Part 2 out of 4
'I will take you,' he said, in very excellent French, 'not because I
hope for any reward, but because it is my way always to do what I can to
serve my fellow-man, and that is why I am so beloved wherever I go.'
With that he led me down the village to an old cow-house, in which we
found a tumble-down sort of diligence, such as they used to run early
in this century, between some of our remote villages. There were three
old mules, too, none of which were strong enough to carry a man, but
together they might draw the coach. The sight of their gaunt ribs and
spavined legs gave me more delight than the whole two hundred and twenty
hunters of the Emperor which I have seen in their stalls at
Fontainebleau. In ten minutes the owner was harnessing them into the
coach, with no very good will, however, for he was in mortal dread of
this terrible Cuchillo. It was only by promising him riches in this
world, while the priest threatened him with perdition in the next, that
we at last got him safely upon the box with the reins between his
fingers. Then he was in such a hurry to get off, out of fear lest we
should find ourselves in the dark in the passes, that he hardly gave me
time to renew my vows to the innkeeper's daughter. I cannot at this
moment recall her name, but we wept together as we parted, and I can
remember that she was a very beautiful woman. You will understand, my
friends, that when a man like me, who has fought the men and kissed the
women in fourteen separate kingdoms, gives a word of praise to the one
or the other, it has a little meaning of its own.
The little priest had seemed a trifle grave when we kissed good-bye, but
he soon proved himself the best of companions in the diligence. All the
way he amused me with tales of his little parish up in the mountains,
and I in my turn told him stories about the camp; but, my faith, I had
to pick my steps, for when I said a word too much he would fidget in his
seat and his face would show the pain that I had given him. And of
course it is not the act of a gentleman to talk in anything but a proper
manner to a religious man, though, with all the care in the world, one's
words may get out of hand sometimes.
He had come from the north of Spain, as he told me, and was going to see
his mother in a village of Estremadura, and as he spoke about her little
peasant home, and her joy in seeing him, it brought my own mother so
vividly to my thoughts that the tears started to my eyes. In his
simplicity he showed me the little gifts which he was taking to her, and
so kindly was his manner that I could readily believe him when he said
he was loved wherever he went. He examined my own uniform with as much
curiosity as a child, admiring the plume of my busby, and passing his
fingers through the sable with which my dolman was trimmed. He drew my
sword, too, and then when I told him how many men I had cut down with
it, and set my finger on the notch made by the shoulder-bone of the
Russian Emperor's aide-de-camp, he shuddered and placed the weapon under
the leathern cushion, declaring that it made him sick to look at it.
Well, we had been rolling and creaking on our way whilst this talk had
been going forward, and as we reached the base of the mountains we could
hear the rumbling of cannon far away upon the right. This came from
Massena, who was, as I knew, besieging Ciudad Rodrigo. There was nothing
I should have wished better than to have gone straight to him, for if,
as some said, he had Jewish blood in his veins, he was the best Jew that
I have heard of since Joshua's time. If you were in sight of his beaky
nose and bold, black eyes, you were not likely to miss much of what was
going on. Still, a siege is always a poor sort of a pick-and-shovel
business, and there were better prospects with my hussars in front of
the English. Every mile that passed, my heart grew lighter and lighter,
until I found myself shouting and singing like a young ensign fresh from
St Cyr, just to think of seeing all my fine horses and my gallant
fellows once more.
As we penetrated the mountains the road grew rougher and the pass more
savage. At first we had met a few muleteers, but now the whole country
seemed deserted, which is not to be wondered at when you think that the
French, the English, and the guerillas had each in turn had command over
it. So bleak and wild was it, one great brown wrinkled cliff succeeding
another, and the pass growing narrower and narrower, that I ceased to
look out, but sat in silence, thinking of this and that, of women whom I
had loved and of horses which I had handled. I was suddenly brought back
from my dreams, however, by observing the difficulties of my companion,
who was trying with a sort of brad-awl, which he had drawn out, to bore
a hole through the leathern strap which held up his water-flask. As he
worked with twitching fingers the strap escaped his grasp, and the
wooden bottle fell at my feet. I stooped to pick it up, and as I did so
the priest silently leaped upon my shoulders and drove his brad-awl into
My friends, I am, as you know, a man steeled to face every danger. When
one has served from the affair of Zurich to that last fatal day of
Waterloo, and has had the special medal, which I keep at home in a
leathern pouch, one can afford to confess when one is frightened. It may
console some of you, when your own nerves play you tricks, to remember
that you have heard even me, Brigadier Gerard, say that I have been
scared. And besides my terror at this horrible attack, and the maddening
pain of my wound, there was a sudden feeling of loathing such as you
might feel were some filthy tarantula to strike its fangs into you.
I clutched the creature in both hands, and, hurling him on to the floor
of the coach, I stamped on him with my heavy boots. He had drawn a
pistol from the front of his soutane, but I kicked it out of his hand,
and again I fell with my knees upon his chest. Then, for the first time,
he screamed horribly, while I, half blinded, felt about for the sword
which he had so cunningly concealed. My hand had just lighted upon it,
and I was dashing the blood from my face to see where he lay that I
might transfix him, when the whole coach turned partly over upon its
side, and my weapon was jerked out of my grasp by the shock.
Before I could recover myself the door was burst open, and I was
dragged by the heels on to the road. But even as I was torn out on to
the flint stones, and realized that thirty ruffians were standing around
me, I was filled with joy, for my pelisse had been pulled over my head
in the struggle and was covering one of my eyes, and it was with my
wounded eye that I was seeing this gang of brigands. You see for
yourself by this pucker and scar how the thin blade passed between
socket and ball, but it was only at that moment, when I was dragged from
the coach, that I understood that my sight was not gone for ever. The
creature's intention, doubtless, was to drive it through into my brain,
and indeed he loosened some portion of the inner bone of my head, so
that I afterwards had more trouble from that wound than from any one of
the seventeen which I have received.
They dragged me out, these sons of dogs, with curses and execrations,
beating me with their fists and kicking me as I lay upon the ground. I
had frequently observed that the mountaineers wore cloth swathed round
their feet, but never did I imagine that I should have so much cause to
be thankful for it. Presently, seeing the blood upon my head, and that I
lay quiet, they thought that I was unconscious, whereas I was storing
every ugly face among them into my memory, so that I might see them all
safely hanged if ever my chance came round. Brawny rascals they were,
with yellow handkerchiefs round their heads, and great red sashes
stuffed with weapons. They had rolled two rocks across the path, where
it took a sharp turn, and it was these which had torn off one of the
wheels of the coach and upset us. As to this reptile, who had acted the
priest so cleverly and had told me so much of his parish and his mother,
he, of course, had known where the ambuscade was laid, and had attempted
to put me beyond all resistance at the moment when we reached it.
I cannot tell you how frantic their rage was when they drew him out of
the coach and saw the state to which I had reduced him. If he had not
got all his deserts, he had, at least, something as a souvenir of his
meeting with Etienne Gerard, for his legs dangled aimlessly about, and
though the upper part of his body was convulsed with rage and pain, he
sat straight down upon his feet when they tried to set him upright. But
all the time his two little black eyes, which had seemed so kindly and
so innocent in the coach, were glaring at me like a wounded cat, and he
spat, and spat, and spat in my direction. My faith! when the wretches
jerked me on to my feet again, and when I was dragged off up one of the
mountain paths, I understood that a time was coming when I was to need
all my courage and resource. My enemy was carried upon the shoulders of
two men behind me, and I could hear his hissing and his reviling, first
in one ear and then in the other, as I was hurried up the winding track.
I suppose that it must have been for an hour that we ascended, and what
with my wounded ankle and the pain from my eye, and the fear lest this
wound should have spoiled my appearance, I have made no journey to which
I look back with less pleasure. I have never been a good climber at any
time, but it is astonishing what you can do, even with a stiff ankle,
when you have a copper-coloured brigand at each elbow and a nine-inch
blade within touch of your whiskers.
We came at last to a place where the path wound over a ridge, and
descended upon the other side through thick pine-trees into a valley
which opened to the south. In time of peace I had little doubt that the
villains were all smugglers, and that these were the secret paths by
which they crossed the Portuguese frontier. There were many mule-tracks,
and once I was surprised to see the marks of a large horse where a
stream had softened the track. These were explained when, on reaching a
place where there was a clearing in the fir wood, I saw the animal
itself haltered to a fallen tree. My eyes had hardly rested upon it,
when I recognized the great black limbs and the white near fore-leg. It
was the very horse which I had begged for in the morning.
What, then, had become of Commissariat Vidal? Was it possible that
there was another Frenchman in as perilous a plight as myself? The
thought had hardly entered my head when our party stopped and one of
them uttered a peculiar cry. It was answered from among the brambles
which lined the base of a cliff at one side of a clearing, and an
instant later ten or a dozen more brigands came out from amongst them,
and the two parties greeted each other. The new-comers surrounded my
friend of the brad-awl with cries of grief and sympathy, and then,
turning upon me, they brandished their knives and howled at me like the
gang of assassins that they were. So frantic were their gestures that I
was convinced that my end had come, and was just bracing myself to meet
it in a manner which should be worthy of my past reputation, when one of
them gave an order and I was dragged roughly across the little glade to
the brambles from which this new band had emerged.
A narrow pathway led through them to a deep grotto in the side of the
cliff. The sun was already setting outside, and in the cave itself it
would have been quite dark but for a pair of torches which blazed from a
socket on either side. Between them there was sitting at a rude table a
very singular-looking person, whom I saw instantly, from the respect
with which the others addressed him, could be none other than the
brigand chief who had received, on account of his dreadful character,
the sinister name of El Cuchillo.
The man whom I had injured had been carried in and placed upon the top
of a barrel, his helpless legs dangling about in front of him, and his
cat's eyes still darting glances of hatred at me. I understood, from the
snatches of talk which I could follow between the chief and him, that he
was the lieutenant of the band, and that part of his duties was to lie
in wait with his smooth tongue and his peaceful garb for travellers like
myself. When I thought of how many gallant officers may have been lured
to their death by this monster of hypocrisy, it gave me a glow of
pleasure to think that I had brought his villainies to an end--though I
feared it would be at the price of a life which neither the Emperor nor
the army could well spare.
As the injured man still supported upon the barrel by two comrades, was
explaining in Spanish all that had befallen him, I was held by several
of the villains in front of the table at which the chief was seated, and
had an excellent opportunity of observing him. I have seldom seen any
man who was less like my idea of a brigand, and especially of a brigand
with such a reputation that in a land of cruelty he had earned so dark a
nickname. His face was bluff and broad and bland, with ruddy cheeks and
comfortable little tufts of side-whiskers, which gave him the appearance
of a well-to-do grocer of the Rue St Antoine. He had not any of those
flaring sashes or gleaming weapons which distinguished his followers,
but on the contrary he wore a good broadcloth coat like a respectable
father of a family, and save for his brown leggings there was nothing to
indicate a life among the mountains. His surroundings, too, corresponded
with himself, and beside his snuff-box upon the table there stood a
great brown book, which looked like a commercial ledger. Many other
books were ranged along a plank between two powder-casks, and there was
a great litter of papers, some of which had verses scribbled upon them.
All this I took in while he, leaning indolently back in his chair, was
listening to the report of his lieutenant. Having heard everything, he
ordered the cripple to be carried out again, and I was left with my
three guards, waiting to hear my fate. He took up his pen, and tapping
his forehead with the handle of it, he pursed up his lips and looked out
of the corner of his eyes at the roof of the grotto.
'I suppose,' said he at last, speaking very excellent French, 'that you
are not able to suggest a rhyme for the word Covilha.'
I answered him that my acquaintance with the Spanish language was so
limited that I was unable to oblige him.
'It is a rich language,' said he, 'but less prolific in rhymes than
either the German or the English. That is why our best work has been
done in blank verse, a form of composition which is capable of reaching
great heights. But I fear that such subjects are somewhat outside the
range of a hussar.'
I was about to answer that if they were good enough for a guerilla, they
could not be too much for the light cavalry, but he was already stooping
over his half-finished verse. Presently he threw down the pen with an
exclamation of satisfaction, and declaimed a few lines which drew a cry
of approval from the three ruffians who held me. His broad face blushed
like a young girl who receives her first compliment.
'The critics are in my favour, it appears,' said he; 'we amuse ourselves
in our long evenings by singing our own ballads, you understand. I have
some little facility in that direction, and I do not at all despair of
seeing some of my poor efforts in print before long, and with "Madrid"
upon the title-page, too. But we must get back to business. May I ask
what your name is?'
'The Third Hussars of Conflans.'
'You are young for a colonel.'
'My career has been an eventful one.'
'Tut, that makes it the sadder,' said he, with his bland smile.
I made no answer to that, but I tried to show him by my bearing that I
was ready for the worst which could befall me.
'By the way, I rather fancy that we have had some of your corps here,'
said he, turning over the pages of his big brown register. 'We
endeavour to keep a record of our operations. Here is a heading under
June 24th. Have you not a young officer named Soubiron, a tall, slight
youth with light hair?'
'I see that we buried him upon that date.'
'Poor lad!' I cried. 'And how did he die?'
'We buried him.'
'But before you buried him?'
'You misunderstand me, Colonel. He was not dead before we buried him.'
'You buried him alive!'
For a moment I was too stunned to act. Then I hurled myself upon the
man, as he sat with that placid smile of his upon his lips, and I would
have torn his throat out had the three wretches not dragged me away from
him. Again and again I made for him, panting and cursing, shaking off
this man and that, straining and wrenching, but never quite free. At
last, with my jacket torn nearly off my back and blood dripping from my
wrists, I was hauled backwards in the bight of a rope and cords passed
round my ankles and my arms.
'You sleek hound!' I cried. 'If ever I have you at my sword's point, I
will teach you to maltreat one of my lads. You will find, you
bloodthirsty beast, that my Emperor has long arms, and though you lie
here like a rat in its hole, the time will come when he will tear you
out of it, and you and your vermin will perish together.'
My faith, I have a rough side to my tongue, and there was not a hard
word that I had learned in fourteen campaigns which I did not let fly at
him; but he sat with the handle of his pen tapping against his forehead
and his eyes squinting up at the roof as if he had conceived the idea of
some new stanza. It was this occupation of his which showed me how I
might get my point into him.
'You spawn!' said I; 'you think that you are safe here, but your life
may be as short as that of your absurd verses, and God knows that it
could not be shorter than that.'
Ah, you should have seen him bound from his chair when I said the words.
This vile monster, who dispensed death and torture as a grocer serves
out his figs, had one raw nerve then which I could prod at pleasure. His
face grew livid, and those little bourgeois side-whiskers quivered and
thrilled with passion.
'Very good, Colonel. You have said enough,' he cried, in a choking
voice. 'You say that you have had a very distinguished career. I promise
you also a very distinguished ending. Colonel Etienne Gerard of the
Third Hussars shall have a death of his own.'
'And I only beg,' said I, 'that you will not commemorate it in verse.' I
had one or two little ironies to utter, but he cut me short by a furious
gesture which caused my three guards to drag me from the cave.
Our interview, which I have told you as nearly as I can remember it,
must have lasted some time, for it was quite dark when we came out, and
the moon was shining very clearly in the heavens. The brigands had
lighted a great fire of the dried branches of the fir-trees; not, of
course, for warmth, since the night was already very sultry, but to cook
their evening meal. A huge copper pot hung over the blaze, and the
rascals were lying all round in the yellow glare, so that the scene
looked like one of those pictures which Junot stole out of Madrid. There
are some soldiers who profess to care nothing for art and the like, but
I have always been drawn towards it myself, in which respect I show my
good taste and my breeding. I remember, for example, that when Lefebvre
was selling the plunder after the fall of Danzig, I bought a very fine
picture, called 'Nymphs Surprised in a Wood,' and I carried it with me
through two campaigns, until my charger had the misfortune to put his
hoof through it.
I only tell you this, however, to show you that I was never a mere
rough soldier like Rapp or Ney. As I lay in that brigands' camp, I had
little time or inclination to think about such matters. They had thrown
me down under a tree, the three villains squatting round and smoking
their cigarettes within hands' touch of me. What to do I could not
imagine. In my whole career I do not suppose that I have ten times been
in as hopeless a situation. 'But courage,' thought I. 'Courage, my brave
boy! You were not made a Colonel of Hussars at twenty-eight because you
could dance a cotillon. You are a picked man, Etienne; a man who has
come through more than two hundred affairs, and this little one is
surely not going to be the last.' I began eagerly to glance about for
some chance of escape, and as I did so I saw something which filled me
with great astonishment.
I have already told you that a large fire was burning in the centre of
the glade. What with its glare, and what with the moonlight, everything
was as clear as possible. On the other side of the glade there was a
single tall fir-tree which attracted my attention because its trunk and
lower branches were discoloured, as if a large fire had recently been
lit underneath it. A clump of bushes grew in front of it which concealed
the base. Well, as I looked towards it, I was surprised to see
projecting above the bush, and fastened apparently to the tree, a pair
of fine riding boots with the toes upwards. At first I thought that they
were tied there, but as I looked harder I saw that they were secured by
a great nail which was hammered through the foot of each. And then,
suddenly, with a thrill of horror, I understood that these were not
empty boots; and moving my head a little to the right, I was able to see
who it was that had been fastened there, and why a fire had been lit
beneath the tree. It is not pleasant to speak or to think of horrors, my
friends, and I do not wish to give any of you bad dreams tonight--but I
cannot take you among the Spanish guerillas without showing you what
kind of men they were, and the sort of warfare that they waged. I will
only say that I understood why Monsieur Vidal's horse was waiting
masterless in the grove, and that I hoped he had met this terrible fate
with sprightliness and courage, as a good Frenchman ought.
It was not a very cheering sight for me, as you can imagine. When I had
been with their chief in the grotto I had been so carried away by my
rage at the cruel death of young Soubiron, who was one of the brightest
lads who ever threw his thigh over a charger, that I had never given a
thought to my own position. Perhaps it would have been more politic had
I spoken the ruffian fair, but it was too late now. The cork was drawn
and I must drain the wine. Besides, if the harmless commissariat man
were put to such a death, what hope was there for me, who had snapped
the spine of their lieutenant? No, I was doomed in any case, and it was
as well perhaps that I should have put the best face on the matter. This
beast could bear witness that Etienne Gerard had died as he had lived,
and that one prisoner at least had not quailed before him. I lay there
thinking of the various girls who would mourn for me, and of my dear old
mother, and of the deplorable loss which I should be, both to my
regiment and to the Emperor, and I am not ashamed to confess to you that
I shed tears as I thought of the general consternation which my
premature end would give rise to.
But all the time I was taking the very keenest notice of everything
which might possibly help me. I am not a man who would lie like a sick
horse waiting for the farrier sergeant and the pole-axe. First I would
give a little tug at my ankle cords, and then another at those which
were round my wrists, and all the time that I was trying to loosen them
I was peering round to see if I could find something which was in my
favour. There was one thing which was very evident. A hussar is but half
formed without a horse, and there was my other half quietly grazing
within thirty yards of me. Then I observed yet another thing. The path
by which we had come over the mountains was so steep that a horse could
only be led across it slowly and with difficulty, but in the other
direction the ground appeared to be more open, and to lead straight down
into a gently-sloping valley. Had I but my feet in yonder stirrups and
my sabre in my hand, a single bold dash might take me out of the power
of these vermin of the rocks.
I was still thinking it over and straining with my wrists and my ankles,
when their chief came out from his grotto, and after some talk with his
lieutenant, who lay groaning near the fire, they both nodded their heads
and looked across at me. He then said some few words to the band, who
clapped their hands and laughed uproariously. Things looked ominous, and
I was delighted to feel that my hands were so far free that I could
easily slip them through the cords if I wished. But with my ankles I
feared that I could do nothing, for when I strained it brought such pain
into my lance-wound that I had to gnaw my moustache to keep from crying
out. I could only lie still, half-free and half-bound, and see what turn
things were likely to take.
For a little I could not make out what they were after. One of the
rascals climbed up a well-grown fir-tree upon one side of the glade, and
tied a rope round the top of the trunk. He then fastened another rope in
the same fashion to a similar tree upon the other side. The two loose
ends were now dangling down, and I waited with some curiosity, and just
a little trepidation also, to see what they would do next. The whole
band pulled upon one of the ropes until they had bent the strong young
tree down into a semi-circle, and they then fastened it to a stump, so
as to hold it so. When they had bent the other tree down in a similar
fashion, the two summits were within a few feet of each other, though,
as you understand, they would each spring back into their original
position the instant that they were released. I already saw the
diabolical plan which these miscreants had formed.
'I presume that you are a strong man, Colonel,' said the chief, coming
towards me with his hateful smile.
'If you will have the kindness to loosen these cords,' I answered, 'I
will show you how strong I am.'
'We were all interested to see whether you were as strong as these two
young saplings,' said he. 'It is our intention, you see, to tie one end
of each rope round your ankles and then let the trees go. If you are
stronger than the trees, then, of course, no harm would be done; if, on
the other hand, the trees are stronger than you, why, in that case,
Colonel, we may have a souvenir of you upon each side of our little
He laughed as he spoke, and at the sight of it the whole forty of them
laughed also. Even now if I am in my darker humour, or if I have a touch
of my old Lithuanian ague, I see in my sleep that ring of dark, savage
faces, with their cruel eyes, and the firelight flashing upon their
strong white teeth.
It is astonishing--and I have heard many make the same remark--how acute
one's senses become at such a crisis as this. I am convinced that at no
moment is one living so vividly, so acutely, as at the instant when a
violent and foreseen death overtakes one. I could smell the resinous
fagots, I could see every twig upon the ground, I could hear every
rustle of the branches, as I have never smelled or seen or heard save at
such times of danger. And so it was that long before anyone else, before
even the time when the chief had addressed me, I had heard a low,
monotonous sound, far away indeed, and yet coming nearer at every
instant. At first it was but a murmur, a rumble, but by the time he had
finished speaking, while the assassins were untying my ankles in order
to lead me to the scene of my murder, I heard, as plainly as ever I
heard anything in my life, the clinking of horseshoes and the jingling
of bridle-chains, with the clank of sabres against stirrup-irons. Is it
likely that I, who had lived with the light cavalry since the first hair
shaded my lip, would mistake the sound of troopers on the march?
'Help, comrades, help!' I shrieked, and though they struck me across
the mouth and tried to drag me up to the trees, I kept on yelling, 'Help
me, my brave boys! Help me, my children! They are murdering your
For the moment my wounds and my troubles had brought on a delirium, and
I looked for nothing less than my five hundred hussars, kettle-drums and
all, to appear at the opening of the glade.
But that which really appeared was very different to anything which I
had conceived. Into the clear space there came galloping a fine young
man upon a most beautiful roan horse. He was fresh-faced and
pleasant-looking, with the most debonair bearing in the world and the
most gallant way of carrying himself--a way which reminded me somewhat
of my own. He wore a singular coat which had once been red all over, but
which was now stained to the colour of a withered oak-leaf wherever the
weather could reach it. His shoulder-straps, however, were of golden
lace, and he had a bright metal helmet upon his head, with a coquettish
white plume upon one side of its crest. He trotted his horse up the
glade, while behind him rode four cavaliers in the same dress--all
clean-shaven, with round, comely faces, looking to me more like monks
than dragoons. At a short, gruff order they halted with a rattle of
arms, while their leader cantered forward, the fire beating upon his
eager face and the beautiful head of his charger. I knew, of course, by
the strange coats that they were English. It was the first sight that I
had ever had of them, but from their stout bearing and their masterful
way I could see at a glance that what I had always been told was true,
and that they were excellent people to fight against.
'Well, well, well!' cried the young officer, in sufficiently bad French,
'what game are you up to here? Who was that who was yelling for help,
and what are you trying to do to him?'
It was at that moment that I learned to bless those months which
Obriant, the descendant of the Irish kings, had spent in teaching me the
tongue of the English. My ankles had just been freed, so that I had only
to slip my hands out of the cords, and with a single rush I had flown
across, picked up my sabre where it lay by the fire, and hurled myself
on to the saddle of poor Vidal's horse. Yes, for all my wounded ankle, I
never put foot to stirrup, but was in the seat in a single bound. I tore
the halter from the tree, and before these villains could so much as
snap a pistol at me I was beside the English officer.
'I surrender to you, sir,' I cried; though I daresay my English was not
very much better than his French. 'If you will look at that tree to the
left you will see what these villains do to the honourable gentlemen who
fall into their hands.'
The fire had flared up at that moment, and there was poor Vidal exposed
before them, as horrible an object as one could see in a nightmare.
'Godam!' cried the officer, and 'Godam!' cried each of the four
troopers, which is the same as with us when we cry 'Mon Dieu!' Out
rasped the five swords, and the four men closed up. One, who wore a
sergeant's chevrons, laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.
'Fight for your skin, froggy,' said he.
Ah, it was so fine to have a horse between my thighs and a weapon in my
grip. I waved it above my head and shouted in my exultation. The chief
had come forward with that odious smiling face of his.
'Your excellency will observe that this Frenchman is our prisoner,' said
'You are a rascally robber,' said the Englishman, shaking his sword at
him. 'It is a disgrace to us to have such allies. By my faith, if Lord
Wellington were of my mind we would swing you up on the nearest tree.'
'But my prisoner?' said the brigand, in his suave voice.
'He shall come with us to the British camp.'
'Just a word in your ear before you take him.'
He approached the young officer, and then turning as quick as a flash,
he fired his pistol in my face. The bullet scored its way through my
hair and burst a hole on each side of my busby. Seeing that he had
missed me, he raised the pistol and was about to hurl it at me when the
English sergeant, with a single back-handed cut, nearly severed his head
from his body. His blood had not reached the ground, nor the last curse
died on his lips, before the whole horde was upon us, but with a dozen
bounds and as many slashes we were all safely out of the glade, and
galloping down the winding track which led to the valley.
It was not until we had left the ravine far behind us and were right out
in the open fields that we ventured to halt, and to see what injuries we
had sustained. For me, wounded and weary as I was, my heart was beating
proudly, and my chest was nearly bursting my tunic to think that I,
Etienne Gerard, had left this gang of murderers so much by which to
remember me. My faith, they would think twice before they ventured again
to lay hands upon one of the Third Hussars. So carried away was I that I
made a small oration to these brave Englishmen, and told them who it was
that they had helped to rescue. I would have spoken of glory also, and
of the sympathies of brave men, but the officer cut me short.
'That's all right,' said he. 'Any injuries, Sergeant?'
'Trooper Jones's horse hit with a pistol bullet on the fetlock.'
'Trooper Jones to go with us. Sergeant Halliday, with troopers Harvey
and Smith, to keep to the right until they touch the vedettes of the
So these three jingled away together, while the officer and I, followed
at some distance by the trooper whose horse had been wounded, rode
straight down in the direction of the English camp. Very soon we had
opened our hearts, for we each liked the other from the beginning. He
was of the nobility, this brave lad, and he had been sent out scouting
by Lord Wellington to see if there were any signs of our advancing
through the mountains. It is one advantage of a wandering life like
mine, that you learn to pick up those bits of knowledge which
distinguish the man of the world. I have, for example, hardly ever met a
Frenchman who could repeat an English title correctly. If I had not
travelled I should not be able to say with confidence that this young
man's real name was Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart., this last being
an honourable distinction, so that it was as the Bart that I usually
addressed him, just as in Spanish one might say 'the Don.'
As we rode beneath the moonlight in the lovely Spanish night, we spoke
our minds to each other, as if we were brothers. We were both of an age,
you see, both of the light cavalry also (the Sixteenth Light Dragoons
was his regiment), and both with the same hopes and ambitions. Never
have I learned to know a man so quickly as I did the Bart. He gave me
the name of a girl whom he had loved at a garden called Vauxhall, and,
for my own part, I spoke to him of little Coralie, of the Opera. He took
a lock of hair from his bosom, and I a garter. Then we nearly quarrelled
over hussar and dragoon, for he was absurdly proud of his regiment, and
you should have seen him curl his lip and clap his hand to his hilt when
I said that I hoped it might never be its misfortune to come in the way
of the Third. Finally, he began to speak about what the English call
sport, and he told such stories of the money which he had lost over
which of two cocks could kill the other, or which of two men could
strike the other the most in a fight for a prize, that I was filled with
astonishment. He was ready to bet upon anything in the most wonderful
manner, and when I chanced to see a shooting star he was anxious to bet
that he would see more than me, twenty-five francs a star, and it was
only when I explained that my purse was in the hands of the brigands
that he would give over the idea.
Well, we chatted away in this very amiable fashion until the day began
to break, when suddenly we heard a great volley of musketry from
somewhere in front of us. It was very rocky and broken ground, and I
thought, although I could see nothing, that a general engagement had
broken out. The Bart laughed at my idea, however, and explained that the
sound came from the English camp, where every man emptied his piece each
morning so as to make sure of having a dry priming.
'In another mile we shall be up with the outposts,' said he.
I glanced round at this, and I perceived that we had trotted along at so
good a pace during the time that we were keeping up our pleasant chat,
that the dragoon with the lame horse was altogether out of sight. I
looked on every side, but in the whole of that vast rocky valley there
was no one save only the Bart and I--both of us armed, you understand,
and both of us well mounted. I began to ask myself whether after all it
was quite necessary that I should ride that mile which would bring me to
the British outposts.
Now, I wish to be very clear with you on this point, my friends, for I
would not have you think that I was acting dishonourably or ungratefully
to the man who had helped me away from the brigands. You must remember
that of all duties the strongest is that which a commanding officer owes
to his men. You must also bear in mind that war is a game which is
played under fixed rules, and when these rules are broken one must at
once claim the forfeit. If, for example, I had given a parole, then I
should have been an infamous wretch had I dreamed of escaping. But no
parole had been asked of me. Out of over-confidence, and the chance of
the lame horse dropping behind, the Bart had permitted me to get upon
equal terms with him. Had it been I who had taken him, I should have
used him as courteously as he had me, but, at the same time, I should
have respected his enterprise so far as to have deprived him of his
sword, and seen that I had at least one guard beside myself. I reined
up my horse and explained this to him, asking him at the same time
whether he saw any breach of honour in my leaving him.
He thought about it, and several times repeated that which the English
say when they mean 'Mon Dieu.'
'You would give me the slip, would you?' said he.
'If you can give no reason against it.'
'The only reason that I can think of,' said the Bart, 'is that I should
instantly cut your head off if you were to attempt it.'
'Two can play at that game, my dear Bart,' said I.
'Then we'll see who can play at it best,' he cried, pulling out his
I had drawn mine also, but I was quite determined not to hurt this
admirable young man who had been my benefactor.
'Consider,' said I, 'you say that I am your prisoner. I might with equal
reason say that you are mine. We are alone here, and though I have no
doubt that you are an excellent swordsman, you can hardly hope to hold
your own against the best blade in the six light cavalry brigades.'
His answer was a cut at my head. I parried and shore off half of his
white plume. He thrust at my breast. I turned his point and cut away the
other half of his cockade.
'Curse your monkey-tricks!' he cried, as I wheeled my horse away from
'Why should you strike at me?' said I. 'You see that I will not strike
'That's all very well,' said he; 'but you've got to come along with me
to the camp.'
'I shall never see the camp,' said I.
'I'll lay you nine to four you do,' he cried, as he made at me, sword in
But those words of his put something new into my head. Could we not
decide the matter in some better way than fighting? The Bart was
placing me in such a position that I should have to hurt him, or he
would certainly hurt me. I avoided his rush, though his sword-point was
within an inch of my neck.
'I have a proposal,' I cried. 'We shall throw dice as to which is the
prisoner of the other.'
He smiled at this. It appealed to his love of sport.
'Where are your dice?' he cried.
'I have none.'
'Nor I. But I have cards.'
'Cards let it be,' said I.
'And the game?'
'I leave it to you.'
'Ecarte, then--the best of three.'
I could not help smiling as I agreed, for I do not suppose that there
were three men in France who were my masters at the game. I told the
Bart as much as we dismounted. He smiled also as he listened.
'I was counted the best player at Watier's,' said he. 'With even luck
you deserve to get off if you beat me.'
So we tethered our two horses and sat down one on either side of a great
flat rock. The Bart took a pack of cards out of his tunic, and I had
only to see him shuffle to convince me that I had no novice to deal
with. We cut, and the deal fell to him.
My faith, it was a stake worth playing for. He wished to add a hundred
gold pieces a game, but what was money when the fate of Colonel Etienne
Gerard hung upon the cards? I felt as though all those who had reason to
be interested in the game--my mother, my hussars, the Sixth Corps
d'Armee, Ney, Massena, even the Emperor himself--were forming a ring
round us in that desolate valley. Heavens, what a blow to one and all of
them should the cards go against me! But I was confident, for my ecarte
play was as famous as my swordsmanship, and save old Bouvet of the
Hussars of Bercheny, who won seventy-six out of one hundred and fifty
games off me, I have always had the best of a series.
The first game I won right off, though I must confess that the cards
were with me, and that my adversary could have done no more. In the
second, I never played better and saved a trick by a finesse, but the
Bart voled me once, marked the king, and ran out in the second hand. My
faith, we were so excited that he laid his helmet down beside him and I
'I'll lay my roan mare against your black horse,' said he.
'Done!' said I.
'Sword against sword.'
'Done!' said I.
'Saddle, bridle, and stirrups!' he cried.
'Done!' I shouted.
I had caught this spirit of sport from him. I would have laid my hussars
against his dragoons had they been ours to pledge.
And then began the game of games. Oh, he played, this Englishman--he
played in a way that was worthy of such a stake. But I, my friends, I
was superb! Of the five which I had to make to win, I gained three on
the first hand. The Bart bit his moustache and drummed his hands, while
I already felt myself at the head of my dear little rascals. On the
second, I turned the king, but lost two tricks--and my score was four to
his two. When I saw my next hand I could not but give a cry of delight.
'If I cannot gain my freedom on this,' thought I, 'I deserve to remain
for ever in chains.'
Give me the cards, landlord, and I will lay them out on the table for
Here was my hand: knave and ace of clubs, queen and knave of diamonds,
and king of hearts. Clubs were trumps, mark you, and I had but one point
between me and freedom. He knew it was the crisis, and he undid his
tunic. I threw my dolman on the ground. He led the ten of spades. I took
it with my ace of trumps. One point in my favour. The correct play was
to clear the trumps, and I led the knave. Down came the queen upon it,
and the game was equal. He led the eight of spades, and I could only
discard my queen of diamonds. Then came the seven of spades, and the
hair stood straight up on my head. We each threw down a king at the
final. He had won two points, and my beautiful hand had been mastered by
his inferior one. I could have rolled on the ground as I thought of it.
They used to play very good ecarte at Watier's in the year '10. I say
it--I, Brigadier Gerard.
The last game was now four all. This next hand must settle it one way or
the other. He undid his sash, and I put away my sword-belt. He was cool,
this Englishman, and I tried to be so also, but the perspiration would
trickle into my eyes. The deal lay with him, and I may confess to you,
my friends, that my hands shook so that I could hardly pick my cards
from the rock. But when I raised them, what was the first thing that my
eyes rested upon? It was the king, the king, the glorious king of
trumps! My mouth was open to declare it when the words were frozen upon
my lips by the appearance of my comrade.
He held his cards in his hand, but his jaw had fallen, and his eyes were
staring over my shoulder with the most dreadful expression of
consternation and surprise. I whisked round, and I was myself amazed at
what I saw.
Three men were standing quite close to us--fifteen metres at the
farthest. The middle one was of a good height, and yet not too
tall--about the same height, in fact, that I am myself. He was clad in a
dark uniform with a small cocked hat, and some sort of white plume upon
the side. But I had little thought of his dress. It was his face, his
gaunt cheeks, his beak-like nose, his masterful blue eyes, his thin,
firm slit of a mouth which made one feel that this was a wonderful man,
a man of a million. His brows were tied into a knot, and he cast such a
glance at my poor Bart from under them that one by one the cards came
fluttering down from his nerveless fingers. Of the two other men, one,
who had a face as brown and hard as though it had been carved out of old
oak, wore a bright red coat, while the other, a fine portly man with
bushy side-whiskers, was in a blue jacket with gold facings. Some little
distance behind, three orderlies were holding as many horses, and an
escort of dragoons was waiting in the rear.
'Heh, Crauford, what the deuce is this?' asked the thin man.
'D'you hear, sir?' cried the man with the red coat. 'Lord Wellington
wants to know what this means.'
My poor Bart broke into an account of all that had occurred, but that
rock-face never softened for an instant.
'Pretty fine, 'pon my word, General Crauford,' he broke in. 'The
discipline of this force must be maintained, sir. Report yourself at
headquarters as a prisoner.'
It was dreadful to me to see the Bart mount his horse and ride off with
hanging head. I could not endure it. I threw myself before this English
General. I pleaded with him for my friend. I told him how I, Colonel
Gerard, would witness what a dashing young officer he was. Ah, my
eloquence might have melted the hardest heart; I brought tears to my own
eyes, but none to his. My voice broke, and I could say no more.
'What weight do you put on your mules, sir, in the French service?' he
asked. Yes, that was all this phlegmatic Englishman had to answer to
these burning words of mine. That was his reply to what would have made
a Frenchman weep upon my shoulder.
'What weight on a mule?' asked the man with the red coat.
'Two hundred and ten pounds,' said I.
'Then you load them deucedly badly,' said Lord Wellington. 'Remove the
prisoner to the rear.'
His dragoons closed in upon me, and I--I was driven mad, as I thought
that the game had been in my hands, and that I ought at that moment to
be a free man. I held the cards up in front of the General.
'See, my lord!' I cried; 'I played for my freedom and I won, for, as you
perceive, I hold the king.'
For the first time a slight smile softened his gaunt face.
'On the contrary,' said he, as he mounted his horse, 'it is I who won,
for, as you perceive, my King holds you.'
4. HOW THE KING HELD THE BRIGADIER
Murat was undoubtedly an excellent cavalry officer, but he had too much
swagger, which spoils many a good soldier. Lasalle, too, was a very
dashing leader, but he ruined himself with wine and folly. Now I,
Etienne Gerard, was always totally devoid of swagger, and at the same
time I was very abstemious, except, maybe, at the end of a campaign, or
when I met an old comrade-in-arms. For these reasons I might, perhaps,
had it not been for a certain diffidence, have claimed to be the most
valuable officer in my own branch of the Service. It is true that I
never rose to be more than a chief of brigade, but then, as everyone
knows, no one had a chance of rising to the top unless he had the good
fortune to be with the Emperor in his early campaigns. Except Lasalle,
and Labau, and Drouet, I can hardly remember any one of the generals who
had not already made his name before the Egyptian business. Even I, with
all my brilliant qualities, could only attain the head of my brigade,
and also the special medal of honour, which I received from the Emperor
himself, and which I keep at home in a leathern pouch.
But though I never rose higher than this, my qualities were very well
known to those who had served with me, and also to the English. After
they had captured me in the way which I described to you the other
night, they kept a very good guard over me at Oporto, and I promise you
that they did not give such a formidable opponent a chance of slipping
through their fingers. It was on the 10th of August that I was escorted
on board the transport which was to take us to England, and behold me
before the end of the month in the great prison which had been built for
us at Dartmoor!
'L'hotel Francais, et Pension,' we used to call it, for you understand
that we were all brave men there, and that we did not lose our spirits
because we were in adversity.
It was only those officers who refused to give their parole who were
confined at Dartmoor, and most of the prisoners were seamen, or from the
ranks. You ask me, perhaps, why it was that I did not give this parole,
and so enjoy the same good treatment as most of my brother officers.
Well, I had two reasons, and both of them were sufficiently strong.
In the first place, I had so much confidence in myself, that I was quite
convinced that I could escape. In the second, my family, though of good
repute, has never been wealthy, and I could not bring myself to take
anything from the small income of my mother. On the other hand, it would
never do for a man like me to be outshone by the bourgeois society of an
English country town, or to be without the means of showing courtesies
and attentions to those ladies whom I should attract. It was for these
reasons that I preferred to be buried in the dreadful prison of
Dartmoor. I wish now to tell you of my adventures in England, and how
far Milor Wellington's words were true when he said that his King would
And first of all I may say that if it were not that I have set off to
tell you about what befell myself, I could keep you here until morning
with my stories about Dartmoor itself, and about the singular things
which occurred there. It was one of the very strangest places in the
whole world, for there, in the middle of that great desolate waste, were
herded together seven or eight thousand men--warriors, you understand,
men of experience and courage. Around there were a double wall and a
ditch, and warders and soldiers; but, my faith! you could not coop men
like that up like rabbits in a hutch! They would escape by twos and tens
and twenties, and then the cannon would boom, and the search parties
run, and we, who were left behind, would laugh and dance and shout
'Vive l'Empereur' until the warders would turn their muskets upon us in
their passion. And then we would have our little mutinies, too, and up
would come the infantry and the guns from Plymouth, and that would set
us yelling 'Vive l'Empereur' once more, as though we wished them to hear
us in Paris. We had lively moments at Dartmoor, and we contrived that
those who were about us should be lively also.
You must know that the prisoners there had their own Courts of Justice,
in which they tried their own cases, and inflicted their own
punishments. Stealing and quarrelling were punished--but most of all
treachery. When I came there first there was a man, Meunier, from
Rheims, who had given information of some plot to escape. Well, that
night, owing to some form or other which had to be gone through, they
did not take him out from among the other prisoners, and though he wept
and screamed, and grovelled upon the ground, they left him there amongst
the comrades whom he had betrayed. That night there was a trial with a
whispered accusation and a whispered defence, a gagged prisoner, and a
judge whom none could see. In the morning, when they came for their man
with papers for his release, there was not as much of him left as you
could put upon your thumb-nail. They were ingenious people, these
prisoners, and they had their own way of managing.
We officers, however, lived in a separate wing, and a very singular
group of people we were. They had left us our uniforms, so that there
was hardly a corps which had served under Victor, or Massena, or Ney,
which was not represented there, and some had been there from the time
when Junot was beaten at Vimiera. We had chasseurs in their green
tunics, and hussars, like myself, and blue-coated dragoons, and
white-fronted lancers, and voltigeurs, and grenadiers, and the men of
the artillery and engineers. But the greater part were naval officers,
for the English had had the better of us upon the seas. I could never
understand this until I journeyed myself from Oporto to Plymouth, when
I lay for seven days upon my back, and could not have stirred had I seen
the eagle of the regiment carried off before my eyes. It was in
perfidious weather like this that Nelson took advantage of us.
I had no sooner got into Dartmoor than I began to plan to get out again,
and you can readily believe that, with wits sharpened by twelve years of
warfare, it was not very long before I saw my way.
You must know, in the first place, that I had a very great advantage in
having some knowledge of the English language. I learned it during the
months that I spent before Danzig, from Adjutant Obriant, of the
Regiment Irlandais, who was sprung from the ancient kings of the
country. I was quickly able to speak it with some facility, for I do not
take long to master anything to which I set my mind. In three months I
could not only express my meaning, but I could use the idioms of the
people. It was Obriant who taught me to say 'Be jabers,' just as we
might say 'Ma foi'; and also 'The curse of Crummle!' which means 'Ventre
bleu!' Many a time I have seen the English smile with pleasure when they
have heard me speak so much like one of themselves.
We officers were put two in a cell, which was very little to my taste,
for my room-mate was a tall, silent man named Beaumont, of the Flying
Artillery, who had been taken by the English cavalry at Astorga.
It is seldom I meet a man of whom I cannot make a friend, for my
disposition and manners are--as you know them. But this fellow had never
a smile for my jests, nor an ear for my sorrows, but would sit looking
at me with his sullen eyes, until sometimes I thought that his two years
of captivity had driven him crazy. Ah, how I longed that old Bouvet, or
any of my comrades of the hussars, was there, instead of this mummy of a
man. But such as he was I had to make the best of him, and it was very
evident that no escape could be made unless he were my partner in it,
for what could I possibly do without him observing me? I hinted at it,
therefore, and then by degrees I spoke more plainly, until it seemed to
me that I had prevailed upon him to share my lot.
I tried the walls, and I tried the floor, and I tried the ceiling, but
though I tapped and probed, they all appeared to be very thick and
solid. The door was of iron, shutting with a spring lock, and provided
with a small grating, through which a warder looked twice in every
night. Within there were two beds, two stools, two washstands--nothing
more. It was enough for my wants, for when had I had as much during
those twelve years spent in camps? But how was I to get out? Night after
night I thought of my five hundred hussars, and had dreadful nightmares,
in which I fancied that the whole regiment needed shoeing, or that my
horses were all bloated with green fodder, or that they were foundered
from bogland, or that six squadrons were clubbed in the presence of the
Emperor. Then I would awake in a cold sweat, and set to work picking and
tapping at the walls once more; for I knew very well that there is no
difficulty which cannot be overcome by a ready brain and a pair of
There was a single window in our cell, which was too small to admit a
child. It was further defended by a thick iron bar in the centre. It was
not a very promising point of escape, as you will allow, but I became
more and more convinced that our efforts must be directed towards it. To
make matters worse, it only led out into the exercise yard, which was
surrounded by two high walls. Still, as I said to my sullen comrade, it
is time to talk of the Vistula when you are over the Rhine. I got a
small piece of iron, therefore, from the fittings of my bed, and I set
to work to loosen the plaster at the top and the bottom of the bar.
Three hours I would work, and then leap into my bed upon the sound of
the warder's step. Then another three hours, and then very often another
yet, for I found that Beaumont was so slow and clumsy at it that it was
on myself only that I could rely.
I pictured to myself my Third of Hussars waiting just outside that
window, with kettle-drums and standards and leopard-skin schabraques all
complete. Then I would work like a madman, until my iron was crusted
with blood, as if with rust. And so, night by night, I loosened that
stony plaster, and hid it away in the stuffing of my pillow, until the
hour came when the iron shook; and then with one good wrench it came off
in my hand, and my first step had been made towards freedom.
You will ask me what better off I was, since, as I have said, a child
could not have fitted through the opening. I will tell you. I had gained
two things--a tool and a weapon. With the one I might loosen the stone
which flanked the window. With the other I might defend myself when I
had scrambled through. So now I turned my attention to that stone, and I
picked and picked with the sharpened end of my bar until I had worked
out the mortar all round. You understand, of course, that during the day
I replaced everything in its position, and that the warder was never
permitted to see a speck upon the floor. At the end of three weeks I had
separated the stone, and had the rapture of drawing it through, and
seeing a hole left with ten stars shining through it, where there had
been but four before. All was ready for us now, and I had replaced the
stone, smearing the edges of it round with a little fat and soot, so as
to hide the cracks where the mortar should have been. In three nights
the moon would be gone, and that seemed the best time for our attempt.
I had now no doubt at all about getting into the yards, but I had very
considerable misgivings as to how I was to get out again. It would be
too humiliating, after trying here, and trying there, to have to go back
to my hole again in despair, or to be arrested by the guards outside,
and thrown into those damp underground cells which are reserved for
prisoners who are caught in escaping. I set to work, therefore, to plan
what I should do. I have never, as you know, had the chance of showing
what I could do as a general. Sometimes, after a glass or two of wine, I
have found myself capable of thinking out surprising combinations, and
have felt that if Napoleon had intrusted me with an army corps, things
might have gone differently with him. But however that may be, there is
no doubt that in the small stratagems of war, and in that quickness of
invention which is so necessary for an officer of light cavalry, I could
hold my own against anyone. It was now that I had need of it, and I felt
sure that it would not fail me.
The inner wall which I had to scale was built of bricks, 12ft. high,
with a row of iron spikes, 3in. apart upon the top. The outer I had only
caught a glimpse of once or twice, when the gate of the exercise yard
was open. It appeared to be about the same height, and was also spiked
at the top. The space between the walls was over twenty feet, and I had
reason to believe that there were no sentries there, except at the
gates. On the other hand, I knew that there was a line of soldiers
outside. Behold the little nut, my friends, which I had to open with no
crackers, save these two hands.
One thing upon which I relied was the height of my comrade Beaumont. I
have already said that he was a very tall man, six feet at least, and it
seemed to me that if I could mount upon his shoulders, and get my hands
upon the spikes, I could easily scale the wall. Could I pull my big
companion up after me? That was the question, for when I set forth with
a comrade, even though it be one for whom I bear no affection, nothing
on earth would make me abandon him. If I climbed the wall and he could
not follow me, I should be compelled to return to him. He did not seem
to concern himself much about it, however, so I hoped that he had
confidence in his own activity.
Then another very important matter was the choice of the sentry who
should be on duty in front of my window at the time of our attempt.
They were changed every two hours to insure their vigilance, but I, who
watched them closely each night out of my window, knew that there was a
great difference between them. There were some who were so keen that a
rat could not cross the yard unseen, while others thought only of their
own ease, and could sleep as soundly leaning upon a musket as if they
were at home upon a feather bed. There was one especially, a fat, heavy
man, who would retire into the shadow of the wall and doze so
comfortably during his two hours, that I have dropped pieces of plaster
from my window at his very feet, without his observing it. By good luck,
this fellow's watch was due from twelve to two upon the night which we
had fixed upon for our enterprise.
As the last day passed, I was so filled with nervous agitation that I
could not control myself, but ran ceaselessly about my cell, like a
mouse in a cage. Every moment I thought that the warder would detect the
looseness of the bar, or that the sentry would observe the unmortared
stone, which I could not conceal outside, as I did within. As for my
companion, he sat brooding upon the end of his bed, looking at me in a
sidelong fashion from time to time, and biting his nails like one who is
deep in thought.
'Courage, my friend!' I cried, slapping him upon the shoulder. 'You will
see your guns before another month be past.'
'That is very well,' said he. 'But whither will you fly when you get
'To the coast,' I answered. 'All comes right for a brave man, and I
shall make straight for my regiment.'
'You are more likely to make straight for the underground cells, or for
the Portsmouth hulks,' said he.
'A soldier takes his chances,' I remarked. 'It is only the poltroon who
reckons always upon the worst.'
I raised a flush in each of his sallow cheeks at that, and I was glad
of it, for it was the first sign of spirit which I had ever observed in
him. For a moment he put his hand out towards his water-jug, as though
he would have hurled it at me, but then he shrugged his shoulders and
sat in silence once more, biting his nails, and scowling down at the
floor. I could not but think, as I looked at him, that perhaps I was
doing the Flying Artillery a very bad service by bringing him back to
I never in my life have known an evening pass as slowly as that one.
Towards nightfall a wind sprang up, and as the darkness deepened it blew
harder and harder, until a terrible gale was whistling over the moor. As
I looked out of my window I could not catch a glimpse of a star, and the
black clouds were flying low across the heavens. The rain was pouring
down, and what with its hissing and splashing, and the howling and
screaming of the wind, it was impossible for me to hear the steps of the
sentinels. 'If I cannot hear them,' thought I, 'then it is unlikely that
they can hear me'; and I waited with the utmost impatience until the
time when the inspector should have come round for his nightly peep
through our grating. Then having peered through the darkness, and seen
nothing of the sentry, who was doubtless crouching in some corner out of
the rain, I felt that the moment was come. I removed the bar, pulled out
the stone, and motioned to my companion to pass through.
'After you, Colonel,' said he.
'Will you not go first?' I asked.
'I had rather you showed me the way.'
'Come after me, then, but come silently, as you value your life.'
In the darkness I could hear the fellow's teeth chattering, and I
wondered whether a man ever had such a partner in a desperate
enterprise. I seized the bar, however, and mounting upon my stool, I
thrust my head and shoulders into the hole. I had wriggled through as
far as my waist, when my companion seized me suddenly by the knees, and
yelled at the top of his voice: 'Help! Help! A prisoner is escaping!'
Ah, my friends, what did I not feel at that moment! Of course, I saw in
an instant the game of this vile creature. Why should he risk his skin
in climbing walls when he might be sure of a free pardon from the
English for having prevented the escape of one so much more
distinguished than himself? I had recognized him as a poltroon and a
sneak, but I had not understood the depth of baseness to which he could
descend. One who has spent his life among gentlemen and men of honour
does not think of such things until they happen.
The blockhead did not seem to understand that he was lost more certainly
than I. I writhed back in the darkness, and seizing him by the throat, I
struck him twice with my iron bar. At the first blow he yelped as a
little cur does when you tread upon its paw. At the second, down he fell
with a groan upon the floor. Then I seated myself upon my bed, and
waited resignedly for whatever punishment my gaolers might inflict upon
But a minute passed and yet another, with no sound save the heavy,
snoring breathing of the senseless wretch upon the floor. Was it
possible, then, that amid the fury of the storm his warning cries had
passed unheeded? At first it was but a tiny hope, another minute and it
was probable, another and it was certain. There was no sound in the
corridor, none in the courtyard. I wiped the cold sweat from my brow,
and asked myself what I should do next.
One thing seemed certain. The man on the floor must die. If I left him I
could not tell how short a time it might be before he gave the alarm. I
dare not strike a light, so I felt about in the darkness until my hand
came upon something wet, which I knew to be his head. I raised my iron
bar, but there was something, my friends, which prevented me from
bringing it down. In the heat of fight I have slain many men--men of
honour, too, who had done me no injury. Yet here was this wretch, a
creature too foul to live, who had tried to work me so great a mischief,
and yet I could not bring myself to crush his skull in. Such deeds are
very well for a Spanish partida--or for that matter a sansculotte of the
Faubourg St Antoine--but not for a soldier and a gentleman like me.
However, the heavy breathing of the fellow made me hope that it might be
a very long time before he recovered his senses. I gagged him,
therefore, and bound him with strips of blanket to the bed, so that in
his weakened condition there was good reason to think that, in any case,
he might not get free before the next visit of the warder. But now again
I was faced with new difficulties, for you will remember that I had
relied upon his height to help me over the walls. I could have sat down
and shed tears of despair had not the thought of my mother and of the
Emperor come to sustain me. 'Courage!' said I. 'If it were anyone but
Etienne Gerard he would be in a bad fix now; that is a young man who is
not so easily caught.'
I set to work therefore upon Beaumont's sheet as well as my own, and by
tearing them into strips and then plaiting them together, I made a very
excellent rope. This I tied securely to the centre of my iron bar, which
was a little over a foot in length. Then I slipped out into the yard,
where the rain was pouring and the wind screaming louder than ever. I
kept in the shadow of the prison wall, but it was as black as the ace of
spades, and I could not see my own hand in front of me. Unless I walked
into the sentinel I felt that I had nothing to fear from him. When I had
come under the wall I threw up my bar, and to my joy it stuck the very
first time between the spikes at the top. I climbed up my rope, pulled
it after me, and dropped down on the other side. Then I scaled the
second wall, and was sitting astride among the spikes upon the top, when
I saw something twinkle in the darkness beneath me. It was the bayonet
of the sentinel below, and so close was it (the second wall being rather
lower than the first) that I could easily, by leaning over, have
unscrewed it from its socket. There he was, humming a tune to himself,
and cuddling up against the wall to keep himself warm, little thinking
that a desperate man within a few feet of him was within an ace of
stabbing him to the heart with his own weapon. I was already bracing
myself for the spring when the fellow, with an oath, shouldered his
musket, and I heard his steps squelching through the mud as he resumed
his beat. I slipped down my rope, and, leaving it hanging, I ran at the
top of my speed across the moor.
Heavens, how I ran! The wind buffeted my face and buzzed in my nostrils.
The rain pringled upon my skin and hissed past my ears. I stumbled into
holes. I tripped over bushes. I fell among brambles. I was torn and
breathless and bleeding. My tongue was like leather, my feet like lead,
and my heart beating like a kettle-drum. Still I ran, and I ran, and I
But I had not lost my head, my friends. Everything was done with a
purpose. Our fugitives always made for the coast. I was determined to go
inland, and the more so as I had told Beaumont the opposite. I would fly
to the north, and they would seek me in the south. Perhaps you will ask
me how I could tell which was which on such a night. I answer that it
was by the wind. I had observed in the prison that it came from the
north, and so, as long as I kept my face to it, I was going in the right
Well, I was rushing along in this fashion when, suddenly, I saw two
yellow lights shining out of the darkness in front of me. I paused for a
moment, uncertain what I should do. I was still in my hussar uniform,
you understand, and it seemed to me that the very first thing that I
should aim at was to get some dress which should not betray me. If these
lights came from a cottage, it was probable enough that I might find
what I wanted there. I approached, therefore, feeling very sorry that I
had left my iron bar behind; for I was determined to fight to the death
before I should be retaken.
But very soon I found that there was no cottage there. The lights were
two lamps hung upon each side of a carriage, and by their glare I saw
that a broad road lay in front of me. Crouching among the bushes, I
observed that there were two horses to the equipage, that a small
post-boy was standing at their heads, and that one of the wheels was
lying in the road beside him. I can see them now, my friends: the
steaming creatures, the stunted lad with his hands to their bits, and
the big, black coach, all shining with the rain, and balanced upon its
three wheels. As I looked, the window was lowered, and a pretty little
face under a bonnet peeped out from it.
'What shall I do?' the lady cried to the post-boy, in a voice of
despair. 'Sir Charles is certainly lost, and I shall have to spend the
night upon the moor.'
'Perhaps I can be of some assistance to madame,' said I, scrambling out
from among the bushes into the glare of the lamps. A woman in distress
is a sacred thing to me, and this one was beautiful. You must not forget
that, although I was a colonel, I was only eight-and-twenty years of
My word, how she screamed, and how the post-boy stared! You will
understand that after that long race in the darkness, with my shako
broken in, my face smeared with dirt, and my uniform all stained and
torn with brambles, I was not entirely the sort of gentleman whom one
would choose to meet in the middle of a lonely moor. Still, after the
first surprise, she soon understood that I was her very humble servant,
and I could even read in her pretty eyes that my manner and bearing had
not failed to produce an impression upon her.
'I am sorry to have startled you, madame,' said I. 'I chanced to
overhear your remark, and I could not refrain from offering you my
assistance.' I bowed as I spoke. You know my bow, and can realize what
its effect was upon the lady.
'I am much indebted to you, sir,' said she. 'We have had a terrible
journey since we left Tavistock. Finally, one of our wheels came off,
and here we are helpless in the middle of the moor. My husband, Sir
Charles, has gone on to get help, and I much fear that he must have lost
I was about to attempt some consolation, when I saw beside the lady a
black travelling coat, faced with astrakhan, which her companion must
have left behind him. It was exactly what I needed to conceal my
uniform. It is true that I felt very much like a highway robber, but
then, what would you have? Necessity has no law, and I was in an enemy's
'I presume, madame, that this is your husband's coat,' I remarked. 'You
will, I am sure, forgive me, if I am compelled to--' I pulled it through
the window as I spoke.
I could not bear to see the look of surprise and fear and disgust which
came over her face.
'Oh, I have been mistaken in you!' she cried. 'You came to rob me, then,
and not to help me. You have the bearing of a gentleman, and yet you
steal my husband's coat.'
'Madame,' said I, 'I beg that you will not condemn me until you know
everything. It is quite necessary that I should take this coat, but if
you will have the goodness to tell me who it is who is fortunate enough
to be your husband, I shall see that the coat is sent back to him.'
Her face softened a little, though she still tried to look severe. 'My
husband,' she answered, 'is Sir Charles Meredith, and he is travelling
to Dartmoor Prison, upon important Government business. I only ask you,
sir, to go upon your way, and to take nothing which belongs to him.'
'There is only one thing which belongs to him that I covet,' said I.
'And you have taken it from the carriage,' she cried.
'No,' I answered. 'It still remains there.'
She laughed in her frank English way.
'If, instead of paying me compliments, you were to return my husband's
coat--' she began.
'Madame,' I answered, 'what you ask is quite impossible. If you will
allow me to come into the carriage, I will explain to you how necessary
this coat is to me.'
Heaven knows into what foolishness I might have plunged myself had we
not, at this instant, heard a faint halloa in the distance, which was
answered by a shout from the little post-boy. In the rain and the
darkness, I saw a lantern some distance from us, but approaching
'I am sorry, madame, that I am forced to leave you,' said I. 'You can
assure your husband that I shall take every care of his coat.' Hurried
as I was, I ventured to pause a moment to salute the lady's hand, which
she snatched through the window with an admirable pretence of being
offended at my presumption. Then, as the lantern was quite close to me,
and the post-boy seemed inclined to interfere with my flight, I tucked
my precious overcoat under my arm, and dashed off into the darkness.
And now I set myself to the task of putting as broad a stretch of moor
between the prison and myself as the remaining hours of darkness would
allow. Setting my face to the wind once more, I ran until I fell from
exhaustion. Then, after five minutes of panting among the heather, I
made another start, until again my knees gave way beneath me. I was
young and hard, with muscles of steel, and a frame which had been
toughened by twelve years of camp and field. Thus I was able to keep up
this wild flight for another three hours, during which I still guided
myself, you understand, by keeping the wind in my face. At the end of
that time I calculated that I had put nearly twenty miles between the
prison and myself. Day was about to break, so I crouched down among the
heather upon the top of one of those small hills which abound in that
country, with the intention of hiding myself until nightfall. It was no
new thing for me to sleep in the wind and the rain, so, wrapping myself
up in my thick warm cloak, I soon sank into a doze.
But it was not a refreshing slumber. I tossed and tumbled amid a series
of vile dreams, in which everything seemed to go wrong with me. At last,
I remember, I was charging an unshaken square of Hungarian Grenadiers,
with a single squadron upon spent horses, just as I did at Elchingen. I
stood in my stirrups to shout 'Vive l'Empereur!' and as I did so, there
came the answering roar from my hussars, 'Vive l'Empereur!' I sprang
from my rough bed, with the words still ringing in my ears, and then, as
I rubbed my eyes, and wondered if I were mad, the same cry came again,
five thousand voices in one long-drawn yell. I looked out from my screen
of brambles, and saw in the clear light of morning the very last thing
that I should either have expected or chosen.
It was Dartmoor Prison! There it stretched, grim and hideous, within a
furlong of me. Had I run on for a few more minutes in the dark, I should
have butted my shako against the wall. I was so taken aback at the
sight, that I could scarcely realize what had happened. Then it all
became clear to me, and I struck my head with my hands in my despair.
The wind had veered from north to south during the night, and I, keeping
my face always towards it, had run ten miles out and ten miles in,
winding up where I had started. When I thought of my hurry, my falls, my
mad rushing and jumping, all ending in this, it seemed so absurd, that
my grief changed suddenly to amusement, and I fell among the brambles,
and laughed, and laughed, until my sides were sore. Then I rolled myself
up in my cloak and considered seriously what I should do.
One lesson which I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is
never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it.
Is not every hour a fresh point of view? In this case I soon perceived
that accident had done for me as much as the most profound cunning. My
guards naturally commenced their search from the place where I had taken
Sir Charles Meredith's coat, and from my hiding-place I could see them
hurrying along the road to that point. Not one of them ever dreamed that
I could have doubled back from there, and I lay quite undisturbed in the
little bush-covered cup at the summit of my knoll. The prisoners had, of
course, learned of my escape, and all day exultant yells, like that
which had aroused me in the morning, resounded over the moor, bearing a
welcome message of sympathy and companionship to my ears. How little did
they dream that on the top of that very mound, which they could see from
their windows, was lying the comrade whose escape they were celebrating?
As for me--I could look down upon this poor herd of idle warriors, as
they paced about the great exercise yard, or gathered in little groups,
gesticulating joyfully over my success. Once I heard a howl of
execration, and I saw Beaumont, his head all covered with bandages,
being led across the yard by two of the warders. I cannot tell you the
pleasure which this sight gave me, for it proved that I had not killed
him, and also that the others knew the true story of what had passed.
They had all known me too well to think that I could have abandoned him.
All that long day I lay behind my screen of bushes, listening to the
bells which struck the hours below.
My pockets were filled with bread which I had saved out of my allowance,
and on searching my borrowed overcoat I came upon a silver flask, full
of excellent brandy and water, so that I was able to get through the day
without hardship. The only other things in the pockets were a red silk
handkerchief, a tortoise-shell snuff-box, and a blue envelope, with a
red seal, addressed to the Governor of Dartmoor Prison. As to the first
two, I determined to send them back when I should return the coat
The letter caused me more perplexity, for the Governor had always shown
me every courtesy, and it offended my sense of honour that I should
interfere with his correspondence. I had almost made up my mind to leave
it under a stone upon the roadway within musket-shot of the gate. This
would guide them in their search for me, however, and so, on the whole,
I saw no better way than just to carry the letter with me in the hope
that I might find some means of sending it back to him. Meanwhile I
packed it safely away in my inner-most pocket.
There was a warm sun to dry my clothes, and when night fell I was ready
for my journey. I promise you that there were no mistakes this time. I
took the stars for my guides, as every hussar should be taught to do,
and I put eight good leagues between myself and the prison. My plan now
was to obtain a complete suit of clothes from the first person whom I
could waylay, and I should then find my way to the north coast, where
there were many smugglers and fishermen who would be ready to earn the
reward which was paid by the Emperor to those who brought escaping
prisoners across the Channel. I had taken the panache from my shako so
that it might escape notice, but even with my fine overcoat I feared
that sooner or later my uniform would betray me. My first care must be
to provide myself with a complete disguise.
When day broke, I saw a river upon my right and a small town upon my
left--the blue smoke reeking up above the moor. I should have liked well
to have entered it, because it would have interested me to see something
of the customs of the English, which differ very much from those of
other nations. Much as I should have wished, however, to have seen them
eat their raw meat and sell their wives, it would have been dangerous
until I had got rid of my uniform. My cap, my moustache, and my speech
would all help to betray me. I continued to travel towards the north
therefore, looking about me continually, but never catching a glimpse of
About midday I came to where, in a secluded valley, there stood a single
small cottage without any other building in sight. It was a neat little
house, with a rustic porch and a small garden in front of it, with a
swarm of cocks and hens. I lay down among the ferns and watched it, for
it seemed to be exactly the kind of place where I might obtain what I
wanted. My bread was finished, and I was exceedingly hungry after my
long journey; I determined, therefore, to make a short reconnaissance,
and then to march up to this cottage, summon it to surrender, and help
myself to all that I needed. It could at least provide me with a chicken
and with an omelette. My mouth watered at the thought.
As I lay there, wondering who could live in this lonely place, a brisk
little fellow came out through the porch, accompanied by another older
man, who carried two large clubs in his hands. These he handed to his
young companion, who swung them up and down, and round and round, with
extraordinary swiftness. The other, standing beside him, appeared to
watch him with great attention, and occasionally to advise him. Finally
he took a rope, and began skipping like a girl, the other still gravely
observing him. As you may think, I was utterly puzzled as to what these
people could be, and could only surmise that the one was a doctor, and
the other a patient who had submitted himself to some singular method of
Well, as I lay watching and wondering, the older man brought out a
great-coat, and held it while the other put it on and buttoned it to his
chin. The day was a warmish one, so that this proceeding amazed me even
more than the other. 'At least,' thought I, 'it is evident that his
exercise is over'; but, far from this being so, the man began to run, in
spite of his heavy coat, and as it chanced, he came right over the moor
in my direction. His companion had re-entered the house, so that this
arrangement suited me admirably. I would take the small man's clothing,
and hurry on to some village where I could buy provisions. The chickens
were certainly tempting, but still there were at least two men in the
house, so perhaps it would be wiser for me, since I had no arms, to keep
away from it.
I lay quietly then among the ferns. Presently I heard the steps of the
runner, and there he was quite close to me, with his huge coat, and the
perspiration running down his face. He seemed to be a very solid
man--but small--so small that I feared that his clothes might be of
little use to me. When I jumped out upon him he stopped running, and
looked at me in the greatest astonishment.
'Blow my dickey,' said he, 'give it a name, guv'nor! Is it a circus, or
That was how he talked, though I cannot pretend to tell you what he
meant by it.
'You will excuse me, sir,' said I, 'but I am under the necessity of
asking you to give me your clothes.'
'Give you what?' he cried.
'Well, if this don't lick cock-fighting!' said he. 'What am I to give
you my clothes for?'
'Because I need them.'
'And suppose I won't?'
'Be jabers,' said I, 'I shall have no choice but to take them.'
He stood with his hands in the pockets of his great-coat, and a most
amused smile upon his square-jawed, clean-shaven face.
'You'll take them, will you?' said he. 'You're a very leery cove, by the
look of you, but I can tell you that you've got the wrong sow by the ear
this time. I know who you are. You're a runaway Frenchy, from the prison
yonder, as anyone could tell with half an eye. But you don't know who I
am, else you wouldn't try such a plant as that. Why, man, I'm the
Bristol Bustler, nine stone champion, and them's my training quarters
He stared at me as if this announcement of his would have crushed me to
the earth, but I smiled at him in my turn, and looked him up and down,
with a twirl of my moustache.
'You may be a very brave man, sir,' said I, 'but when I tell you that
you are opposed to Colonel Etienne Gerard, of the Hussars of Conflans,
you will see the necessity of giving up your clothes without further
'Look here, mounseer, drop it!' he cried; 'this'll end by your getting
'Your clothes, sir, this instant!' I shouted, advancing fiercely upon
For answer he threw off his heavy great-coat, and stood in a singular
attitude, with one arm out, and the other across his chest, looking at
me with a curious smile. For myself, I knew nothing of the methods of
fighting which these people have, but on horse or on foot, with arms or
without them, I am always ready to take my own part. You understand that
a soldier cannot always choose his own methods, and that it is time to
howl when you are living among wolves. I rushed at him, therefore, with
a warlike shout, and kicked him with both my feet. At the same moment my
heels flew into the air, I saw as many flashes as at Austerlitz, and the
back of my head came down with a crash upon a stone. After that I can
remember nothing more.
When I came to myself I was lying upon a truckle-bed, in a bare,
half-furnished room. My head was ringing like a bell, and when I put up
my hand, there was a lump like a walnut over one of my eyes. My nose was
full of a pungent smell, and I soon found that a strip of paper soaked
in vinegar was fastened across my brow. At the other end of the room
this terrible little man was sitting with his knee bare, and his
elderly companion was rubbing it with some liniment. The latter seemed
to be in the worst of tempers, and he kept up a continual scolding,
which the other listened to with a gloomy face.
'Never heard tell of such a thing in my life,' he was saying. 'In
training for a month with all the weight of it on my shoulders, and then
when I get you as fit as a trout, and within two days of fighting the
likeliest man on the list, you let yourself into a by-battle with a
'There, there! Stow your gab!' said the other, sulkily. 'You're a very
good trainer, Jim, but you'd be better with less jaw.'
'I should think it was time to jaw,' the elderly man answered. 'If this
knee don't get well before next Wednesday, they'll have it that you
fought a cross, and a pretty job you'll have next time you look for a
'Fought a cross!' growled the other. 'I've won nineteen battles, and no
man ever so much as dared to say the word "cross" in my hearin'. How the
deuce was I to get out of it when the cove wanted the very clothes off
'Tut, man; you knew that the beak and the guards were within a mile of
you. You could have set them on to him as well then as now. You'd have
got your clothes back again all right.'
'Well, strike me!' said the Bustler. 'I don't often break my trainin',
but when it comes to givin' up my clothes to a Frenchy who couldn't hit
a dint in a pat o' butter, why, it's more than I can swaller.'
'Pooh, man, what are the clothes worth? D'you know that Lord Rufton
alone has five thousand pounds on you? When you jump the ropes on
Wednesday, you'll carry every penny of fifty thousand into the ring. A
pretty thing to turn up with a swollen knee and a story about a
'I never thought he'd ha' kicked,' said the Bustler.
'I suppose you expected he'd fight Broughton's rules, and strict P.R.?
Why, you silly, they don't know what fighting is in France.'
'My friends,' said I, sitting up on my bed, 'I do not understand very
much of what you say, but when you speak like that it is foolishness. We
know so much about fighting in France, that we have paid our little
visit to nearly every capital in Europe, and very soon we are coming to
London. But we fight like soldiers, you understand, and not like gamins
in the gutter. You strike me on the head. I kick you on the knee. It is
child's play. But if you will give me a sword, and take another one, I
will show you how we fight over the water.'
They both stared at me in their solid, English way.
'Well, I'm glad you're not dead, mounseer,' said the elder one at last.
'There wasn't much sign of life in you when the Bustler and me carried
you down. That head of yours ain't thick enough to stop the crook of the
hardest hitter in Bristol.'
'He's a game cove, too, and he came for me like a bantam,' said the
other, still rubbing his knee. 'I got my old left-right in, and he went
over as if he had been pole-axed. It wasn't my fault, mounseer. I told
you you'd get pepper if you went on.'
'Well, it's something to say all your life, that you've been handled by
the finest light-weight in England,' said the older man, looking at me
with an expression of congratulation upon his face. 'You've had him at
his best, too--in the pink of condition, and trained by Jim Hunter.'
'I am used to hard knocks,' said I, unbuttoning my tunic, and showing my
two musket wounds. Then I bared my ankle also, and showed the place in
my eye where the guerilla had stabbed me.
'He can take his gruel,' said the Bustler.
'What a glutton he'd have made for the middle-weights,' remarked the
trainer; 'with six months' coaching he'd astonish the fancy. It's a pity
he's got to go back to prison.'
I did not like that last remark at all. I buttoned up my coat and rose
from the bed.
'I must ask you to let me continue my journey,' said I.
'There's no help for it, mounseer,' the trainer answered. 'It's a hard
thing to send such a man as you back to such a place, but business is
business, and there's a twenty pound reward. They were here this
morning, looking for you, and I expect they'll be round again.'
His words turned my heart to lead.
'Surely, you would not betray me!' I cried. 'I will send you twice
twenty pounds on the day that I set foot upon France. I swear it upon
the honour of a French gentleman.'
But I only got head-shakes for a reply. I pleaded, I argued, I spoke of
the English hospitality and the fellowship of brave men, but I might as
well have been addressing the two great wooden clubs which stood
balanced upon the floor in front of me. There was no sign of sympathy
upon their bull-faces.
'Business is business, mounseer,' the old trainer repeated. 'Besides,
how am I to put the Bustler into the ring on Wednesday if he's jugged by
the beak for aidin' and abettin' a prisoner of war? I've got to look
after the Bustler, and I take no risks.'
This, then, was the end of all my struggles and strivings. I was to be
led back again like a poor silly sheep who has broken through the
hurdles. They little knew me who could fancy that I should submit to
such a fate. I had heard enough to tell me where the weak point of these
two men was, and I showed, as I have often showed before, that Etienne
Gerard is never so terrible as when all hope seems to have deserted him.
With a single spring I seized one of the clubs and swung it over the
head of the Bustler.
'Come what may,' I cried, '_you_ shall be spoiled for Wednesday.'
The fellow growled out an oath, and would have sprung at me, but the
other flung his arms round him and pinned him to the chair.
'Not if I know it, Bustler,' he screamed. 'None of your games while I am
by. Get away out of this, Frenchy. We only want to see your back. Run
away, run away, or he'll get loose!'
It was good advice, I thought, and I ran to the door, but as I came out
into the open air my head swam round and I had to lean against the porch
to save myself from falling. Consider all that I had been through, the
anxiety of my escape, the long, useless flight in the storm, the day
spent amid wet ferns, with only bread for food, the second journey by
night, and now the injuries which I had received in attempting to
deprive the little man of his clothes. Was it wonderful that even I
should reach the limits of my endurance?
I stood there in my heavy coat and my poor battered shako, my chin upon
my chest, and my eyelids over my eyes. I had done my best, and I could
do no more. It was the sound of horses' hoofs which made me at last
raise my head, and there was the grey-moustached Governor of Dartmoor
Prison not ten paces in front of me, with six mounted warders behind
'So, Colonel,' said he, with a bitter smile, 'we have found you once
When a brave man has done his utmost, and has failed, he shows his
breeding by the manner in which he accepts his defeat. For me, I took
the letter which I had in my pocket, and stepping forward, I handed it
with such grace of manner as I could summon to the Governor.
'It has been my misfortune, sir, to detain one of your letters,' said I.
He looked at me in amazement, and beckoned to the warders to arrest me.
Then he broke the seal of the letter. I saw a curious expression come
over his face as he read it.
'This must be the letter which Sir Charles Meredith lost,' said he.
'It was in the pocket of his coat.'
'You have carried it for two days?'
'Since the night before last.'
'And never looked at the contents?'
I showed him by my manner that he had committed an indiscretion in
asking a question which one gentleman should not have put to another.
To my surprise he burst out into a roar of laughter.
'Colonel,' said he, wiping the tears from his eyes, 'you have really
given both yourself and us a great deal of unnecessary trouble. Allow me
to read the letter which you carried with you in your flight.'
And this was what I heard:--
'On receipt of this you are directed to release Colonel Etienne Gerard,
of the 3rd Hussars, who has been exchanged against Colonel Mason, of the
Horse Artillery, now in Verdun.'
And as he read it, he laughed again, and the warders laughed, and the
two men from the cottage laughed, and then, as I heard this universal
merriment, and thought of all my hopes and fears, and my struggles and
dangers, what could a debonair soldier do but lean against the porch
once more, and laugh as heartily as any of them? And of them all was it
not I who had the best reason to laugh, since in front of me I could see
my dear France, and my mother, and the Emperor, and my horsemen; while
behind lay the gloomy prison, and the heavy hand of the English King?
5. HOW THE BRIGADIER TOOK THE FIELD AGAINST THE MARSHAL MILLEFLEURS
Massena was a thin, sour little fellow, and after his hunting accident
he had only one eye, but when it looked out from under his cocked hat
there was not much upon a field of battle which escaped it. He could
stand in front of a battalion, and with a single sweep tell you if a
buckle or a gaiter button were out of place. Neither the officers nor
the men were very fond of him, for he was, as you know, a miser, and
soldiers love that their leaders should be free-handed. At the same
time, when it came to work they had a very high respect for him, and
they would rather fight under him than under anyone except the Emperor
himself, and Lannes, when he was alive. After all, if he had a tight
grasp upon his money-bags, there was a day also, you must remember, when
that same grip was upon Zurich and Genoa. He clutched on to his
positions as he did to his strong box, and it took a very clever man to
loosen him from either.
When I received his summons I went gladly to his headquarters, for I was
always a great favourite of his, and there was no officer of whom he
thought more highly. That was the best of serving with those good old
generals, that they knew enough to be able to pick out a fine soldier
when they saw one. He was seated alone in his tent, with his chin upon
his hand, and his brow as wrinkled as if he had been asked for a
subscription. He smiled, however, when he saw me before him.
'Good day, Colonel Gerard.'
'Good day, Marshal.'
'How is the Third of Hussars?'
'Seven hundred incomparable men upon seven hundred excellent horses.'
'And your wounds--are they healed?'
'My wounds never heal, Marshal,' I answered.
'Because I have always new ones.'
'General Rapp must look to his laurels,' said he, his face all breaking
into wrinkles as he laughed. 'He has had twenty-one from the enemy's
bullets, and as many from Larrey's knives and probes. Knowing that you
were hurt, Colonel, I have spared you of late.'
'Which hurt me most of all.'
'Tut, tut! Since the English got behind these accursed lines of Torres
Vedras, there has been little for us to do. You did not miss much during
your imprisonment at Dartmoor. But now we are on the eve of action.'
My face must have shown my dismay. What, retire before this sacred dog
of a Wellington--he who had listened unmoved to my words, and had sent
me to his land of fogs? I could have sobbed as I thought of it.
'What would you have?' cried Massena impatiently. 'When one is in check,
it is necessary to move the king.'
'Forwards,' I suggested.
He shook his grizzled head.
'The lines are not to be forced,' said he. 'I have already lost General
St. Croix and more men than I can replace. On the other hand, we have
been here at Santarem for nearly six months. There is not a pound of
flour nor a jug of wine on the countryside. We must retire.'
'There are flour and wine in Lisbon,' I persisted.
'Tut, you speak as if an army could charge in and charge out again like
your regiment of hussars. If Soult were here with thirty thousand
men--but he will not come. I sent for you, however, Colonel Gerard, to
say that I have a very singular and important expedition which I intend
to place under your direction.'
I pricked up my ears, as you can imagine. The Marshal unrolled a great
map of the country and spread it upon the table. He flattened it out
with his little, hairy hands.
'This is Santarem,' he said pointing.
'And here, twenty-five miles to the east, is Almeixal, celebrated for
its vintages and for its enormous Abbey.'
Again I nodded; I could not think what was coming.
'Have you heard of the Marshal Millefleurs?' asked Massena.
'I have served with all the Marshals,' said I, 'but there is none of
'It is but the nickname which the soldiers have given him,' said
Massena. 'If you had not been away from us for some months, it would not
be necessary for me to tell you about him. He is an Englishman, and a
man of good breeding. It is on account of his manners that they have
given him his title. I wish you to go to this polite Englishman at
'And to hang him to the nearest tree.'
I turned briskly upon my heels, but Massena recalled me before I could
reach the opening of his tent.
'One moment, Colonel,' said he; 'you had best learn how matters stand
before you start. You must know, then, that this Marshal Millefleurs,
whose real name is Alexis Morgan, is a man of very great ingenuity and
bravery. He was an officer in the English Guards, but having been broken
for cheating at cards, he left the army. In some manner he gathered a
number of English deserters round him and took to the mountains. French
stragglers and Portuguese brigands joined him, and he found himself at
the head of five hundred men. With these he took possession of the
Abbey of Almeixal, sent the monks about their business, fortified the
place, and gathered in the plunder of all the country round.'
'For which it is high time he was hanged,' said I, making once more for
'One instant!' cried the Marshal, smiling at my impatience. 'The worst
remains behind. Only last week the Dowager Countess of La Ronda, the
richest woman in Spain, was taken by these ruffians in the passes as she
was journeying from King Joseph's Court to visit her grandson. She is
now a prisoner in the Abbey, and is only protected by her----'
'Grandmotherhood,' I suggested.
'Her power of paying a ransom,' said Massena. 'You have three missions,
then: To rescue this unfortunate lady; to punish this villain; and, if
possible, to break up this nest of brigands. It will be a proof of the
confidence which I have in you when I say that I can only spare you half
a squadron with which to accomplish all this.'
My word, I could hardly believe my ears! I thought that I should have
had my regiment at the least.
'I would give you more,' said he, 'but I commence my retreat today, and
Wellington is so strong in horse that every trooper becomes of
importance. I cannot spare you another man. You will see what you can
do, and you will report yourself to me at Abrantes not later than
It was very complimentary that he should rate my powers so high, but it
was also a little embarrassing. I was to rescue an old lady, to hang an
Englishman, and to break up a band of five hundred assassins--all with
fifty men. But after all, the fifty men were Hussars of Conflans, and
they had an Etienne Gerard to lead them. As I came out into the warm
Portuguese sunshine my confidence had returned to me, and I had already
begun to wonder whether the medal which I had so often deserved might
not be waiting for me at Almeixal.
You may be sure that I did not take my fifty men at hap-hazard. They
were all old soldiers of the German wars, some of them with three
stripes, and most of them with two. Oudet and Papilette, two of the best
sub-officers in the regiment, were at their head. When I had them formed
up in fours, all in silver grey and upon chestnut horses, with their
leopard skin shabracks and their little red panaches, my heart beat high
at the sight. I could not look at their weather-stained faces, with the
great moustaches which bristled over their chin-straps, without feeling
a glow of confidence, and, between ourselves, I have no doubt that that
was exactly how they felt when they saw their young Colonel on his great
black war-horse riding at their head.
Well, when we got free of the camp and over the Tagus, I threw out my
advance and my flankers, keeping my own place at the head of the main
body. Looking back from the hills above Santarem, we could see the dark
lines of Massena's army, with the flash and twinkle of the sabres and
bayonets as he moved his regiments into position for their retreat. To
the south lay the scattered red patches of the English outposts, and
behind the grey smoke-cloud which rose from Wellington's camp--thick,
oily smoke, which seemed to our poor starving fellows to bear with it
the rich smell of seething camp-kettles. Away to the west lay a curve of
blue sea flecked with the white sails of the English ships.
You will understand that as we were riding to the east, our road lay
away from both armies. Our own marauders, however, and the scouting
parties of the English, covered the country, and it was necessary with
my small troop that I should take every precaution. During the whole day
we rode over desolate hill-sides, the lower portions covered by the
budding vines, but the upper turning from green to grey, and jagged
along the skyline like the back of a starved horse. Mountain streams
crossed our path, running west to the Tagus, and once we came to a deep,
strong river, which might have checked us had I not found the ford by
observing where houses had been built opposite each other upon either
bank. Between them, as every scout should know, you will find your ford.
There was none to give us information, for neither man nor beast, nor
any living thing except great clouds of crows, was to be seen during our
The sun was beginning to sink when we came to a valley clear in the
centre, but shrouded by huge oak trees upon either side. We could not be
more than a few miles from Almeixal, so it seemed to me to be best to
keep among the groves, for the spring had been an early one and the
leaves were already thick enough to conceal us. We were riding then in
open order among the great trunks, when one of my flankers came
'There are English across the valley, Colonel,' he cried, as he saluted.
'Cavalry or infantry?'
'Dragoons, Colonel,' said he; 'I saw the gleam of their helmets, and
heard the neigh of a horse.'
Halting my men I hastened to the edge of the wood. There could be no
doubt about it. A party of English cavalry was travelling in a line with
us, and in the same direction. I caught a glimpse of their red coats and
of their flashing arms glowing and twinkling among the tree-trunks.
Once, as they passed through a small clearing, I could see their whole
force, and I judged that they were of about the same strength as my
own--a half squadron at the most.
You who have heard some of my little adventures will give me credit for
being quick in my decisions, and prompt in carrying them out. But here I
must confess that I was in two minds. On the one hand there was the