelabrum, bearing four tall
candles, the flames of which flickered in the currents of air flowing
through many a chink and cranny, as if to remind the three British
officers that it was at home only that true comfort was to be found. Heat
was diffused through the room by means of a pan of glowing charcoal placed
in the centre of the floor, and a lady, who sat with her feet resting upon
it in the Spanish manner, rose at their entrance.
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