Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Ted Garvin, Josephine Paolucci and the Online Distributed
THE LAIRD'S LUCK
AND OTHER FIRESIDE TALES
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
NEW YORK 1901
THE LAIRD'S LUCK
[_In a General Order issued from the Horse-Guards on New Year's Day,
1836, His Majesty, King William IV., was pleased to direct, through
the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hill, that "with the view of doing the
fullest justice to Regiments, as well as to Individuals who had
distinguished themselves in action against the enemy," an account
of the services of every Regiment in the British Army should be
published, under the supervision of the Adjutant General_.
_With fair promptitude this scheme was put in hand, under the
editorship of Mr. Richard Cannon, Principal Clerk of the Adjutant
General's Office. The duty of examining, sifting, and preparing the
records of that distinguished Regiment which I shall here call the
Moray Highlanders (concealing its real name for reasons which the
narrative will make apparent) fell to a certain Major Reginald
Sparkes; who in the course of his researches came upon a number of
pages in manuscript sealed under one cover and docketed "Memoranda
concerning Ensign D.M.J. Mackenzie. J.R., Jan. 3rd, 1816"--the
initials being those of Lieut.-Colonel Sir James Ross, who had
commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Morays through the campaign of
Waterloo. The cover also bore, in the same handwriting, the word
"Private," twice underlined_.
_Of the occurrences related in the enclosed papers--of the private
ones, that is--it so happened that of the four eye-witnesses none
survived at the date of Major Sparkes' discovery. They had, moreover,
so carefully taken their secret with them that the Regiment preserved
not a rumour of it. Major Sparkes' own commission was considerably
more recent than the Waterloo year, and he at least had heard no
whisper of the story. It lay outside the purpose of his inquiry, and
he judiciously omitted it from his report. But the time is past when
its publication might conceivably have been injurious; and with
some alterations in the names--to carry out the disguise of the
Regiment--it is here given. The reader will understand that I use the_
IPSISSIMA VERBA _of Colonel Ross_.--Q.]
THE LAIRD'S LUCK
I had the honour of commanding my Regiment, the Moray Highlanders,
on the 16th of June, 1815, when the late Ensign David Marie Joseph
Mackenzie met his end in the bloody struggle of Quatre Bras (his first
engagement). He fell beside the colours, and I gladly bear witness
that he had not only borne himself with extreme gallantry, but
maintained, under circumstances of severest trial, a coolness which
might well have rewarded me for my help in procuring the lad's
commission. And yet at the moment I could scarcely regret his death,
for he went into action under a suspicion so dishonouring that, had
it been proved, no amount of gallantry could have restored him to the
respect of his fellows. So at least I believed, with three of his
brother officers who shared the secret. These were Major William Ross
(my half-brother), Captain Malcolm Murray, and Mr. Ronald Braintree
Urquhart, then our senior ensign. Of these, Mr. Urquhart fell two days
later, at Waterloo, while steadying his men to face that heroic shock
in which Pack's skeleton regiments were enveloped yet not overwhelmed
by four brigades of the French infantry. From the others I received at
the time a promise that the accusation against young Mackenzie should
be wiped off the slate by his death, and the affair kept secret
between us. Since then, however, there has come to me an explanation
which--though hard indeed to credit--may, if true, exculpate the lad.
I laid it before the others, and they agreed that if, in spite of
precautions, the affair should ever come to light, the explanation
ought also in justice to be forthcoming; and hence I am writing this
It was in the late September of 1814 that I first made acquaintance
with David Mackenzie. A wound received in the battle of Salamanca--a
shattered ankle--had sent me home invalided, and on my partial
recovery I was appointed to command the 2nd Battalion of my Regiment,
then being formed at Inverness. To this duty I was equal; but my ankle
still gave trouble (the splinters from time to time working through
the flesh), and in the late summer of 1814 I obtained leave of absence
with my step-brother, and spent some pleasant weeks in cruising and
fishing about the Moray Firth. Finding that my leg bettered by this
idleness, we hired a smaller boat and embarked on a longer excursion,
which took us almost to the south-west end of Loch Ness.
Here, on September 18th, and pretty late in the afternoon, we were
overtaken by a sudden squall, which carried away our mast (we found
afterwards that it had rotted in the step), and put us for some
minutes in no little danger; for my brother and I, being inexpert
seamen, did not cut the tangle away, as we should have done, but made
a bungling attempt to get the mast on board, with the rigging and
drenched sail; and thereby managed to knock a hole in the side of
the boat, which at once began to take in water. This compelled us to
desist and fall to baling with might and main, leaving the raffle and
jagged end of the mast to bump against us at the will of the waves.
In short, we were in a highly unpleasant predicament, when a coble or
row-boat, carrying one small lug-sail, hove out of the dusk to our
assistance. It was manned by a crew of three, of whom the master
(though we had scarce light enough to distinguish features) hailed us
in a voice which was patently a gentleman's. He rounded up, lowered
sail, and ran his boat alongside; and while his two hands were cutting
us free of our tangle, inquired very civilly if we were strangers. We
answered that we were, and desired him to tell us of the nearest place
alongshore where we might land and find a lodging for the night, as
well as a carpenter to repair our damage.
"In any ordinary case," said he, "I should ask you to come aboard and
home with me. But my house lies five miles up the lake; your boat is
sinking, and the first thing is to beach her. It happens that you are
but half a mile from Ardlaugh and a decent carpenter who can answer
all requirements. I think, if I stand by you, the thing can be done;
and afterwards we will talk of supper."
By diligent baling we were able, under his direction, to bring our
boat to a shingly beach, over which a light shone warm in a cottage
window. Our hail was quickly answered by a second light. A lantern
issued from the building, and we heard the sound of footsteps.
"Is that you, Donald?" cried our rescuer (as I may be permitted to
Before an answer could be returned, we saw that two men were
approaching; of whom the one bearing the lantern was a grizzled old
carlin with bent knees and a stoop of the shoulders. His companion
carried himself with a lighter step. It was he who advanced to salute
us, the old man holding the light obediently; and the rays revealed to
us a slight, up-standing youth, poorly dressed, but handsome, and with
a touch of pride in his bearing.
"Good evening, gentlemen." He lifted his bonnet politely, and turned
to our rescuer. "Good evening, Mr. Gillespie," he said--I thought more
coldly. "Can I be of any service to your friends?"
Mr. Gillespie's manner had changed suddenly at sight of the young man,
whose salutation he acknowledged more coldly and even more curtly
than it had been given. "I can scarcely claim them as my friends," he
answered. "They are two gentlemen, strangers in these parts, who have
met with an accident to their boat: one so serious that I brought them
to the nearest landing, which happened to be Donald's." He shortly
explained our mishap, while the young man took the lantern in hand and
inspected the damage with Donald.
"There is nothing," he announced, "which cannot be set right in a
couple of hours; but we must wait till morning. Meanwhile if, as I
gather, you have no claim on these gentlemen, I shall beg them to be
my guests for the night."
We glanced at Mr. Gillespie, whose manners seemed to have deserted
him. He shrugged his shoulders. "Your house is the nearer," said he,
"and the sooner they reach a warm fire the better for them after their
drenching." And with that he lifted his cap to us, turned abruptly,
and pushed off his own boat, scarcely regarding our thanks.
A somewhat awkward pause followed as we stood on the beach, listening
to the creak of the thole-pins in the departing boat. After a minute
our new acquaintance turned to us with a slightly constrained laugh.
"Mr. Gillespie omitted some of the formalities," said he. "My name is
Mackenzie--David Mackenzie; and I live at Ardlaugh Castle, scarcely
half a mile up the glen behind us. I warn you that its hospitality is
rude, but to what it affords you are heartily welcome."
He spoke with a high, precise courtliness which contrasted oddly with
his boyish face (I guessed his age at nineteen or twenty), and still
more oddly with his clothes, which were threadbare and patched in
many places, yet with a deftness which told of a woman's care. We
introduced ourselves by name, and thanked him, with some expressions
of regret at inconveniencing (as I put it, at hazard) the family at
"Oh!" he interrupted, "I am sole master there. I have no parents
living, no family, and," he added, with a slight sullenness which I
afterwards recognised as habitual, "I may almost say, no friends:
though to be sure, you are lucky enough to have one fellow-guest
to-night--the minister of the parish, a Mr. Saul, and a very worthy
He broke off to give Donald some instructions about the boat, watched
us while we found our plaids and soaked valises, and then took the
lantern from the old man's hand. "I ought to have explained," said
he, "that we have neither cart here nor carriage: indeed, there is no
carriage-road. But Donald has a pony."
He led the way a few steps up the beach, and then halted, perceiving
my lameness for the first time. "Donald, fetch out the pony. Can you
ride bareback?" he asked: "I fear there's no saddle but an old piece
of sacking." In spite of my protestations the pony was led forth; a
starved little beast, on whose over-sharp ridge I must have cut a
sufficiently ludicrous figure when hoisted into place with the valises
slung behind me.
The procession set out, and I soon began to feel thankful for my seat,
though I took no ease in it. For the road climbed steeply from the
cottage, and at once began to twist up the bottom of a ravine so
narrow that we lost all help of the young moon. The path, indeed,
resembled the bed of a torrent, shrunk now to a trickle of water, the
voice of which ran in my ears while our host led the way, springing
from boulder to boulder, avoiding pools, and pausing now and then to
hold his lantern over some slippery place. The pony followed with
admirable caution, and my brother trudged in the rear and took his cue
from us. After five minutes of this the ground grew easier and at the
same time steeper, and I guessed that we were slanting up the hillside
and away from the torrent at an acute angle. The many twists and
angles, and the utter darkness (for we were now moving between trees)
had completely baffled my reckoning when--at the end of twenty
minutes, perhaps--Mr. Mackenzie halted and allowed me to come up with
I was about to ask the reason of this halt when a ray of his lantern
fell on a wall of masonry; and with a start almost laughable I knew
we had arrived. To come to an entirely strange house at night is an
experience which holds some taste of mystery even for the oldest
campaigner; but I have never in my life received such a shock as this
building gave me--naked, unlit, presented to me out of a darkness
in which I had imagined a steep mountain scaur dotted with dwarfed
trees--a sudden abomination of desolation standing, like the
prophet's, where it ought not. No light showed on the side where we
stood--the side over the ravine; only one pointed turret stood out
against the faint moonlight glow in the upper sky: but feeling our way
around the gaunt side of the building, we came to a back court-yard
and two windows lit. Our host whistled, and helped me to dismount.
In an angle of the court a creaking door opened. A woman's voice
cried, "That will be be you, Ardlaugh, and none too early! The
She broke off, catching sight of us. Our host stepped hastily to the
door and began a whispered conversation. We could hear that she
was protesting, and began to feel awkward enough. But whatever her
objections were, her master cut them short.
"Come in, sirs," he invited us: "I warned you that the fare would be
hard, but I repeat that you are welcome."
To our surprise and, I must own, our amusement, the woman caught up
his words with new protestations, uttered this time at the top of her
"The fare hard? Well, it might not please folks accustomed to city
feasts; but Ardlaugh was not yet without a joint of venison in the
larder and a bottle of wine, maybe two, maybe three, for any guest its
master chose to make welcome. It was 'an ill bird that 'filed his own
nest'"--with more to this effect, which our host tried in vain to
"Then I will lead you to your rooms," he said, turning to us as soon
as she paused to draw breath.
"Indeed, Ardlaugh, you will do nothing of the kind." She ran into the
kitchen, and returned holding high a lighted torch--a grey-haired
woman with traces of past comeliness, overlaid now by an air of worry,
almost of fear. But her manner showed only a defiant pride as she led
us up the uncarpeted stairs, past old portraits sagging and rotting in
their frames, through bleak corridors, where the windows were patched
and the plastered walls discoloured by fungus. Once only she halted.
"It will be a long way to your appartments. A grand house!" She had
faced round on us, and her eyes seemed to ask a question of ours. "I
have known it filled," she added--"filled with guests, and the
drink and fiddles never stopping for a week. You will see it better
to-morrow. A grand house!"
I will confess that, as I limped after this barbaric woman and her
torch, I felt some reasonable apprehensions of the bedchamber towards
which they were escorting me. But here came another surprise. The room
was of moderate size, poorly furnished, indeed, but comfortable and
something more. It bore traces of many petty attentions, even--in its
white dimity curtains and valances--of an attempt at daintiness. The
sight of it brought quite a pleasant shock after the dirt and disarray
of the corridor. Nor was the room assigned to my brother one whit less
habitable. But if surprised by all this, I was fairly astounded
to find in each room a pair of candles lit--and quite recently
lit--beside the looking-glass, and an ewer of hot water standing, with
a clean towel upon it, in each wash-hand basin. No sooner had the
woman departed than I visited my brother and begged him (while he
unstrapped his valise) to explain this apparent miracle. He could only
guess with me that the woman had been warned of our arrival by the
noise of footsteps in the court-yard, and had dispatched a servant by
some back stairs to make ready for us.
Our valises were, fortunately, waterproof. We quickly exchanged our
damp clothes for dry ones, and groped our way together along the
corridors, helped by the moon, which shone through their uncurtained
windows, to the main staircase. Here we came on a scent of roasting
meat--appetising to us after our day in the open air--and at the foot
found our host waiting for us. He had donned his Highland dress of
ceremony--velvet jacket, phillabeg and kilt, with the tartan of
his clan--and looked (I must own) extremely well in it, though the
garments had long since lost their original gloss. An apology for our
rough touring suits led to some few questions and replies about the
regimental tartan of the Morays, in the history of which he was
passably well informed.
Thus chatting, we entered the great hall of Ardlaugh Castle--a tall,
but narrow and ill-proportioned apartment, having an open timber roof,
a stone-paved floor, and walls sparsely decorated with antlers and
round targes--where a very small man stood warming his back at
an immense fireplace. This was the Reverend Samuel Saul, whose
acquaintance we had scarce time to make before a cracked gong summoned
us to dinner in the adjoining room.
The young Laird of Ardlaugh took his seat in a roughly carved chair
of state at the head of the table; but before doing so treated me to
another surprise by muttering a Latin grace and crossing himself. Up
to now I had taken it for granted he was a member of the Scottish
Kirk. I glanced at the minister in some mystification; but he, good
man, appeared to have fallen into a brown study, with his eyes
fastened upon a dish of apples which adorned the centre of our
promiscuously furnished board.
Of the furniture of our meal I can only say that poverty and decent
appearance kept up a brave fight throughout. The table-cloth was
ragged, but spotlessly clean; the silver-ware scanty and worn with
high polishing. The plates and glasses displayed a noble range of
patterns, but were for the most part chipped or cracked. Each knife
had been worn to a point, and a few of them joggled in their handles.
In a lull of the talk I caught myself idly counting the darns in my
table-napkin. They were--if I remember--fourteen, and all exquisitely
stitched. The dinner, on the other hand, would have tempted men far
less hungry than we--grilled steaks of salmon, a roast haunch of
venison, grouse, a milk-pudding, and, for dessert, the dish of apples
already mentioned; the meats washed down with one wine only, but that
wine was claret, and beautifully sound. I should mention that we were
served by a grey-haired retainer, almost stone deaf, and as hopelessly
cracked as the gong with which he had beaten us to dinner. In the long
waits between the courses we heard him quarrelling outside with
the woman who had admitted us; and gradually--I know not how--the
conviction grew on me that they were man and wife, and the only
servants of our host's establishment. To cover the noise of one of
their altercations I began to congratulate the Laird on the quality of
his venison, and put some idle question about his care for his deer.
"I have no deer-forest," he answered. "Elspeth is my only
I had some reply on my lips, when my attention was distracted by a
sudden movement by the Rev. Samuel Saul. This honest man had, as we
shook hands in the great hall, broken into a flood of small talk.
On our way to the dining-room he took me, so to speak, by the
button-hole, and within the minute so drenched me with gossip about
Ardlaugh, its climate, its scenery, its crops, and the dimensions of
the parish, that I feared a whole evening of boredom lay before us.
But from the moment we seated ourselves at table he dropped to an
absolute silence. There are men, living much alone, who by habit
talk little during their meals; and the minister might be reserving
himself. But I had almost forgotten his presence when I heard a sharp
exclamation, and, looking across, saw him take from his lips his
wine-glass of claret and set it down with a shaking hand. The Laird,
too, had heard, and bent a darkly questioning glance on him. At once
the little man--whose face had turned to a sickly white--began to
stammer and excuse himself.
"It was nothing--a spasm. He would be better of it in a moment. No, he
would take no wine: a glass of water would set him right--he was more
used to drinking water," he explained, with a small, nervous laugh.
Perceiving that our solicitude embarrassed him, we resumed our talk,
which now turned upon the last peninsular campaign and certain
engagements in which the Morays had borne part; upon the stability of
the French Monarchy, and the career (as we believed, at an end) of
Napoleon. On all these topics the Laird showed himself well informed,
and while preferring the part of listener (as became his youth) from
time to time put in a question which convinced me of his intelligence,
especially in military affairs.
The minister, though silent as before, had regained his colour; and we
were somewhat astonished when, the cloth being drawn and the company
left to its wine and one dish of dessert, he rose and announced that
he must be going. He was decidedly better, but (so he excused himself)
would feel easier at home in his own manse; and so, declining our
host's offer of a bed, he shook hands and bade us good-night. The
Laird accompanied him to the door, and in his absence I fell to
peeling an apple, while my brother drummed with his fingers on the
table and eyed the faded hangings. I suppose that ten minutes elapsed
before we heard the young man's footsteps returning through the
flagged hall and a woman's voice uplifted.
"But had the minister any complaint, whatever--to ride off without a
word? She could answer for the collops--"
"Whist, woman! Have done with your clashin', ye doited old fool!" He
slammed the door upon her, stepped to the table, and with a sullen
frown poured himself a glass of wine. His brow cleared as he drank it.
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen; but this indisposition of Mr. Saul has
annoyed me. He lives at the far end of the parish--a good seven miles
away--and I had invited him expressly to talk of parish affairs."
"I believe," said I, "you and he are not of the same religion?"
"Eh?" He seemed to be wondering how I had guessed. "No, I was bred a
Catholic. In our branch we have always held to the Old Religion. But
that doesn't prevent my wishing to stand well with my neighbours and
do my duty towards them. What disheartens me is, they won't see it."
He pushed the wine aside, and for a while, leaning his elbows on the
table and resting his chin on his knuckles, stared gloomily before
him. Then, with sudden boyish indignation, he burst out: "It's an
infernal shame; that's it--an infernal shame! I haven't been home here
a twelvemonth, and the people avoid me like a plague. What have I
done? My father wasn't popular--in fact, they hated him. But so did I.
And he hated me, God knows: misused my mother, and wouldn't endure me
in his presence. All my miserable youth I've been mewed up in a school
in England--a private seminary. Ugh? what a den it was, too! My mother
died calling for me--I was not allowed to come: I hadn't seen her for
three years. And now, when the old tyrant is dead, and I come home
meaning--so help me!--to straighten things out and make friends--come
home, to the poverty you pretend not to notice, though it stares you
in the face from every wall--come home, only asking to make the best
of of it, live on good terms with my fellows, and be happy for the
first time in my life--damn them, they won't fling me a kind look!
What have I _done_?--that's what I want to know. The queer thing is,
they behaved more decently at first. There's that Gillespie, who
brought you ashore: he came over the first week, offered me shooting,
was altogether as pleasant as could be. I quite took to the fellow.
Now, when we meet, he looks the other way! If he has anything against
me, he might at least explain: it's all I ask. What have I done?"
Throughout this outburst I sat slicing my apple and taking now and
then a glance at the speaker. It was all so hotly and honestly boyish!
He only wanted justice. I know something of youngsters, and recognised
the cry. Justice! It's the one thing every boy claims confidently as
his right, and probably the last thing on earth he will ever get.
And this boy looked so handsome, too, sitting in his father's chair,
petulant, restive under a weight too heavy (as anyone could see) for
his age. I couldn't help liking him.
My brother told me afterwards that I pounced like any
recruiting-sergeant. This I do not believe. But what, after a long
pause, I said was this: "If you are innocent or unconscious of
offending, you can only wait for your neighbours to explain
themselves. Meanwhile, why not leave them? Why not travel, for
"Travel!" he echoed, as much as to say, "You ought to know, without my
telling, that I cannot afford it."
"Travel," I repeated; "see the world, rub against men of your age. You
might by the way do some fighting."
He opened his eyes wide. I saw the sudden idea take hold of him, and
again I liked what I saw.
"If I thought--" He broke off. "You don't mean--" he began, and broke
"I mean the Morays," I said. "There may be difficulties; but at this
moment I cannot see any real ones."
By this time he was gripping the arms of his chair. "If I thought--"
he harked back, and for the third time broke off. "What a fool I am!
It's the last thing they ever put in a boy's head at that infernal
school. If you will believe it, they wanted to make a priest of me!"
He sprang up, pushing back his chair. We carried our wine into the
great hall, and sat there talking the question over before the fire.
Before we parted for the night I had engaged to use all my interest to
get him a commission in the Morays; and I left him pacing the hall,
his mind in a whirl, but his heart (as was plain to see) exulting in
his new prospects.
And certainly, when I came to inspect the castle by the next morning's
light, I could understand his longing to leave it. A gloomier, more
pretentious, or worse-devised structure I never set eyes on. The
Mackenzie who erected it may well have been (as the saying is) his own
architect, and had either come to the end of his purse or left his
heirs to decide against planting gardens, laying out approaches or
even maintaining the pile in decent repair. In place of a drive a
grassy cart-track, scored deep with old ruts, led through a gateless
entrance into a courtyard where the slates had dropped from the roof
and lay strewn like autumn leaves. On this road I encountered the
young Laird returning from an early tramp with his gun; and he stood
still and pointed to the castle with a grimace.
"A white elephant," said I.
"Call it rather the corpse of one," he answered. "Cannot you imagine
some _genie_ of the Oriental Tales dragging the beast across Europe
and dumping it down here in a sudden fit of disgust? As a matter of
fact my grandfather built it, and cursed us with poverty thereby. It
soured my father's life. I believe the only soul honestly proud of it
"And I suppose," said I, "you will leave her in charge of it when you
join the Morays?"
"Ah!" he broke in, with a voice which betrayed his relief: "you are
in earnest about that? Yes Elspeth will look after the castle, as she
does already. I am just a child in her hand. When a man has one only
servant it's well to have her devoted." Seeing my look of surprise, he
added, "I don't count old Duncan, her husband; for he's half-witted,
and only serves to break the plates. Does it surprise you to learn
that, barring him, Elspeth is my only retainer?"
"H'm," said I, considerably puzzled--I must explain why.
* * * * *
I am by training an extraordinarily light sleeper; yet nothing had
disturbed me during the night until at dawn my brother knocked at the
door and entered, ready dressed.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, "are you responsible for this?" and he pointed
to a chair at the foot of the bed where lay, folded in a neat pile,
not only the clothes I had tossed down carelessly overnight, but the
suit in which I had arrived. He picked up this latter, felt it, and
handed it to me. It was dry, and had been carefully brushed.
"Our friend keeps a good valet," said I; "but the queer thing is that,
in a strange room, I didn't wake. I see he has brought hot water too."
"Look here," my brother asked: "did you lock your door?"
"Why, of course not--the more by token that it hasn't a key."
"Well," said he, "mine has, and I'll swear I used it; but the same
thing has happened to me!"
This, I tried to persuade him, was impossible; and for the while he
seemed convinced. "It _must_ be," he owned; "but if I didn't lock that
door I'll never swear to a thing again in all my life."
* * * * *
The young Laird's remark set me thinking of this, and I answered after
a pause, "In one of the pair, then, you possess a remarkably clever
It so happened that, while I said it, my eyes rested, without the
least intention, on the sleeve of his shooting-coat; and the words
were scarcely out before he flushed hotly and made a motion as if to
hide a neatly mended rent in its cuff. In another moment he would have
retorted, and was indeed drawing himself up in anger, when I prevented
him by adding--
"I mean that I am indebted to him or to her this morning for a neatly
brushed suit; and I suppose to your freeness in plying me with wine
last night that it arrived in my room without waking me. But for that
I could almost set it down to the supernatural."
I said this in all simplicity, and was quite unprepared for its effect
upon him, or for his extraordinary reply. He turned as white in
the face as, a moment before, he had been red. "Good God!" he said
eagerly, "you haven't missed anything, have you?"
"Certainly not," I assured him. "My dear sir--"
"I know, I know. But you see," he stammered, "I am new to these
servants. I know them to be faithful, and that's all. Forgive me; I
feared from your tone one of them--Duncan perhaps ..."
He did not finish his sentence, but broke into a hurried walk and led
me towards the house. A minute later, as we approached it, he began
to discourse half-humorously on its more glaring features, and had
apparently forgotten his perturbation.
I too attached small importance to it, and recall it now merely
through unwillingness to omit any circumstance which may throw light
on a story sufficiently dark to me. After breakfast our host walked
down with us to the loch-side, where we found old Donald putting the
last touches on his job. With thanks for our entertainment we shook
hands and pushed off: and my last word at parting was a promise to
remember his ambition and write any news of my success.
I anticipated no difficulty, and encountered none. The _Gazette_ of
January, 1815, announced that David Marie Joseph Mackenzie, gentleman,
had been appointed to an ensigncy in the --th Regiment of Infantry
(Moray Highlanders); and I timed my letter of congratulation to reach
him with the news. Within a week he had joined us at Inverness, and
was made welcome.
I may say at once that during his brief period of service I could find
no possible fault with his bearing as a soldier. From the first he
took seriously to the calling of arms, and not only showed himself
punctual on parade and in all the small duties of barracks, but
displayed, in his reserved way, a zealous resolve to master whatever
by book or conversation could be learned of the higher business of
war. My junior officers--though when the test came, as it soon did,
they acquitted themselves most creditably--showed, as a whole, just
then no great promise. For the most part they were young lairds, like
Mr. Mackenzie, or cadets of good Highland families; but, unlike him,
they had been allowed to run wild, and chafed under harness. One or
two of them had the true Highland addiction to card-playing; and
though I set a pretty stern face against this curse--as I dare to call
it--its effects were to be traced in late hours, more than one case of
shirking "rounds," and a general slovenliness at morning parade.
In such company Mr. Mackenzie showed to advantage, and I soon began to
value him as a likely officer. Nor, in my dissatisfaction with them,
did it give me any uneasiness--as it gave me no surprise--to find
that his brother-officers took less kindly to him. He kept a certain
reticence of manner, which either came of a natural shyness or had
been ingrained in him at the Roman Catholic seminary. He was poor,
too; but poverty did not prevent his joining in all the regimental
amusements, figuring modestly but sufficiently on the subscription
lists, and even taking a hand at cards for moderate stakes. Yet he
made no headway, and his popularity diminished instead of growing.
All this I noted, but without discovering any definite reason. Of his
professional promise, on the other hand, there could be no question;
and the men liked and respected him.
Our senior ensign at this date was a Mr. Urquhart, the eldest son of a
West Highland laird, and heir to a considerable estate. He had been
in barracks when Mr. Mackenzie joined; but a week later his father's
sudden illness called for his presence at home, and I granted him a
leave of absence, which was afterwards extended. I regretted this, not
only for the sad occasion, but because it deprived the battalion for a
time of one of its steadiest officers, and Mr. Mackenzie in particular
of the chance to form a very useful friendship. For the two young men
had (I thought) several qualities which might well attract them each
to the other, and a common gravity of mind in contrast with their
companions' prevalent and somewhat tiresome frivolity. Of the two I
Judged Mr. Urquhart (the elder by a year) to have the more stable
character. He was a good-looking, dark-complexioned young Highlander,
with a serious expression which, without being gloomy, did not
escape a touch of melancholy. I should judge this melancholy of Mr.
Urquhart's constitutional, and the boyish sullenness which lingered on
Mr. Mackenzie's equally handsome face to have been imposed rather by
Mr. Urquhart rejoined us on the 24th of February. Two days later, as
all the world knows, Napoleon made his escape from Elba; and the next
week or two made it certain not only that the allies must fight, but
that the British contingent must be drawn largely, if not in the main,
from the second battalions then drilling up and down the country. The
29th of March brought us our marching orders; and I will own that,
while feeling no uneasiness about the great issue, I distrusted the
share my raw youngsters were to take in it.
On the 12th of April we were landed at Ostend, and at once marched up
to Brussels, where we remained until the middle of June, having been
assigned to the 5th (Picton's) Division of the Reserve. For some
reason the Highland regiments had been massed into the Reserve, and
were billeted about the capital, our own quarters lying between the
92nd (Gordons) and General Kruse's Nassauers, whose lodgings stretched
out along the Louvain road; and although I could have wished some
harder and more responsible service to get the Morays into training, I
felt what advantage they derived from rubbing shoulders with the fine
fellows of the 42nd, 79th, and 92nd, all First Battalions toughened
by Peninsular work. The gaieties of life in Brussels during these two
months have been described often enough; but among the military they
were chiefly confined to those officers whose means allowed them to
keep the pace set by rich civilians, and the Morays played the part of
amused spectators. Yet the work and the few gaieties which fell to our
share, while adding to our experiences, broke up to some degree the
old domestic habits of the battalion. Excepting on duty I saw less of
Mr. Mackenzie and thought less about him; he might be left now to be
shaped by active service. But I was glad to find him often in company
with Mr. Urquhart.
I come now to the memorable night of June 15th, concerning which and
the end it brought upon the festivities of Brussels so much has been
written. All the world has heard of the Duchess of Richmond's ball,
and seems to conspire in decking it out with pretty romantic fables.
To contradict the most of these were waste of time; but I may point
out (1) that the ball was over and, I believe, all the company
dispersed, before the actual alarm awoke the capital; and (2) that all
responsible officers gathered there shared the knowledge that such
an alarm was impending, might arrive at any moment, and would almost
certainly arrive within a few hours. News of the French advance across
the frontier and attack on General Zieten's outposts had reached
Wellington at three o'clock that afternoon. It should have been
brought five hours earlier; but he gave his orders at once, and
quietly, and already our troops were massing for defence upon
Nivelles. We of the Reserve had secret orders to hold ourselves
prepared. Obedient to a hint from their Commander-in-chief, the
generals of division and brigade who attended the Duchess' ball
withdrew themselves early on various pleas. Her Grace had honoured
me with an invitation, probably because I represented a Highland
regiment; and Highlanders (especially the Gordons, her brother's
regiment) were much to the fore that night with reels, flings, and
strathspeys. The many withdrawals warned me that something was in the
wind, and after remaining just so long as seemed respectful, I took
leave of my hostess and walked homewards across the city as the clocks
were striking eleven.
We of the Morays had our headquarters in a fairly large building--the
Hotel de Liege--in time of peace a resort of _commis-voyageurs_ of
the better class. It boasted a roomy hall, out of which opened two
coffee-rooms, converted by us into guard- and mess-room. A large
drawing-room on the first floor overlooking the street served me for
sleeping as well as working quarters, and to reach it I must pass the
_entresol_, where a small apartment had been set aside for occasional
uses. We made it, for instance, our ante-room, and assembled there
before mess; a few would retire there for smoking or card-playing;
during the day it served as a waiting-room for messengers or any one
whose business could not be for the moment attended to.
I had paused at the entrance to put some small question to the sentry,
when I heard the crash of a chair in this room, and two voices broke
out in fierce altercation. An instant after, the mess-room door
opened, and Captain Murray, without observing me, ran past me and
up the stairs. As he reached the _entresol_, a voice--my
brother's--called down from an upper landing, and demanded, "What's
"I don't know, Major," Captain Murray answered, and at the same moment
flung the door open. I was quick on his heels, and he wheeled round in
some surprise at my voice, and to see me interposed between him and
my brother, who had come running downstairs, and now stood behind my
shoulder in the entrance.
"Shut the door," I commanded quickly. "Shut the door, and send away
any one you may hear outside. Now, gentlemen, explain yourselves,
Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Mackenzie faced each other across a small table,
from which the cloth had been dragged and lay on the floor with a
scattered pack of cards. The elder lad held a couple of cards in his
hand; he was white in the face.
"He cheated!" He swung round upon me in a kind of indignant fury, and
tapped the cards with his forefinger.
I looked from him to the accused. Mackenzie's face was dark, almost
purple, rather with rage (as it struck me) than with shame.
"It's a lie." He let out the words slowly, as if holding rein on his
passion. "Twice he's said so, and twice I've called him a liar." He
drew back for an instant, and then lost control of himself. "If that's
not enough--." He leapt forward, and almost before Captain Murray
could interpose had hurled himself upon Urquhart. The table between
them went down with a crash, and Urquhart went staggering back from a
blow which just missed his face and took him on the collar-bone before
Murray threw both arms around the assailant.
"Mr. Mackenzie," said I, "you will consider yourself under arrest. Mr.
Urquhart, you will hold yourself ready to give me a full explanation.
Whichever of you may be in the right, this is a disgraceful business,
and dishonouring to your regiment and the cloth you wear: so
disgraceful, that I hesitate to call up the guard and expose it to
more eyes than ours. If Mr. Mackenzie"--I turned to him again--"can
behave himself like a gentleman, and accept the fact of his arrest
without further trouble, the scandal can at least be postponed until
I discover how much it is necessary to face. For the moment, sir, you
are in charge of Captain Murray. Do you understand?"
He bent his head sullenly. "He shall fight me, whatever happens," he
I found it wise to pay no heed to this. "It will be best," I said to
Murray, "to remain here with Mr. Mackenzie until I am ready for him.
Mr. Urquhart may retire to his quarters, if he will--I advise it,
indeed--but I shall require his attendance in a few minutes. You
understand," I added significantly, "that for the present this affair
remains strictly between ourselves." I knew well enough that, for all
the King's regulations, a meeting would inevitably follow sooner or
later, and will own I looked upon it as the proper outcome, between
gentlemen, of such a quarrel. But it was not for me, their Colonel, to
betray this knowledge or my feelings, and by imposing secrecy I put
off for the time all the business of a formal challenge with seconds.
So I left them, and requesting my brother to follow me, mounted to my
own room. The door was no sooner shut than I turned on him.
"Surely," I said, "this is a bad mistake of Urquhart's? It's an
incredible charge. From all I've seen of him, the lad would never be
guilty ..." I paused, expecting his assent. To my surprise he did not
give it, but stood fingering his chin and looking serious.
"I don't know," he answered unwillingly. "There are stories against
"Nothing definite." My brother hesitated. "It doesn't seem fair to him
to repeat mere whispers. But the others don't like him."
"Hence the whispers, perhaps. They have not reached me."
"They would not. He is known to be a favourite of yours. But they
don't care to play with him." My brother stopped, met my look, and
answered it with a shrug of the shoulders, adding, "He wins pretty
"Any definite charge before to-night's?"
"No: at least, I think not. But Urquhart may have been put up to
"Fetch him up, please," said I promptly; and seating myself at the
writing-table I lit candles (for the lamp was dim), made ready the
writing materials and prepared to take notes of the evidence.
Mr. Urquhart presently entered, and I wheeled round in my chair to
confront him. He was still exceedingly pale--paler, I thought, than I
had left him. He seemed decidedly ill at ease, though not on his own
account. His answer to my first question made me fairly leap in my
"I wish," he said, "to qualify my accusation of Mr. Mackenzie. That he
cheated I have the evidence of my own eyes; but I am not sure how far
he knew he was cheating."
"Good heavens, sir!" I cried. "Do you know you have accused that young
man of a villainy which must damn him for life? And now you tell me--"
I broke off in sheer indignation.
"I know," he answered quietly. "The noise fetched you in upon us on
the instant, and the mischief was done."
"Indeed, sir," I could not avoid sneering, "to most of us it would
seem that the mischief was done when you accused a brother-officer of
fraud to his face."
He seemed to reflect. "Yes, sir," he assented slowly; "it is done. I
saw him cheat: that I must persist in; but I cannot say how far he was
conscious of it. And since I cannot, I must take the consequences."
"Will you kindly inform us how it is possible for a player to cheat
and not know that he is cheating?"
He bent his eyes on the carpet as if seeking an answer. It was long in
coming. "No," he said at last, in a slow, dragging tone, "I cannot."
"Then you will at least tell us exactly what Mr. Mackenzie did."
Again there was a long pause. He looked at me straight, but with
hopelessness in his eyes. "I fear you would not believe me. It would
not be worth while. If you can grant it, sir, I would ask time to
"Mr. Urquhart," said I sternly, "are you aware you have brought
against Mr. Mackenzie a charge under which no man of honour can
live easily for a moment? You ask me without a word of evidence in
substantiation to keep him in torture while I give you time. It is
monstrous, and I beg to remind you that, unless your charge is proved,
you can--and will--be broken for making it."
"I know it, sir," he answered firmly enough; "and because I knew it, I
asked--perhaps selfishly--for time. If you refuse, I will at least ask
permission to see a priest before telling a story which I can scarcely
expect you to believe." Mr. Urquhart too was a Roman Catholic.
But my temper for the moment was gone. "I see little chance," said
I, "of keeping this scandal secret, and regret it the less if the
consequences are to fall on a rash accuser. But just now I will have
no meddling priest share the secret. For the present, one word more.
Had you heard before this evening of any hints against Mr. Mackenzie's
He answered reluctantly, "Yes."
"And you set yourself to lay a trap for him?"
"No, sir; I did not. Unconsciously I may have been set on the watch:
no, that is wrong--I _did_ watch. But I swear it was in every hope and
expectation of clearing him. He was my friend. Even when I saw, I had
at first no intention to expose him until--"
"That is enough, sir," I broke in, and turned to my brother. "I have
no option but to put Mr. Urquhart too under arrest. Kindly convey him
back to his room, and send Captain Murray to me. He may leave Mr.
Mackenzie in the _entresol_."
My brother led Urquhart out, and in a minute Captain Murray tapped at
my door. He was an honest Scot, not too sharp-witted, but straight as
a die. I am to show him this description, and he will cheerfully agree
"This is a hideous business, Murray," said I as he entered. "There's
something wrong with Urquhart's story. Indeed, between ourselves it
has the fatal weakness that he won't tell it."
Murray took a minute to digest this, then he answered, "I don't know
anything about Urquhart's story, sir. But there's something wrong
about Urquhart." Here he hesitated.
"Speak out, man," said I: "in confidence. That's understood."
"Well, sir," said he, "Urquhart won't fight."
"Ah! so that question came up, did it?" I asked, looking at him
He was not abashed, but answered, with a twinkle in his eye, "I
believe, sir, you gave me no orders to stop their talking, and in a
case like this--between youngsters--some question of a meeting would
naturally come up. You see, I know both the lads. Urquhart I really
like; but he didn't show up well, I must own--to be fair to the other,
who is in the worse fix."
"I am not so sure of that," I commented; "but go on."
He seemed surprised. "Indeed, Colonel? Well," he resumed, "I being the
sort of fellow they could talk before, a meeting was discussed. The
question was how to arrange it without seconds--that is, without
breaking your orders and dragging in outsiders. For Mackenzie wanted
blood at once, and for awhile Urquhart seemed just as eager. All of a
sudden, when...." here he broke off suddenly, not wishing to commit
"Tell me only what you think necessary," said I.
He thanked me. "That is what I wanted," he said. "Well, all of a
sudden, when we had found out a way and Urquhart was discussing it, he
pulled himself up in the middle of a sentence, and with his eyes fixed
on the other--a most curious look it was--he waited while you could
count ten, and, 'No,' says he, 'I'll not fight you at once'--for we
had been arranging something of the sort--'not to-night, anyway, nor
to-morrow,' he says. 'I'll fight you; but I won't have your blood on
my head _in that way_.' Those were his words. I have no notion what
he meant; but he kept repeating them, and would not explain, though
Mackenzie tried him hard and was for shooting across the table. He was
repeating them when the Major interrupted us and called him up."
"He has behaved ill from the first," said I. "To me the whole affair
begins to look like an abominable plot against Mackenzie. Certainly I
cannot entertain a suspicion of his guilt upon a bare assertion which
Urquhart declines to back with a tittle of evidence."
"The devil he does!" mused Captain Murray. "That looks bad for him.
And yet, sir, I'd sooner trust Urquhart than Mackenzie, and if the
case lies against Urquhart--"
"It will assuredly break him," I put in, "unless he can prove the
charge, or that he was honestly mistaken."
"Then, sir," said the Captain, "I'll have to show you this. It's ugly,
but it's only justice."
He pulled a sovereign from his pocket and pushed it on the
writing-table under my nose.
"What does this mean?"
"It is a marked one," said he.
"So I perceive." I had picked up the coin and was examining it.
"I found it just now," he continued, "in the room below. The upsetting
of the table had scattered Mackenzie's stakes about the floor."
"You seem to have a pretty notion of evidence," I observed sharply.
"I don't know what accusation this coin may carry; but why need it be
Mackenzie's? He might have won it from Urquhart."
"I thought of that," was the answer. "But no money had changed hands.
I enquired. The quarrel arose over the second deal, and as a matter of
fact Urquhart had laid no money on the table, but made a pencil-note
of a few shillings he lost by the first hand. You may remember, sir,
how the table stood when you entered."
I reflected. "Yes, my recollection bears you out. Do I gather that you
have confronted Mackenzie with this?"
"No. I found it and slipped it quietly into my pocket. I thought we
had trouble enough on hand for the moment."
"Who marked this coin?"
"Young Fraser, sir, in my presence. He has been losing small sums, he
declares, by pilfering. We suspected one of the orderlies."
"In this connection you had no suspicion of Mr. Mackenzie?"
"None, sr." He considered for a moment, and added: "There was a
curious thing happened three weeks ago over my watch. It found its
way one night to Mr. Mackenzie's quarters. He brought it to me in the
morning; said it was lying, when he awoke, on the table beside his
bed. He seemed utterly puzzled. He had been to one or two already to
discover the owner. We joked him about it, the more by token that his
own watch had broken down the day before and was away at the mender's.
The whole thing was queer, and has not been explained. Of course in
that instance he was innocent: everything proves it. It just occurred
to me as worth mentioning, because in both instances the lad may have
been the victim of a trick."
"I am glad you did so," I said; "though just now it does not throw any
light that I can see." I rose and paced the room. "Mr. Mackenzie had
better be confronted with this, too, and hear your evidence. It's best
he should know the worst against him; and if he be guilty it may move
him to confession."
"Certainly, sir," Captain Murray assented. "Shall I fetch him?"
"No, remain where you are," I said; "I will go for him myself."
I understood that Mr. Urquhart had retired to his own quarters or to
my brother's, and that Mr. Mackenzie had been left in the _entresol_
alone. But as I descended the stairs quietly I heard within that room
a voice which at first persuaded me he had company, and next that,
left to himself, he had broken down and given way to the most childish
wailing. The voice was so unlike his, or any grown man's, that it
arrested me on the lowermost stair against my will. It resembled
rather the sobbing of an infant mingled with short strangled cries of
contrition and despair.
"What shall I do? What shall I do? I didn't mean it--I meant to do
good! What shall I do?"
So much I heard (as I say) against my will, before my astonishment
gave room to a sense of shame at playing, even for a moment, the
eavesdropper upon the lad I was to judge. I stepped quickly to the
door, and with a warning rattle (to give him time to recover himself)
turned the handle and entered.
He was alone, lying back in an easy chair--not writhing there in
anguish of mind, as I had fully expected, but sunk rather in a state
of dull and hopeless apathy. To reconcile his attitude with the sounds
I had just heard was merely impossible; and it bewildered me worse
than any in the long chain of bewildering incidents. For five seconds
or so he appeared not to see me; but when he grew aware his look
changed suddenly to one of utter terror, and his eyes, shifting from
me, shot a glance about the room as if he expected some new accusation
to dart at him from the corners. His indignation and passionate
defiance were gone: his eyes seemed to ask me, "How much do you know?"
before he dropped them and stood before me, sullenly submissive.
"I want you upstairs," said I: "not to hear your defence on this
charge, for Mr. Urquhart has not yet specified it. But there is
"Another?" he echoed dully, and, I observed, without surprise.
I led the way back to the room where Captain Murray waited. "Can you
tell me anything about this?" I asked, pointing to the sovereign on
He shook his head, clearly puzzled, but anticipating mischief.
"The coin is marked, you see. I have reason to know that it was marked
by its owner in order to detect a thief. Captain Murray found it just
now among your stakes."
Somehow--for I liked the lad--I had not the heart to watch his face as
I delivered this. I kept my eyes upon the coin, and waited, expecting
an explosion--a furious denial, or at least a cry that he was the
victim of a conspiracy. None came. I heard him breathing hard. After
a long and very dreadful pause some words broke from him, so lowly
uttered that my ears only just caught them.
"This too? O my God!"
I seated myself, the lad before me, and Captain Murray erect and rigid
at the end of the table. "Listen, my lad," said I. "This wears an ugly
look, but that a stolen coin has been found in your possession does
not prove that you've stolen it."
"I did not. Sir, I swear to you on my honour, and before Heaven, that
I did not."
"Very well," said I: "Captain Murray asserts that he found this
among the moneys you had been staking at cards. Do you question that
He answered almost without pondering. "No, sir. Captain Murray is a
gentleman, and incapable of falsehood. If he says so, it was so."
"Very well again. Now, can you explain how this coin came into your
At this he seemed to hesitate; but answered at length, "No, I cannot
"Have you any idea? Or can you form any guess?"
Again there was a long pause before the answer came in low and
strained tones: "I can guess."
"What is your guess?"
He lifted a hand and dropped it hopelessly. "You would not believe,"
I will own a suspicion flashed across my mind on hearing these
words--the very excuse given a while ago by Mr. Urquhart--that the
whole affair was a hoax and the two young men were in conspiracy to
fool me. I dismissed it at once: the sight of Mr. Mackenzie's face,
was convincing. But my temper was gone.
"Believe you?" I exclaimed. "You seem to think the one thing I can
swallow as creditable, even probable, is that an officer in the Morays
has been pilfering and cheating at cards. Oddly enough, it's the last
thing I'm going to believe without proof, and the last charge I shall
pass without clearing it up to my satisfaction. Captain Murray, will
you go and bring me Mr. Urquhart and the Major?"
As Captain Murray closed the door I rose, and with my hands behind
me took a turn across the room to the fireplace, then back to the
"Mr. Mackenzie," I said, "before we go any further I wish you to
believe that I am your friend as well as your Colonel. I did something
to start you upon your career, and I take a warm interest in it. To
believe you guilty of these charges will give me the keenest grief.
However unlikely your defence may sound--and you seem to fear it--I
will give it the best consideration I can. If you are innocent, you
shall not find me prejudiced because many are against you and you are
alone. Now, this coin--" I turned to the table.
The coin was gone.
I stared at the place where it had lain; then at the young man. He had
not moved. My back had been turned for less than two seconds, and I
could have sworn he had not budged from the square of carpet on
which he had first taken his stand, and on which his feet were still
planted. On the other hand, I was equally positive the incriminating
coin had lain on the table at the moment I turned my back.
"It is gone!" cried I.
"Gone?" he echoed, staring at the spot to which my finger pointed. In
the silence our glances were still crossing when my brother tapped at
the door and brought in Mr. Urquhart, Captain Murray following.
Dismissing for a moment this latest mystery, I addressed Mr. Urquhart.
"I have sent for you, sir, to request in the first place that here in
Mr. Mackenzie's presence and in colder blood you will either withdraw
or repeat and at least attempt to substantiate the charge you brought
"I adhere to it, sir, that there was cheating. To withdraw would be to
utter a lie. Does he deny it?"
I glanced at Mr. Mackenzie. "I deny that I cheated," said he sullenly.
"Further," pursued Mr. Urquhart, "I repeat what I told you, sir. He
_may_, while profiting by it have been unaware of the cheat. At the
moment I thought it impossible; but I am willing to believe--"
"_You_ are willing!" I broke in. "And pray, sir, what about me, his
Colonel, and the rest of his brother officers? Have you the coolness
But the full question was never put, and in this world it will never
be answered. A bugle call, distant but clear, cut my sentence in
half. It came from the direction of the Place d'Armes. A second bugle
echoed, it from the height of the Montagne du Parc, and within a
minute its note was taken up and answered across the darkness from
quarter after quarter.
We looked at one another in silence. "Business," said my brother at
length, curtly and quietly.
Already the rooms above us were astir. I heard windows thrown open,
voices calling questions, feet running.
"Yes," said I, "it is business at length, and for the while this
inquiry must end. Captain Murray, look to your company. You,
Major, see that the lads tumble out quick to the alarm-post. One
moment!"--and Captain Murray halted with his hand on the door--"It is
understood that for the present no word of to-night's affair passes
our lips." I turned to Mr. Mackenzie and answered the question I read
in the lad's eyes. "Yes, sir; for the present I take off your arrest.
Get your sword. It shall be your good fortune to answer the enemy
before answering me."
To my amazement Mr. Urquhart interposed. He was, if possible, paler
and more deeply agitated than before. "Sir, I entreat you not to allow
Mr. Mackenzie to go. I have reasons--I was mistaken just now--"
"Not in what I saw. I refused to fight him--under a mistake. I
But I cut his stammering short. "As for you," I said, "the most
charitable construction I can put on your behaviour is to believe you
mad. For the present you, too, are free to go and do your duty. Now
leave me. Business presses, and I am sick and angry at the sight of
It was just two in the morning when I reached the alarm-post. Brussels
by this time was full of the rolling of drums and screaming of pipes;
and the regiment formed up in darkness rendered tenfold more confusing
by a mob of citizens, some wildly excited, others paralysed by terror,
and all intractable. We had, moreover, no small trouble to disengage
from our ranks the wives and families who had most unwisely followed
many officers abroad, and now clung to their dear ones bidding them
farewell. To end this most distressing scene I had in some instances
to use a roughness which it still afflicts me to remember. Yet in
actual time it was soon overhand dawn scarcely breaking when the
Morays with the other regiments of Pack's brigade filed out of the
park and fell into stride on the road which leads southward to
In this record it would be immaterial to describe either our march or
the since-famous engagement which terminated it. Very early we began
to hear the sound of heavy guns far ahead and to make guesses at their
distance; but it was close upon two in the afternoon before we reached
the high ground above Quatre Bras, and saw the battle spread below
us like a picture. The Prince of Orange had been fighting his ground
stubbornly since seven in the morning. Ney's superior artillery and
far superior cavalry had forced him back, it is true; but he still
covered the cross-roads which were the key of his defence, and his
position remained sound, though it was fast becoming critical. Just as
we arrived, the French, who had already mastered the farm of Piermont,
on the left of the Charleroi road, began to push their skirmishers
into a thicket below it and commanding the road running east to Namur.
Indeed, for a short space they had this road at their mercy, and the
chance within grasp of doubling up our left by means of it.
This happened, I say, just as we arrived; and Wellington, who had
reached Quatre Bras a short while ahead of us (having fetched a
circuit from Brussels through Ligny, where he paused to inspect
Field-Marshal Bluecher's dispositions for battle), at once saw the
danger, and detached one of our regiments, the 95th Rifles, to drive
back the tirailleurs from the thicket; which, albeit scarcely breathed
after their march, they did with a will, and so regained the Allies'
hold upon the Namur road. The rest of us meanwhile defiled down this
same road, formed line in front of it, and under a brisk cannonade
from the French heights waited for the next move.
It was not long in coming. Ney, finding that our artillery made poor
play against his, prepared to launch a column against us. Warned by a
cloud of skirmishers, our light companies leapt forward, chose their
shelter, and began a very pretty exchange of musketry. But this was
preliminary work only, and soon the head of a large French column
appeared on the slope to our right, driving the Brunswickers slowly
before it. It descended a little way, and suddenly broke into three or
four columns of attack. The mischief no sooner threatened than Picton
came galloping along our line and roaring that our division would
advance and engage with all speed. For a raw regiment like the Morays
this was no light test; but, supported by a veteran regiment on either
hand, they bore it admirably. Dropping the Gordons to protect the road
in case of mishap, the two brigades swung forward in the prettiest
style, their skirmishers running in and forming on either flank as
they advanced. Then for a while the work was hot; but, as will always
happen when column is boldly met by line, the French quickly had
enough of our enveloping fire, and wavered. A short charge with the
bayonet finished it, and drove them in confusion up the slope: nor had
I an easy task to resume a hold on my youngsters and restrain them
from pursuing too far. The brush had been sharp, but I had the
satisfaction of knowing that the Morays had behaved well. They also
knew it, and fell to jesting in high good-humour as General Pack
withdrew the brigade from the ground of its exploit and posted us in
line with the 42nd and 44th regiments on the left of the main road to
To the right of the Charleroi road, and some way in advance of our
position, the Brunswickers were holding ground as best they could
under a hot and accurate artillery fire. Except for this, the battle
had come to a lull, when a second mass of the enemy began to move down
the slopes: a battalion in line heading two columns of infantry direct
upon the Brunswickers, while squadron after squadron of lancers
crowded down along the road into which by weight of numbers they must
be driven. The Duke of Brunswick, perceiving his peril, headed a
charge of his lancers upon the advancing infantry, but without the
least effect. His horsemen broke. He rode back and called on his
infantry to retire in good order. They also broke, and in the attempt
to rally them he fell mortally wounded.
The line taken by these flying Brunswickers would have brought them
diagonally across the Charleroi road into our arms, had not the French
lancers seized this moment to charge straight down it in a body. They
encountered, and the indiscriminate mass was hurled on to us, choking
and overflowing the causeway. In a minute we were swamped--the two
Highland regiments and the 44th bending against a sheer weight of
Trench horsemen. So suddenly came the shock that the 42nd had no
time to form square, until two companies were cut off and well-nigh
destroyed; _then_ that noble regiment formed around the horsemen who
could boast of having broken it, and left not one to bear back the
tale. The 44th behaved more cleverly, but not more intrepidly: it did
not attempt to form square, but faced its rear rank round and gave the
Frenchmen a volley; before they could checks their impetus the front
rank poured in a second; and the light company, which had held its
fire, delivered a third, breaking the crowd in two, and driving the
hinder-part back in disorder and up the Charleroi road. But already
the fore-part had fallen upon the Morays, fortunately the last of the
three regiments to receive the shock. Though most fortunate, they had
least experience, and were consequently slow in answering my shout.
A wedge of lancers broke through us as we formed around the two
standards, and I saw Mr. Urquhart with the King's colours hurled back
in the rush. The pole fell with him, after swaying within a yard of a
French lancer, who thrust out an arm to grasp it. And with that I
saw Mackenzie divide the rush and stand--it may have been for five
seconds--erect, with his foot upon the standard. Then three lancers
pierced him, and he fell. But the lateral pressure of their own
troopers broke the wedge which the French had pushed into us. Their
leading squadrons were pressed down the road and afterwards accounted
for by the Gordons. Of the seven-and-twenty assailants around whom the
Morays now closed, not one survived.
Towards nightfall, as Ney weakened and the Allies were reinforced, our
troops pushed forward and recaptured every important position taken
by the French that morning. The Morays, with the rest of Picton's
division, bivouacked for the night in and around the farmstead of
So obstinately had the field been contested that darkness fell before
the wounded could be collected with any thoroughness; and the comfort
of the men around many a camp-fire was disturbed by groans (often
quite near at hand) of some poor comrade or enemy lying helpless and
undiscovered, or exerting his shattered limbs to crawl towards the
blaze. And these interruptions at length became so distressing to the
Morays, that two or three officers sought me and demanded leave to
form a fatigue party of volunteers and explore the hedges and thickets
with lanterns. Among them was Mr. Urquhart: and having readily given
leave and accompanied them some little way on their search, I was
bidding them good-night and good-speed when I found him standing at my
"May I have a word with you, Colonel?" he asked.
His voice was low and serious. Of course I knew what subject filled
his thoughts. "Is it worth while, sir?" I answered. "I have lost
to-day a brave lad for whom I had a great affection. For him the
account is closed; but not for those who liked him and are still
concerned in his good name. If you have anything further against him,
or if you have any confession to make, I warn you that this is a bad
moment to choose."
"I have only to ask," said he, "that you will grant me the first
convenient hour for explaining; and to remind you that when I besought
you not to send him into action to-day, I had no time to give you
"This is extraordinary talk, sir. I am not used to command the Morays
under advice from my subalterns. And in this instance I had reasons
for not even listening to you." He was silent. "Moreover," I
continued, "you may as well know, though I am under no obligation
to tell you, that I do most certainly not regret having given that
permission to one who justified it by a signal service to his king and
"But would you have sent him _knowing_ that he must die? Colonel," he
went on rapidly, before I could interrupt, "I beseech you to listen. I
knew he had only a few hours to live. I saw his wraith last night.
It stood behind his shoulder in the room when in Captain Murray's
presence he challenged me to fight him. You are a Highlander, sir: you
may be sceptical about the second sight; but at least you must have
heard many claim it. I swear positively that I saw Mr. Mackenzie's
wraith last night, and for that reason, and no other, tried to defer
the meeting. To fight him, knowing he must die, seemed to me as bad
as murder. Afterwards, when the alarm sounded and you took off his
arrest, I knew that his fate must overtake him--that my refusal had
done no good. I tried to interfere again, and you would not hear.
Naturally you would not hear; and very likely, if you had, his fate
would have found him in some other way. That is what I try to believe.
I hope it is not selfish, sir; but the doubt tortures me."
"Mr. Urquhart," I asked, "is this the only occasion on which you have
possessed the second sight, or had reason to think so?"
"Was it the first or only time last night you believed you were
"It was the _second_ time last night," he said steadily.
We had been walking back to my bivouac fire, and in the light of it I
turned and said: "I will hear your story at the first opportunity. I
will not promise to believe, but I will hear and weigh it. Go now and
join the others in their search."
He saluted, and strode away into the darkness. The opportunity I
promised him never came. At eleven o'clock next morning we began our
withdrawal, and within twenty-four hours the battle of Waterloo
had begun. In one of the most heroic feats of that day--the famous
resistance of Pack's brigade--Mr. Urquhart was among the first to
Thus it happened that an affair which so nearly touched the honour of
the Morays, and which had been agitating me at the very moment when
the bugle sounded in the Place d'Armes, became a secret shared by
three only. The regiment joined in the occupation of Paris, and did
not return to Scotland until the middle of December.
I had ceased to mourn for Mr. Mackenzie, but neither to regret him nor
to speculate on the mystery which closed his career, and which, now
that death had sealed Mr. Urquhart's lips, I could no longer hope to
penetrate, when, on the day of my return to Inverness, I was reminded
of him by finding, among the letters and papers awaiting me, a
visiting-card neatly indited with the name of the Reverend Samuel
Saul. On inquiry I learnt that the minister had paid at least three
visits to Inverness during the past fortnight, and had, on each
occasion, shown much anxiety to learn when the battalion might be
expected. He had also left word that he wished to see me on a matter
of much importance.
Sure enough, at ten o'clock next morning the little man presented
himself. He was clearly bursting to disclose his business, and our
salutations were scarce over when he ran to the door and called to
some one in the passage outside.
"Elspeth! Step inside, woman. The housekeeper, sir, to the late Mr.
Mackenzie of Ardlaugh," he explained, as he held the door to admit
She was dressed in ragged mourning, and wore a grotesque and fearful
bonnet. As she saluted me respectfully I saw that her eyes indeed were
dry and even hard, but her features set in an expression of quiet
and hopeless misery. She did not speak, but left explanation to the
"You will guess, sir," began Mr. Saul, "that we have called to learn
more of the poor lad." And he paused.
"He died most gallantly," said I: "died in the act of saving the
colours. No soldier could have wished for a better end."
"To be sure, to be sure. So it was reported to us. He died, as one
might say, without a stain on his character?" said Mr. Saul, with a
sort of question in his tone.
"He died," I answered, "in a way which could only do credit to his
A somewhat constrained silence followed. The woman broke it. "You are
not telling us all," she said, in a slow, harsh voice.
It took me aback. "I am telling all that needs to be known," I assured
"No doubt, sir, no doubt," Mr. Saul interjected. "Hold your tongue,
woman. I am going to tell Colonel Ross a tale which may or may not
bear upon anything he knows. If not, he will interrupt me before I
go far; but if he says nothing I shall take it I have his leave to
continue. Now, sir, on the 16th day of June last, and at six in the
morning--that would be the day of Quatre Bras--"
He paused for me to nod assent, and continued. "At six in the morning
or a little earlier, this woman, Elspeth Mackenzie, came to me at the
Manse in great perturbation. She had walked all the way from Ardlaugh.
It had come to her (she said) that the young Laird abroad was in great
trouble since the previous evening. I asked, 'What trouble? Was it
danger of life, for instance?'--asking it not seriously, but rather
to compose her; for at first I set down her fears to an old woman's
whimsies. Not that I would call Elspeth old precisely--"
Here he broke off and glanced at her; but, perceiving she paid little
attention, went on again at a gallop. "She answered that it was
worse--that the young Laird stood very near disgrace, and (the worst
of all was) at a distance she could not help him. Now, sir, for
reasons I shall hereafter tell you, Mr. Mackenzie's being in disgrace
would have little surprised me; but that she should know of it, he
being in Belgium, was incredible. So I pressed her, and she being
distraught and (I verily believe) in something like anguish, came out
with a most extraordinary story: to wit, that the Laird of Ardlaugh
had in his service, unbeknown to him (but, as she protested, well
known to her), a familiar spirit--or, as we should say commonly, a
'brownie'--which in general served him most faithfully but at times
erratically, having no conscience nor any Christian principle to
direct him. I cautioned her, but she persisted, in a kind of wild
terror, and added that at times the spirit would, in all good faith,
do things which no Christian allowed to be permissible, and further,
that she had profited by such actions. I asked her, 'Was thieving one
of them?' She answered that it was, and indeed the chief.
"Now, this was an admission which gave me some eagerness to hear
more. For to my knowledge there were charges lying against young Mr.
Mackenzie--though not pronounced--which pointed to a thief in his
employment and presumably in his confidence. You will remember, sir,
that when I had the honour of meeting you at Mr. Mackenzie's table, I
took my leave with much abruptness. You remarked upon it, no doubt.
But you will no longer think it strange when I tell you that
there--under my nose--were a dozen apples of a sort which grows
nowhere within twenty miles of Ardlaugh but in my own Manse garden.
The tree was a new one, obtained from Herefordshire, and planted
three seasons before as an experiment. I had watched it, therefore,
particularly; and on that very morning had counted the fruit, and been
dismayed to find twelve apples missing. Further, I am a pretty good
judge of wine (though I taste it rarely), and could there and then
have taken my oath that the claret our host set before us was the very
wine I had tasted at the table of his neighbour Mr. Gillespie. As for
the venison--I had already heard whispers that deer and all game were
not safe within a mile or two of Ardlaugh. These were injurious tales,
sir, which I had no mind to believe; for, bating his religion, I saw
everything in Mr. Mackenzie which disposed me to like him. But I knew
(as neighbours must) of the shortness of his purse; and the multiplied
evidence (particularly my own Goodrich pippins staring me in the face)
overwhelmed me for a moment.
"So then, I listened to this woman's tale with more patience--or,
let me say, more curiosity--than you, sir, might have given it. She
persisted, I say, that her master was in trouble; and that the trouble
had something to do with a game of cards, but that Mr. Mackenzie had
been innocent of deceit, and the real culprit was this spirit I tell
Here the woman herself broke in upon Mr. Saul. "He had nae
conscience--he had nae conscience. He was just a poor luck-child, born
by mischance and put away without baptism. He had nae conscience. How
I looked from her to Mr. Saul in perplexity.
"Whist!" said he; "we'll talk of that anon."
"We will not," said she. "We will talk of it now. He was my own child,
sir, by the young Laird's own father. That was before he was married
upon the wife he took later--"
Here Mr. Saul nudged me, and whispered: "The old Laird--had her
married to that daunderin' old half-wit Duncan, to cover things up.
This part of the tale is true enough, to my knowledge."
"My bairn was overlaid, sir," the woman went on; "not by purpose,
I will swear before you and God. They buried his poor body without
baptism; but not his poor soul. Only when the young Laird came, and
my own bairn clave to him as Mackenzie to Mackenzie, and wrought and
hunted and mended for him--it was not to be thought that the poor
innocent, without knowledge of God's ways--"
She ran on incoherently, while my thoughts harked back to the voice I
had heard wailing behind the door of the _entresol_ at Brussels; to
the young Laird's face, his furious indignation, followed by hopeless
apathy, as of one who in the interval had learnt what he could never
explain; to the marked coin so mysteriously spirited from sight; to
Mr. Urquhart's words before he left me on the night of Quatre Bras.
"But he was sorry," the woman ran on; "he was sorry--sorry. He came
wailing to me that night; yes, and sobbing. He meant no wrong; it was
just that he loved his own father's son, and knew no better. There was
no priest living within thirty miles; so I dressed, and ran to the
minister here. He gave me no rest until I started."
I addressed Mr. Saul. "Is there reason to suppose that, besides this
woman and (let us say) her accomplice, any one shared the secret of
"Ardlaugh never knew," put in the woman quickly. "He may have guessed
we were helping him; but the lad knew nothing, and may the saints
in heaven love him as they ought! He trusted me with his purse, and
slight it was to maintain him. But until too late, he never knew--no,
I thought again of that voice behind the door of the _entresol_.
"Elspeth Mackenzie," I said, "I and two other living men alone know
of what your master was accused. It cannot affect him; but these two
shall hear your exculpation of him. And I will write the whole story
down, so that the world, if it ever hears the charge, may also hear
your testimony, which of the two (though both are strange) I believe
to be not the less credible."
THREE MEN OF BADAJOS
You enter the village of Gantick between two round-houses set one on
each side of the high road where it dips steeply towards the valley
bottom. On the west of the opposite hill the road passes out between
another pair of round-houses. And down in the heart of the village
among the elms facing the churchyard lych-gate stands a fifth, alone.
The five, therefore, form an elongated St. Andrew's cross; but nobody
can tell for certain who built them, or why. They are all alike; each,
built of cob, circular, whitewashed, having pointed windows and a
conical roof of thatch with a wooden cross on the apex. When I was a
boy these thatched roofs used to be pointed out to me as masterpieces;
and they still endure. But the race of skilled thatchers, once the
peculiar pride of Gantick, has come to an end. What time has eaten
modern and clumsy hands have tried to repair; yet a glance will tell
you that the old sound work means to outwear the patches.
The last of these famous thatchers lived in the round-house on your
right as you leave Gantick by the seaward road. His name was old Nat
Ellery, or Thatcher Ellery, and his age (as I remember him) between
seventy or eighty. Yet he clung to his work, being one of those lean
men upon whom age, exposure, and even drink take a long while to
tell. For he drank; not socially at the King of Bells, but at home in
solitude with a black bottle at his elbow. He lived there alone; his
neighbours, even of the round-house across the road, shunned him and
were shunned by him: children would run rather than meet him on the
road as he came along, striding swiftly for his age (the drink never
affected his legs), ready greaved and sometimes gauntleted as if in
haste for his job, always muttering to himself; and when he passed us
with just a side-glance from his red eyes, we observed that his pale
face did not cease to twitch nor his lips to work. We felt something
like awe for the courage of Archie Passmore, who followed twenty paces
behind with his tools and a bundle of spars or straw-rope, or perhaps
at the end of a ladder which the two carried between them. Archie
(aged sixteen) used to boast to us that he did not fear the old man a
ha'penny; and the old man treated Archie as a Gibeonite, a hewer of
wood, a drawer of water, never as an apprentice. Of his craft, except
what he picked up by watching, the lad learned nothing.
What made him so vaguely terrible to us was the common rumour in the
village that Thatcher Ellery had served once under his Majesty's
colours, but had deserted and was still liable to be taken and shot
for it. Now this was true and everyone knew it, though why and how
he had deserted were questions answered among us only by dark and
frightful guesses. He had outlived all risk of the law's revenge;
no one, it was certain, would take the trouble to seize and execute
justice upon a drunkard of seventy. But we children never thought of
this, and for us as we watched him down the road there was always the
thrilling chance that over the hedge or around the next corner would
pop up a squad of redcoats. Some of us had even seen it, in dreams.
This is the story of Thatcher Ellery as it was told to me after his
death, which happened one night a few weeks before I came home from
school on my first summer holidays.
His father, in the early years of the century, had kept the mill up at
Trethake Water, two miles above Gantick. There were two sons, of whom
Reub, the elder, succeeded to the mill. Nat had been apprenticed to
the thatching. Accident of birth assigned to the two these different
walks of life but by taking thought their parents could not have
chosen more wisely, for Nat was born clever, with an ambition to cut a
figure in man's eyes and just that sense of finish and the need of it
which makes the good workman. Whereas his brother went the daily round
at home as contentedly as a horse at a cider press. But Nat made the
mistake of lodging under his father's roof, and his mother made the
worse mistake of liking her first-born the better and openly showing
it. Nat, jealous and sensitive by nature, came to imagine the
whole world against him, and Reub, who had no vice beyond a large
thick-witted selfishness, seemed to make a habit of treading on his
corns. At length came the explosion: a sudden furious assault which
sent Reub souse into the paternal mill-leat.
The mother cursed Nat forth from the door, and no doubt said a great
deal more than she meant. The boy--he was just seventeen--carried
his box down to the Ring of Bells. Next morning as he sat viciously
driving in spars astride on a rick ridge, whence he could see far
over the Channel, there came into sight round Derryman's Point a
ship-of-war, running before the strong easterly breeze with piled
canvas, white stun-sails bellying, and a fine froth of white water
running off her bluff bows. Another ship followed, and another--at
length a squadron of six. Nat watched them from time to time until
they trimmed sails and stood in for Falmouth. Then he climbed down
from the rick and put on his coat.
Two years later he landed at Portsmouth, heartily sick of the sea and
all belonging to it. He drank himself silly that night and for ten
nights following, and one morning found himself in the streets without
a penny. Portsmouth just then (July, 1808) was filled with troops
embarking under Sir John Moore for Portugal. One regiment especially
took Nat's eye--the 4th or King's Own, and indeed the whole service
contained no finer body of men. He sidled up to a corporal and gave
a false name. Varcoe had been his mother's maiden name, and it came
handy. The corporal took him to a recruiting sergeant and handed him
over with a wink. The recruiting sergeant asked a few convenient
questions, and within the hour Nat was a soldier of King George.
To his disgust, however, they did not embark him for Portugal, but
marched him up the length of England to Lancaster, to learn his drill
with the second battalion.
Seventeen months later they marched him back through the length of
England--outwardly a made soldier--and shipped him on a transport for
Gibraltar. In the meanwhile he had found two friends, the only two
real ones he ever found in his life. They were Dave McInnes and
Teddy Butson, privates of the 4th Regiment of Foot, 2nd Battalion, C
Company. Dave McInnes came from somewhere to the west of Perth and
drank like a fish when he had the chance. Teddy Butson came from the
Lord knew where, with a tongue that wagged about everything except
his own past. It did indeed wag about that, but told nothing but lies
which were understood and accepted for lies and by consequence didn't
count. These two had christened Nat Ellery "Spuds." He had no secret
from them but one.
He was the cleverest of the three, and they admired him for it. He
admired them in return for possessing something he lacked. It seemed
to him the most important, almost the only important, thing in the
For (this was his secret) he believed himself to be a coward. He
was not really a coward, though he carried about in his heart the
liveliest fear of death and wounds. He was always asking himself
how he would behave under fire, and somehow he found the odds heavy
against his behaving well. He put roundabout questions to Dave and
Teddy with the aim of discovering what they felt about it. They
answered in a careless, matter-of-fact way, as men to whom it had
never occurred to have any doubt about themselves. Nat was desperately
afraid they might guess his reason for asking. Just here, when their
friendship might have been helpful, it failed altogether. He felt
angry with them for not understanding, while he prayed that they might
not understand. He took to observing other men in the regiment, and
found them equally cheerful, concerned only with the moment. He became
secretly religious after a fashion. He felt that he was the one and
only coward in the King's Own, and prayed and planned his behaviour
day and night to avoid being found out.
In this state of mind he landed at Gibraltar. When the order came for
the 4th to move up to the front, he cheered with the rest, watching
At ten o'clock on the night of April 6th, 1812, our troops were to
assault Badajos. It was now a few minutes past nine.
The night had closed in without rain, but cloudy and thick, with river
fog. The moon would not rise for another hour or more. After the day's
furious bombardment silence had fallen on besieged and besiegers; but
now and then a light flitted upon the ramparts, and at intervals the
British in the trenches could hear the call of a sentinel proclaiming
that all was well in Badajos.
In the trenches a low continuous murmur mingled with the voices of
running water. On the right by the Guadiana waited Picton's Third
Division, breathing hard as the time drew nearer. Kempt commanded
these for the moment. Picton was in camp attending to a hurt, but his
men knew that before ten o'clock he would arrive to lead across the
Rivillas by the narrow bridge and up to the walls of the Castle
frowning over the river at the city's north-east corner.
In the centre and over against the wall to the left of the Castle
were assembled Colville's and Barnard's men of the Fourth and Light
Divisions. Theirs, according to the General's plan, was to be the main
business to-night--to carry the breaches hammered in the Trinidad and
Santa Maria bastions and the curtain between; the Fourth told off
for the Trinidad and the curtain, the Light Bobs for the Santa
Maria--heroes these of Moore's famous rear-guard, tried men of the
52nd Foot and the 95th Rifles, with the 43rd beside them, and destined
to pay the heaviest price of all to-night for the glory of such
comradeship. But, indeed, Ciudad Rodrigo had given the 43rd a title to
stand among the best.
And far away to the left, on the lower slopes of the hills, Leigh's
Fifth Division was halted in deep columns. A knoll separated his two
brigades, and across the interval of darkness they could hear each
other's movements. They were to operate independently; and concerning
the task before the brigade on the right there could be no doubt: a
dash across the gorge at their feet, and an assault upon the outlying
Pardaleras, on the opposite slope. But the business before Walker's
brigade, on the left, was by no means so simple. The storming party
had been marching light, with two companies of Portuguese to carry
their ladders, and stood discussing prospects: for as yet they were
well out of earshot of the walls, and the moment for strict silence
had not arrived.
"The Vincenty," grumbled Teddy Butson; "and by shot to me if I even
know what it's like."
"Like!" McInnes' jaws shut on the word like a steel trap. "The scarp's
thirty feet high, and the ditch accordin'. The last on the west side
it will be--over by the river. I know it like your face, and its
uglier, if that's possible."
"Dick Webster was saying it's mined," put in Nat, commanding a firm
"Eh? The glacis? I shouldn't wonder. Walker will know."
"But what'll he do?"
"Well, now"--Dave seemed to be considering--"it will not be for the
likes of me to be telling the brigadier-general. But if Walker comes
to me and says, 'Dave, there's a mine hereabouts. What will I be
doing?' it's like enough I shall say: 'Your honour knows best; but the
usual course is to walk round it.'"
Teddy Butson chuckled, and rubbed the back of his axe approvingly. Nat
held his tongue for a minute almost, and then broke out irritably: "To
hell with this waiting!"
His nerves were raw. Two minutes later a man on his right kicked
awkwardly against his foot. It startled him, and he cursed furiously.
"Hold hard, Spuds, my boy," said the man cheerfully; "you ain't Lord
Wellington, nor his next-of-kin, to be makin' all the noise."
Teddy Butson wagged his head solemnly at a light which showed foggily
for a moment on the distant ramparts.
"All right," said he, "you----town! Little you know 'tis Teddy's
"There will be wine," said Dave, dreamily.
"Lashins of it; wine and women, and loot things. I wonder how our boys
are feeling on the right? What's that?"--as a light shot up over the
ridge to the eastward. "Wish I could see what's doing over there. My
belief we're only put up for a feint."
"O hush it, you royal mill-clappers!" This came from the darkness
behind--from some man of the 30th, no doubt.
The voice was tense, with a note of nervousness in it, which Nat
recognised at once. He turned with a sudden desire to see the
speaker's face. Here was one who felt as he did, one who could
understand him, but his eyes sought in vain among the lines of
glimmering black shakos.
"Silence in the ranks!" Two officers came forward, talking together
and pausing to watch the curious light now rising and sinking and
rising again in the sky over the eastern ridges. "They must have
caught sight of our fellows--listen, wasn't that a cheer? What time is
it?" The officer was Captain Hopkins commanding Nat's Company, but now
in charge of the stormers. A voice hailed him, and he ran back. "Yes,
sir, I think so decidedly," Nat heard him saying, and he came running
clutching his sword sheath. "Silence men--the brigade will advance."
The Portuguese picked up and shouldered their ladders: the orders were
given, and the columns began to move down the slope. For a while they
could hear the tramp of the other brigade moving parallel with them on
the other side of the knoll, then fainter and fainter as it wheeled
aside and down the gorge to the right. At the foot of the slope they
opened a view up the gorge lit for a moment by a flare burning on the
ramparts of the Pardaleras, and saw their comrades moving down and
across the bottom like a stream of red lava pouring towards the foot.
The flare died down and our brigade struck away to the left over the
level country. On this side Badajos remained dark and silent.
They were marching quickly, yet the pace did not satisfy Nat. He
wanted to be through with it, to come face to face with the worst
and know it. And yet he feared it abominably. For two years he had
contrived to hide his secret. He had marched, counter-marched, fed,
slept, and fought with his comrades; had dodged with them behind
cover, loaded, fired, charged with them; had behaved outwardly like a
decent soldier, but almost always with a sickening void in the pit of
the stomach. Once or twice in particularly bad moments he had caught
himself blubbering, and with a deadly shame. He had not an idea that
at least a dozen of his comrades--among them Dave and Teddy--had seen
it, and thought nothing of it; still less did he imagine that those
had been his most courageous moments. Soldiers fight differently.
Teddy Butson, for instance, talked all the time until his tongue
swelled, and then he barked like a dog. Dave shut his teeth and
groaned. But these symptoms escaped Nat, whose habit was to think all
the while of himself. Of one thing he felt sure, that he had never yet
been anything but glad to hear the recall sounded.
Well, so far he had escaped. Heaven knew how he had managed it; he
only knew that the last two years had been as long as fifty, and he
seemed to have been living since the beginning of the world. But here
he was, and actually keeping step with a storming party. He kept his
eyes on Dave's long lean back immediately in front and trudged on,
divided between an insane desire to know of what Dave was thinking,
and an equally insane wonder what Dave's body might be worth to him as
What was the silly word capering in his head? "Mill-clappers." Why on
earth "Mill-clappers?" It put him in mind of home: but he had no silly
tender thoughts to waste on home, or the folks there. He had never
written to them. If they should happen on the copy of the Gazette--and
the chances were hundred to one against it--the name of Nathaniel
Varcoe among the killed or wounded would mean nothing to them. He
tramped on, chewing his fancy, and extracted this from it: "A man with
never a friend at home hasn't even an excuse to be a coward, curse
Suddenly the column halted, in a bank of fog through which his ear
caught the lazy ripple of water. He woke up with a start. The fog was
all about them.
"What's this?" he demanded aloud; then, with a catch of his breath,
"Eh, be quiet," said Teddy Butson at his elbow; "listen to yonder."
And the word was hardly out when an explosion split the sky and was
followed by peal after peal of musketry. Nat had a swift vision of a
high black wall against a background of flame, and then night came
down again as you might close a shutter. But the musketry continued.
"That will be at the breaches," Dave flung the words over his left
shoulder. Then followed another flash and another explosion. This
time, however, the light, though less vivid than the first flash, did
not vanish. While he wondered at this Nat saw first of all the rim of
the moon through the slant of an embrasure, and then Teddy's pale but
The head of the column had been halted a few yards only from a
breastwork, with a stockade above it and a _chevaux de frise_ on top
of all. As far as knowledge of his whereabouts went, Nat might have
been east, west, north or south of Badajos, or somewhere in another
planet. But the past two years had somehow taught him to divine that
behind this ugly obstruction lay a covered way with a guard house. And
sure enough the men, keeping dead silence now, could hear the French
soldiers chatting in that unseen guard house and laughing.
"Now's the time." Nat heard the word passed back by the young engineer
officer who had crept forward to reconnoitre: and then an order given
"Ay, bring up the ladders, you greasers, and let's put it through."
This from Teddy Butson chafing by Nat's side.
The two Portuguese companies came forward with the ladders as the
storming party moved up to the gateway. And just at that moment there
the sentry let off his alarm shot. It set all within the San Vincente
bastion moving and whirring like the works of a mechanical toy; feet
came running along the covered way; muskets clinked on the stone
parapet; tongues of fire spat forth from the embrasures; and then,
as the musketry quickened, a flash and a roar lifted the glacis away
behind, to the right of our column, so near that the wind of it drove
our men sideways.
"All right, Johnny," Dave grunted, recovering himself as the clods of
earth began to fall: "Blaze away, my silly ducks--we're not there!"
But the Portuguese companies as the mine exploded cast down the
ladders and ran. Half a dozen came charging back along the column's
right flank, and our soldiers cursed and struck at them as they fled.
But the curses were as nothing beside those of the Portuguese officers
striving to rally their men.
"My word," said Teddy. "Hear them scandalous greasers! It's poor talk,
"On with you, lads"--it was Walker himself who shouted. "Pick up the
ladders, and on with you!"
They hardly waited for the word, but, shouldering the ladders, ran
forward through the dropping bullets to the gate, cheering and cheered
by the rear ranks.
But they flung themselves in vain on the gate. On its iron-bound and
iron-studded framework their axes made no impression. A dozen men
charged it, using a ladder as a battering ram. "Aisy with that, ye
blind ijjits!" yelled an Irish sergeant. "Ye'll be needin' them
ladders prisintly!" Our three privates found themselves in the crowd
surging towards the breastwork to the right of the gate. "Nip on my
shoulders, Teddy lad," grunted McInnes, and Teddy nipped up and began
hacking at the _chevaux de frise_ with his axe. "That's av ut, bhoys,"
yelled the Irish sergeant again. "Lave them spoikes an' go for the
stockade. Good for you, little man--whirro!" Nat by this time was on
a comrade's back, and using his axe for dear life; one of twenty men
hacking, ripping, tearing down the wooden stakes. But it was Teddy who
wriggled through first with Dave at his heels. The man beneath Nat
gave a heave with his shoulders and shot him through his gap, a
splinter tearing his cheek open. He fell head foremost sprawling down
the slippery slope of the ditch.
While he picked himself up and stretched out a hand to recover his axe
a bullet struck the blade of it--ping! He caught up the axe and ran
his finger over it stupidly. Phut--another bullet spat into the soft
earth behind his shoulder. Then he understood. A fellow came tumbling
through the gap, pitched exactly where Nat had been sprawling a moment
before, rose to his knees, and then with a quiet bubbling sound lay
"Ugh! he would be killed--he must get out of this!" But there was no
cover unless he found it across the ditch and close under the high
stone curtain. They would be dropping stones, beams, fire barrels; but
at least he would be out of the reach of the bullets. He forgot the
chance--the certainty--of an enfilading fire from the two bastions.
His one desire was to get across and pick some place of shelter.
But by this time the men were pouring in behind and fast filling the
ditch. A fire-ball came crashing over the rampart, rolled down the
grass slope and lay sputtering, and in the infernal glare he saw all
his comrades' faces--every detail of their dress down to the moulded
pattern on their buttons. "Fourth! Fourth!" some one shouted, and then
voice and vision were caught up and drowned together in a hell of
musketry. He must win across or be carried he knew not where by the
brute pressure of the crowd. A cry broke from him and he ran, waving
his axe, plunged down the slope and across. On the further slope an
officer caught him up and scrambled beside him. "Whirro, Spuds! After
him, boys!" sang out Teddy Butson. But Spuds did not hear.
He and the officer were at the top of the turf--at the foot of the
curtain. "Ladders! Ladders!" He caught hold of the first as it was
pushed up and helped--now the centre of a small crowd--to plant it
against the wall. Then he fell back, mopping his forehead, and feeling
his torn cheek. What the devil were they groaning at? Short? The
ladder too short? He stared up foolishly. The wall was thirty feet
high perhaps and the ladder ten feet short of that or more. "Heads!"
A heavy beam crashed down, snapping the foot of the ladder like a
cabbage stump. Away to the left a group of men were planting another.
Half a dozen dropped while he watched them. Why in the world were they
dropping like that? He stared beyond and saw the reason. The French
marksmen in the bastion were sweeping the face of the curtain with
their cross fire--those cursed bullets again! And the ladder did not
reach, after all. O it was foolishness--flinging away men like this
for no earthly good! Why not throw up the business and go home? Why
didn't somebody stop those silly bugles sounding the Advance?
There they went again! It was enough to drive a man mad!
He turned and ran down the slope a short way. For the moment he held a
grip on himself, but it was slackening, and in another half-minute
he would have lost it and run in mere blind horror. But in the first
group he blundered upon were Dave and Teddy, and a score of the King's
Own, with a couple of ladders between them; and better still, they
were listening to Captain Hopkins, who waved an arm and pointed to an
embrasure to the left. Nat, pulling himself up and staring with the
rest, saw that no gun stood in this embrasure, only a gabion. In a
moment he was climbing the slope again; if a man must die, there's
comfort at least in company. He bore a hand in planting the two
ladders; a third was fetched--heaven knew whence or how--and planted
beside them, and up the men swarmed, three abreast, Dave leading on
the right-hand one, at the foot of which Nat hung back and swayed. He
heard Dave's long sigh, the sigh, the sob almost, of desire answered
at last. He watched him as he mounted. The ladders were still too