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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 23 - Almarez

It was Sir Rowland Hill's intention, in order to keep his movements concealed from the enemy, to march his troops in the night, and halt them before dawn in the wood of Jarciejo, situate about half-way between Almarez and Truxillo.

On the night of the intended departure from the latter place, Ronald sat late with the worthy descendant of Pizarro, Captain Don Gonzago, listening to his long stories about that 'famous and noble cavalier General Liniers, and the campaigns of Buenos Ayres,' until the shrill bugles at the hour of midnight sounded ' the assembly' through the echoing streets of the city. In ten minutes the whole of the troops destined to force the strong places of the French were under arms, and the snapping of flints, the ringing of steel ramrods, the tramp of cavalry and clash of artillery-guns, travelling caissons and clattering tumbrils carrying the tools of sappers, miners, pioneers, etc., gave token of the coming strife.

Many a flickering light from opened casements streamed into the dark street on the bronzed visages and serried files of the passing troops, whom they greeted with many a viva! or hurrah!

Departing from the ancient house of Pizarro, Ronald hurried through the dark and strange streets towards the muster-place, and twice on his way thither was his path crossed by the priest mentioned in my last chapter; but the pale outline of his figure eluded his search,—the first time by disappearing under the black piazzas of the town-house, and the second time in the deep gloomy shadow of the cloisters of San Jago de Compostella, and although Ronald eagerly longed to follow him, so much was he pressed for time, that he found it impossible to do so.

Without the sound of drum or horn, they began their midnight march, descending from Truxillo towards the Almonte,—the soldiers carrying with them, in addition to their heavy accoutrements, axes, sledgehammers, and iron levers, to beat down stockades and gates, and scaling-ladders to aid the assault; which cumbersome implements they bore forward by turns during the dreary night-march.

Oh, the indescribable annoyances and weariness of such a march ! To feel one's self overpowered with sleep, and yet be compelled to trudge on through long and unknown routes and tracts of country—seeing with heavy and half-closed eyes the road passing by like a running stream, no sound breaking the monotonous tread of the marching feet—-to drop asleep for a moment, and be unpleasantly aroused by your nodding head coming in contact with the knapsack of a front file—to trudge on, on, on, while every limb and fibre is overcome with lassitude, and having the comfortable assurance that many will be knocked on the head before daybreak, while your friends at home are lying snugly in bed, not knowing or caring a jot about the matter.

Before dawn the detachments were secreted and bivouacked in the wood of Jarciejo, where they remained the whole day, keeping close within its recesses, as they were now in the immediate neighbourhood of the enemy, upon whose strongholds a night-attack was determined to be made. Before morning broke, Ronald had an opportunity of bringing to a parley the monk who appeared to dog him in so mysterious and sinister a manner.

Standing under the dark shade of a large chestnut, as if for concealment, he suddenly espied the glimmer of his long and floating gray cassock. The young Highlander agilely sprung forward, and caught him by the cope, when, as usual, he was about to fly.

'Well, reverend padre, I have caught you at last! How now, senor?'

'What mean you, caballero?' asked the priest gruffly, turning boldly upon him.

'Priest! I demand of you,' replied the other angrily, 'your intentions? Your following me about thus cannot be for good: answer me at once, if you dare! I will drag you to the quarter-guard, and have you unfrocked,—by Heaven I will, if you answer me not instantly.'

'Hombre, I understand you not,' said the priest insolently. 'Unhand my cope, senor officiate, or, demonio! I have a dagger——'

'A dagger! How, you rascally padre! dare you threaten me?'

'Why not, if you grasp me thus?' answered he in a tone, the deepness and ferocity of which caused Ronald to start. 'Unhand me, senor cavalier, or it may be the worse for you in the end. I am a holy priest of el Convento de todos Santos, at Merida, and bear a letter from the corregidor to Sir Rowland Hill, who has employed me as his guide.'

'I believe you not : you are no priest, but some cursed spy of Soult's, and if so, shall hang before sunrise. Draw back his cowl!' said Stuart to the soldiers, who thronged round.

'Santos-Santissimns! O Madre de Dios!' cried the other, evidently in tribulation, ' touch it not, lest ye commit a grievous sin. I am under a vow, which ye comprehend not. Unhand me, noble cavalier! I am but a poor priest, and may not contend with armed soldiers.'

The gruff voice of the priest died away in a whining tone; and at this crisis, up came the brigade-major, saying that Sir Rowland wished to speak with the guide, adding that he was astonished to find an officer brawling with a monk, and expounded, for Ronald's benefit, the whole of the prosy passages in general orders relating to 'guides,' 'conciliation of the Spaniards,' etc., etc.

The priest broke away, and followed him through the wood, bestowing as he departed a hearty malediction on Ronald as a sacrilegious heretic, who, although he valued it not a rush, was surprised at such an ebullition of wrath from a friar,—a character in Spain generally so meek, humble, and conciliating.

The dagger, too ! The mention of it had aroused all his suspicion, and he resolved to watch the reverend father more narrowly in future ; and yet General Hill must have been well assured of his honour and veracity, before he would trust to his guidance on so important an occasion as the present.

Arrangements having been made for a night attack upon the enemy, the troops were again under arms at dusk, mustered and called together from the dingles of the wood, as noiselessly as possible by voices of orderlies, and not by note of bugle or bagpipe. Formed in three columns, they quitted the forest of Jarciejo, and followed the route pointed out by the guide.

Another long and weary night-march was before them,—a night that might have no morning for some of them ; but they entertained not such dismal reflections, and remembered only a high spirit of emulation, which the recent captures of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz called forth. The night was intensely dark, not a star lit the vast black dome of heaven, and each column, guided by a Spaniard who knew the country well, set out upon its separate march. The first, composed of the gallant 28th (familiarly known as the slashers) and 34th regiments, with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores, under the orders of General Chowne, were directed to take by storm the tower of Miravete,—a fortress crowning the summit of a rugged hill, rising on one side of the mountain pass to which it gave its name, and through which the road to Madrid lies.

The second column, commanded by General Long, was directed to storm the works erected by the garrison of Miravete across the pass, which consisted of a strong gate, with breastwork and palisadoes, loop-holed for musketry, and defended by cannon.

General Howard's, or the first brigade, formed the third column, composed of the 50th regiment, the 71st Highland Light Infantry, and the Gordon Highlanders, together with some artillery. These marched by the mountains; the priest acting as their guide to the forts at the bridge of Almarez, which they were ordered to 'take at the point of the bayonet.' Sir Rowland Hill accompanied them, riding beside the gray padre, who had been accommodated with a mule, with a dozen bells jangling at its bridle.

The night, as I have already said, was intensely dark; a general blackness enveloped the whole surrounding scenery, and the summits of the gloomy mountains among which they marched could scarcely be discerned from the starless sky that closed behind them like a vast sable curtain. Many hours more than the general had ever calculated upon were spent on the way, and numerous suspicions of the guide's knowledge or veracity were entertained ; yet to all questions he replied with some monkish benediction, muttered in a snuffling tone, and insisted that the route he led them was the nearest to the village of Almarez.

But many a malediction did the heavily-armed soldiers bestow on their monkish guide, and the desolate and toilsome way he led them. Struggling through dark denies and narrow gorges, encumbered with fallen trees and rugged masses of rock, twisted brushwood and thickets, every one of which might, for aught they knew, contain a thousand riflemen in ambush,—through toilsome and slippery channels of rushing streams,—over immense tracts of barren mountainous waste, they were led during the whole of that night, the priest's gray cope and cassock waving in the gloom as he rode at the head of the column, appearing like the ignis-fatuus, which led them about until, at last, when morning was drawing near, the column halted in the midst of a deep swamp, which took some ankle deep, and others above their leggings or gartered hose, in water,—the reverend padre declaring, by the sanctity of every saint in the calendar, he knew not whereabouts they were. A scarce-smothered malison broke out from front to rear, and the soldiers stamped their feet in the water from pure vexation. Close column was now formed on the 50th regiment, and Sir Rowland questioned the padre in so angry a tone that the whole brigade heard him.

'Hold the bridle of his mule, and cut him down should he attempt to fly,' said he to his orderly dragoon. 'And now, senor padre, answer me directly, and attempt not to prevaricate; for by Heaven if you do, you will find your cassock no protection from the halberds or a musket-shot, —one or other you shall feel without ceremony.'

'Noble caballero,' urged the padre.

'Silence ! This night you have played the traitor to Ferdinand, to Spain, and to us. Is it not so?

'No, senor general,' replied the other stoutly.

'Through your instrumentality, the attack on Almarez has failed.

'Ira se en humo!* replied the priest doggedly.

'Do you mock us, rascal?'

'No, cavalier; but no true Spaniard likes to be questioned thus imperiously.'

'You speak somewhat boldly for a priest. But daylight is already breaking, and we must retire into concealment, or abandon the attempt altogether. Point out some track by which we may retreat, or, priest and Spaniard as you are, I will order a drum-head court-martial, and have you shot as a traitor and spy, or leaguer with the enemy.'

'Gracios excelenze!' urged the padre.

'Your entreaties are of no avail. You have deceived us, with the usual treachery of your nation, false monk!'

'By San Juan, I have not, general! The robe I wear, and the letter of the corregidor of Merida, sufficiently attest my veracity. I have erred through ignorance, not intention.'

'It will end in smoke '—a Spanish saying.

'I pray it may be so,' said Sir Rowland, in a kinder tone. 'God forbid I should wrong an honest man! But where lies the village of Almarez——'

At that moment the flash of a cannon a long way down the mountains, among whose shattered peaks the report was reverberated, answered the question.

By the time which elapsed between the sight of the flash and the sound of the report, it seemed to be fired about a mile distant. 'The morning gun,—that is Almarez,' muttered the soldiers.

'Caballeros y soldados!' cried the priest with sudden energy, 'I have been no traitor, as you seem to suppose me. In truth i knew not the road,—by San Jago de Compostella, I did not! To-morrow night, without fail, I will guide you to the gates of Almarez. I tell you this as truly as that every maravedi of my reward shall go to the shrine of my good Lady of Majorga, whom some rogues have lately plundered of her robes.'

'Unhand his bridle,' said Sir Rowland; ' I must believe him. Major, what think you?'

'There is no alternative,' replied the major of brigade; 'but as the regulations say, "Guides cannot be too jealously watched; and, again, in page.'

"Tis a waste of time to expound the regulations to a man whose knowledge is confined to his Bible and mass-book,' replied the general with a smile. 'We will retire up the mountains, and lie concealed till favoured again by the darkness. Let the column break into sections, and move off left in front. Colonel Cameron, your Highlanders will lead the way.'

A solitary place of concealment was gained among the rugged mountains of the Lina, where the bivouac was hidden from the sentinels on the castle of Miravete.

The officers anxious to lead that most desperate, but gallant, of all military enterprises, the forlorn hope in the intended assault, were requested to send their names to the general. In spite of all that Macdonald and his more cautious friends could say to dissuade Ronald from so heedlessly exposing himself to danger, the fiery young Highlandman offered to lead the storming-party. He well knew how great was the danger, and how little the chance of escape attending those who headed the forlorn band ; but he was animated by no ordinary feelings, and spurred on by the most powerful of all human passions,—love and ambition. With these inspiring his soul, what is it that a brave man feels himself unequal to encounter and overcome? Ronald was also eager to distinguish himself, to gain the favour of the general, the applause of the troops, the freedom of Catalina, and the admiration—alas! he could no longer look for the love—of Alice Lisle.

The brigade-major informed him (not forgetting to add a stave of the regulations thereto) that his namesake, Captain Stuart, of the 50th regiment, had likewise sent his name as a candidate for the desperate honour, and had been, of course, accepted, in consequence of his superior rank, adding that Sir Rowland would not forget Mr. Stuart in the next affair of the same kind, and that on the present occasion he might, if he chose, attend the storming-party as a supernumerary, as it was very likely the first fire would knock its leader on the head. With this Ronald was obliged to be contented—rather chagrined, however, to find that he had exposed himself to the same danger, without a chance of obtaining the same honour.

During that day the ground was carefully examined and reconnoitred. The rugged bed of a dried-up stream, which led from the summits of the Lina to the Tagus at Almarez was chosen as the surest line of route on the next occasion.

Almarez was a miserable little Spanish village, consisting of two rows of huts or cottages, leading to an ancient bridge, which had been recently blown up, but the want of which the French supplied by a strong pontoon, extending between their forts on each side of the river,—the one named Ragusa, and the other Napoleon. The latter tete-du-pont was strongly entrenched, and defended by nine pieces of heavy cannon and five hundred men; Ragusa was a regular work, defended by an equal number of men and iron guns. A large square tower, rising in the midst like a keep, added greatly to the strength of the place.

After remaining for three days bivouacked among the solitary mountains of the .Lina (a ridge or sierra which runs parallel with the Tagus), about ten o'clock on the evening of the last the third column got under arms, and making a circuit among the hills under guidance of the priest, to avoid Miravete, arrived at the bed of the stream, which, in the darkness, was their surest guide to Almarez. But before reaching this place, either by the ignorance or treachery of their guide, they were again led astray, and spent another night marching about in the darkness and solitude of these dreary sierras. It was close on dawn of day before they gained the village of Almarez at the base of the hills, by descending the rough channel of the rill, a long and toilsome path, admitting but one file abreast, as the rocks rose abruptly on each side of it, and the passage was encumbered by large stones, projecting roots and trunks of fallen trees, which caused many of the soldiers to be hurt severely, by falling in the dark as they toiled on, bearing, in addition to their arms, the scaling-ladders, the hammers, levers, and other implements for the assault on the gates of the titer du-pont.

The intention of taking Almarez by surprise was frustrated by the garrison in the castle of Miravete. General Chowne's column having made an assault on the outworks of the place, its soldiers, to alarm the forts at the bridge, sent off scores of rockets in fiery circles through the inky-black sky; beacons of tar-barrels blazed on every turret, and red signal-lights glared in every embrasure of the embattled tower, purpling the sky above and the valley below, flaring on the hideous rents, yawning chasms, and precipitous fronts of the huge basaltic rocks among which it is situated, and some of which, covered with foliage, overhang the dark blue waters of the Tagus. In some places the basaltic crags reared their fronts to the height of several hundred feet above the straggling route of the third column. The scene was wild, splendid, picturesque, and impressively grand, such as few men have looked on,— the dark sky, the tremendous scenery, and the tower blazing with its various lights and fires, while the peals of musketry from the assailants and the assailed reverberated among the hills, the outlines of which were now distinctly visible,—their sides dotted here and there by flocks of Merino sheep, goats, etc., which had escaped the forage-parties of the enemy.

General Hill was now perfectly aware that an attempt to carry the forts by surprise was frustrated, as the assault upon them all should have commenced at once; yet, relying on the mettle and chivalry of his gallant troops, worn out as they were by their night-marches, he did not hesitate to make the effort, although he knew that the garrisons of the tetes-du-pont would be under arms for his reception. Within an hour of daybreak the three regiments had quitted their path, and formed in order at some little distance from the scene of intended operations.

All was still and dark. Before them lay the quiet little village of Almarez, with its orange-trees and vineyards, and with its ruined bridge, the broad abutments and piers of the centre arch of which hang over the Tagus, whose deep dark waters swept sluggishly on, rippling against the jarring and heaving boats of the pontoon bridge which the foe had thrown across the river a little lower down, and at each end of which appeared the rising mounds, crowned—the nearest by Fort Napoleon, and that on the other side by the extended trenches and lofty tower of Ragusa.

All was singularly and ominously still within the forts: none appeared stirring except the sentries, whose figures against the sky were discerned moving to and fro on the bastions, or standing still to watch the lights of Miravete, which were yet blazing afar off among the dark mountains of the sierra.

Preparations were now made for the attack. The colours were uncased and thrown upon the breeze; the flints and priming were examined. The 6th regiment of the Portuguese line, and two companies of German riflemen under Captain Blacier, were ordered to form the corps-de-reserve, and moved behind a rising ground, which would cover them from the enemy's fire; while the three British regiments, formed in two columns, pressed forward pell-mell upon the tetes-du-pont. Now indeed was the moment of excitement, and the pulsation of every heart became quicker. But the soldiers placed the utmost reliance upon the skill and gallantry of their leader and colonels. At the head of the 50th regiment was Stuart, a man whose perfect coolness and apathy in the hottest actions surprised all, and formed a strong contrast to the enthusiastic spirit of gallant Cadogan of the Highland Light Infantry, and to the proud sentiments of chivalry, martial fire, and reckless valour which animated Cameron of Fassifern.

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