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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 46 - Adventures

Stuart departed from Muret in no pleasant mood, having a conviction that he was the most unfortunate fellow in the army, because, when any disagreeable duty was to be performed, by some strange fatality the lot always fell upon him. But his displeasure evaporated as the distance between Muret and himself increased. It was a clear and beautiful night. Millions of sparklers studded the firmament, and, although no moon was visible, the scenery around was distinctly discernible. Afar off lay Toulouse, the direction of which was marked only by the hazy halo of light around it, arising from amidst the bosky forests, which extend over nearly a hundred thousand acres of ground.

Before him spread a clear and open country, over which his horse was now carrying him at a rapid pace. It was midnight before the lights of Muret vanished behind him. The road became more lonely, and no sound broke upon the silence of the way, save the clang of Egypt's hoofs, ringing with a sharp iron sound on the hard-trodden road.

After riding nearly twenty miles, he found himself becoming tired and drowsy; and dismounting, he led his horse into a copse by the roadside, where, fastening the bridle to a tree, he lay down on the dewy sward, and, placing his claymore under his head, fell fast asleep. Before sun-rise he was again in the saddle, and, without breaking his fast, reached the town of Saint Gaudens, on the Garonne, forty-four miles from Toulouse. Unwilling to waste farther the strength of the noble animal which had borne him so far, and with such speed, he halted at Saint Gaudens for twelve hours, and again set forward on the direct road for the province of Beam.

The well-known chain of the Pyrenees, the scene of so many a recent contest, began to rise before him, and as he proceeded, every object which met his view became more familiar.

On nearing the Pass of Roncesvalles, he reached the block-house which his light company had garrisoned and defended so stoutly. It was now falling into ruin, and the skeletons of the French were lying around it, with the rank dog-grass sprouting among their mouldering bones. A ghastly sight!—but many such occurred as he journeyed' among the mountains. Near the block-house he fell in with an encampment of gitanos, or gipsies, a people whose ferocity is equalled only by their cunning and roguery. They were at dinner, and bade him welcome to the feast, which consisted of broiled rabbits, olives, rice, and bacallao, with wine— stolen, of course—to wash it down. He took his share of the viands seated by a fire, around which the ragged wayfarers crowded,, male and female ; but he was very well pleased when he took his departure from these singular people, who would not accept a single maravedi for his entertainment.

Near midnight he arrived at the village of Roncesvalles, which consists of one straggling street, closed by an arched gateway at each end. The barriers were shut, and no admittance was given. He thundered loudly, first at one -gate and then at the other ; but he was unheard or uncared for by the drowsy porters, who occupied the houses above the arches. He therefore prepared to pass the night in the open air, which, although nothing new to a campaigner, was sufficiently provoking on that occasion, especially as a shower was beginning to descend, and sheet lightning, red and flaming, shot at times across the distant sky, revealing the peaks of the mountains, and the moaning voice of the wind announced a tempestuous night. Wishing the warders of Roncesvalles in a hotter climate than Spain, he looked about for some place of shelter, and perceived, not far off, a solitary little chapel, or oratory, which was revealed by the pale altar-lights twinkling through its tinted windows and open doorway.

In this rude edifice he resolved to take shelter, rather than pass the night in the open air; and just as he gained its arched porch, the storm, which had long been threatening, burst forth with sudden and appalling fury. The wind howled in the pass, and swept over the mountains like a tornado, and with a terrible sound, as if, in the words of a Gaelic bard, the spirits of the storm were shrieking to each other. The forked lightning shot athwart the sky, cleaving the masses of cloud, and the rattling rain thundered furiously on the chapel roof and windows, as if to beat the little fabric to the earth. His horse was startled by the uproar of the elements, and snorted, grew restive, and shot fire from his prominent eyes as the passing gleams illuminated the porch, within which Stuart had stabled him by fastening the bridle to the figure of an old saint or apostle that presided over a stone font, from which the old troop-horse soon sucked up the holy water. Ronald wrapped a cloak round him, and flung himself on the stone pavement of the chapel, to rest his aching limbs, which were beginning to stiffen with so long a journey on horseback.

The building was totally destitute of ornament, and its rude construction gave evidence of its great antiquity. There were several shrines around it, with wax tapers flickering before them, revealing the strange little monsters in wood or stone which represented certain saints. In front of one of these knelt a stout but wild-looking Spanish peasant, devoutly praying and telling over his chaplet. The entrance of Stuart caused him hurriedly to start,—to snatch his broad-leaved hat from the floor, to grasp the haft of his dagger, and glance round him with frowning brow and eyes gleaming with apprehension. But on perceiving the uniform of the intruder, his dark features relaxed into a smile; he bowed his head politely, and resumed his orisons, which Stuart never interrupted, although they lasted for a weary hour. There was something very grotesque in the aspect of one particular image, which appeared to be thrust unceremoniously into a dark niche, where no taper burned ; from which Ronald inferred that the saint had no worshippers, or was not a favourite in the neighbourhood of Roncesvalles. The appearance of the image was calculated to excite laughter and derision, rather than piety or awe. It resembled the figure of Johnny Wilkes or Guy Fawkes, rather than a grim and ghostly saint. The effigy was upwards of six feet high, and had a painted mask, well bewhiskered, and surmounted by a cocked hat. It was arrayed in leather breeches and jack-boots, a blue uniform coat, and tarnished epaulettes. A sash encircled its waist, and in it were stuck a pair of pistols and a sabre. Its tout ensemble was quite ludicrous, as it stood erect in the gloomy niche of the solemn little chapel, and was seen by the 'dim religious light' of distant tapers.

With the hilt of his broadsword under his head for a pillow, Stuart lay on the pavement, and viewed this singular apparition with considerable amusement; and if he restrained a violent inclination to laugh, it was only from a reluctance to offend the peasant, who was praying before an image which, by its long robe and bunch of rusty keys, seemed meant for a representation of San Pedro.

From the devotee, who, when his prayers were ended, seated himself by his side, Stuart learned that the strange image represented St. Anthony of Portugal, one of those redoubtable seven champions whose 'history' has made such a noise in the world from time immemorial. Notwithstanding the mist which ignorance, superstition, and priestcraft had cast over his mind, the sturdy paisano laughed till the chapel rang again at the appearance of the Portuguese patron, and acquainted Stuart with some pleasant facts, which accounted for the military garb of the saint. By virtue of a decree in that behalf on the part of is Holiness, St. Anthony was, in 1706, formally enlisted into the Portuguese army; and in the same year received the rank of captain,—so rapid was his promotion. His image was always clad in successive uniforms, as he was hurried through the different grades, until he reached the rank of Marshal-general of the armies of Portugal and Algarve, a post which, I believe, he yet holds, with a pension of one hundred and fifty ducats per annum, which every year is punctually deposited in a splendid purse, in the Chapel Royal, by the Portuguese sovereign. Awful was the wrath, and terrible were the denunciations and holy indignation, when a cannon-ball carried off the head and cocked hat of the unfortunate image, which had been placed in an open carriage on one occasion, when commanding the Portuguese army in battle.

The image in the chapel at Roncesvalles had been placed there by the soldiers of the Condé d'Amarante's brigade, the condeé himself furnishing the saint with some of his cast uniform; but, since the departure of the Portuguese, the shrine had been totally deserted, as no true Spaniard would bend his knee to a Lusitanian saint. Such was the account given by the peasant, and it illustrates rather oddly the religious feelings of the Portuguese. After sharing together the contents of a flask of brandy, with which Ronald had learned to provide himself, they composed themselves to sleep. The peasant, who had also been shut out of Roncesvalles, drew his broad sombrero over his dusky visage, and wrapping his brown mantle around him, laid his head against the base of a column, and fell fast asleep. Those suspicions which a long intercourse with Spaniards had taught Stuart to entertain of every casual acquaintance, kept him for some time from sleep. He narrowly watched his olive-cheeked companion, and it was not until, from his hard breathing, he was sure he slept, that he too resigned himself to the drowsy deity. He awoke about sunrise, and found that his companion had departed. A sudden misgiving shot across his mind, and he sprang to the porch to look for his horse, which stood there, fair and sleek, as he left him on the preceding evening. He took him by the bridle, and advanced towards Roncesvalles.

The storm, and all traces of it, had passed away. The sky was clear and sunny, and the distant mountains mingled with its azure. The air was laden with rich perfume from little shrubs, of which I know not the name, but which flourish everywhere over the Peninsula ; and every bush and blade of grass glittered like silver with the moisture which bedewed them. The gates of Roncesvalles stood open, and passing through one of the archways, Ronald asked the first person he met whether there was an inn, cafe, taberna, or any house of entertainment, where he could procure refreshment for himself and horse, but was informed that the wretched mountain village could boast of none. The man to whom he spoke was a miserably-clad peasant, and, like most Spanish villagers, appeared to belong to no trade or profession. He was returning from the public fountain with water, which he carried on his head, in a huge brown jug. He seemed both surprised and pleased to be accosted by a British officer, and said that if the noble caballero would honour him by coming to his house, he would do his best to provide refreshment. This offer Stuart at once accepted, and placing a dollar in the hand of the aguadore, desired him to lead the way. After seeing his horse fed and watered, and after discussing breakfast, which consisted of a miserable mess of milk, peas, goat's-flesh, and roasted castanos, he mounted, and again went forth on his mission, glad to leave Roncesvalles far behind him. He expected to reach Elizondo before night; but soon found that his horse had become so jaded and worn out, that the hope was vain. The pace of the animal had become languid and slow ; his eyes had lost their fire, and his neck and ears began to droop.

That he might advance faster, Stuart was fain to lead him by the bridle up the steep and winding tracks by which his journey lay. Once only Egypt showed some signs of his former spirit. In a narrow dell between two hills, in a rugged gorge, like the bed of a departed river, an iron howitzer and a few shells lay rusting and half sunk in the earth; close by lay the skeletons of a man and a horse, adding sadly to the effect of the naked and silent wilderness around. At the sudden sight of these ghastly objects lying among the weeds and long grass, the steed snorted, shied, and then sprung away at a speed which soon left the dell, and what it contained, miles behind.

As he rode through a solitary place, Stuart was startled on perceiving a party of men, to the number of fifteen or twenty, all well armed and on horseback, rising as it seemed from the earth, or appearing suddenly above the surface successively, as spectres rise through the stage. The fellows were all gaily attired in gaudy jackets, red sashes, and high-crowned hats; but the appearance of their arms, a long Spanish gun slung over the back, a cutlass, and double brace of pistols, together with various packages of goods with which their horses were laden, gave them the aspect of a band of robbers. Stuart thought of the gang of Captain Rolando, as he saw them appearing from the bowels of the earth, within about twenty paces of where he stopped his horse. He next thought of his own safely, and had drawn forth his pistols, when one of the strangers, perceiving him, waved his hat, crying, 'Amigos, senor, amigos!' and, to put a bold face on the matter, Ronald rode straight towards him. They proved to be a party of contrabandistas, travelling to Vittona with a store of chocolate, soap, butter, cigars, etc., which they had been purchasing in France. A sort of hatchway, or trap-door, of turf was laid over the mouth of the cavern from which they arose, after which they set off at full speed for Errazu.

Ronald was very well pleased to see them depart, as contrabandistas are, at best, but indifferent characters, although few travellers are more welcome at Spanish inns, where they may generally be seen at the door, or in the yard, recounting to their laughing auditors strange tales of adventures which they had encountered in the course of their roving and romantic life; and, as they are always gaily-attired, they are generally favourites with the peasant-girls on the different roads they frequent. Their cavern, which Ronald felt a strong wish to explore, was probably some deserted mine, or one of those subterranean abodes dug by the Spaniards in the days of the Moors, and now appropriated by these land-smugglers as a place for holding their wares. Had Ronald worn any other garb than that of a British officer, the contraband gentry might, by an ounce bullet, have secured for ever his silence regarding their retreat, but they well knew that it mattered not to him: so, after an interchange of a few civilities and cigars, they rode off at a gallop, without once looking behind them.

As he proceeded on his way, the scenery became more interesting, the landscape being interspersed with all that can render it beautiful. A ruined chapel towered on a green eminence above a tufted grove, through which swept a brawling mountain torrent, spanned by a pointed arch; while a cascade appeared below, where the stream, grappling and jarring with the rocks that interrupted its course, rushed in a sheet of foam to a cleft in the earth many feet beneath. Around were groves of the olive-tree, with its soft green leaves and bright yellow flowers ; and beyond was Errazu, with its vine-covered cottages, its larger mansions of brick and plaster, with heavy-tiled roofs and broad projecting eaves, its great old monastery and its church spire, the vane of which was gleaming in the light of the setting sun. As he was travelling on duty, Stuart was entitled to billets; he therefore set about procuring one. The alcalde was at confession, and the escrivano, to whom he applied, gave him orders for a quarter in the house of a solitary widow lady, who, with her daughter, resided in a lonely house at the end of the town.

Considering their circumstances, this was the last house upon which a billet should have been given; but the escrivano had a piece of revenge to gratify. The old lady was a widow of a syndic,—a magistrate chosen by the people, like the Roman tribunes,—who, during his whole life, had been at feud with him, and the escrivano hoped that Stuart's being billeted there would give rise to some pleasant piece of scandal, for the benefit of the gossiping old maids and duennas of Errazu.

The appearance of the widow's mansion did not prepossess Ronald much in its favour. The French had not left Errazu unscathed on their retreat through it; and, like many others, the domicile of Donna Aminta della Ronda showed signs of their vindictive feeling. One half had suffered from fire, and was in ruins; but two apartments were yet habitable, and into one of these Stuart was shown by an aged and saffron-coloured female domestic, to whom he presented the billet-order, by which he was entitled to occupy the best room and best bed in the house. The chamber, which was paved with tiles, was on the ground floor; the window was glazed, but the walls were in a deplorable state of dilapidation; and many choice pieces of French wit appeared scribbled on various parts of the plaster. Among other things was a copy of verses addressed to Donna Aminta, written in rather indelicate French, and signed 'M. de Mesmai, 10th Cuirassiers, or Devil's Own,' which informed Stuart that his former acquaintance had once occupied that apartment.

Two antique chairs, high-backed and richly-carved, a massive oak table, and a brass candlestick, composed the furniture. A chamber, containing an old-fashioned bed, with crimson feathers and hangings, opened out of this apartment, with which it communicated by means of an arch, from which the French had torn the door, probably for fuel. But this snug couch did not appear destined for Stuart, as the old domestic laid a paillasse upon the tiled floor for his use ; and placing wine, cigars, and a light upon the table, laid the poker and shovel crosswise, and withdrew, leaving him to his own reflections.

He was somewhat displeased at not being received by the ladies in person, especially as the escrivano had informed him, with a sly look, that the youngest possessed considerable attractions; but consoling himself with the wine and cigars, he resolved to care not a jot about their discourtesy. After he had amused himself by thoroughly inspecting every nook and corner of the room, and grown weary of conning over the 'History of the famous Preacher, Friar Gerund de Campazas,' which he found when ransacking the bed-closet, he began to think of retiring to rest. He debated with himself for a moment which berth to take possession of, because by his billet he was entitled to the best bed the house contained; and the four-post and paillasse seemed the very antipodes of each other. But his doubts were resolved at once by the sudden entrance of the ladies, who sailed into the room with their long trains and flowing veils, and bowing, coldly bid him 'Buena noche, senor!' as they retired to their bedroom. Ye gods! a bedroom destitute of door, and a foreign official to sleep in the next room! Stuart was puzzled, dumbfoundered in fact, and his Scottish modesty was quite shocked. But, lighting another cigar, he affected to read very attentively 'Friar Gerund de Campazas,' and wondered how all this was to end; while the ladies, favoured by the gloom of the chamber, undressed and betook themselves to their couch, around which they drew the dark and massive folds of the drapery. Ronald laid down the book, and stared about him. There was something very peculiar in the affair, and it outdid the most singular Spanish stories he had ever heard related, even at the mess.

The elder lady had nothing very enchanting about her, certainly; but Ronald's keen eye had observed that the young donna had a melting black Spanish eye, a cherry lip, and white hand. He thought of these things, and glanced furtively towards the mysterious closet, where the black outline of the couch, surmounted by its plumage, seemed like that of a hearse or mausoleum. Not a sound came from it after Donna Aminta had mumbled her ave! but the trampling of heavy feet arrested Stuart's attention; the door opened, and two tall and muscular Spaniards entered. One wore a broad hat, with a sprig of romero stuck in the band of it, as a guard against evil spirits and danger. The other wore a long cap of yellow cotton. They were shirtless and shoeless, and their ragged cotton breeches and zamarra jackets displayed, through various holes, their dark and swarthy skins, giving them a wild and savage appearance, which their brown bull-like necks and ferocious visages, fringed with masses of dark hair, did not belie. As usual, each was girt about the middle by a yellow sash ; but stuck in it, each had a dagger and brace of pistols. They were beetle-browed, and most cutthroat-looking fellows. At first sight Ronald knew them to be valientes,—villains whose poniards are ever at the service of any base employer who pays well. He started up on their entering, and drew his sword an inch or so from the sheath. The fellows smiled grimly at the demonstration : upon which, he inquired sternly the reason of their intrusion, and why thus armed?

'Donna Aminta can best answer your questions,' answered one fellow with surly impudence, as they swaggered into the bedchamber. With his hand on his claymore Ronald strode towards them.

'Stand, senor cavalier!' said the one who had spoken; 'standI We seek not to quarrel with you; but life is sweet, and if we are set upon -You understand us: the good lady shall see that we are worthy of our wages. We mount guard on her chamber: cross this one,' added he, drawing one on the tiles with his poniard; ' cross this line, and, Santo demonio! we will whet our daggers on your backbone.'

Insolent as this reply was, Stuart resolved to put up with the affront rather than come to blows with two desperadoes, whose firearms gave them such advantage. He deeply regretted that he had left his loaded pistols in the holsters of the saddle; and remembering that he was alone, and among jealous strangers, he thought that a brawl would be well avoided. The bravoes seated themselves on the floor within the ladies' chamber, and remained perfectly quiet, without stirring or speaking, but their fierce dark eyes seemed to be watching the stranger keenly. Ronald retired to his paillasse, and laid his drawn dirk and claymore beside him, ready to grasp them on the least alarm. He remained watching the intruders by the light of the candle, until it flickered down in the socket and expired, leaving the place involved in deep gloom. The silence of the chamber was broken only by the real or pretended snoring of these modern Cids, who had so suddenly become the guardians of the ladies' bower. When he first committed himself to his miserable couch, Ronald had determined to lie awake; but, growing weary of listening and watching in the dark, he dropped insensibly asleep, and did not awake until the morning was far advanced. The instant sleep departed from his eyelids, the remembrance of last night flashed upon his memory. He rose and looked about him. The bravoes had withdrawn; the ladies also were gone, and the couch was tenantless. Sheathing his weapons, he drained the wine-jar; and snatching up his bonnet, he departed from the house unseen by its inmates, whom he bequeathed to the devil for their discourtesy.

Fetching his horse from the stable of the escrivano, where he had left it overnight, he again resumed his journey, feeling heartily tired of Spain, and wishing himself again at Toulouse, where his comrades were awaiting the order to embark.

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