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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 6 - Foreign Service

A MONTH or two more found Ronald with his comrades, after being landed at Lisbon, pursuing their route through Portugal to join their regiment, then campaigning in Estremadura with the division of Sir Rowland Hill.

Everywhere the ravages of the ruthless French were visible as they marched onwards. At Santarem, Punhete, Abrantes, and many other places, they viewed with surprise and pity the pale features of the starving inhabitants, the fire-blackened walls, the roofless streets or utterly-deserted villages, from which everything had been carried off or given to destruction by the French in their retreat. Ancient churches and stately convents had been turned into stables, where cavalry horses and baggage-mules chewed their wretched forage of chopped straw, and reposed on the lettered stones, beneath which slept the proud cavaliers and brave Hidalgos of old Lusitania.

When they looked on these scenes of desolation, and considered the desecration of everything, whether sacred or profane, their hearts grew sick within them, and they thought of the happy isle which they had left behind, where such horrors are unknown unknown to the mercantile citizens, who grudge so much the miserable pittance received by the poor soldier.

In their route through these places, they were welcomed by no sign of merriment, no joyful cheering, from those whom they had come to free from the iron grasp of Buonaparte; they were greeted with no welcome save the sepulchral tolling of some cathedral or chapel bell the waving of white kerchiefs or veils from the grated lattice of some convent which had escaped the ravagers, when their walls rung to the sound of the drum and war-pipe the muttered benison of some old Padre, as he viewed with surprise the bare knees, the wild and martial garb, of the men of Albyn, and the gigantic proportions of the officer who commanded them. Major Campbell was a handsome Highlander, of a most muscular make and Herculean form. His dark hair was becoming grizzled, for he was nearly fifty years of age, and his nut-brown cheek had been tanned by the sun and storm in many a varied clime. From the strength of his arm and the length of his sword (a real Andrea Ferrara, with the maker's name on the blade), he was a most uncomfortable antagonist at close quarters, as many of the French and others had found to their cost; but Campbell never drew his Andrea unless when he found himself pressed, but made use of a short oak stick, furnished with a heavy knob at the end, which he had cut in one of the wild forests of Argyleshire, and always retained and carried with him, as a relic and memorial of his native mountains.

It was towards the end of a chilly day in the spring of 1812, that the major's detachment halted in the ancient city of Albuquerque, where they spent their first night in Spain. This old frontier town is situated in the slope of the Sierra de Montanches, a ridge of mountains in Estremadura. By a miracle, or little short of it, it had escaped better than other places the ravages of the French, who had left the roofs on all the houses, which were, however, gutted of everything of value. In general the outrages of Napoleon's troops were less flagrant in Spain than in Portugal, from a wish to conciliate the former, and render them, as of old, friends and allies. Owing to the eminence on which the city is situated, its streets are much cleaner than those of Spanish towns generally, where the thoroughfares are cleared of the mud and filth that encumber them by the rain, which in Albuquerque, when it falls heavily, sweeps everything down the causewayed slopes to the bed of the Guadiana, which flows past the foot of the city. An ancient castle, as old probably as the days of Roderick, ' the last of the Goths,' stands upon the summit of a rock above the town ; and around its base are the streets, ill-paved, dark, and narrow, well-fitted for Spanish deeds of assassination and robbery. By an order from the alcalde, the Highlanders were billeted upon different houses, and Ronald Stuart and Major Campbell were both quartered in the same mansion, the patron of which, Senor Narvaez Cifuentes (as he styled himself), kept a shop for retailing the country wine. Many goodly pigskins filled with it were ranged upon the rickety shelves of his store, from the ruinous rafters of which hung some thousands of tempting bunches of dried grapes, and many of these fell kindly down at Campbell's feet when the old house shook with his heavy tread.

The patron, in appearance, was not quite what one should wish a host to be, especially in a strange country. His stature was low, his face was so swarthy as to resemble that of a negro in darkness; his moustaches were thick, fierce, and black, mingling with the matted hair of his huge bullet-head. He wore a long stiletto (openly) in the yellow worsted sash which encircled his waist, and the haft of a knife appeared within the breast of his doublet, or sort of vest with sleeves, which was, like the rest of his attire, in a very dilapidated condition; and, altogether, the Senor Narvaez Cifuentes displayed more of the bravo or bandit than the saint in his appearance.

He was, nevertheless, a rattling jolly sort of fellow, especially for a Spaniard; he sung songs and staves without number to entertain his guests, who scarcely comprehended a word of them; and to show his loyalty, emptied many a horn to the health of Ferdinand VII., to the freedom of Spain, and to the eternal confusion of the French, compelling, with rough and unceremonious hospitality, Stuart and the major to do so likewise, until they had well-nigh each imbibed the contents of a pigskin, the common vessel for containing wine in Spain, where neither bottles nor flasks are used, but the simple invention of a pigskin, sewn up with the hair inside, which, when full, looks not unlike the bag of the Scottish piper, from its black, bloated, and greasy appearance.

Almost reeling with the effects of their potations, they were shown by the patron to their chamber, where their bedding consisted only of a blanket and mattress.

'What the mischief is the meaning of this, Senor Patron, Mr. Narvaez, or what is your title?' stammered the major, holding the flickering candle over the miserable couch; ''tis all over blood. What does it mean? We soldados are not so fond of slaughter as to relish a bed of this sort.' This strange exclamation recalled Ronald's wandering senses, and on surveying their humble pallet, he beheld it stained with blood, which, though hard and dry, appeared to have been recently shed, and in no small quantity.

'Campbell, here has been some foul work,' said he, instinctively laying his hand on his basket-hilt. 'Make the fellow explain.'

'Holloa, Mr. Cifuentes; tell us all about it, or I'll beat the pipeclay out of your tattered doublet, and that without parley,' vociferated the inebriated major, flourishing his short cudgel over the head of their host.

'Dios mio, senors! Ha! ha! what a noise you make about a few red spots; 'tis French Malaga,' replied the other, laughing heartily, as if something tickled his fancy exceedingly. 'But I will tell you the tale as it happened, as you appear so anxious about it. The last time the French were in Albuquerque, I had four of their officers billeted upon me by our dog of an alcalde. They were merry and handsome young sparks of the chasseurs, and I plied them well with the contents of half-a-dozen pigskins, until they could scarcely stand, and then led them here for their repose ; and they all four slept upon this very pallet. In the night-time I and two other comrades, guerillas of Don Salvador de Zagala's band, stole softly in upon them, and plunged our stilettos into their hearts; they died easily, being overcome with wine and the fatigue of a long march, and our strokes were deadly and sure. Carrying off all their chattels, we hid for some days in the forest of Albuquerque until the enemy had retired, when I returned, and was surprised to find my caza but little the worse. The carrion, which we had tossed into the street in our flight, had been carried away, and buried by Dombrouski's corps with military honours.

'So now, senors, you see I am a true patriot, a loyal Spaniard, and that you have nothing to suspect me for. All Albuquerque knows the story of the four chasseurs, and praises me for the deed. I will turn up the mattress to hide the marks, and you will repose in all comfort upon it. As all this was related in Spanish, but little of it was understood by Ronald, who, however, comprehended enough to make him regard with detestation and horror the man who coolly confessed that he had slain four helpless fellow-beings in cold blood, and exulted in the narration of the deed with the feeling of one who had acted a most meritorious part. The satisfaction of the patriotic patron seemed considerably damped by the expression which he saw depicted in the features of his hearers.

'I do not believe you: this cannot be true,' said they, at one and the same time.

'Madre de Dios! I call the mother of God to witness that it is. Why, senor, the men were only Frenchmen, and you would have taken their lives yourselves.'

'In the open field, when equally armed; but we should not have stolen upon them in the night, and butchered them in their sleep, as you say you did. And you shall die for it, you base Spanish dog!' cried Ronald furiously, as he unsheathed his sword.

'Hold, Stuart, my lad!' cried the major, who was perfectly sobered by this time; 'it is beneath a soldier and gentleman to draw on so vile a scoundrel as this: I will deal with him otherwise. Look ye, Senor Narvaez,' said Campbell, turning to the Spaniard, who had started back at the sight of Ronald's glittering blade, and eyed them both with a savage scowl, while his hand grasped the hilt of his poniard, ' you had better betake yourself again to your friends in the forest of Albuquerque, and get clear of the city by morning, or I may have interest enough with the corregidor or alcalde to have you hanged like a scarecrow by the neck. So retire now, fellow, at once, and leave us.'

'Demonios/' cried he, grinding his teeth; 'am I not master of my own house? Carajo, senor------'The rest was cut short by the summary mode of ejectment put in force by the major. Seizing him by the throat, he dragged him to the door, and in spite of all his struggles, for the Spaniard, though a stout ruffian, was not a match for the gigantic Highlander, hurled him to the lower landing-place of the old wooden stair, and tossing the mattress after him, shut and bolted the door.

'I can scarcely believe the tale to be true which this fellow has told us,' observed Ronald, as they composed themselves to rest upon the hard boards, with no other covering than their gay regimentals.

'I entertain no doubt of its truth. He called to witness one whom a Spaniard names only on most solemn occasions. But we must seek some sleep: 'tis two in the morning by my watch, and we march in three hours. The boards are confoundedly hard, and I am too sleepy to prick for a soft place. Diavolo! what a time we have wasted with that tattered vagabond! But good-night, Stuart: we will talk this matter over on the march to-morrow.'

Campbell stretched his bulky form on the boards, with his cudgel and long claymore beside him, and turning his face to the wall was soon in a deep slumber, as a certain noise proceeding from his nostrils indicated. But it was not so with the younger soldier, who courted in vain the influence of the drowsy god whose power had overwhelmed the senses of his comrade.

The fumes of the unusual quantity of wine which he had taken were mounting into Ronald's head, and he lay watching the pale light of the stars through the latticed windows. Frightful faces, which he traced in the stains on the discoloured wall, seemed to peer through the gloom upon him, and every rumbling sound that echoed through the old mansion caused him to start, grip his sword, and look about, for the vivid idea of the poor chasseurs, who had been assassinated in that very chamber, haunted him continually, causing him to shudder. When he thought, also, that he had spent the night in carousal with a murderous bravo, he resolved to be more circumspect in what company he would trust his person, in future, while in Spain.

From a sleep into which he had sunk, he was soon awakened by the warning pipe for the march, which passed close beneath the window, and then grew fainter in sound as Macdonuil-dhu strode on, arousing his comrades from their billets, and the wild notes died away in the dark and narrow streets of the city. The major sprang up at the well-known sound ; and Ronald, although wearied and unrefreshed, prepared
to follow him.

'Confound this fashion of Lord Wellington's! this marching always an hour before daybreak,' muttered Campbell. ' The morning is so chilly and cold, that my very teeth chatter, and the devil! my canteen is empty,' he added, shaking the little wooden barrel which went by that name, and one of which every officer and soldier on service carried slung in a shoulder-belt. 'If you have nought in yours, Stuart, we must leave the house of the honourable Senor Narvaez Cifuentes without our doch-an-d/ioris, as we say at home in poor old Scotland, where men may sleep quietly at night, without fear of getting a dirk put into their wame. Shake your canteen, my boy! Is there a shot in the locker?'

Luckily for the thirsty commander, Ronald's last day's allowance of ration rum was untouched, and they now quaffed it between them to the regimental toast, 'Here's to the Highlandmen, shoulder to shoulder!' a sentiment well known among the Scottish mountaineers as a true military toast.

They now proceeded downstairs, where they found their patron seated in his wine-store, surrounded by the well-filled skins; he sat beside a rickety old table, on which he leaned with the clumsy and careless air that so well became his appearance; his chin rested on his hand, and his tangled black hair fell over his face, but from between the locks he eyed them with a gaze of intense ferocity as they entered. Campbell sternly shook his stick over his head, and tossing towards him a few reals for their last night's entertainment, passed with Ronald into the street, where the soldiers were under arms.

On leaving behind the town of Albuquerque, the sound of distant firing in front warned them of their nearer approach to the p!ace of their destination, and the scene of actual hostilities. As they advanced, the sharp but scattered reports of musketry, and now and then the deeper boom of a field-piece, came floating towards them on the breeze which swept along the level places; but an eminence, upon which the ancient castle of Zagala is situated, obstructed their view of the hostile operations, and they pressed eagerly forward to gain the height, full of excitement and glee.

'Welcome to Spain!' cried an officer of the 13th Light Dragoons, who came galloping up from the rear, and reined in his jaded charger by the side of the marching Highlanders for a few minutes. 'There is brave sport going on in front; press forward, my boys, and you may be in at the death, as we used to say at home in old Kent.'

'What is going on in advance? asked the major. 'Are ours engaged?'

'I have little doubt that they are: Cameron never lags behind, you know. I was left in the rear at Albuquerque on duty, and am now hurrying forward to join the 13th, who belong to Long's cavalry brigade. They are now driving a party of plundering French out of La Nava; you will have a view of the whole affair when you gain the top of the hill. But I must not delay here: adieu!' and dashing the spurs into his horse, he disappeared behind the ruinous castle.

'Forward, men! double quick. Let us gain the head of the brae,' cried Campbell, urging forward with cudgel and spur a miserable Rosinante, which he had procured at Lisbon.

Carrying their muskets at the long trail, the Highlanders advanced with that quick trot so habitual to the Scottish mountaineers, which soon brought them beneath the grass-grown battlements and mouldering towers of Zagala, from the eminence of which they now had an extensive view to the southward.

The horizon extended to about six or eight leagues, and all within that ample circle was waste and barren land, where the plough had been unknown for an age, and where nought seemed to flourish but weeds and little laurel-bushes. There was no trace of habitation around the plain, but far off appeared the deserted village of La Nava, near a leafless cork-wood, the bare boughs presenting but a poor background to roofless walls and solitary rafters. There was something chilling in so dreary a prospect, but most of the plains in the same province present a similar aspect, because in no part of Spain is agriculture more neglected than in Estremadura. It was early in the spring of the year, and traces of vegetation were becoming visible ; the wood near La Nava was, as I have said, bare and leafless, but a few stunted shrubs by the wayside gave signs of budding. The ruddy sun was setting in the west behind the lofty Sierra de Montanches, the dark ridges of which rose behind the high city and castled rock of Albuquerque: the sky in every direction was of a clear cold blue, save around the sun, where large masses of gold and purple clouds seemed resting on the curved outline of the mountains, over which and through every opening the rays fell aslant, and were reflected by the arms of the troops who occupied the level plain, over which shone the long line of its setting splendour. From the height of Zagala they beheld the operations in front.

A party of five hundred French infantry were rapidly retreating towards the cork-wood, exposed to the continual fire of two twelve-pound field-pieces and the charges of the cavalry brigade under General Long, who took every opportunity of breaking among the little band through the gaps formed by the cannon-shot, which made complete lanes through their compact mass. The French retired with admirable coolness and bravery, keeping up a hot and rapid fire from four sides on the cavalry, who often charged them at full speed, brandishing their sabres, but were forced to recoil; and no sooner was a gap made in the face of a solid square by the fall of a file, than it was instantly filled by another. And thus leaving behind them a line of killed and wounded, they continued their retreat towards Merida, where their main body lay, disputing every foot of ground with desperate courage until they reached the cork-wood, which being unfavourable for the movements of the cavalry, the latter were obliged to retire with considerable loss.

'Hurrah!' cried Campbell, flourishing his stick; 'I have not seen this sort of work for this year and more. You see, Stuart, that a solid square of bold infantry may laugh at a charge of horse, who must recoil from their bayonets like water from a rock. There are the 9th and 13th Light Dragoons, and the fire of the French seems to have cooled their chivalry a little, and shown them that a sabre is as nothing against brown Bess, with a bayonet on her muzzle.' They are retiring towards us, after doing, however, all that brave hearts could do. Poor fellows ! many of them are lying rolling about wounded and in agony, or already dead, near the skirts of that confounded copse by which the frog-eaters have escaped. But where are ours ? I do not see Howard's brigade.'

'Yonder they are, major,' replied Ronald, 'halted on the level place behind the ruined village. I see the bonnets of the Highlanders, and the colours.'

'Ay, I see them now. Yonder they are, sure enough; and the old Half-hundred, and the 71st, the light bobs, with the tartan trews and hummel bonnets, all as spruce as ever, bivouacked comfortably on the bare earth as of old. We shall have the pleasure of passing the night without even a tent to keep the dew off us. Carajo! as the Spaniard says; you will now taste the delights of soldiering in good earnest, as I did in Egypt with old Sir Ralph Abercrombie.'

'We are seen by them. I hear the sound of the pipes, and they are waving their bonnets in welcome,' said Alister Macdonald.

'Blow up your bags, Macdonuil-dhu, and let them hear the bray of the drones,' cried Campbell, whacking the sides of his nag to urge her onward. ' Push forward, brave lads! we will be with Fassifern and our comrades in a few minutes more.'

Skirting the miserable village of La Nava, they soon arrived at the ground over which the advanced picquet of the enemy had retired. Two dead bodies attracted the eye of Ronald as he passed over them, and being the first men he had ever seen slain, and in so revolting a manner, they made an impression on his mind which was not easily effaced. They were young and good-looking men, and the same cannon-shot had mowed them both down. A complete hole was made in the body of one, and his entrails were scattered about; the legs of the other were carried away, and lay a few yards off, with a ball near them half buried in the turf. Their grenadier caps, each adorned with a brass eagle and red plume, had fallen off, and the frightful distortion of their livid features, with the wild glare of their white and glassy eyes, struck Ronald with a feeling of horror and compassion, which it was long ere he could forget. 'Queer work this!' said the major, coolly looking at them over his horse's flank, ' and you don't seem to admire it much, Stuart; but you are a young soldier yet, and will get used to it by-and-by. Nothing hardens either the heart or the hide so much as a campaign or two. I learned that in Egypt.'

'Puir callants! what would their mothers think, were they to see their bairns as they lie here noo?' soliloquized Evan, looking after them ruefully.

'It would be an awfu' sicht for them, or ony o' the peaceable folk at hame,' replied another soldier. 'But what can these twa queer chields wi' the muckle brimmed hats be wanting wi' them?'

'The Spanish dogs! Would to heaven I might be allowed to shoot them dead,' vociferated Campbell, making a motion with his hand towards the bear-skin covering of his holsters. 'The scoundrels! they are come to rob and strip the dead.'

Two Spanish peasants had approached the bodies, about which they exercised their hands so busily, that they soon plundered them of knapsacks, accoutrements, uniform, and everything, leaving the mutilated bodies stripped to the skin and exposed on the plain, while they made off towards La Nava with their spoil. A few minutes' more marching brought the major's detachment to the spot where the brigade of General Howard was halted on a piece of waste moorland, where the three corps had piled their arms, and were making such preparations for bivouacking for the night as could be made by men who had neither tent to cover them, nor couch to repose on but the bare and cold earth.

No tents at that time, or for long afterwards, were served out by the British Government to our troops in Spain, and their privations and misery were of course greatly increased by the want of proper means of encamping. The men were lying about in all directions, worn out and exhausted with the load they had carried and the fatigue of a long march ; and the officers were reposing among them without ceremony. Apart from them all, on the right of the line, Colonel Cameron, of Fassifern, stood holding his caparisoned horse by the bridle, as was his usual custom, aloof alike from his officers and soldiers. He was a proud and strict commander, who kept the former 'at the staffs end,' as the military saying is, behaving to them in a manner at once haughty, cold, and distant ; and yet withal he was a good officer, a brave soldier, and beloved by his regiment, which would have stood by him to the last man. He was a well-made figure, above the middle height ; his features were handsome, and his hair was fair and curly. There was ever a proud and fiery sort of light in his dark blue eyes, which, when he was excited, were wont to sparkle and flash with a peculiar brilliancy an expression which never failed to produce its due effect upon beholders. To him the major reported his arrival, and introduced the officers one by one.

He eyed Ronald Stuart, of whom he had heard previously, with a keen Highland glance, and asked some questions about his family and his father.

'I have often heard of the Stuarts of Lochisla,' said he, 'but have never had the pleasure of seeing one till now. Sir John Stuart, of the Tower, saved the life and honour of my grandfather Lochiel, at the risk of his own, on the bloody field of Culloden. I am happy to have the descendant of so brave a man an officer of the Gordon Highlanders.'

'Ensign Macdonald, colonel,' said the major, presenting Alister.

'Macdonald? Ah!' said Cameron, bowing, 'your family is not unknown to me. I have had letters from Glengarry, and all the Macdonalds of the Isles, respecting you;' and thus he went on, as there was scarcely an officer introduced to him whose family was not well known in the North. After some little conversation, Ronald withdrew to where the officers were grouped around the bulky figure of Campbell, asking a hundred questions about the news from home, etc.

There was scarcely an officer or private of the new-comers but was met and greeted by some kinsman or old friend, whose canteen or ration rum, or Lisbon wine, was at his service; and loud were the shouts of laughter and merriment that arose on all sides. Eager and earnest were the inquiries about village homes and paternal hearths in 'the land of the mountain and the flood,' and to many a Jean, Jessy, and Tibby, were the wooden canteens drained to their dregs; but although the fun 'grew fast and furious' amongst many, there were some whose hearts grew sad at the intelligence which their comrades brought, of some gray head, which they loved and revered, being laid in the dust in some old and well-remembered kirk-yard; or of a faithless Jenny, who preferred a lover at home to one far away in Spain.

As the shades of night darkened over the plain of La Nava, the sounds died away; and stretching their bare legs on the dewy earth, the hardy Highlanders reposed between the pyramids of firelocks and bayonets that glittered in the red glare of the watch-fires, lighted at certain distances throughout the bivouac, which became quiet for the night, after strong picquets had been posted in the direction of Merida, where fifteen hundred French, under the command of General Dombrouski (a Pole in Buonaparte's service), were quartered. Rolled up in a cloak and blanket, Ronald laid himself down like the rest, with the basket-hilt of his claymore for a pillow, and clay for his bed; but to sleep in a situation so new and uncomfortable was almost impossible, and he often raised his head to view the strange scene around him.

The ruddy blaze of the fires was cast upon the worn uniform, faded tartan, and sun-burnt knees and faces of the soldiers, giving a strong light and shade, which increased the picturesque and romantic appearance of the bivouac. The arms of the sentries flashed in the light, as they paced slowly to and fro on their posts; and farther off were seen the motionless forms of the cavalry videttes appearing like black equestrian statues in the distance, standing perfectly still, with their long dark cloaks flowing over their horses' flanks; but as the night grew darker, and the light of the watch-fires waned, these distant objects could be no longer discerned.

The bright stars were twinkling in the dark blue sky, and among them a red planet in the west (the Tonthena of Ossian) which Ronald used to watch for hours at midnight from the battlements of the tower at Lochisla, while listening to the ancient tales of war or woe related by Donald Iverach.

He thought sadly of his home, and of poor Alice Lisle. He gazed upon her miniature until the flickering light of the fire failed him, and then dropped into an uneasy slumber, from which he was startled more than once by the deep howling of wild dogs, or other animals, from that part of the plain where the dead bodies of the slain lay uninterred.

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