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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 21 - The Out-Picket

THE patron of Ronald's billet could not give him any information about Donna Catalina, or any of the inmates of her mansion,—the Hotel de Villa Franca, as the citizens named it. He knew that it had been occupied by the French, whose commanding officer quartered himself upon it as the best house in the place, and that his soldiers had burnt it when they saw that they should be compelled to abandon Merida, on the second advance of the British. From the first occupation of the town by the enemy, none of the Villa Franca family had been seen. This was all the information he could obtain ; and Ronald was led to conclude that Catalina and her cousin had escaped, and might be at Majorga, or some other town on the Spanish frontiers.

The poor patron was a potter by trade, and made brown earthenware crocks and jars, which he retailed through Estremadura, in panniers slung on the back of a mule; but he earned barely sufficient to support his wife and family. Nevertheless, to show their loyalty to King Ferdinand, and their gratitude to his allies, the patrona had, by dint of much exertion, procured for Ronald, on the morning of his departure, what was considered in Spain a tolerable breakfast.

On the wooden table was placed a large crock full of boiled pork and peas, opposite to which stood a jar of goats'-milk, plates of eggs, dried raisins, and white bread,—even coffee was on the table; a display altogether of viands that raised the wonder and increased the appetites of the six hungry children who crowded round the board, holding up their little brown hands with many exclamations of wonder, and cries to their madre and padre to help them; but their parents were intent on doing the honours of the table to the noble caballero.

In one corner of the miserable apartment lay the glossy hide of an English horse. Ronald, by some particular spots, recognised it to be that of Evelyn's charger, about the flaying of which the host had been employed since daybreak, intending, as he said, to make it into caps and shoes for his children. The latter were all swarthy and active, but sadly disguised by rags and filth, which obscured the natural beauty of their Spanish faces and figures, excepting one little girl, about ten years of age, who appeared to be her mother's pet, and' consequently was more neatly dressed. Ronald was often amused at the looks of wonder with which this little creature watched him while eating—keeping at a distance, as if he were an ogre ; but when she became more familiar, venturing to touch the black feathers of his bonnet, and other parts of his glittering-dress, though always keeping close to the short skirt of the madre's petticoat, as if she feared being eaten up, or carried off for some future meal, by the strange caballero, the richness of whose uniform fined the little boys with wonder and envy.

At last, by dint of much entreaty, she permitted herself to be drawn towards him. Raising up her radiant eyes, she took a copper crucifix from her bosom, and asked him if the people in his country wore a thing like that. On his telling her no, she broke away from his arm, and crying, 'O mi madre—the heretic! the devil!' hid her face in her mother's skirt; while the rest of the children shrunk around their father, grasping his legs for safety, and even he seemed much discomposed. Not liking the idea of being regarded as a bugbear, Ronald, in the gray daylight, finished his breakfast as speedily as possible, and was hurried in doing so by the warning bugles for the march.

Ronald Dhu and his six pipers blowing the gathering, in concert with the drums of other corps beating the 'assembly' in the Plaza, soon followed, and he left the house of the hospitable but superstitious potter, who would not accept a single maravedi for the entertainment he had given,—a circumstance which Ronald did not regret, his pecuniary affairs not being then in a very flourishing condition, as the troops were three months' pay in arrear.

When the second division approached Almendralejo, they found that it had been abandoned by the enemy in the night. As on the march of the preceding day, the troops suffered greatly by thirst and the intense heat of the weather; and as the regiments passed through in succession, the inhabitants were employed for hours handing water through their barred windows to the soldiers, while crowds in the streets were kept running to and fro from the fountains with all sorts of vessels, as if a general conflagration had taken place.

'Viva Ferdinando! muera Napoleon/' cried a soft voice from the balcony of a house near the Casa de Ayuntamiento, the tall spire of which is visible for leagues around.

'Who can that handsome girl be — she with the tight bodice and braided hair?' asked Stuart of Alister, as the corps halted, for the usual rest of five minutes, in front of the town-house.

'Handsome girl! How should I know, Ronald? Where?' ' Leaning over the antique stone balcony: she has tossed a chaplet among the men at the other flank of the company.'

'And one fellow has placed it on the point of his bayonet. That is the Senora Maria I told you of.' 'What! the daughter of the abogado?'

'The same. I used to meet her often at the Prado and at church, when we lay here. Her true knight, Angus Mackie, has obtained the wreath, I perceive.'

'A handsome girl, indeed! The flowers were intended for him, doubtless.' 'And there is the abogado himself!' exclaimed Macdonald. ' What the devil is the old fellow about?'

While they were speaking, a fierce-looking little Spaniard, with a bald head and large gray moustaches, wearing an old-fashioned doublet of black cloth slashed on the breast with red, rushed into the balcony, and, grasping the young lady by the arm, drew her roughly into the house, dashing to the casement with such violence that several panes of glass were shattered,—a damage which he was observed a minute afterwards to be inspecting with a rueful countenance, glass being an expensive article in Spain. He withdrew with a fierce aspect as a loud laugh of derision arose from the companies of Highlanders in the street.

To describe the wearying marches performed by the troops under Sir Rowland Hill's command in that province of Spain would be at once useless and uninteresting. Scouring the country of the enemy, they had many a march and countermarch between Merida, La Zarza, La Querena, Medellin, and Don Benito. From the last two the enemy were driven, but not without some fighting, especially at Don Benito. During that week, often on the march as they traversed the lofty sierras or level plains, they heard, mellowed by distance, the roar of the far artillery, which announced that the strong city of Badajoz had been besieged by Lord Wellington, by whose orders Sir Rowland's division advanced towards that place, to form the covering army.

On the evening when it was known the fortress would be stormed, while the greatest anxiety pervaded every breast for the success of the great attempt, Hill's division halted and encamped near the village of Lobon just about sunset. Making a corresponding movement to form a junction with the second division, Sir Thomas Graham, 'the hero of Barossa,' hovered with his troops in the direction of the heights of Albuera, ready to concentrate and repel together any attempt which the great Duke of Dalmatia with his legions might make to relieve the beleaguered garrison of General Phillipon at Badajoz, which was a few miles distant, in the rear of the hamlet of Lobon.

Although the troops encamped, all were in readiness to march at a moment's notice to sustain the besieging army, if they should fail in carrying the place. Scarcely had they halted, before the grand guards of cavalry were formed, and the out-pickets, to be furnished from the first brigade, paraded and despatched to their several posts where pointed out by the major of brigade. With some other officers this exciting duty fell upon Ronald, who, with a picket of twenty Highlanders, was directed to march to a given distance into the plain in front of Lobon, halt his party, and throw forward his chain of advanced sentries, extending them so that they could keep up the line of communication with those of other pickets on the right and left, and to double them should the weather thicken during the night.

'By what shall I know where to halt the main body of my picket, major ?' asked Ronald, looking rather blankly towards the waste expanse of desert plain, which extends for more than seven leagues around Badajoz. 'It is as level as the very sea ; nothing bounds it but the distant heights of Albuera.'

'March on that star,' said W------technically, as he raised himself in his stirrups, and pointed towards a bright planet which was twinkling where the lingering streaks of yellow edged the dark horizon, glowing like heated bars of gold through openings in the dusky masses of clouds, which appeared to rest o'er Albuera, the position of Graham. ' You will march straight upon it, and halt your picket where you find a man's head stuck upon a pole.' 'Upon a pole!' 'Ay- Queer mark, is it not? 'Very. I am to halt there?'

'A dismal thing to have beside one for a whole night,—in a place as dreary, and eerie too, as the pass of Drumouchter.' 'Is it the head of a murderer?'

'Yes. His body is buried beneath it—a common practice in this part of the country, I believe.'

'A man's head used to be quite a common mark when I was in Egypt with Sir Ralph Abercrombie,' chimed in Campbell, who had stretched himself on the dewy grass near. 'I have seen a corps of turbaned Turks, reviewed near Alexandria, using the spiked heads of Frenchmen as we do our red camp-colours, as points to wheel on.'

'You had better take up your ground, Mr. Stuart,' said the brigade major, to cut short any intended story,' and remember carefully to make yourself master of your situation, by examining, not only the space you actually occupy, but the heights within musket-shot, the roads and paths leading to or near the post, ascertaining their breadth and practicability for cavalry and cannon, and to ensure a ready and constant communication with the adjoining post and videttes,—in the day by signals, in the night by patrols,' etc.; and the old fellow did not cease his long quotation from the ' Regulations,' which he had gotten by rote, until compelled to do so by want of breath.

When he made an end, and had ridden off, Ronald marched his picket in the direction pointed out, keeping as a guide the star already,mentioned. He soon found the halting-place, and there, sure enough, was a human head placed upon a pole about ten feet high; and a more grisly, hairy, ferocious, and terrible face than it presented, human eyes never beheld. In ferocity its expression was that of Narvaez Cifuentes, but it was fixed and rigid,—the eyes glassy and bursting from their sockets,— the jaws wide and open, displaying a formidable row of large white teeth. It was much decayed by the heat of the weather, although it had been only three days exposed ; and as the breeze blew swiftly past, it caused the long damp tresses of black hair to wave round the livid brow with an effect at once strange and terrible.

Having posted his line of sentries to the best advantage, showing them in what direction they were to keep a 'sharp look-out,'—the direction where Marshal Soult lay,—he returned to the spot, where, stretched upon the turf among the rest of the soldiers, he lay listening to the distant thunder of artillery, and watching the lurid light which filled the horizon, continually increasing and waning as the tide of conflict turned on the battlements of Badajoz. More vividly at times the red light flashed across the sky, and louder came the boom of the heavy cannon, as the salvoes were discharged against the walls of the doomed city; and while the soldiers looked and listened, they thought of the blood and slaughter in which they might soon bear a part, should the present besiegers fail in the assault. Although at that hour hundreds—ay, thousands, were being-swept into eternity, the soldiers cared not for it, apparently; many a tale was told at which they laughed heartily, and many a reminiscence narrated of Bergen-op-Zoom, Mandora, Corunna, and other fields and countless frays, in which some of them had borne a part.
It was a fine moonlight night; the most distant part of the plain could be distinctly seen, and the myriads of stars shone joyously, as if to rival the radiance of their queen; while every blade of grass, and every leaf of the scattered shrubbery, so common on Spanish plains, glittered as if edged with liquid silver. From the dark village of Lobon, and the white glimmering tents of the encampment, arose the hum of voices; from the plain through which wound the Guadiana came the murmur of its current ; and save these, no sound broke the stillness of the hour but the roar of Badajoz, which sounded afar like thunder among distant hills.

While Ronald was regaling himself upon a mess, consisting of a few ounces of ration-beef fried in a camp-kettle lid, with a handful of garoanzos, or beans, which Evan had brought him from the adjacent village, his attention was aroused by the glitter of steel on the plain, advancing, as he imagined, from the direction where Soult was known to be, and from which he was expected 'to make some demonstration to relieve General Phillipon's garrison. Ronald was instantly on the alert. He sprang to his feet,—ordered the picket to ' stand to their arms,' himself advancing a little to the front, to reconnoitre.

Perhaps there is no situation more exciting to any officer, especially a young one, than out-picket duty: he is left to act entirely for himself, —to rely on his own judgment ; and so much depends upon him in many ways, that he is apt to grow bewildered. The responsibility is indeed great, when the very fate of a kingdom may depend on the alertness of his sentinels, and the posts he has assigned to them. Fully alive to all the duties of his situation, Ronald moved anxiously to the front, and beheld a dark group advancing furiously along the plain at full gallop, making straight for his post, with steel casques and tall lances glittering; but that they were only six armed horsemen he could see distinctly, and the cry of 'Amigos! aminos a la guerra de la Independencia! Viva Espana! Viva Espana!' in pure Castillian, assured him that they were Spaniards; and he sprang forward just in time to arrest the arm of his advanced sentinel, who had levelled his musket to fire, a circumstance which would have caused the whole encamped division to get under arms.

Another moment, and the strangers came up, the hoofs of their panting steeds shaking the earth, and tearing the turf as they were suddenly reined in, while the white foam fell from their dilated nostrils. A glance showed Ronald that they were six lances of Don Alvaro's troop, escorting a party of Spanish ladies, who, to his no small surprise, were all mounted like men, wearing wide trousers and broad flapping sombreros, with veils and long waving plumes. Although this mode of riding surprised the Scot very much, it is one extremely common in some parts of Spain. Raising his hand to his bonnet, he inquired which way they had come.

'Ah! Don Ronald,—have you quite forgotten me, and the sad night we spent in the diabolical cavern at La Nava?' exclaimed Pedro Gomez, dropping the point of his lance, and causing his mettlesome steed to curvet in a style more like unto a knight of chivalry than a sergeant of dragoons.

'How! Pedro, my bon camarado, is this you? Why—how—which way are you riding?'

'Commanding an escort, senor officiale; travelling with four ladies of our regiment from Segura de Leon to Idanda Novo, to keep them out of harm's way.'

'And the senoritas------'

'Senoritas? Pho! Somos iodos hombres,' said one contemptuously in Spanish, 'All men?' reiterated Ronald in surprise.

A burst of laughter from the fair speaker followed; and bending her face close to his,—so close that her soft curls fell upon it, she added, 'Inesella de Truxillo. I knew not that my features were so easily forgotten, even by the admirers of my cousin.'

'Senora, how happy am I to see you here, and in safety! The ravages at Merida led me to expect the worst. And your cousin, Donna Catalina, —she is, of course, with you?' said Ronald, looking anxiously at the faces of the other three ladies.

'Oh, most unfortunate Catalina!' exclaimed Inesella, beginning to weep, ' I fear she is for ever lost to us.'

'How, Donna Inesella? Speak, for Heaven's sake !' said Ronald, while his heart fluttered with agitation.

'O Juan de Dios! be her protection. She was carried off by the enemy, while I escaped in consequence of the Count d'Erlon's mandate. The house was destroyed by fire, and our miserable uncle, the poor dear old padre, perished in it.'

A deep malediction was growled by the escort, who reined their horses back a few paces.

'The demons ! and by whose order was that done?'

'Their chef descadre, the Baron de Clappourknuis, or some such name.'

'He is now a prisoner in the castle of Belem; but Catalina------'

'Was torn from my arms by force. A field-officer of the French guards carried her off across the bow of his saddle ; I heard her fearful cries as he swam his horse across the Guadiana, on the night that the British returned and attacked Merida. I have been wandering about in several places since then, and am anxious to reach Idanda Nova, Idanha a Velha, or any place of safety, until all this terrible work is over. Mother of God ! look towards Badajoz! The sky seems all on fire!

Alas ! the poor soldiers------'

'Has Don Alvaro heard of his sister's fate?

'Oh yes, senor. Poor Alvaro! I have had sad work cheering him under the misfortune. He is now my husband,' added the graceful donna, blushing deeply, while her usually soft voice sunk into a whisper.

'Oh, indeed! I am most happy, Donna Inesella, to hear------But how could you celebrate so joyous an event while so great a mystery hangs over the fate of poor Catalina?

'Oh, Don Ronald ! I know not,' replied the young lady confusedly. 'What a very strange question to ask !'

''Pardon me, senora!' 'Santa Maria! I am not angry with you; but Don Alvaro is so very impetuous, and fearing the chance of war------ But ah! senor, we must bid you adieu if we would reach the city of Elvas before dawn, and 'tis many good leagues from Lobon.'

The other ladies, who had become impatient at the delay, now proposed to ride on ; and the arrival of the field-officer on duty, to visit the out-picket, put an end to the conversation. Ronald briefly pointed out to them, to the best of his knowledge, the safest road to Elvas, and the one by which bands of roving guerillas were least likely to be met with; and then hurried off to the post, while the ladies and their escort galloped in the direction of Lobon.

Ronald watched the helmets and spears of the troopers, and the waving feathers of the ladies, as long as they were in sight; and so negligent was he during the inspection of his picket, that, to use a mess-room phrase, he gained a hearty rowing from old Lieutenant-colonel Macdonald, the senior major of his regiment, who was mighty indignant at the absence of mind he displayed, and the general answers he gave to questions asked of him. But it was not to be wondered at : his thoughts were with Catalina, and his bosom was a prey to a greater degree of anxiety and uneasiness than he had felt for a very long time. That Catalina, the proud, the gentle, and the beautiful, should be a captive in the hands of so unscrupulous an enemy as the French, subjected to their insolence, and perhaps barbarity, filled him with thoughts that stung him almost to madness; and, finding it impossible to sleep, although the grass was soft as velvet, and the bright moon was shining gloriously, he remained walking to and fro between the piles of arms until daylight, watching the waning blaze of Badajoz, and listening to the noise of the assault as the night-wind, sweeping over the plain, brought it to his ear. Intently he watched the light; and when, towards morning, the boom of 'the red artillery' died away, he almost hoped that the assau!t had failed, and that an order would arrive for the second division to advance to support the besiegers, that he might have an opportunity of meeting hand to hand the enemy, against whom he had conceived a peculiar feeling of detestation; or that he might have the desperate honour of leading a forlorn hope, an affair, by-the-bye, of which he had as yet but a very slight conception. The din of war which had lasted the livelong night, ceased at daybreak, and the flashes of cannon and musketry were no longer seen on the ramparts of the capital of Estremadura, in the direction of which all eyes were anxiously turned, although it is not distinctly visible from Lobon.

About sunrise a British staff-officer spurred his horse furiously into the encampment. He was covered with dust, and even blood ; his plumes were gone, and his whole appearance told of the part he had acted in the dangers of the past night, and the speed with which he had ridden. It was towards Ronald's picket that he advanced.

'What news from Badajoz?' cried the latter.

'Glorious! glorious!' replied he, evidently in a fierce state of exultation, full of wild excitement and tumult, as one might be supposed to be who had spent such a night of accumulated horrors, while he checked with some difficulty the headlong speed of his jaded charger. 'I have not a moment to spare: where are the quarters of General Hill?

'Our troops have carried the place, then?'

'Again, again, and again the columns were repulsed with frightful slaughter; but again and again the assault was renewed, fighting as we alone can fight. Badajoz is in ruins,—but it is ours; the breaches and ditches are filled with the dead and the dying. Phillipon, retiring to Fort San Christoval, surrendered his garrison prisoners of war this morning at daybreak, after doing all that mortal men could do'.'A cheer arose from the picket, who crowded round.

'And our loss------'

'Four thousand killed, wounded, and missing,—rough calculation ; that of the enemy, five thousand.'

'Nine thousand in one night!'

'A strange trade is war, truly ! but a night such as the last is an era in a man's lifetime. Sir Rowland's quarters, where are they?'

'The cottage yonder------'

'With the vine-covered chimney and broad eaves?'

'Under the chestnuts.'

'Thanks. Fighting is in store for you in the neighbourhood of Truxilio; you will know it all in good time. Adieu.'

Dashing his gory rowels into the flanks of his horse, he galloped towards the tented camp. Immediately on his reaching it, a tremendous cheer arose among the soldiers, who came rushing from their tents and cantonments in the village. Infantry shakoes, grenadier caps and Highland bonnets were tossed into the air,—caught, and tossed up again. The regimental bands played 'Rule Britannia,' and other national airs; while, amid the shouts, cheers, and rolling of drums, were heard the pipers of the Highland regiments blowing', 'There's nae folk like our ain folk,' as they paraded to and fro before the quarters of the general, who, to increase the rejoicing, ordered an extra ration of rum to be served out to every man on the occasion by the commissary.

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