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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 28 - A Single Combat

It was a delightful summer morning: there was an exhilarating freshness in the air, which raised the spirits of Stuart, as the distance increased between him and the scene of his sorrows. The merry birds were hopping and chirping about from spray to spray ; the wild flowers which blossomed by the wayside were giving forth their richest perfume, and expanding their dewy cups and leaves to the warmth of the rising sun. Behind him lay the dark wood of Jarciejo, and above it arose the curved ridges of the Lina,—their bright tints mellowed by distance as they stretched away towards New Castile. Before him lay a long tract of beautiful country, tufted woods and vineyards, with here and there yellow cornfields, rocks surmounted by old feudal strongholds, most of them ruinous, and in many places by the roadside the blackened remains of the cottages of the paisanos marked the ruthless devastations made by Massena in his retreat some time before.

Ronald would have contemplated with delight the varying of the landscape as he rode along, but for the sorrow which pressed heavy upon his heart, intermingled with certain fears of what his reception might be at the regiment after so unaccountable a desertion, and in what light it might be viewed by his brother officers. Full of these exciting ideas, at times he drove his horse furiously forward, as if he strove to leave his thoughts behind him, and shorten as much as possible the distance between himself and his comrades. He longed to behold the embattled towers, the slender spires and belfries of Truxillo, where he hoped to find his comrades and explain his singular disappearance; but Truxillo was yet leagues distant.

A faint chorus came floating on the breeze towards him as he rode along, and swelled out into a bold and merry strain on his nearer approach. The cracking of whips and jingle of innumerable bells announced a train of muleteers, who came in view a few seconds afterwards, and gave a boisterous cheer at sight of the scarlet uniform. According to the custom of the muleteers during hot weather, they all wore large cotton handkerchiefs, knotted round their heads, under their sombreros; their tasselled jackets were flying open, and their broad shirt-collars, stiff with flowers and needlework, were folded over their shoulders, displaying every bare and brawny neck. The train halted, and Ronald recognised his old acquaintance, Lazaro Gomez, the master muleteer, who took off his beaver with one hand, while he reined-in the leading mule with the other. Lazaro's speculations appeared to have been successful. His jacket was now of fine green velvet, covered with tinsel lace and garnished with about six dozen of those brass bell-buttons with which the muleteers are so fond of adorning their garments.

'Well, Micer Lazaro,' said Stuart, 'why do you drive your cattle so fast during the heat of the day, when they should be enjoying a siesta under the greenwood? They are likely to drop before you reach the forest of Jarciejo.'

'Par Diez! I hope not, senor,' replied the muleteer, in evident trepidation at the idea. 'They shall reach Jarciejo,—we are ruined else; and I trust, in this perilous time, that the gracious senora, our Lady of Majorga,' crossing himself and looking upwards, 'will not forget the honest muleteer, that never passed her shrine without bestowing on it a handful of mara-vedis. She will put mettle in the legs of his mules, and enable them to save his hard-earned goods and chattels.'

'How, Micer Gomez,—what is the matter? You seem much excited.'

'Santissima Casa! is it possible that you know not the reason, senor? El demonio! I thought you had ten thousand British at your back. The whole country round about is in possession of the French, and hard work we have had since we left Truxillo to escape being plundered of every maravedi. And only think, senor, what a loss I should have suffered! Why, there are thirty skins of the best wine of Ciudad Real on the black mule,—Capitana, we call her,—she takes the lead ; as many skins of the olive-oil of Lebrija, the best in Spain, on the pad of the second,— Bocaneyra, or " the black muzzle," as we name it.'

'The French—the French at Truxillo!' exclaimed Ronald, in astonishment. 'Where, then, is Sir Rowland Hill with his troops?'

'On his march for Merida, senor; and by this time many a league beyond Villa Macia. On the third mule—Castana, we name her from her colour—there are twenty arrobas of corn from the Huertz of Orihuela, all for the nuns of Santa Cruz, and worth in reals------'

'Are the enemy in great force hereabouts?' asked Ronald, who felt considerably concerned for his own safety.

'Truly, senor, I know not; but their light cavalry are riding in every direction. Some say that Marshal Soult, and others that the Count D'Erlon, has entered Estremadura, and that the British are all cut to pieces.'

'That I do not believe.'

'Nor I;—no, by the bones of the Cid Campeador, 'tis not likely. But as I was saying, senor, twenty arrobas of corn------'

'Twenty devils! Halt, Micer Lazaro: if you stay to tell over the inventory of your goods, you are not likely to escape the claws of the enemy, a party of whom I see on the top of the hill yonder.'

A volley of curses broke from the muleteers at this intelligence. A party of cavalry in blue uniform appeared on the road, descending an eminence at some distance, and the glitter of their weapons, as they flashed in the sun, was seen between the branches of the trees. Crack went the whips.

'Ave Maria—demonios—par Diez! we are plundered and ruined!' cried the mule-drivers, as they lashed their long-eared cattle into a trot. 'The rich oil, the wine and corn—carajo!—to be pillaged by the base French! But what is to be done? Were they under the roof of the Santissima Casa, which the blessed angels brought from Galilee to Loretto, they would not be safe. Forward, Capitana! gallant mule; sure of foot and long of wind. Hoa, Pedro de Puebla! keep up your black-muzzled sloth; we will flay its flanks with our whips else. Farewell to you, senor! Our Lady del Pilar aid us! we are in a sad pickle.' And off they went, without farther ceremony, at their utmost speed, running by the side of their mules, and lashing them lustily, leaving Stuart looking steadily at the advancing party of horse, but dubious what course to pursue.

He could not stoop to have recourse to a deliberate flight; and as the enemy was between him and his friends, it was necessary to elude them by any means. Reigning back his horse, he withdrew beneath the cover of a thicket beside the road. He was scarcely esconced among the foliage when about twenty chasseurs à cheval, with their short carbines resting on their thighs and their officer riding in front, wheeled round a corner of the road, and passed his place of concealment at an easy pace. As soon as they were hidden by the windings of the road and the heavy green foliage which overshadowed it, Stuart emerged from his cover, and continued his route at a hard gallop towards Truxillo, which, however, he determined to avoid by a detour, in case of falling in with more of the French. He had not ridden a quarter of a mile, before a sudden angle of the path, which now passed under the cool shade of several vine-trellises, brought him abruptly face to face with two French officers, whose horses were trotting along at a very ambling rate. On seeing him, they instantly drew up, while their faces assumed an expression of unmeasured surprise. They were not above twelve yards distant. Ronald likewise drew his bridle, and unsheathing his sword, reconnoitred the Gauls, between whom a few words passed. One was a pale and thin man, in a staff uniform embroidered with oak-leaves. He carried his right arm in a black silk sling. The other was a dashing officer of cuirassiers, a man of singularly fine and muscular proportions ; he was mounted on a powerful black war-horse, and wore a high brass helmet, with the Imperial eagle on its crest, and a plume of black horse-hair floating over it. He was accoutred with a bright steel cuirass and back-plate, and leather jack-boots which came above the knees. Both wore splendid epaulettes and aiguillettes, and were covered on the breast with medals and military orders of knighthood ; indeed, there were few French officers who were not so.

Ronald saw at a glance that the heavy dragoon would be his opponent, and he felt some unpleasant doubts as to the issue of a conflict with a practised cavalry officer, and one thus sheathed in a panoply of steel •and leather, while he himself had nothing to protect him from the blade of his adversary but his thin regimental coat and tartan plaid.

The officer with the wounded arm moved his horse to the roadside, while the cuirassier twirled his moustaches with a grim smile, and unsheathed his glittering weapon—a species of long and straight backsword, worn by the French cavalry, and desired Ronald imperiously to surrender without striking a blow.

'Rendez sans coup férir, Monsieur Officier.

Finding that he was not understood, and that Stuart prepared to defend himself, he reined his steed back a little way; and then, dashing his spurs into its flanks, came thundering forward at full speed, shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!' with his long blade uplifted, intending to hurl his adversary into eternity by a single stroke. But Stuart, by an adroit management of his horse's bridle, made a demi-volte or half-turn to his left, at the same time stooping his head, to avoid the Frenchman's sweeping stroke, which whistled harmlessly through the air; while he in return dealt him a back-handed blow on the crest of his helmet as he passed him in his career, which at once tumbled him over his horse's head and stretched him senseless in the dust, while his sword fell from his grasp, and broke in a dozen pieces. Elated with this sudden and unlooked-for success, Ronald brandished his claymore aloft, and rushed on to the next officer ; but drew back and lowered the point of his weapon on perceiving the startled and indignant look of the veteran, who held up his wounded arm.

'Pass on, sir!' said Ronald, substituting Spanish for French, of which he scarcely knew above a dozen words. 'I might, if I chose, make you prisoner; but I wish not to take advantage of your being wounded. Pass on, sir; the road is open before you.'

The Frenchman appeared to understand him imperfectly, but, raising his cocked hat, he prepared at once to take the benefit of the permission.

'Adieu, Monsieur de Mesmai!' said he, on passing his fallen comrade, adding something in a whisper, fragments of which only reached Ronald.

'Malheurs, mon ami—à la guerre—comme à la guerre—retournez et reprenez-vous—chasseurs à cheval,' and he galloped off. Ronald was half tempted to ride after and cut him down, and thus securely stop his intention of returning with the twenty light horsemen, as he supposed he meant to do, for the disjointed fragments he had heard implied an understanding between them.

'Ah, la malice du diable!' cried the cuirassier, as he endeavoured to rise. 'Come, Senor Cuirassier,' said Ronald in Spanish; 'I believe I am to consider you a prisoner on parole.'

'Diablement!' muttered the Frenchman, rubbing his sore bones. 'Come, to horse. Get into your saddle, and without delay. Do not imagine I will parley here long enough to permit your cunning old comrade to bring up the light dragoons to your rescue.'

The Gaul still delayed to move, declaring that so severe were his bruises he was unable to rise.

'Monsieur,' said Ronald sternly, placing his hand in his basket-hilt, 'I believe you not; 'tis a mere trick! And if you do not instantly mount, I shall be tempted to try if that iron harness of yours is proof against a stab from such a blade as this.'

Thus angrily urged, the cuirassier, with a sullen look, and some trouble evidently, mounted his horse, gave his parole of honour, and tossing the flints from his pistols, threw away with a curse his empty scabbard, and prepared to follow his captor, who inquired about his hurts and bruises with a frank kindness, to which the other replied by cold and haughty monosyllables ; and his displeasure appeared to increase, when Ronald, instead of continuing on the Truxillo road, struck at once across the country to make a detour, thus cutting off any chance which the Frenchman had of being rescued by the chasseurs, should his companion bring them back for that purpose. Stuart was secretly well-pleased at the capture he had made, and doubted not that the French capitan would make a very timely peace-offering to Cameron, who would be the reverse of well-pleased at his long absence.

'Cheer up, Monsieur de Mesmai—I think your friend named you De Mesmai,' said he; 'there is no use in being cast down about this malheur. Such happen daily to our brothers in arms, on both sides.

And it is a wonder our cases are not reversed, when my opponent was so accomplished a chevalier.'

De Mesmai twirled his black moustaches, shrugged his shoulders till his epaulettes touched his ears, and made no reply,—but gave an anxious glance behind them.

"Tis no use looking for your friend and his chasseurs: they will scarcely find us, since we are so far from the main road. So, I pray you, give yourself no further concern about them.'

To this taunting injunction, the Frenchman answered only by a stern military frown. He was a man above forty years of age, and his figure was a model of combined strength and symmetry. Exposure to the sun had turned the hue of his face to something between deep red and dark brown,—the former was particularly apparent in a deep scar across the cheek, which he endeavoured to hide by the curl of his moustache. He appeared to view his captor with any feeling but a friendly one; indeed, it was galling, that an accomplished cavalry officer like himself should have been unhorsed and compelled to surrender by one whom he regarded as a raw soldier,—a mere stripling ; but, as his head had good reason to know, a very stout one!

'And so Monsieur de Mesmai is your name?' observed Stuart, endeavouring to lead him into conversation. 'Surely I have heard it before.

''Tis not unlikely, monsieur. I am pretty well known on both sides of the Pyrenees ; and permit me to acquaint you, that it was no common feat of yours to unhorse me as you did to-day. But as for my name, it has made a noise in the public journals once or twice. You may have heard it at Almarez,—I commanded in the tower of Ragusa.'

'I now remember; but it was not very kind of you to cut the pontoon, and thus destroy the retreat of D'Estouville and his soldiers.'

'Charity begins at home. You know that vulgar adage,—strictly English I believe it is,' retorted the cuirassier haughtily. 'Sacre bleu! 'tis something new for a French officer to be schooled by a British, in the rules of military honour.

'Nothing new in the least, sir!' retorted the other in the same tone of pique. 'Military honour! What think you of the poisoned balls, which our troops say yours use so freely?'

'Sacré nom de Dieu!' exclaimed the cuirassier hoarsely, while his cheek grew absolutely purple; ' 'tis false, monsieur; I tell you 'tis false! 'Tis a lie of the base mercenary German Legion, or the rascally Portuguese. Surely British soldiers would never say so of Frenchmen? Think you, monsieur, that we, whose bayonets have flashed at Austerlitz and Jena,—think you, that we now would have recourse to mean's so foul? Sucré! to poison our bullets like the cowardly Indians,—and now at this time, when, under Heaven and the great Emperor's guidance, the rustle of the banners of France has shaken the world to its centre? I trow not!'

'It has been rumoured by our soldiers, however; but I rely too much on the honour of Frenchmen, to imagine that they would resort to such dastardly means of maiming an enemy.'

'Monsieur, were we otherwise situated, I would put this matter to the sharper test of cold iron,' replied De Mesmai, who was much ruffled at the mention of the poisoned balls; 'but a time may yet come, and for he present. I accept your apology. As for the story of the poisoned balls, doubtless you are indebted for it to the base Germans—mercenary dogs! whom their beggarly princes and little mightinesses sell by thousands to fight the battles of all nations.'

'In our service we have a legion of several thousands, and they are excellent troops.'

'Monsieur, we have many legions. But the German is without chivalry or sentiment, and fitted only for the mere mechanical part of war. They fight for their daily pay: honour they value not; to them 'tis as moonshine in the water—an unsubstantial glitter.'

'You are severe, Captain De Mesmai.'

'I cannot speak of them in more gentle terms, when I remember that all the German prisoners you take from us invariably change banners, and enlist in your service. Several battalions have been raised among the Scotch military prisons of late. And these Germans—bah! But to the devil with them!'

'By-the-bye—who was your friend, with his arm in the sling? An officer of some rank, evidently?'

'Truly he is. I am glad you did not take him instead of me. Ah, monsieur, you have outwitted yourself confoundedly. What a prize he would have been to present to your general! That officer was Monsieur le Comte D'Erlon.'

'D'Erlon!' exclaimed Ronald; 'would to Heaven he would return!'

'With the sabres of twenty chasseurs à cheval glittering behind him?

'No, certainly. But oh! had I only guessed his rank and fame, he should not have escaped me. I would either have taken or cut him down in his saddle.'

'That would have been a pity, for he is a famous old fellow; but it would have left the comtesse a widow, with I know not how many thousand livres in the year. I know she looks with favourable eye on me,—but, sacré bleu! 'tis all in vain. I don't like ladies that are verging towards forty years.'

'You seem to have recovered your equanimity of temper now.'

'Oh, perfectly; but my head rings like a belfry, with that cut you gave me.'

'So that old officer, with his arm slung, was really the famous D'Erlon, of whom we have heard so much"

'The gallant old count himself. He received a stroke from a spent pistol-ball a day or two past, which disabled his sword-arm ; otherwise you would have had an encounter with him also.'

'I shall ever curse my thoughtlessness in having permitted him to escape.'

The cuirassier laughed exultingly.

'I am—diable! I was his aide-de-camp; and we had merely crossed the Tagus last night with a subdivision of chasseurs, to make a reconnoissance; and we were returning leisurely in the rear of our party, when you so unluckily fell in with us, like some wandering knight-errant.'

'Excuse me, monsieur; but as I perceive that your sabretache is very full of something, if you have any of the Count D'Erlon's despatches or papers, I must consider it my duty to request that you will intrust them to my care.'

'Excellent, by the bomb! That you may present them to your general?'

'Undoubtedly, monsieur.'

'I believe he is every inch a true soldier; and were he here, would be welcome to share the contents of my sabretache ; but as he is not, we will divide them honestly at the kettle-drum head. Here, you see, is a roast fowl, famously stuffed with sage and garlic, which yesterday afternoon I carried off from the dinner-table of a fat canon of Torbiscoso, when just about to carve, and very much aghast the padre looked when I seized it unceremoniously. Here also is a bottle of pomard,—rare stuff, as you will find. I took it out of D'Erlon's holsters not above four hours ago. He always keeps a bottle in one, and a pistol in the other. A knowing old campaigner, ventre St. Gris! And now, since you have reminded me of the sabretache, let us to luncheon.'

The pomard and the fowl were shared together ; and had any stranger beheld them as they jogged along, he would never have imagined that they had been engaged in mortal strife an hour before.

'Ah, this horrible garlic; the taste of it would madden a Parisian chef de cuisine,' observed De Mesmai. 'I drink to the health of senor, the reverend canon of Torbiscoso, who has provided for us this especial good luncheon. Come, my friend, you do not drink; you are as melancholy as if you had lost your love, while I am as merry as if I had just buried my wife. But why should I be cast down in spirits? The old count cannot do without me, and will soon get me exchanged : he might as well lose his head as Maurice de Mesmai. I save him a world of trouble by drinking his wine, smoking his cigars, making up his despatches, in which I take especial care that my name is always duly commended to the notice of the Emperor. I study the localities for camps, and always make them in the neighbourhood of convents. Apropos of convents: I love better to capture and sack them than anything else. 'Tis such delightful hide-and-seek sort of work, to pull the fair garrison from the nooks and niches where they hide from us. I have a score of nuns across this very saddle-bow; and, but for your cursed interruption,—excuse me, monsieur,—would by this time have had the abbess of the Jarciejo convent. An immensely fine creature, upon my honour, with a neck and just beautiful enough to turn the heads of messieurs their eminences the cardinals. A glorious creature, in fact, and as kind a one as may be met with on a long day's march. I had marked her for a prize, and D'Erlon had never dared to say me nay ; otherwise he would have had to provide himself with another aide.'

De Mesmai seemed to have recovered that buoyancy of temper so natural to Frenchmen, and he chatted on in this gay and unconnected manner, and sang snatches of military and tavern songs, until they arrived, when evening was approaching, at Villa Macia, where it was necessary that they should halt for the night. Here they received information that Sir Rowland Hill, with the troops returning from Almarez, had passed through two days before. In so small a village there was no alcalde to order them a billet, and no inn at which they could procure one otherwise; and while standing in the street, irresolute how to act, they were surrounded by a crowd of swarthy villagers, who greeted Ronald with many a hearty viva! but regarded the disarmed Frenchman with lowering looks of hatred and hostility, to which he replied by others of defiance and contempt. El cura, the rector or curate of the place, a reverend-looking old churchman, with a bald head, a few gray hairs, and a wrinkled visage, approached them with his shovel-hat in his hand, and invited them to partake of the shelter afforded by his humble roof, to which the Gaul and the Briton were alike welcome. The horses were accommodated in an outhouse behind the cottage, while the curate introduced his guests into his best apartment,—a room floored with tiles, which had just been cooled by the application of a water-sprinkler. Nets of onions, oranges, and innumerable bunches of grapes hung from the rude rafters of the roof, waving in the fresh evening breeze which blew through the open window. Drawings of various kinds, particularly landscapes, adorned the walls of the room, in which, if poverty was everywhere apparent, there was an extreme air of neatness and cleanliness, not often to be met with in houses of such a class in Spain.

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