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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 7 - Merida

Towards morning a storm of rain and wind arose, and none but those who have experienced it can imagine the manifold miseries of a tentless bivouac on such an occasion. Howling dismally among the trees of the cork-wood, the cold wind swept over the desert plain, and the sleety rain descended in torrents, drenching the unsheltered soldiers to the skin, and extinguishing their fires; as the cold increased towards daybreak, they cursed the order which had halted them in so exposed and dreary a spot, to which even the cork-wood or ruins of La Nava would have been preferable.

It became fair about daybreak, and Ronald, unable to remain longer on the ground, where the water was actually forming in puddles around him, arose; and so wet was the soil, that the impression made by the weight of his body was almost immediately filled with water. His limbs were so benumbed and stiff, that he could scarcely move, and his clothing was drenched through the blanket and cloak in which he had been muffled up. The soldiers, worn out with the fatigues of the preceding day, lay still until the last moment for rest, and slept in ranks close together for warmth, with their muskets under their great-coats, and their knapsacks beneath their heads for pillows. Here and there, apart from the rest, one might be seen with his miserable wife and two or three little children huddled close beside him, all nestling under the solitary blanket (provided by Government for each man), from which the steam arose in a column, owing to the heat of their bodies acting on the rain-soaked covering. The distant sentinels and cavalry videttes were standing motionless and silent at intervals along the plain, where banks of white mist were rolling slowly in the yellow lustre of the morning sun, the rising light of which was gilding the summits of the mountains above Albuquerque. All was misery and unutterable discomfort. Ronald wrung the water from the feathers of his bonnet, and kept himself in motion to dry his regimentals and underclothing, which stuck close to his skin. He now perceived that, in addition to his blanket, Evan had, during the storm, cast over him his own great-coat, standing out the misery of the night in his thin uniform. When he met Ronald's eye, he was shivering with cold, exhaustion, and want of sleep.

'Oh, Evan! my faithful but foolish fellow, what is this you have done? Did you really strip yourself for me, and pass the night thus exposed?' exclaimed Ronald, his heart overflowing with tumultuous feelings at the kindness of his humble follower and old friend.

'I thocht ye would be cauld, sir,' replied Evan, his teeth chattering while he spoke, 'and my heart bled to see ye lying there like a beast o' the field on the dreary muir, in siccan a miserable and eerie nicht. For me it mattered naething for neither my name nor bluid are gentle. I'm the son of your faither's vassal; and, Maister Ronald, I did but my duty what my puir auld faither would hae wished me to do.'

'See that you never again subject yourself to such a privation on my account: and Heaven knows, Evan, I will not forget your kindness,' said Ronald, laying his hand familiarly on the tufted wing which adorned Iverach's shoulder. ' ou appear to be perishing with cold, and my canteen is empty. See if your comrade, Angus Mackie, or anyone, will give you a drop of something to warm you. Where is the colonel? I do not see him.'

'Lying yonder, on the bieldy side of his horse.'

'And Mr. Macdonald------'

'Is sleeping by the bieldy side of the major, and a burn of water rinnin round them. Och, sirs! it's awfu' wark this for gentlemen's sons.'

'Rouse, Alister,' said Ronald, stirring him with his sword; ' we shall get under arms immediately. I see, through the mist yonder, that Howard is preparing to mount.' He shaded the rays of the sun from his eyes with his hand, and perceived at some distance the brigadier, with his tall cocked-hat and large military cloak, examining the girths of his saddle and the holsters, while he despatched the brigade-major to the officers commanding regiments. The long roll of several drums, sounding dull and muffled with the rain, immediately followed, rousing the bivouac; and the troops 'stood to their arms,' preparatory to moving off, all draggled and wet, and with empty stomachs, in the direction of the enemy, who were to be driven from Merida at the point of the bayonet.

The women and camp-followers were sent off to the rear, where the baggage-mules were halted on the La Nava road ; the wet cloaks and blankets were rolled up for the march, the officers slinging theirs in their sashes of crimson silk, while those of the soldiers were strapped to their knapsacks.

'Uncase the colours, gentlemen. Examine your flints,' cried Cameron, touching his bonnet to the officers, as he rode along the front of the line.

In a few minutes the troops moved off in close column, with the light cavalry on their flanks; and making a circuit about the plain, advanced upon Merida, skirting the cork-wood through which the French had retired on the preceding evening. Ronald scanned the plain with an earnest eye in search of the two dead men, the slaughter of whom had haunted his mind during the whole of the last night; and the reader may conceive the disgust which he and others experienced, when, on the spot where they had fallen, the scattered bones of two skeletons were, discovered, red and raw as they had been left by wild animals, which had been busy upon them the livelong night. Yesterday they were active young soldiers, animated, probably, with spirit, courage, and many a noble sentiment; to-day they were bare skeletons, left to bleach unburied on the plain, as the troops had no time to inter them. The old campaigners faced them with comparative indifference; but there was altogether something rather appalling to so young a soldier as Ronald in the lesson of war and mortality before him, and gloomy feelings, which he endeavoured to shake off, took possession of his mind. But it was not a time to appear depressed when there was a chance of hearing shot whizzing in an hour or so more, and his spirits rose as the six regimental pipers, with their major, Macdonuil-dhu, in their front, struck up a well-known Scottish quick-step; and all pressed forward in hopes of driving the enemy from their post, and obtaining a meal there.

During a march of several miles, they saw but little of the boasted fruitfulness of Spain. The soil appeared rich enough in some parts, but it lay untended and untilled, for the roll of the drum and the glitter of arms had scared away the husbandman and vine-dresser, making the once peaceful peasantry either prowling plunderers, or fierce and savage guerillas, turning the ploughshare into a sword, and a fertile country into a neglected wilderness.

As the wood of La Nava lessened in the rear, the city of Merida, situated on a high hill, around the base of which the Guadiana wandered amid groves of cork-wood, laurel, and olive, presented itself to view. Merida, one of the most ancient cities in Spain, was once the capital of a province of the same name, and numerous are the remains of Roman and Gothic grandeur which are preserved within the circle of its mouldering fortifications. Dombrouski, a brave soldier of fortune in the service of France, commanded the enemy, and he had put the town in the best possible state of defence by raising a few redoubts on the granite hill beside the city. He barricadoed the streets with the furniture of the citizens, and all that the soldiers could lay hands on for the purpose ; the suburban houses and walls were loopholed, and the Pole was determined to defend his post, if a force came against it for which he deemed himself a match; but when the waving colours and polished arms of Sir Rowland Hill's division, sixteen thousand strong, appeared descending the gentle slope towards the city, he saw the folly of his resolution, and prepared to abandon his position. On the nearer approach of the British, they beheld the corps of Dombrouski formed outside the town, preparatory to moving off by the ancient Roman bridge, the lofty arches of which span the deep waters of the Guadiana. On a front movement being made among our cavalry, the French not wishing to feel the steel of those who had so lately gained the battle of Arroya-del-Molino, retreated double quick, without firing a shot; and in a short time the glitter of their appointments and the flashing tops of their glazed shakoes disappeared among the olive-groves and broken ground in the direction of the town of Almendralejo, where a strong party lay, commanded by the Count d'Erlon. The division halted, and bivouacked about Merida, to which those inhabitants who had fled during its occupation by Dombrouski returned ; the streets were filled with acclamations of welcome to the British, and the bells rang merrily from the steeples of the churches and convents. A small ration was now served out to the half-famished soldiers, and thousands of fires were lit in every direction; while all the camp-kettles and pans were put in requisition for cooking, and the axes, saws, and billhooks of the pioneers made devastation among the underwood and wild groves to procure fuel.

The miserable ration consisted of a few ounces of flour and flesh, given to each man alike, without distinction. The flesh was that of ill-fed, jaded, and wearied bullocks, which had become too old for agricultural labour, driven up rapidly after the army. Those given to each regiment were instantly shot through the head, flayed, and in a twinkling served out in the allotted quantities, which were placed warm in the camp-kettles to boil, almost before the circulation of the blood, or the vibration of the fibres, had ceased.

This was the usual way in which the military rations were served out in Spain, killed and eaten when the animals were in a state of fever from long and hasty journeys, tough and hard as bend-leather, in consequence of age, ill-feeding, and want of proper cooking.

More lucky than thousands of their comrades, who pursued their culinary operations in the open air, Ronald and Alister Macdonald obtained possession of a deserted shed or house in the suburbs, where Evan Iverach, casting aside his accoutrements, began to prepare in the best manner he could the poor meal, for which, however, the appetites of all were sufficiently sharpened, for they had not broken their fast since they quitted Albuquerque.

The wretched apartment had neither windows nor shutters to boast of; and the arms of leafless vines straggled in at the apertures, through which, now and then, the swarthy face of a passing Spaniard appeared, looking in with evident curiosity. Strong black rafters crossed by red tiles, the joints of which admitted the daylight, composed the roof; the floor was earth pounded hard by means of a pavior's rammer, or some such instrument. As the room had no fireplace, Evan made one by means of two stones placed in the centre of the floor ; between them was kindled a fire with one of the doors, which Ronald had torn down, and hewn in pieces with his sword.

The smoke filled the place, and rolled in volumes out at every aper ture. A large stone and Evan's knapsack set on end composed their furniture, and, seated thus, they set about the discussion of their meal, which, when cooked, was but a sorry mess, being merely the tough flesh boiled with the flour, without the aid of a single vegetable, tasteless and insipid; but hunger is said to be ' the best sauce,' and they despatched it with infinite relish. Each had produced his knife, fork, and spoon from his haversack, a strong bag of coarse linen, in which provisions are carried on service, and their dinner set was complete. 'Hech me, sirs I I would rather sup sour crowdy at the ingle neuk o' auld Lochisla, than chow sic fushionless trash as this,' said Evan with strong contempt, as he sat squatted on the floor, taking his share of the provision out of a camp-kettle lid, and scarcely seen amid the smoke. ' It micht pass muster wi' a puir chield like me; but I trow it's no for sic as you, Maister Ronald, or you, Maister Macdonald, or ony gentleman o' that ilk.'

'It is confounded stuff, certainly,' replied Alister, laughing at the. young Highlander's quaint mode of expression; 'the flesh is as tough as a buff belt, and the old bull it belonged to has seen hard service, no doubt, in his day. But I wish that we had a drop of the purple Lisbon wine to wash it down with, eh, Ronald?'

'We are better off than our Portuguese comrades, however bad our present fare; they, poor fellows, have only received a few ounces of wheat each man.'

'And an unco chappin' they are making by the water side, sir, ilka man pounding his wheat between twa stanes into something to mak' bannocks wi'. Puir black-avised deevils! I pity them muckle,' observed Evan, who, from many circumstances combined, presumed to break the laws of military etiquette, and mingle in the conversation. 'It's an unco thing to march far wi' an empty wame and fecht fasting. It makes my very heart loup like a laverock, when I think o' the braw Scots brochan and kail, that the miserable folk here ken naething aboot. Oh, it's a puir hole this Spain, I think, either to fecht or forage in.'

'If you grumble thus, Evan, I shall be led to suppose you will make, but a poor soldier. We have seen little of Spain yet; the best part of the country and the summer are still before us, and let us hope that this is the worst. But there is little pleasure in abiding in this wretched shelling, where we are almost choked and blinded with smoke. Let us find out some wine-house, where we can get something to gargle our throats with. Come, Macdonald, we shall be smoked like deer's hams, if we sit here longer. There are the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, and other things in this city of Merida, which I would wish to see, and our time is short; we march again in the morning, as you know.'

On passing down the principal street, their attention was attracted by the ruins of a noble triumphal arch (a relic of the Roman power), under which lay mouldering fragments of the rich cornice and marble statues that had fallen from above. Near the arch stood two tall Corinthian columns, upwards of forty feet in height, the last remnants of some magnificent temple.

The houses were lofty, and decorated with heavy entablatures, pilasters, and ornaments of stucco or plaster, some of them richly gilt, and many had broad balconies of stone or iron projecting over the pavement. On some of them appeared dark-haired and dark-eyed Senoritas, wearing the long sweeping veil and graceful black mantilla, of which so much has been said by romancers, surveying with smiles of wonder and pleasure the strange scene of so many foreign uniforms crowding the streets, and waving their fans and handkerchiefs, crying to the British officers who passed them, 'Viva! la valiante Inglesa! viva!'

'What beautiful eyes and splendid figures these girls have!' said Macdonald rapturously, doffing his bonnet to a group of fair ones, whose attention their Highland garb had attracted. 'By Heaven ! we have no such eyes at home. How they flash under their long lashes! I never beheld such glossy curls as those that stream from under their veils.'

'I have, Alister,' was Ronald's brief reply.

'Ay, in her whose miniature you wear under the fold of your shoulder-belt; I saw it for an instant the other day at Albuquerque. Nay, nay, man, you need not colour or look so cross; I shall not tell any of our fellows, and we have no mess here to try your fiery temper by jokes and quizzing. But keep it in a more secure place; should it be seen by Grant or Bevan, or any of them, it may become the source of continual jesting.'

'Those who dare to jest with me on such a subject may find it dangerous work,' said Ronald, coldly and haughtily. 'But here is the place we have been looking for the Caza de Vino.'

A bunch of gilded grapes, suspended over the door of a low flat-roofed building, announced it to be the shop of a retailer of wine. The doorway was crowded by British, Portuguese, and German officers, who were pressing their way in and out, intermixed with a few cigar-smoking citizens, wearing broad sombreros and the external long Spanish cloak, enveloping their whole form in a manner not ungraceful, but in the style of mysterious gentry on the stage, rendering it impossible to discover their rank in society ; in fact, all the Spaniards they beheld were exactly like one another. All smoked cigars with the same air of immovable gravity ; all wore the same sombre attire, and strode under the piazzas of the Plaza with the same haughty swagger. To stroll about smoking by day, and to sit listlessly at night muffled in their mantles, with their feet resting on a pan of hot charcoal while they sipped their sour wine, appeared to be their only employment.

Ronald and his friend made their way into a spacious oblong apartment, fitted up in the plainest manner with rough deal seats and tables, at which sat many of the officers of the second division, the red, or rather purple coats of the British, the blue of the Portuguese, the green of the German rifles, and the brown of a few Spaniards, being intermingled. Several olive-cheeked young girls, with their long black hair streaming unbound, wearing short petticoats, large bustles, and high-heeled shoes, were continually tripping about, and serving the country wine in all kinds of vessels, from which it was rapidly transferred to the throats of the thirsty carousers; and a strange din of several languages and many sonorous voices shook the rafters of the place.

'A devil of a den this 1 Let us quit it as soon as possible,' said Macdonald, draining his horn of dark liquor.

'As soon as you please. I am almost stifled with the fumes of garlic from the Portuguese, and tobacco from the Germans. Look at old Blacier, of the 6oth Rifles, how quietly he sits in that corner, filling the whole place with the smoke of his long pipe.'

'Looking as grave as his serene mightiness of Hesse Humbug. But I do not see any of ours here.'

'There's Campbell, sitting beside Armstrong, of the 71st; doubtless he is fighting some battle in Egypt over again. He speaks so earnestly, that he is not aware of our presence, and yonder is Chisholm.'

'Stuart,' exclaimed Alister abruptly, 'who can that strange fellow be who seems to scrutinize you so narrowly? See, behind the chair of Blacier, in the dark recess of the doorway.'

Ronald looked in the direction pointed out, and beheld the fierce, serpent-like eyes of a well-known face fixed on him with a settled stare.

'It is the rascal Narvaez,' whispered Ronald, making a stride towards the place; but the worthy, pulling his sombrero over his face, pressed through the crowd, gained the door, and disappeared.

'Pshaw ! let him go,' said Alister, holding Ronald back by his silk sash. 'You surely would not follow him? You are neither an alcalde nor an alguazil, and you need not care how many he sends to the shades. He eyes you with a look that bodes you no good, and the revengeful disposition of these swarthy gentlemen is well known. I would advise you to be on your guard; perhaps he is dogging you for your squabble at Albuquerque.'

'If ever I meet the vagabond on a hillside,' replied Ronald angrily, 'I will teach him to model his face differently, when he dares to look at me.'

'Ay; but 'tis not decently on the hillside that disputes are settled here. A stab in the dark, or a shot from behind a hedge, ends matters, and all is over,' answered Macdonald, as they issued into the street, after settling with the patron. 'And now, before it is quite dark, let us take a view of the amphitheatre. I see its ruins above the flat-roofed houses at the end of the street yonder, and a bold outline it rears against the clear sky of the evening.'

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