Here, upon the lapel of my coat, you may see the ribbon of my decoration, bu_he medal itself I keep in a leathern pouch at home, and I never venture t_ake it out unless one of the modern peace generals, or some foreigner o_istinction who finds himself in our little town, takes advantage of th_pportunity to pay his respects to the well-known Brigadier Gerard. Then _lace it upon my breast, and I give my moustache the old Marengo twist whic_rings a grey point into either eye. Yet with it all I fear that neither they, nor you either, my friends, will ever realize the man that I was. You know m_nly as a civilian—with an air and a manner, it is true—but still merely as _ivilian. Had you seen me as I stood in the doorway of the inn at Alamo, o_he 1st of July, in the year 1810, you would then have known what the hussa_ay attain to.
For a month I had lingered in that accursed village, and all on account of _ance-thrust in my ankle, which made it impossible for me to put my foot t_he ground. There were three besides myself at first: old Bouvet, of th_ussars of Bercheny, Jacques Regnier, of the Cuirassiers, and a funny littl_oltigeur captain whose name I forget; but they all got well and hurried on t_he front, while I sat gnawing my fingers and tearing my hair, and even, _ust confess, weeping from time to time as I thought of my Hussars o_onflans, and the deplorable condition in which they must find themselves whe_eprived of their colonel. I was not a chief of brigade yet, you understand, although I already carried myself like one, but I was the youngest colonel i_he whole service, and my regiment was wife and children to me. It went to m_eart that they should be so bereaved. It is true that Villaret, the senio_ajor, was an excellent soldier; but still, even among the best there ar_egrees of merit.
Ah, that happy July day of which I speak, when first I limped to the door an_tood in the golden Spanish sunshine! It was but the evening before that I ha_eard from the regiment. They were at Pastores, on the other side of th_ountains, face to face with the English—not forty miles from me by road. Bu_ow was I to get to them? The same thrust which had pierced my ankle had slai_y charger. I took advice both from Gomez, the landlord, and from an ol_riest who had slept that night in the inn, but neither of them could do mor_han assure me that there was not so much as a colt left upon the whol_ountryside.
The landlord would not hear of my crossing the mountains without an escort, for he assured me that El Cuchillo, the Spanish guerilla chief, was out tha_ay with his band, and that it meant a death by torture to fall into hi_ands. The old priest observed, however, that he did not think a French hussa_ould be deterred by that, and if I had had any doubts, they would of cours_ave been decided by his remark.
But a horse! How was I to get one? I was standing in the doorway, plotting an_lanning, when I heard the clink of shoes, and, looking up, I saw a grea_earded man, with a blue cloak frogged across in military fashion, comin_owards me. He was riding a big black horse with one white stocking on hi_ear fore-leg.
'Halloa, comrade!' said I, as he came up to me.
'Halloa!' said he.
'I am Colonel Gerard, of the Hussars,' said I. 'I have lain here wounded for _onth, and I am now ready to rejoin my regiment at Pastores.'
'I am Monsieur Vidal, of the commissariat,' he answered, 'and I am myself upo_y way to Pastores. I should be glad to have your company, Colonel, for I hea_hat the mountains are far from safe.'
'Alas,' said I, 'I have no horse. But if you will sell me yours, I wil_romise that an escort of hussars shall be sent back for you.'
He would not hear of it, and it was in vain that the landlord told hi_readful stories of the doings of El Cuchillo, and that I pointed out the dut_hich he owed to the army and to the country. He would not even argue, bu_alled loudly for a cup of wine. I craftily asked him to dismount and to drin_ith me, but he must have seen something in my face, for he shook his head; and then, as I approached him with some thought of seizing him by the leg, h_erked his heels into his horse's flanks, and was off in a cloud of dust.
My faith! it was enough to make a man mad to see this fellow riding away s_aily to join his beef-barrels, and his brandy-casks, and then to think of m_ive hundred beautiful hussars without their leader. I was gazing after hi_ith bitter thoughts in my mind, when who should touch me on the elbow but th_ittle priest whom I have mentioned.
'It is I who can help you,' he said. 'I am myself travelling south.'
I put my arms about him and, as my ankle gave way at the same moment, w_early rolled upon the ground together.
'Get me to Pastores,' I cried, 'and you shall have a rosary of golden beads.'
I had taken one from the Convent of Spiritu Santo. It shows how necessary i_s to take what you can when you are upon a campaign, and how the mos_nlikely things may become useful.
'I will take you,' he said, in very excellent French, 'not because I hope fo_ny reward, but because it is my way always to do what I can to serve m_ellow-man, and that is why I am so beloved wherever I go.'
With that he led me down the village to an old cow-house, in which we found _umble-down sort of diligence, such as they used to run early in this century, between some of our remote villages. There were three old mules, too, none o_hich were strong enough to carry a man, but together they might draw th_oach. The sight of their gaunt ribs and spavined legs gave me more deligh_han the whole two hundred and twenty hunters of the Emperor which I have see_n their stalls at Fontainebleau. In ten minutes the owner was harnessing the_nto the coach, with no very good will, however, for he was in mortal dread o_his terrible Cuchillo. It was only by promising him riches in this world, while the priest threatened him with perdition in the next, that we at las_ot him safely upon the box with the reins between his fingers. Then he was i_uch a hurry to get off, out of fear lest we should find ourselves in the dar_n the passes, that he hardly gave me time to renew my vows to the innkeeper'_aughter. I cannot at this moment recall her name, but we wept together as w_arted, and I can remember that she was a very beautiful woman. You wil_nderstand, my friends, that when a man like me, who has fought the men an_issed the women in fourteen separate kingdoms, gives a word of praise to th_ne or the other, it has a little meaning of its own.
The little priest had seemed a trifle grave when we kissed good-bye, but h_oon proved himself the best of companions in the diligence. All the way h_mused me with tales of his little parish up in the mountains, and I in m_urn told him stories about the camp; but, my faith, I had to pick my steps, for when I said a word too much he would fidget in his seat and his face woul_how the pain that I had given him. And of course it is not the act of _entleman to talk in anything but a proper manner to a religious man, though, with all the care in the world, one's words may get out of hand sometimes.
He had come from the north of Spain, as he told me, and was going to see hi_other in a village of Estremadura, and as he spoke about her little peasan_ome, and her joy in seeing him, it brought my own mother so vividly to m_houghts that the tears started to my eyes. In his simplicity he showed me th_ittle gifts which he was taking to her, and so kindly was his manner that _ould readily believe him when he said he was loved wherever he went. H_xamined my own uniform with as much curiosity as a child, admiring the plum_f my busby, and passing his fingers through the sable with which my dolma_as trimmed. He drew my sword, too, and then when I told him how many men _ad cut down with it, and set my finger on the notch made by the shoulder-bon_f the Russian Emperor's aide-de-camp, he shuddered and placed the weapo_nder the leathern cushion, declaring that it made him sick to look at it.
Well, we had been rolling and creaking on our way whilst this talk had bee_oing forward, and as we reached the base of the mountains we could hear th_umbling of cannon far away upon the right. This came from Massena, who was, as I knew, besieging Ciudad Rodrigo. There was nothing I should have wishe_etter than to have gone straight to him, for if, as some said, he had Jewis_lood in his veins, he was the best Jew that I have heard of since Joshua'_ime. If you were in sight of his beaky nose and bold, black eyes, you wer_ot likely to miss much of what was going on. Still, a siege is always a poo_ort of a pick-and-shovel business, and there were better prospects with m_ussars in front of the English. Every mile that passed, my heart grew lighte_nd lighter, until I found myself shouting and singing like a young ensig_resh from St Cyr, just to think of seeing all my fine horses and my gallan_ellows once more.
As we penetrated the mountains the road grew rougher and the pass more savage.
At first we had met a few muleteers, but now the whole country seeme_eserted, which is not to be wondered at when you think that the French, th_nglish, and the guerillas had each in turn had command over it. So bleak an_ild was it, one great brown wrinkled cliff succeeding another, and the pas_rowing narrower and narrower, that I ceased to look out, but sat in silence, thinking of this and that, of women whom I had loved and of horses which I ha_andled. I was suddenly brought back from my dreams, however, by observing th_ifficulties of my companion, who was trying with a sort of brad-awl, which h_ad drawn out, to bore a hole through the leathern strap which held up hi_ater-flask. As he worked with twitching fingers the strap escaped his grasp, and the wooden bottle fell at my feet. I stooped to pick it up, and as I di_o the priest silently leaped upon my shoulders and drove his brad-awl into m_ye!
My friends, I am, as you know, a man steeled to face every danger. When on_as served from the affair of Zurich to that last fatal day of Waterloo, an_as had the special medal, which I keep at home in a leathern pouch, one ca_fford to confess when one is frightened. It may console some of you, whe_our own nerves play you tricks, to remember that you have heard even me, Brigadier Gerard, say that I have been scared. And besides my terror at thi_orrible attack, and the maddening pain of my wound, there was a sudde_eeling of loathing such as you might feel were some filthy tarantula t_trike its fangs into you.
I clutched the creature in both hands, and, hurling him on to the floor of th_oach, I stamped on him with my heavy boots. He had drawn a pistol from th_ront of his soutane, but I kicked it out of his hand, and again I fell wit_y knees upon his chest. Then, for the first time, he screamed horribly, whil_, half blinded, felt about for the sword which he had so cunningly concealed.
My hand had just lighted upon it, and I was dashing the blood from my face t_ee where he lay that I might transfix him, when the whole coach turned partl_ver upon its side, and my weapon was jerked out of my grasp by the shock.
Before I could recover myself the door was burst open, and I was dragged b_he heels on to the road. But even as I was torn out on to the flint stones, and realized that thirty ruffians were standing around me, I was filled wit_oy, for my pelisse had been pulled over my head in the struggle and wa_overing one of my eyes, and it was with my wounded eye that I was seeing thi_ang of brigands. You see for yourself by this pucker and scar how the thi_lade passed between socket and ball, but it was only at that moment, when _as dragged from the coach, that I understood that my sight was not gone fo_ver. The creature's intention, doubtless, was to drive it through into m_rain, and indeed he loosened some portion of the inner bone of my head, s_hat I afterwards had more trouble from that wound than from any one of th_eventeen which I have received.
They dragged me out, these sons of dogs, with curses and execrations, beatin_e with their fists and kicking me as I lay upon the ground. I had frequentl_bserved that the mountaineers wore cloth swathed round their feet, but neve_id I imagine that I should have so much cause to be thankful for it.
Presently, seeing the blood upon my head, and that I lay quiet, they though_hat I was unconscious, whereas I was storing every ugly face among them int_y memory, so that I might see them all safely hanged if ever my chance cam_ound. Brawny rascals they were, with yellow handkerchiefs round their heads, and great red sashes stuffed with weapons. They had rolled two rocks acros_he path, where it took a sharp turn, and it was these which had torn off on_f the wheels of the coach and upset us. As to this reptile, who had acted th_riest so cleverly and had told me so much of his parish and his mother, he, of course, had known where the ambuscade was laid, and had attempted to put m_eyond all resistance at the moment when we reached it.
I cannot tell you how frantic their rage was when they drew him out of th_oach and saw the state to which I had reduced him. If he had not got all hi_eserts, he had, at least, something as a souvenir of his meeting with Etienn_erard, for his legs dangled aimlessly about, and though the upper part of hi_ody was convulsed with rage and pain, he sat straight down upon his feet whe_hey tried to set him upright. But all the time his two little black eyes, which had seemed so kindly and so innocent in the coach, were glaring at m_ike a wounded cat, and he spat, and spat, and spat in my direction. My faith!
when the wretches jerked me on to my feet again, and when I was dragged off u_ne of the mountain paths, I understood that a time was coming when I was t_eed all my courage and resource. My enemy was carried upon the shoulders o_wo men behind me, and I could hear his hissing and his reviling, first in on_ar and then in the other, as I was hurried up the winding track.
I suppose that it must have been for an hour that we ascended, and what wit_y wounded ankle and the pain from my eye, and the fear lest this wound shoul_ave spoiled my appearance, I have made no journey to which I look back wit_ess pleasure. I have never been a good climber at any time, but it i_stonishing what you can do, even with a stiff ankle, when you have a copper- coloured brigand at each elbow and a nine-inch blade within touch of you_hiskers.
We came at last to a place where the path wound over a ridge, and descende_pon the other side through thick pine-trees into a valley which opened to th_outh. In time of peace I had little doubt that the villains were al_mugglers, and that these were the secret paths by which they crossed th_ortuguese frontier. There were many mule-tracks, and once I was surprised t_ee the marks of a large horse where a stream had softened the track. Thes_ere explained when, on reaching a place where there was a clearing in the fi_ood, I saw the animal itself haltered to a fallen tree. My eyes had hardl_ested upon it, when I recognized the great black limbs and the white nea_ore-leg. It was the very horse which I had begged for in the morning.
What, then, had become of Commissariat Vidal? Was it possible that there wa_nother Frenchman in as perilous a plight as myself? The thought had hardl_ntered my head when our party stopped and one of them uttered a peculiar cry.
It was answered from among the brambles which lined the base of a cliff at on_ide of a clearing, and an instant later ten or a dozen more brigands came ou_rom amongst them, and the two parties greeted each other. The new-comer_urrounded my friend of the brad-awl with cries of grief and sympathy, an_hen, turning upon me, they brandished their knives and howled at me like th_ang of assassins that they were. So frantic were their gestures that I wa_onvinced that my end had come, and was just bracing myself to meet it in _anner which should be worthy of my past reputation, when one of them gave a_rder and I was dragged roughly across the little glade to the brambles fro_hich this new band had emerged.
A narrow pathway led through them to a deep grotto in the side of the cliff.
The sun was already setting outside, and in the cave itself it would have bee_uite dark but for a pair of torches which blazed from a socket on eithe_ide. Between them there was sitting at a rude table a very singular-lookin_erson, whom I saw instantly, from the respect with which the others addresse_im, could be none other than the brigand chief who had received, on accoun_f his dreadful character, the sinister name of El Cuchillo.
The man whom I had injured had been carried in and placed upon the top of _arrel, his helpless legs dangling about in front of him, and his cat's eye_till darting glances of hatred at me. I understood, from the snatches of tal_hich I could follow between the chief and him, that he was the lieutenant o_he band, and that part of his duties was to lie in wait with his smoot_ongue and his peaceful garb for travellers like myself. When I thought of ho_any gallant officers may have been lured to their death by this monster o_ypocrisy, it gave me a glow of pleasure to think that I had brought hi_illainies to an end—though I feared it would be at the price of a life whic_either the Emperor nor the army could well spare.
As the injured man still supported upon the barrel by two comrades, wa_xplaining in Spanish all that had befallen him, I was held by several of th_illains in front of the table at which the chief was seated, and had a_xcellent opportunity of observing him. I have seldom seen any man who wa_ess like my idea of a brigand, and especially of a brigand with such _eputation that in a land of cruelty he had earned so dark a nickname. Hi_ace was bluff and broad and bland, with ruddy cheeks and comfortable littl_ufts of side-whiskers, which gave him the appearance of a well-to-do groce_f the Rue St Antoine. He had not any of those flaring sashes or gleamin_eapons which distinguished his followers, but on the contrary he wore a goo_roadcloth coat like a respectable father of a family, and save for his brow_eggings there was nothing to indicate a life among the mountains. Hi_urroundings, too, corresponded with himself, and beside his snuff-box upo_he table there stood a great brown book, which looked like a commercia_edger. Many other books were ranged along a plank between two powder-casks, and there was a great litter of papers, some of which had verses scribble_pon them. All this I took in while he, leaning indolently back in his chair, was listening to the report of his lieutenant. Having heard everything, h_rdered the cripple to be carried out again, and I was left with my thre_uards, waiting to hear my fate. He took up his pen, and tapping his forehea_ith the handle of it, he pursed up his lips and looked out of the corner o_is eyes at the roof of the grotto.
'I suppose,' said he at last, speaking very excellent French, 'that you ar_ot able to suggest a rhyme for the word Covilha.'
I answered him that my acquaintance with the Spanish language was so limite_hat I was unable to oblige him.
'It is a rich language,' said he, 'but less prolific in rhymes than either th_erman or the English. That is why our best work has been done in blank verse, a form of composition which is capable of reaching great heights. But I fea_hat such subjects are somewhat outside the range of a hussar.'
I was about to answer that if they were good enough for a guerilla, they coul_ot be too much for the light cavalry, but he was already stooping over hi_alf-finished verse. Presently he threw down the pen with an exclamation o_atisfaction, and declaimed a few lines which drew a cry of approval from th_hree ruffians who held me. His broad face blushed like a young girl wh_eceives her first compliment.
'The critics are in my favour, it appears,' said he; 'we amuse ourselves i_ur long evenings by singing our own ballads, you understand. I have som_ittle facility in that direction, and I do not at all despair of seeing som_f my poor efforts in print before long, and with "Madrid" upon the title- page, too. But we must get back to business. May I ask what your name is?'
'The Third Hussars of Conflans.'
'You are young for a colonel.'
'My career has been an eventful one.'
'Tut, that makes it the sadder,' said he, with his bland smile.
I made no answer to that, but I tried to show him by my bearing that I wa_eady for the worst which could befall me.
'By the way, I rather fancy that we have had some of your corps here,' sai_e, turning over the pages of his big brown register. 'We endeavour to keep _ecord of our operations. Here is a heading under June 24th. Have you not _oung officer named Soubiron, a tall, slight youth with light hair?'
'I see that we buried him upon that date.'
'Poor lad!' I cried. 'And how did he die?'
'We buried him.'
'But before you buried him?'
'You misunderstand me, Colonel. He was not dead before we buried him.'
'You buried him alive!'
For a moment I was too stunned to act. Then I hurled myself upon the man, a_e sat with that placid smile of his upon his lips, and I would have torn hi_hroat out had the three wretches not dragged me away from him. Again an_gain I made for him, panting and cursing, shaking off this man and that, straining and wrenching, but never quite free. At last, with my jacket tor_early off my back and blood dripping from my wrists, I was hauled backward_n the bight of a rope and cords passed round my ankles and my arms.
'You sleek hound!' I cried. 'If ever I have you at my sword's point, I wil_each you to maltreat one of my lads. You will find, you bloodthirsty beast, that my Emperor has long arms, and though you lie here like a rat in its hole, the time will come when he will tear you out of it, and you and your vermi_ill perish together.'
My faith, I have a rough side to my tongue, and there was not a hard word tha_ had learned in fourteen campaigns which I did not let fly at him; but he sa_ith the handle of his pen tapping against his forehead and his eyes squintin_p at the roof as if he had conceived the idea of some new stanza. It was thi_ccupation of his which showed me how I might get my point into him.
'You spawn!' said I; 'you think that you are safe here, but your life may b_s short as that of your absurd verses, and God knows that it could not b_horter than that.'
Ah, you should have seen him bound from his chair when I said the words. Thi_ile monster, who dispensed death and torture as a grocer serves out his figs, had one raw nerve then which I could prod at pleasure. His face grew livid, and those little bourgeois side-whiskers quivered and thrilled with passion.
'Very good, Colonel. You have said enough,' he cried, in a choking voice. 'Yo_ay that you have had a very distinguished career. I promise you also a ver_istinguished ending. Colonel Etienne Gerard of the Third Hussars shall have _eath of his own.'
'And I only beg,' said I, 'that you will not commemorate it in verse.' I ha_ne or two little ironies to utter, but he cut me short by a furious gestur_hich caused my three guards to drag me from the cave.
Our interview, which I have told you as nearly as I can remember it, must hav_asted some time, for it was quite dark when we came out, and the moon wa_hining very clearly in the heavens. The brigands had lighted a great fire o_he dried branches of the fir-trees; not, of course, for warmth, since th_ight was already very sultry, but to cook their evening meal. A huge coppe_ot hung over the blaze, and the rascals were lying all round in the yello_lare, so that the scene looked like one of those pictures which Junot stol_ut of Madrid. There are some soldiers who profess to care nothing for art an_he like, but I have always been drawn towards it myself, in which respect _how my good taste and my breeding. I remember, for example, that whe_efebvre was selling the plunder after the fall of Danzig, I bought a ver_ine picture, called 'Nymphs Surprised in a Wood,' and I carried it with m_hrough two campaigns, until my charger had the misfortune to put his hoo_hrough it.
I only tell you this, however, to show you that I was never a mere roug_oldier like Rapp or Ney. As I lay in that brigands' camp, I had little tim_r inclination to think about such matters. They had thrown me down under _ree, the three villains squatting round and smoking their cigarettes withi_ands' touch of me. What to do I could not imagine. In my whole career I d_ot suppose that I have ten times been in as hopeless a situation. 'Bu_ourage,' thought I. 'Courage, my brave boy! You were not made a Colonel o_ussars at twenty-eight because you could dance a cotillon. You are a picke_an, Etienne; a man who has come through more than two hundred affairs, an_his little one is surely not going to be the last.' I began eagerly to glanc_bout for some chance of escape, and as I did so I saw something which fille_e with great astonishment.
I have already told you that a large fire was burning in the centre of th_lade. What with its glare, and what with the moonlight, everything was a_lear as possible. On the other side of the glade there was a single tall fir- tree which attracted my attention because its trunk and lower branches wer_iscoloured, as if a large fire had recently been lit underneath it. A clum_f bushes grew in front of it which concealed the base. Well, as I looke_owards it, I was surprised to see projecting above the bush, and fastene_pparently to the tree, a pair of fine riding boots with the toes upwards. A_irst I thought that they were tied there, but as I looked harder I saw tha_hey were secured by a great nail which was hammered through the foot of each.
And then, suddenly, with a thrill of horror, I understood that these were no_mpty boots; and moving my head a little to the right, I was able to see wh_t was that had been fastened there, and why a fire had been lit beneath th_ree. It is not pleasant to speak or to think of horrors, my friends, and I d_ot wish to give any of you bad dreams tonight—but I cannot take you among th_panish guerillas without showing you what kind of men they were, and the sor_f warfare that they waged. I will only say that I understood why Monsieu_idal's horse was waiting masterless in the grove, and that I hoped he had me_his terrible fate with sprightliness and courage, as a good Frenchman ought.
It was not a very cheering sight for me, as you can imagine. When I had bee_ith their chief in the grotto I had been so carried away by my rage at th_ruel death of young Soubiron, who was one of the brightest lads who eve_hrew his thigh over a charger, that I had never given a thought to my ow_osition. Perhaps it would have been more politic had I spoken the ruffia_air, but it was too late now. The cork was drawn and I must drain the wine.
Besides, if the harmless commissariat man were put to such a death, what hop_as there for me, who had snapped the spine of their lieutenant? No, I wa_oomed in any case, and it was as well perhaps that I should have put the bes_ace on the matter. This beast could bear witness that Etienne Gerard had die_s he had lived, and that one prisoner at least had not quailed before him. _ay there thinking of the various girls who would mourn for me, and of my dea_ld mother, and of the deplorable loss which I should be, both to my regimen_nd to the Emperor, and I am not ashamed to confess to you that I shed tear_s I thought of the general consternation which my premature end would giv_ise to.
But all the time I was taking the very keenest notice of everything whic_ight possibly help me. I am not a man who would lie like a sick horse waitin_or the farrier sergeant and the pole-axe. First I would give a little tug a_y ankle cords, and then another at those which were round my wrists, and al_he time that I was trying to loosen them I was peering round to see if _ould find something which was in my favour. There was one thing which wa_ery evident. A hussar is but half formed without a horse, and there was m_ther half quietly grazing within thirty yards of me. Then I observed ye_nother thing. The path by which we had come over the mountains was so stee_hat a horse could only be led across it slowly and with difficulty, but i_he other direction the ground appeared to be more open, and to lead straigh_own into a gently-sloping valley. Had I but my feet in yonder stirrups and m_abre in my hand, a single bold dash might take me out of the power of thes_ermin of the rocks.
I was still thinking it over and straining with my wrists and my ankles, whe_heir chief came out from his grotto, and after some talk with his lieutenant, who lay groaning near the fire, they both nodded their heads and looked acros_t me. He then said some few words to the band, who clapped their hands an_aughed uproariously. Things looked ominous, and I was delighted to feel tha_y hands were so far free that I could easily slip them through the cords if _ished. But with my ankles I feared that I could do nothing, for when _trained it brought such pain into my lance-wound that I had to gnaw m_oustache to keep from crying out. I could only lie still, half-free and half- bound, and see what turn things were likely to take.
For a little I could not make out what they were after. One of the rascal_limbed up a well-grown fir-tree upon one side of the glade, and tied a rop_ound the top of the trunk. He then fastened another rope in the same fashio_o a similar tree upon the other side. The two loose ends were now danglin_own, and I waited with some curiosity, and just a little trepidation also, t_ee what they would do next. The whole band pulled upon one of the ropes unti_hey had bent the strong young tree down into a semi-circle, and they the_astened it to a stump, so as to hold it so. When they had bent the other tre_own in a similar fashion, the two summits were within a few feet of eac_ther, though, as you understand, they would each spring back into thei_riginal position the instant that they were released. I already saw th_iabolical plan which these miscreants had formed.
'I presume that you are a strong man, Colonel,' said the chief, coming toward_e with his hateful smile.
'If you will have the kindness to loosen these cords,' I answered, 'I wil_how you how strong I am.'
'We were all interested to see whether you were as strong as these two youn_aplings,' said he. 'It is our intention, you see, to tie one end of each rop_ound your ankles and then let the trees go. If you are stronger than th_rees, then, of course, no harm would be done; if, on the other hand, th_rees are stronger than you, why, in that case, Colonel, we may have _ouvenir of you upon each side of our little glade.'
He laughed as he spoke, and at the sight of it the whole forty of them laughe_lso. Even now if I am in my darker humour, or if I have a touch of my ol_ithuanian ague, I see in my sleep that ring of dark, savage faces, with thei_ruel eyes, and the firelight flashing upon their strong white teeth.
It is astonishing—and I have heard many make the same remark—how acute one'_enses become at such a crisis as this. I am convinced that at no moment i_ne living so vividly, so acutely, as at the instant when a violent an_oreseen death overtakes one. I could smell the resinous fagots, I could se_very twig upon the ground, I could hear every rustle of the branches, as _ave never smelled or seen or heard save at such times of danger. And so i_as that long before anyone else, before even the time when the chief ha_ddressed me, I had heard a low, monotonous sound, far away indeed, and ye_oming nearer at every instant. At first it was but a murmur, a rumble, but b_he time he had finished speaking, while the assassins were untying my ankle_n order to lead me to the scene of my murder, I heard, as plainly as ever _eard anything in my life, the clinking of horseshoes and the jingling o_ridle-chains, with the clank of sabres against stirrup-irons. Is it likel_hat I, who had lived with the light cavalry since the first hair shaded m_ip, would mistake the sound of troopers on the march?
'Help, comrades, help!' I shrieked, and though they struck me across the mout_nd tried to drag me up to the trees, I kept on yelling, 'Help me, my brav_oys! Help me, my children! They are murdering your colonel!'
For the moment my wounds and my troubles had brought on a delirium, and _ooked for nothing less than my five hundred hussars, kettle-drums and all, t_ppear at the opening of the glade.
But that which really appeared was very different to anything which I ha_onceived. Into the clear space there came galloping a fine young man upon _ost beautiful roan horse. He was fresh-faced and pleasant-looking, with th_ost debonair bearing in the world and the most gallant way of carryin_imself—a way which reminded me somewhat of my own. He wore a singular coa_hich had once been red all over, but which was now stained to the colour of _ithered oak-leaf wherever the weather could reach it. His shoulder-straps, however, were of golden lace, and he had a bright metal helmet upon his head, with a coquettish white plume upon one side of its crest. He trotted his hors_p the glade, while behind him rode four cavaliers in the same dress—al_lean-shaven, with round, comely faces, looking to me more like monks tha_ragoons. At a short, gruff order they halted with a rattle of arms, whil_heir leader cantered forward, the fire beating upon his eager face and th_eautiful head of his charger. I knew, of course, by the strange coats tha_hey were English. It was the first sight that I had ever had of them, bu_rom their stout bearing and their masterful way I could see at a glance tha_hat I had always been told was true, and that they were excellent people t_ight against.
'Well, well, well!' cried the young officer, in sufficiently bad French, 'wha_ame are you up to here? Who was that who was yelling for help, and what ar_ou trying to do to him?'
It was at that moment that I learned to bless those months which Obriant, th_escendant of the Irish kings, had spent in teaching me the tongue of th_nglish. My ankles had just been freed, so that I had only to slip my hand_ut of the cords, and with a single rush I had flown across, picked up m_abre where it lay by the fire, and hurled myself on to the saddle of poo_idal's horse. Yes, for all my wounded ankle, I never put foot to stirrup, bu_as in the seat in a single bound. I tore the halter from the tree, and befor_hese villains could so much as snap a pistol at me I was beside the Englis_fficer.
'I surrender to you, sir,' I cried; though I daresay my English was not ver_uch better than his French. 'If you will look at that tree to the left yo_ill see what these villains do to the honourable gentlemen who fall int_heir hands.'
The fire had flared up at that moment, and there was poor Vidal exposed befor_hem, as horrible an object as one could see in a nightmare. 'Godam!' crie_he officer, and 'Godam!' cried each of the four troopers, which is the sam_s with us when we cry 'Mon Dieu!' Out rasped the five swords, and the fou_en closed up. One, who wore a sergeant's chevrons, laughed and clapped me o_he shoulder.
'Fight for your skin, froggy,' said he.
Ah, it was so fine to have a horse between my thighs and a weapon in my grip.
I waved it above my head and shouted in my exultation. The chief had com_orward with that odious smiling face of his.
'Your excellency will observe that this Frenchman is our prisoner,' said he.
'You are a rascally robber,' said the Englishman, shaking his sword at him.
'It is a disgrace to us to have such allies. By my faith, if Lord Wellingto_ere of my mind we would swing you up on the nearest tree.'
'But my prisoner?' said the brigand, in his suave voice.
'He shall come with us to the British camp.'
'Just a word in your ear before you take him.'
He approached the young officer, and then turning as quick as a flash, h_ired his pistol in my face. The bullet scored its way through my hair an_urst a hole on each side of my busby. Seeing that he had missed me, he raise_he pistol and was about to hurl it at me when the English sergeant, with _ingle back-handed cut, nearly severed his head from his body. His blood ha_ot reached the ground, nor the last curse died on his lips, before the whol_orde was upon us, but with a dozen bounds and as many slashes we were al_afely out of the glade, and galloping down the winding track which led to th_alley.
It was not until we had left the ravine far behind us and were right out i_he open fields that we ventured to halt, and to see what injuries we ha_ustained. For me, wounded and weary as I was, my heart was beating proudly, and my chest was nearly bursting my tunic to think that I, Etienne Gerard, ha_eft this gang of murderers so much by which to remember me. My faith, the_ould think twice before they ventured again to lay hands upon one of th_hird Hussars. So carried away was I that I made a small oration to thes_rave Englishmen, and told them who it was that they had helped to rescue. _ould have spoken of glory also, and of the sympathies of brave men, but th_fficer cut me short.
'That's all right,' said he. 'Any injuries, Sergeant?'
'Trooper Jones's horse hit with a pistol bullet on the fetlock.'
'Trooper Jones to go with us. Sergeant Halliday, with troopers Harvey an_mith, to keep to the right until they touch the vedettes of the Germa_ussars.'
So these three jingled away together, while the officer and I, followed a_ome distance by the trooper whose horse had been wounded, rode straight dow_n the direction of the English camp. Very soon we had opened our hearts, fo_e each liked the other from the beginning. He was of the nobility, this brav_ad, and he had been sent out scouting by Lord Wellington to see if there wer_ny signs of our advancing through the mountains. It is one advantage of _andering life like mine, that you learn to pick up those bits of knowledg_hich distinguish the man of the world. I have, for example, hardly ever met _renchman who could repeat an English title correctly. If I had not travelle_ should not be able to say with confidence that this young man's real nam_as Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart., this last being an honourabl_istinction, so that it was as the Bart that I usually addressed him, just a_n Spanish one might say 'the Don.'
As we rode beneath the moonlight in the lovely Spanish night, we spoke ou_inds to each other, as if we were brothers. We were both of an age, you see, both of the light cavalry also (the Sixteenth Light Dragoons was hi_egiment), and both with the same hopes and ambitions. Never have I learned t_now a man so quickly as I did the Bart. He gave me the name of a girl whom h_ad loved at a garden called Vauxhall, and, for my own part, I spoke to him o_ittle Coralie, of the Opera. He took a lock of hair from his bosom, and I _arter. Then we nearly quarrelled over hussar and dragoon, for he was absurdl_roud of his regiment, and you should have seen him curl his lip and clap hi_and to his hilt when I said that I hoped it might never be its misfortune t_ome in the way of the Third. Finally, he began to speak about what th_nglish call sport, and he told such stories of the money which he had los_ver which of two cocks could kill the other, or which of two men could strik_he other the most in a fight for a prize, that I was filled wit_stonishment. He was ready to bet upon anything in the most wonderful manner, and when I chanced to see a shooting star he was anxious to bet that he woul_ee more than me, twenty-five francs a star, and it was only when I explaine_hat my purse was in the hands of the brigands that he would give over th_dea.
Well, we chatted away in this very amiable fashion until the day began t_reak, when suddenly we heard a great volley of musketry from somewhere i_ront of us. It was very rocky and broken ground, and I thought, although _ould see nothing, that a general engagement had broken out. The Bart laughe_t my idea, however, and explained that the sound came from the English camp, where every man emptied his piece each morning so as to make sure of having _ry priming.
'In another mile we shall be up with the outposts,' said he.
I glanced round at this, and I perceived that we had trotted along at so goo_ pace during the time that we were keeping up our pleasant chat, that th_ragoon with the lame horse was altogether out of sight. I looked on ever_ide, but in the whole of that vast rocky valley there was no one save onl_he Bart and I—both of us armed, you understand, and both of us well mounted.
I began to ask myself whether after all it was quite necessary that I shoul_ide that mile which would bring me to the British outposts.
Now, I wish to be very clear with you on this point, my friends, for I woul_ot have you think that I was acting dishonourably or ungratefully to the ma_ho had helped me away from the brigands. You must remember that of all dutie_he strongest is that which a commanding officer owes to his men. You mus_lso bear in mind that war is a game which is played under fixed rules, an_hen these rules are broken one must at once claim the forfeit. If, fo_xample, I had given a parole, then I should have been an infamous wretch ha_ dreamed of escaping. But no parole had been asked of me. Out of over- confidence, and the chance of the lame horse dropping behind, the Bart ha_ermitted me to get upon equal terms with him. Had it been I who had take_im, I should have used him as courteously as he had me, but, at the sam_ime, I should have respected his enterprise so far as to have deprived him o_is sword, and seen that I had at least one guard beside myself. I reined u_y horse and explained this to him, asking him at the same time whether he sa_ny breach of honour in my leaving him.
He thought about it, and several times repeated that which the English sa_hen they mean 'Mon Dieu.'
'You would give me the slip, would you?' said he.
'If you can give no reason against it.'
'The only reason that I can think of,' said the Bart, 'is that I shoul_nstantly cut your head off if you were to attempt it.'
'Two can play at that game, my dear Bart,' said I.
'Then we'll see who can play at it best,' he cried, pulling out his sword.
I had drawn mine also, but I was quite determined not to hurt this admirabl_oung man who had been my benefactor.
'Consider,' said I, 'you say that I am your prisoner. I might with equa_eason say that you are mine. We are alone here, and though I have no doub_hat you are an excellent swordsman, you can hardly hope to hold your ow_gainst the best blade in the six light cavalry brigades.'
His answer was a cut at my head. I parried and shore off half of his whit_lume. He thrust at my breast. I turned his point and cut away the other hal_f his cockade.
'Curse your monkey-tricks!' he cried, as I wheeled my horse away from him.
'Why should you strike at me?' said I. 'You see that I will not strike back.'
'That's all very well,' said he; 'but you've got to come along with me to th_amp.'
'I shall never see the camp,' said I.
'I'll lay you nine to four you do,' he cried, as he made at me, sword in hand.
But those words of his put something new into my head. Could we not decide th_atter in some better way than fighting? The Bart was placing me in such _osition that I should have to hurt him, or he would certainly hurt me. _voided his rush, though his sword-point was within an inch of my neck.
'I have a proposal,' I cried. 'We shall throw dice as to which is the prisone_f the other.'
He smiled at this. It appealed to his love of sport.
'Where are your dice?' he cried.
'I have none.'
'Nor I. But I have cards.'
'Cards let it be,' said I.
'And the game?'
'I leave it to you.'
'Écarté, then—the best of three.'
I could not help smiling as I agreed, for I do not suppose that there wer_hree men in France who were my masters at the game. I told the Bart as muc_s we dismounted. He smiled also as he listened.
'I was counted the best player at Watier's,' said he. 'With even luck yo_eserve to get off if you beat me.'
So we tethered our two horses and sat down one on either side of a great fla_ock. The Bart took a pack of cards out of his tunic, and I had only to se_im shuffle to convince me that I had no novice to deal with. We cut, and th_eal fell to him.
My faith, it was a stake worth playing for. He wished to add a hundred gol_ieces a game, but what was money when the fate of Colonel Etienne Gerard hun_pon the cards? I felt as though all those who had reason to be interested i_he game—my mother, my hussars, the Sixth Corps d'Armée, Ney, Massena, eve_he Emperor himself—were forming a ring round us in that desolate valley.
Heavens, what a blow to one and all of them should the cards go against me!
But I was confident, for my écarté play was as famous as my swordsmanship, an_ave old Bouvet of the Hussars of Bercheny, who won seventy-six out of on_undred and fifty games off me, I have always had the best of a series.
The first game I won right off, though I must confess that the cards were wit_e, and that my adversary could have done no more. In the second, I neve_layed better and saved a trick by a finesse, but the Bart voled me once, marked the king, and ran out in the second hand. My faith, we were so excite_hat he laid his helmet down beside him and I my busby.
'I'll lay my roan mare against your black horse,' said he.
'Done!' said I.
'Sword against sword.'
'Done!' said I.
'Saddle, bridle, and stirrups!' he cried.
'Done!' I shouted.
I had caught this spirit of sport from him. I would have laid my hussar_gainst his dragoons had they been ours to pledge.
And then began the game of games. Oh, he played, this Englishman—he played i_ way that was worthy of such a stake. But I, my friends, I was superb! Of th_ive which I had to make to win, I gained three on the first hand. The Bar_it his moustache and drummed his hands, while I already felt myself at th_ead of my dear little rascals. On the second, I turned the king, but lost tw_ricks—and my score was four to his two. When I saw my next hand I could no_ut give a cry of delight. 'If I cannot gain my freedom on this,' thought I,
'I deserve to remain for ever in chains.'
Give me the cards, landlord, and I will lay them out on the table for you.
Here was my hand: knave and ace of clubs, queen and knave of diamonds, an_ing of hearts. Clubs were trumps, mark you, and I had but one point betwee_e and freedom. He knew it was the crisis, and he undid his tunic. I threw m_olman on the ground. He led the ten of spades. I took it with my ace o_rumps. One point in my favour. The correct play was to clear the trumps, an_ led the knave. Down came the queen upon it, and the game was equal. He le_he eight of spades, and I could only discard my queen of diamonds. Then cam_he seven of spades, and the hair stood straight up on my head. We each thre_own a king at the final. He had won two points, and my beautiful hand ha_een mastered by his inferior one. I could have rolled on the ground as _hought of it. They used to play very good écarté at Watier's in the year '10.
I say it—I, Brigadier Gerard.
The last game was now four all. This next hand must settle it one way or th_ther. He undid his sash, and I put away my sword-belt. He was cool, thi_nglishman, and I tried to be so also, but the perspiration would trickle int_y eyes. The deal lay with him, and I may confess to you, my friends, that m_ands shook so that I could hardly pick my cards from the rock. But when _aised them, what was the first thing that my eyes rested upon? It was th_ing, the king, the glorious king of trumps! My mouth was open to declare i_hen the words were frozen upon my lips by the appearance of my comrade.
He held his cards in his hand, but his jaw had fallen, and his eyes wer_taring over my shoulder with the most dreadful expression of consternatio_nd surprise. I whisked round, and I was myself amazed at what I saw.
Three men were standing quite close to us—fifteen mètres at the farthest. Th_iddle one was of a good height, and yet not too tall—about the same height, in fact, that I am myself. He was clad in a dark uniform with a small cocke_at, and some sort of white plume upon the side. But I had little thought o_is dress. It was his face, his gaunt cheeks, his beak-like nose, hi_asterful blue eyes, his thin, firm slit of a mouth which made one feel tha_his was a wonderful man, a man of a million. His brows were tied into a knot, and he cast such a glance at my poor Bart from under them that one by one th_ards came fluttering down from his nerveless fingers. Of the two other men, one, who had a face as brown and hard as though it had been carved out of ol_ak, wore a bright red coat, while the other, a fine portly man with bush_ide-whiskers, was in a blue jacket with gold facings. Some little distanc_ehind, three orderlies were holding as many horses, and an escort of dragoon_as waiting in the rear.
'Heh, Crauford, what the deuce is this?' asked the thin man.
'D'you hear, sir?' cried the man with the red coat. 'Lord Wellington wants t_now what this means.'
My poor Bart broke into an account of all that had occurred, but that rock- face never softened for an instant.
'Pretty fine, 'pon my word, General Crauford,' he broke in. 'The discipline o_his force must be maintained, sir. Report yourself at headquarters as _risoner.'
It was dreadful to me to see the Bart mount his horse and ride off wit_anging head. I could not endure it. I threw myself before this Englis_eneral. I pleaded with him for my friend. I told him how I, Colonel Gerard, would witness what a dashing young officer he was. Ah, my eloquence might hav_elted the hardest heart; I brought tears to my own eyes, but none to his. M_oice broke, and I could say no more.
'What weight do you put on your mules, sir, in the French service?' he asked.
Yes, that was all this phlegmatic Englishman had to answer to these burnin_ords of mine. That was his reply to what would have made a Frenchman wee_pon my shoulder.
'What weight on a mule?' asked the man with the red coat.
'Two hundred and ten pounds,' said I.
'Then you load them deucedly badly,' said Lord Wellington. 'Remove th_risoner to the rear.'
His dragoons closed in upon me, and I—I was driven mad, as I thought that th_ame had been in my hands, and that I ought at that moment to be a free man. _eld the cards up in front of the General.
'See, my lord!' I cried; 'I played for my freedom and I won, for, as yo_erceive, I hold the king.'
For the first time a slight smile softened his gaunt face.
'On the contrary,' said he, as he mounted his horse, 'it is I who won, for, a_ou perceive, my King holds you.'