Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 12 The Shadow on the Land

  • It was still drizzling in the morning, with brown drifting clouds and a dam_hilly wind. It was a queer thing for me as I opened my eyes to think that _hould be in a battle that day, though none of us ever thought it would b_uch a one as it proved to be. We were up and ready, however, with the firs_ight, and as we threw open the doors of our barn we heard the most lovel_usic that I had ever listened to playing somewhere in the distance. We al_tood in clusters hearkening to it, it was so sweet and innocent and sad-like.
  • But our sergeant laughed when he saw how it pleased us all.
  • "Them are the French bands," said he; "and if you come out here you'll se_hat some of you may not live to see again."
  • Out we went, the beautiful music still sounding in our ears, and stood on _ise just outside the barn. Down below at the bottom of the slope, about hal_ musket-shot from us was a snug tiled farm with a hedge and a bit of an appl_rchard. All round it a line of men in red coats and high fur hats wer_orking like bees, knocking holes in the wall and barring up the doors.
  • "Them's the light companies of the Guards," said the sergeant. "They'll hol_hat farm while one of them can wag a finger. But look over yonder and you 'l_ee the camp fires of the French."
  • We looked across the valley at the low ridge upon the further side, and saw _housand little yellow points of flame with the dark smoke wreathing up slowl_n the heavy air. There was another farm-house on the further side of th_alley, and as we looked we suddenly saw a little group of horsemen appear o_ knoll beside it and stare across at us. There were a dozen Hussars behind, and in front five men, three with helmets, one with a long straight re_eather in his hat, and the last with a low cap.
  • "By God!" cried the sergeant, "that's him! That's Boney, the one with the gre_orse. Aye, I'll lay a month's pay on it."
  • I strained my eyes to see him, this man who had cast that great shadow ove_urope, which darkened the nations for five-and-twenty years, and which ha_ven fallen across our out-of-the-world little sheep-farm, and had dragged u_ll — myself, Edie, and Jim — out of the lives that our folk had lived befor_s. As far as I could see, he was a dumpy square-shouldered kind of man, an_e held his double glasses to his eyes with his elbows spread very wide out o_ach side. I was still staring when I heard the catch of a man's breath by m_ide, and there was Jim with his eyes glowing like two coals, and his fac_hrust over my shoulder.
  • "That's he, Jock," he whispered.
  • "Yes, that's Boney," said I.
  • "No, no, it's he. This de Lapp or de Lissac, or whatever his devil's name is.
  • It is he."
  • Then I saw him at once. It was the horseman with the high red feather in hi_at. Even at that distance I could have sworn to the slope of his shoulder_nd the way he carried his head. I clapped my hands upon Jim's sleeve, for _ould see that his blood was boiling at the sight of the man, and that he wa_eady for any madness. But at that moment Buonaparte seemed to lean over an_ay something to de Lissac, and the party wheeled and dashed away, while ther_ame the bang of a gun and a white spray of smoke from a battery along th_idge. At the same instant the assembly was blown in our village, and w_ushed for our arms and fell in. There was a burst of firing all along th_ine, and we thought that the battle had begun; but it came really from ou_ellows cleaning their pieces, for their priming was in some danger of bein_et from the damp night.
  • From where we stood it was a sight now that was worth coming over the seas t_ee. On our own ridge was the chequer of red and blue stretching right away t_ village over two miles from us. It was whispered from man to man in th_anks, however, that there was too much of the blue and too little of the red; for the Belgians had shown on the day before that their hearts were too sof_or the work, and we had twenty thousand of them for comrades. Then, even ou_ritish troops were half made up of militiamen and recruits; for the pick o_he old Peninsular regiments were on the ocean in transports, coming back fro_ome fool's quarrel with our kinsfolk of America. But for all that we coul_ee the bearskins of the Guards, two strong brigades of them, and the bonnet_f the Highlanders, and the blue of the old German Legion, and the red line_f Pack's brigade, and Kempt's brigade and the green dotted riflemen in front, and we knew that come what might these were men who would bide where they wer_laced, and that they had a man to lead them who would place them where the_hould bide.
  • Of the French we had seen little save the twinkle of their fires, and a fe_orsemen here and there upon the curves of the ridge; but as we stood an_aited there came suddenly a grand blare from their bands, and their whol_rmy came flooding over the low hill which had hid them, brigade after brigad_nd division after division, until the broad slope in its whole length an_epth was blue with their uniforms and bright with the glint of their weapons.
  • It seemed that they would never have done, still pouring over, and pourin_ver while our men leaned on their muskets and smoked their pipes looking dow_t this grand gathering and listening to what the old soldiers who had fough_he French before had to say about them. Then when the infantry had formed i_ong deep masses their guns came whirling and bounding down the slope, and i_as pretty to see how smartly they unlimbered and were ready for action. An_hen at a stately trot down came the cavalry, thirty regiments at the least, with plume and breastplate, twinkling sword and fluttering lance, forming u_t the flanks and rear, in long shifting, glimmering lines.
  • "Them's the chaps!" cried our old sergeant. "They're gluttons to fight, the_re. And you see them regiments with the great high hats in the middle, a bi_ehind the farm? That 's the Guard, twenty thousand of them, my sons, and al_icked men — grey-headed devils that have done nothing but fight since the_ere as high as my gaiters. They 've three men to our two, and two guns to ou_ne, and, by God! they 'll make you recruities wish you were back in Argyl_treet before they have finished with you."
  • He was not a cheering man, our sergeant; but then he had been in every figh_ince Corunna, and had a medal with seven clasps upon his breast, so that h_ad a right to talk in his own fashion.
  • When the Frenchmen had all arranged themselves just out of cannon-shot we sa_ small group of horsemen, all in a blaze with silver and scarlet and gold, ride swiftly between the divisions, and as they went a roar of cheering burs_ut from either side of them, and we could see arms outstretched to them an_ands waving. An instant later the noise had died away, and the two armie_tood facing each other in absolute deadly silence — a sight which often come_ack to me in my dreams. Then, of a sudden, there was a lurch among the me_ust in front of us; a thin column wheeled off from the dense blue clamp, an_ame swinging up towards the farm-house which lay below us. It had not take_ifty paces before a gun banged out from an English battery on our left, an_he Battle of Waterloo had begun.
  • It is not for me to try to tell you the story of that battle, and, indeed, _hould have kept far enough away from such a thing had it not happened tha_ur own fates, those of the three simple folk who came from the borde_ountry, were all just as much mixed up in it as those of any king or empero_f them all. To tell the honest truth, I have learned more about that battl_rom what I have read than from what I saw, for how much could I see with _omrade on either side, and a great white cloudbank at the very end of m_irelock? It was from books and the talk of others that I learned how th_eavy cavalry charged, how they rode over the famous cuirassiers, and how the_ere cut to pieces before they could get back. From them, too, I learned al_bout the successive assaults, and how the Belgians fled, and how Pack an_empt stood firm. But of my own knowledge I can only speak of what we sa_uring that long day in the rifts of the smoke and the lulls of the firing, and it is just of that that I will tell you.
  • We were on the right of the line and in reserve, for the Duke was afraid tha_oney might work round on that side and get at him from behind; so our thre_egiments, with another British brigade and the Hanoverians, were placed ther_o be ready for anything. There were two brigades of light cavalry, too; bu_he French attack was all from the front, so it was late in the day before w_ere really wanted.
  • The English battery which fired the first gun was still banging away on ou_eft, and a German one was hard at work upon our right, so that we wer_rapped round with the smoke; but we were not so hidden as to screen us from _ine of French guns opposite, for a score of round shot came piping throug_he air and plumped right into the heart of us. As I heard the scream of the_ast my ear my head went down like a diver, but our sergeant gave me a prod i_he back with the handle of his halbert.
  • "Don't be so blasted polite," said he; "when you're hit, you can bow once an_or all."
  • There was one of those balls that knocked five men into a bloody mash, and _aw it lying on the ground afterwards like a crimson football. Another wen_hrough the adjutant's horse with a plop like a stone in the mud, broke it_ack and left it lying like a burst gooseberry. Three more fell further to th_ight, and by the stir and cries we could tell that they had all told.
  • "Ah! James, you've lost a good mount," says Major Reed, just in front of me, looking down at the adjutant, whose boots and breeches were all running wit_lood.
  • "I gave a cool fifty for him in Glasgow," said the other. "Don't you think, major, that the men had better lie down now that the guns have got our range?"
  • "Tut!" said the other; "they are young, James, and it will do them good."
  • "They 'll get enough of it before the day's done," grumbled the other; but a_hat moment Colonel Reynell saw that the rifles and the 52nd were down o_ither side of us, so we had the order to stretch ourselves out too. Preciou_lad we were when we could hear the shot whining like hungry dogs within a fe_eet of our backs. Even now a thud and a splash every minute or so, with _elp of pain and a drumming of boots upon the ground, told us that we wer_till losing heavily.
  • A thin rain was falling and the damp air held the smoke low, so that we coul_nly catch glimpses of what was doing just in front of us, though the roar o_he guns told us that the battle was general all along the lines. Four hundre_f them were all crashing at once now, and the noise was enough to split th_rum of your ear. Indeed, there was not one of us but had a singing in hi_ead for many a long day afterwards. Just opposite us on the slope of the hil_as a French gun, and we could see the men serving her quite plainly. The_ere small active men, with very tight breeches and high hats with grea_traight plumes sticking up from them; but they worked like sheep-shearers, ramming and sponging and training. There were fourteen when I saw them first, and only four were left standing at the last, but they were working away jus_s hard as ever.
  • The farm that they called Hougoumont was down in front of us, and all th_orning we could see that a terrible fight was going on there, for the wall_nd the windows and the orchard hedges were all flame and smoke, and ther_ose such shrieking and crying from it as I never heard before. It was hal_urned down, and shattered with balls, and ten thousand men were hammering a_he gates; but four hundred guardsmen held it in the morning and two hundre_eld it in the evening, and no French foot was ever set within its threshold.
  • But how they fought, those Frenchmen! Their lives were no more to them tha_he mud under their feet. There was one — I can see him now — a stoutish rudd_an on a crutch. He hobbled up alone in a lull of the firing to the side gat_f Hougoumont and he beat upon it, screaming to his men to come after him. Fo_ive minutes he stood there, strolling about in front of the gun-barrels whic_pared him, but at last a Brunswick skirmisher in the orchard flicked out hi_rains with a rifle shot. And he was only one of many, for all day when the_id not come in masses they came in twos and threes with as brave a face as i_he whole army were at their heels.
  • So we lay all morning, looking down at the fight at Hougoumont; but soon th_uke saw that there was nothing to fear upon his right, and so he began to us_s in another way.
  • The French had pushed their skirmishers past the farm, and they lay among th_oung corn in front of us popping at the gunners, so that three pieces out o_ix on our left were lying with their men strewed in the mud all round them.
  • But the Duke had his eyes everywhere, and up he galloped at that moment — _hin, dark, wiry man with very bright eyes, a hooked nose, and big cockade o_is cap. There were a dozen officers at his heels, all as merry as if it wer_ foxhunt, but of the dozen there was not one left in the evening.
  • "Warm work, Adams," said he as he rode up.
  • "Very warm, your grace," said our general.
  • "But we can outstay them at it, I think. Tut, tut, we cannot let skirmisher_ilence a battery! Just drive those fellows out of that, Adams."
  • Then first I knew what a devil's thrill runs through a man when he is given _it of fighting to do. Up to now we had just lain and been killed, which i_he weariest kind of work. Now it was our turn, and, my word, we were read_or it. Up we jumped, the whole brigade, in a four-deep line, and rushed a_he cornfield as hard as we could tear. The skirmishers snapped at us as w_ame, and then away they bolted like corncrakes, their heads down, their back_ounded, and their muskets at the trail. Half of them got away; but we caugh_p the others, the officer first, for he was a very fat man who could not ru_ast. It gave me quite a turn when I saw Rob Stewart, on my right, stick hi_ayonet into the man's broad back and heard him howl like a damned soul. Ther_as no quarter in that field, and it was butt or point for all of them. Th_en's blood was aflame, and little wonder, for these wasps had been stingin_ll morning without our being able so much as to see them.
  • And now, as we broke through the further edge of the cornfield, we got i_ront of the smoke, and there was the whole French army in position before us, with only two meadows and a narrow lane between us. We set up a yell as we sa_hem, and away we should have gone slap at them if we had been left t_urselves; for silly young soldiers never think that harm can come to the_ntil it is there in their midst. But the Duke had cantered his horse besid_s as we advanced, and now he roared something to the general, and th_fficers all rode in front of our line holding out their arms for us to stop.
  • There was a blowing of bugles, a pushing and a shoving, with the sergeant_ursing and digging us with their halberts; and in less time than it takes m_o write it, there was the brigade in three neat little squares, all bristlin_ith bayonets and in echelon, as they call it, so that each could fire acros_he face of the other.
  • It was the saving of us, as even so young a soldier as I was could very easil_ee; and we had none too much time either. There was a low rolling hill on ou_ight flank, and from behind this there came a sound like nothing on thi_arth so much as the beat of the waves on the Berwick coast when the win_lows from the east. The earth was all shaking with that dull roaring sound, and the air was full of it.
  • "Steady, 71st! for God's sake, steady!" shrieked the voice of our colone_ehind us; but in front was nothing but the green gentle slope of th_rassland, all mottled with daisies and dandelions.
  • And then suddenly over the curve we saw eight hundred brass helmets rise up, all in a moment, each with a long tag of horsehair flying from its crest; an_hen eight hundred fierce brown faces all pushed forward, and glaring out fro_etween the ears of as many horses. There was an instant of gleamin_reastplates, waving swords, tossing manes, fierce red nostrils opening an_hutting, and hoofs pawing the air before us; and then down came the line o_uskets, and our bullets smacked up against their armour like the clatter of _ailstorm upon a window. I fired with the rest, and then rammed down anothe_harge as fast as I could, staring out through the smoke in front of me, wher_ could see some long, thin thing which flapped slowly backwards and forwards.
  • A bugle sounded for us to cease firing, and a whiff of wind came to clear th_urtain from in front of us, and then we could see what had happened.
  • I had expected to see half that regiment of horse lying on the ground; bu_hether it was that their breastplates had shielded them, or whether, bein_oung and a little shaken at their coming, we had fired high, our volley ha_one no very great harm. About thirty horses lay about, three of them togethe_ithin ten yards of me, the middle one right on its back with its four legs i_he air, and it was one of these that I had seen flapping through the smoke.
  • Then there were eight or ten dead men and about as many wounded, sitting daze_n the grass for the most part, though one was shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" a_he top of his voice. Another fellow who had been shot in the thigh — a grea_lack-moustached chap he was too — leaned his back against his dead horse and, picking up his carbine, fired as coolly as if he had been shooting for _rize, and hit Angus Myres, who was only two from me, right through th_orehead. Then he ** ?? out with his hand to get another carbine that la_ear, but before he could reach it big Hodgson, who was the pivot man of th_renadier company, ran out and passed his bayonet through his throat, whic_as a pity, for he seemed to be a very fine man.
  • At first I thought that the cuirassiers had run away in the smoke; but the_ere not men who did that very easily. Their horses had swerved at our volley, and they had raced past our square and taken the fire of the two other one_eyond. Then they broke through a hedge, and coming on a regiment o_anoverians who were in line, they treated them as they would have treated u_f we had not been so quick, and cut them to pieces in an instant. It wa_readful to see the big Germans running and screaming while the cuirassier_tood up in their stimps to have a better sweep for their long, heavy swords, and cut and stabbed without mercy. I do not believe that a hundred men of tha_egiment were left alive; and the Frenchmen came back across our front, shouting at us and waving their weapons, which were crimson down to the hilts.
  • This they did to draw our fire, but the colonel was too old a soldier; for w_ould have done little harm at the distance, and they would have been among u_efore we could reload.
  • These horsemen got behind the ridge on our right again, and we knew very wel_hat if we opened up from the squares they would be down upon us in a twinkle.
  • On the other hand, it was hard to bide as we were; for they had passed th_ord to a battery of twelve guns, which formed up a few hundred yards awa_rom us, but out of our sight, sending their balls just over the brow and dow_nto the midst of us, which is called a plunging fire. And one of thei_unners ran up on to the top of the slope and stuck a handspike into the we_arth to give them a guide, under the very muzzles of the whole brigade, non_f whom fired a shot at him, each leaving him to the other. Ensign Samson, wh_as the youngest subaltern in the regiment, ran out from the square and pulle_own the handspike; but quick as a Jack after a minnow, a lancer came flyin_ver the ridge, and he made such a thrust from behind that not only his point, but his pennon too came out between the second and third buttons of the lad'_unic. "Helen! Helen!" he shouted, and fell dead on his face, while th_ancer, blown half to pieces with musket balls, toppled over beside him, stil_olding on to his weapon, so that they lay together with that dreadful bon_till connecting them.
  • But when the battery opened there was no time for us to think of anythin_lse. A square is a very good way of meeting a horseman, but there is no wors_ne of taking a cannon ball, as we soon learned when they began to cut re_eams through us, until our ears were weary of the slosh and splash when har_ron met living flesh and blood. After ten minutes of it we moved our square _undred paces to the right; but we left another square behind us, for _undred and twenty men and seven officers showed where we had been standing.
  • Then the guns found us out again, and we tried to open out into line; but i_n instant the horsemen — lancers they were this time — were upon us from ove_he brae.
  • I tell you we were glad to hear the thud of their hoofs, for we knew that tha_ust stop the cannon for a minute and give us a chance of hitting back. And w_it back pretty hard too that time, for we were cold and vicious and savage, and I for one felt that I cared no more for the horsemen than if they had bee_o many sheep on Corriemuir. One gets past being afraid or thinking of one'_wn skin after a while, and you just feel that you want to make some one pa_or all you have gone through. We took our change out of the lancers tha_ime; for they had no breastplates to shield them, and we cleared seventy o_hem out of their saddles at a volley. Maybe, if we could have seen sevent_others weeping for their lads, we should not have felt so pleased over it; but then, men are just brutes when they are fighting, and have as much though_s two bull pups when they've got one another by the throttle.
  • Then the colonel did a wise stroke; for he reckoned that this would stave of_he cavalry for five minutes, so he wheeled us into line, and got us back int_ deeper hollow out of reach of the guns before they could open again. Thi_ave us time to breathe, and we wanted it too, for the regiment had bee_elting away like an icicle in the sun. But bad as it was for us, it was _eal worse for some of the others. The whole of the Dutch Belgians were off b_his time helter skelter, fifteen thousand of them, and there were great gap_eft in our line through which the French cavalry rode as pleased them best.
  • Then the French guns had been too many and too good for ours, and our heav_orse had been cut to bits, so that things were none too merry with us. On th_ther hand, Hougoumont, a blood-soaked ruin, was still ours, and every Britis_egiment was firm; though, to tell the honest truth, as a man is bound to do, there were a sprinkling of red coats among the blue ones who made for th_ear. But these were lads and stragglers, the faint hearts that are foun_verywhere, and I say again that no regiment flinched. It was little we coul_ee of the battle; but a man would be blind not to know that all the field_ehind us were covered with flying men. But then, though we on the right win_new nothing of it, the Prussians had begun to show, and Napoleon had Se_0,000 of his men to face them, which made up for ours that had bolted, an_eft us much as we began. That was all dark to us, however; and there was _ime when the French horsemen had flooded in between us and the rest of th_rmy that we thought we were the only brigade left standing, and had set ou_eeth with the intention of selling our lives as dearly as we could.
  • At that time it was between four and five in the afternoon; and we had ha_othing to eat, the most of us, since the night before, and were soaked wit_ain into the bargain. It had drizzled off and on all day, but for the las_ew hours we had not had a thought to spare either upon the weather or ou_unger. Now we began to look round and tighten our waistbelts, and ask who wa_it and who was spared. I was glad to see Jim, with his face all blackene_ith powder, standing on my right rear, leaning on his firelock. He saw m_ooking at him, and shouted out to know if I were hurt.
  • "All right, Jim," I answered.
  • "I fear I'm here on a wild-goose chase," said he gloomily, "but it's not ove_et. By God, I 'll have him, or he 'll have me!"
  • He had brooded so much on his wrong, had poor Jim, that I really believe tha_t had turned his head; for he had a glare in his eyes as he spoke that wa_ardly human. He was always a man that took even a little thing to heart, an_ince Edie had left him I am sure that he was no longer his own master.
  • It was at this time of the fight that we saw two single fights, which the_ell me were common enough in the battles of old, before men were trained i_asses. As we lay in the hollow two horsemen came spurring along the ridg_ight in front of us, riding as hard as hoof could rattle. The first was a_nglish dragoon, his face right down on his horses mane, with a Frenc_uirassier, an old, grey-headed fellow, thundering behind him, on a big blac_are. Our chaps set up a hooting as they came flying on, for it seemed sham_o see an Englishman run like that; but as they swept across our front we sa_here the trouble lay. The dragoon had dropped his sword, and was unarmed, while the other was pressing him so close that he could not get a weapon. A_ast, stung maybe by our hooting, he made up his mind to chance it. His ey_ell on a lance beside a dead Frenchman, so he swerved his horse to let th_ther pass, and hopping off cleverly enough, he gripped hold of it. But th_ther was too tricky for him, and was on him like a shot. The dragoon thrus_p with the lance, but the other turned it, and sliced him through th_houlder-blade. It was all done in an instant, and the Frenchman cantering hi_orse up the brae, showing his teeth at us over his shoulder like a snarlin_og.
  • That was one to them, but we scored one for us presently. They had pushe_orward a skirmish line, whose fire was towards the batteries on our right an_eft rather than on us; but we sent out two companies of the 95th to keep the_n check. It was strange to hear the crackling kind of noise that they made, for both sides were using the rifle. An officer stood among the Frenc_kirmishers — a tall, lean man with a mantle over his shoulders — and as ou_ellows came forward he ran out midway between the two parties and stood as _encer would, with his sword up and his head back. I can see him now, with hi_owered eyelids and the kind of sneer that he had upon his face. On this th_ubaltern of the Rifles, who was a fine well-grown lad, ran forward and drov_ull tilt at him with one of the queer crooked swords that the riflemen carry.
  • They came together like two rams — for each ran for the other — and down the_umbled at the shock, but the Frenchman was below. Our man broke his swor_hort off, and took the other's blade through his left arm; but he was th_tronger man, and he managed to let the life out of his enemy with the jagge_tump of his blade. I thought that the French skirmishers would have shot hi_own, but not a trigger was drawn, and he got back to his company with on_word through his arm and half of another in his hand.