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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 55 - The 17th June, 1815

'That is Quatre Bras,' said the surgeon, pointing to a little village close at hand. 'The Highlanders are in bivouac behind it;' and, adding that his services were now required in another direction, the military Esculapius rode off, while Ronald walked hastily forward to the village.

On nearing the spot where the regiment was in position, a strange-looking little hut, composed of turf and the boughs of trees, apparently hastily reared up by the wayside, attracted his attention. Curiosity prompted him to enter this wigwam by pushing open the door, which consisted of nothing more than a large oaken branch, torn from the neighbouring forest. An officer clad in a blue surtout, white pantaloons, Hessian boots tasselled and spurred, and wearing around his neck a white cravat or neckcloth, started up from the examination of a large map of Flanders, over which he had been bending, and raising his cocked hat, bent his keen bright eye on the intruder with a stern and inquiring expression of anger and surprise. To use a Scotticism—Stuart was dumb-foundered to find that he had interrupted the cogitations and anxious deliberations of Wellington.

He muttered something—he knew not what—by way of apology, and withdrew as abruptly as he had entered, with the unpleasant consciousness that he must have looked very foolish.

On gaining the rear of the village, and approaching the Highlanders, he found them forming under arms, while the pipers, strutting to and fro on the highway, made all Quatre Bras and the Bois de Bossu ring to the ' gathering of the Gordons.' The regiment was formed in line behind a thick garden hedge, favoured by which he was enabled to advance close upon them unseen; and the astonishment of the officers and soldiers may be imagined when, by leaping over the barrier, he appeared suddenly among them. A half-stifled exclamation ran along the line, and there was a pause in the ceremonious formation of the parade.

The officers clustered round him, and many of the soldiers, pressing in with a forwardness which was easily forgiven, greeted him in their 'hamely Scots tongue,' but with an affection, joy, and earnestness which he never forgot. Campbell, who now commanded the regiment, leaped from his horse, and with his ample hand grasped Stuart's so tightly as to give him some pain. One seldom shakes the hand of such a Celtic giant.

'Well, Ronald, my lad! this is astonishing—almost beyond belief. Do we look upon you, or your wraith?'

'Myself, major, myself, I hope—sound, wind and limb,' answered Stuart, laughing.

'I thought wraiths were not in fashion, in this flat country at least. Faith! this has quite the air of a romance, with the accompaniments of astonishment, mystery, and all that sort of thing. Did you come down from the clouds, or spring out of the earth like a Shetland dwarf?'

'Queer modes, both, of joining a regiment. No, major; I just leaped the hedge, unromantically enough. But, how d'ye do, Chisholm? How are you, Macildhui? Ah! Douglas, my boy! and Lisle! Dear Louis, how much I have to ask and to tell! Your hand.'

And thus he greeted them all in succession, from the pot-bellied field-officer to the slender ensign, raw from the college or nursery. A truly national shaking of hands ensued, and such, I may safely assert, as Quatre Bras had never witnessed before. Then came the light company, with their humble but hearty wishes of joy; and the whole regiment, giving martial discipline to the winds, cheered and waved their bonnets, while the pipers blew as if their lives depended on it, until Wellington, confounded by the uproar which had so suddenly broken forth in his immediate vicinity, was seen looking from his wigwam in no pleasant mood; but not even the appearance of that portentous white cravat,—the glories of which are still sung by the Spanish muleteer, the Flemish boatman, and the Portuguese gipsy,—could still the clamour.

Although Ronald's letters written from London had informed his military friends of his existence and safe arrival in England, they were by no means prepared for his sudden appearance among them in Flanders, and he had to endure a thick cross-fire of questions and eager inquiries, which at that moment there was not time to answer; but he promised the rehearsal of his story at full length on the first opportunity, and for the present considerably repressed their joy by announcing the death of Cameron, and of his follower, poor old Dugald, who had been a man of no small dignity and importance among those who filled the ranks of the Gordon Highlanders.

The troops had been ordered to fall back upon the position of Waterloo, which was next day to be the scene of that 'king-making victory,'—the most important ever fought and won in Europe, and one which has fixed for ever the fame of the great duke and the British army.

When the bustle created by his arrival had a little subsided, Ronald requested a few words apart with Louis; but before he could speak, the voice of Campbell was heard in command.

'Fall in, gentlemen; fall in!' ' Alice?' whispered Stuart.

'She is well and happy, Ronald; and never once has her love wandered from you,' said Louis, pressing his hand.

The bugle sounded, and they separated to join 'their respective companies; and the next moment the adjutant was flying along the line at full gallop, to collect the reports. Then, riding up to Campbell, he lowered the point of his sword, and, acquainting him with the casualties, returned to his post in the line, while the regiment broke into open column of sections with the right in front; and the pioneers, with their saws, axes, etc., and their leather aprons strapped to their bare knees, went off double-quick in advance. 'Quick march!' was now the order repeated by a hundred commanding officers, varying in cadence and distance The trumpet brayed, the cymbal clashed, the drum rebounded, the war-pipe yelled forth its notes of defiance and pride, and the whole army was in motion en route for Waterloo.

By the suddenness of the order to 'fall in,' Stuart lost an opportunity (which never again occurred) of learning from Louis,—that of which he was still ignorant,—the wreck of his father's affairs and his emigration to a strange country.

Gloom and doubt were apparent in the faces of both officers and privates, as the army began its march to the rear, upon Waterloo Anything like retreating is so unusual to British troops, that a chili seemed to have fallen on every heart as they moved from Ouatre Bras before which the third and fifth divisions were left to cover the rear —or at least to deceive Napoleon, by remaining in sight till the artillery and the main body of the army were far on the Waterloo road. As Lord Wellington had foreseen, Napoleon was long kept in ignorance of our retreat by this measure; but as soon as he perceived it; he despatched immense bodies of cavalry to press and harass the rear-guard On looking back just before the Bois de Soignies began to throw its foliage over the line of march, Stuart saw several dashing charges made by the British heavy dragoons, who rode right through and through the massive columns of the enemy, breaking their order, sabring them in hundreds and compelling the rest to recoil, and repress the fierce feeling of triumph with which they beheld the British army retreating before them. Scarcely a shot was fired, as the carbines and pistols were rarely resorted to. The conflicts were all maintained with the sword and some thousand blades were seen flashing at once in the light of the sun, as they were whirled aloft like gleams of lightning, and descended like flashes of fire on the polished helmets of the French, and on the tall and varied caps of the British cavalry.

During the greater part of this march, Ronald moved with a group of the officers about him, listening to that which he was heartily tired of relating,—'a full, true, and particular history' of his detention among the Spaniards, his release, and his restoration to the regiment. The men of the neighbouring sections, who were all listening attentively with eager ears circulated the story through the ranks with various additions and alterations, to suit that taste for the marvellous and wonderful which exists so much among soldiers - Highlanders especially; so that by the time it had travelled along the line of march, from the mouths of the light company to the grenadiers at the head of the column, Ronald's narrative might have vied with that true history, the ' Life of Prince Arthur,' 'Jack the Giant Queller,' or any other hero of ancient times.

'Well, Stuart, my man!' said Campbell, riding up to Ronald; 'I am happy to see you again at the head of the light bobs.'

'I thank you, major; but truly none can rejoice more than myself,' answered Ronald. 'Faith! a century seems to have elapsed since I saw the old colours with the silver thistles and the sphinxes,—your favourite badge, major, waving above the blue bonnets. There was a time when I thought never to have beheld them again.'

'When you so narrowly escaped hanging by those rascally thieves, I suppose? Don Alvaro gave you ample reparation, as far as he could do, by drawing fifty human necks, like the thraws of so many muir-hens. A fine fellow, that Alvaro! only rather lank and sombre in visage. Faith! I shall never forget the supper his pretty sister gave us the first night we halted at Merida. Every dish had garlic, olive oil, and onions in it!'

'Hooch, deevils and warlocks!' said Sergeant Macrone, grasping the truncheon of his pike. 'Och! had I peen there peside you, sir, whan thae reiver loons spake o' a tow to you, many a sair croon wad hae peen among them!'

'I'm much obliged to you, Macrone; but, with a dozen of our blue bonnets, I would soon have made a clear house of them.'

'Oich!' continued the sergeant, growing eloquent in his indignation, 'it wad had peen a fera tammed unpleasant thing to pe hanget, especially an officer and shentleman. But wad the reivers no hae shot yer honour, kindly and discreetly, just if ye had asked them as a favour, ye ken?'

'I never thought of that, Macrone,' replied Ronald, laughing heartily; 'both modes were equally unpleasant, though not equally honourable.'

'Poor Cameron! and so we have lost him at last,' observed Campbell, in a half-musing tone, while his eyes glistened. 'I often look at the head of the column, and half imagine I see him riding along there, on his tall black horse, as of old; his figure erect and stately, and his long-feathers drooping down on his right shoulder. Many a day I have watched him with pleasure, as he led the line of march over the long plains of Spain, when we have been moving from sunrise to sunset, on the tall spire of some distant city. I shall obtain the command, but He who reads the human heart knows that I would rather have remained always major, that Cameron might have lived.'

'Brave Fassifern! we were always proud of him, but more so now than ever,' said Stuart, and his eyes glittered with enthusiasm while he spoke. ''Tis but two hours since I beheld him expire in Waterloo yonder.'

'That d-----d old house near Quatre Bras!' exclaimed Campbell; 'I am sorry we left one stone of it standing on another. Poor Fassifern fell at the head of the grenadiers, while assaulting it in front. I carried it in rear, beating down the back door with my own hand, and scarcely a man was left alive in it. Our men fought like furies after the colonel fell. Ay,' he continued emphatically, 'John Cameron was a true Highland gentleman, and possessed the heart of a hero.'

'Oich!' muttered Macrone, 'he was a pretty man, and a prave man, and nefer flinched in ta front o' the enemy.'

'And never did one of his name, Duncan,' whispered a comrade, in Gaelic. ' I myself am a Cameron-----'

'Ha, major! what is that?' asked Ronald, as something like a distant discharge of artillery sounded through the hot and still atmosphere. 'Can the Prussians be at it again?'

'We shall hear no more of the Prussians, after what befell them at Ligny yesterday. 'Tis said that they have lost twenty thousand men; and old Blucher himself narrowly escaped being trodden to death by the French cavalry charging over him, as he lay unhorsed and wounded on the ground. They repassed him in retreat, but the old fox lay close. There is the sound again!'

'What the devil can it be?' said an officer.

'The French flying artillery must have come up with our rear guard!'

'No, no, Ronald; look at the sky, man! We shall have a tremendous storm in five minutes.'

While he spoke, the sky, which had been bright and sunny, became suddenly darkened by masses of murky clouds the flying shadows of which were seen moving over the wide cornfields and green woodlands. Scudding and gathering, these gloomy precursors of a storm came hurrying across the sky, until they closed over every part of it, obscuring' the face of heaven, and rendering the earth dark as when viewed by the gray light of a winter day at three o'clock, and the spirits of the retreating soldiers became more saddened and depressed as the black shadows of the forest of Soignies deepened around them. Red, blue, and yellow streaks of lightning, vivid and hot, flashed across the whole sky, lighting it up like a fiery dome from the eastern to the western horizon, and the stunning peels of thunder roared every instant as if to rend the world asunder. Rain and hail descended in torrents, while the tempests of wind, which arose in angry gusts, tore through the forest of Soignies like the spirit of destruction, scattering leaves, branches, trees, and the affrighted birds in every direction. Oh! the miseries of the 17th of June! The oldest soldiers in the army declared that the storm of that day surpassed anything they ever suffered or beheld.

The whole army, from the front to the rear-guard, were drenched to the skin. The roads, in some places, were flooded with water, till they looked like winding canals, with their surface broken into countless wrinkles by the splashing rain ; in other places the mud was so deep, that the soldiers, loaded with their heavy accoutrements, sank above the ankles at every step, and the weight of the thick clay which adhered to their feet added greatly to their misery. Hundreds of those in the Highland regiments lost their shoes on withdrawing their feet from the soil, and as no time was given to take others from their knapsacks, if they had any there, they were obliged to tread out the rest of the march in their red-striped hose. Many of the officers wore their thin-soled dress boots, their white kid gloves, etc., having been suddenly summoned to the field from the gaiety of the ball at Brussels, and some were almost barefooted before the order was given to halt. Their boots, of French kid, wore away like brown paper in the mud and rain.

Without tents or any covering, save their great-coats or cloaks, the troops passed the miserable night of the 17th June in bivouac, exposed, unsheltered, to all the fury of the storm, which lasted until eight o'clock next morning. For nearly four-and-twenty hours the wind had blown and the rain fallen without intermission. Though their spirits were considerably depressed, the officers and their soldiers bore all with that perfect patience and endurance which the British army possesses in a greater degree than any other in Europe. They can bear stoically alike the fury of the elements and the exasperating insults of a petulant mob. Not a murmur of discontent was heard that night in the British bivouac ; no man repined, as the utmost confidence and reliance were placed in the great leader, under whom, on the morrow, they were to engage in such a struggle as the world has rarely witnessed.

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