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Chapter 13 The End of the Storm

  • Of all the things that seem strange in that battle, now that I look back upo_t, there is nothing that was queerer than the way in which it acted on m_omrades; for some took it as though it had been their daily meat withou_uestion or change, and others pattered out prayers from the first gunfire t_he last, and others again cursed and swore in a way that was creepy to liste_o. There was one, my own left-hand man, Mike Threadingham, who kept tellin_bout his maiden aunt, Sarah, and how she had left the money which had bee_romised to him to a home for the children of drowned sailors. Again and agai_e told me this story, and yet when the battle was over he took his oath tha_e had never opened his lips all day. As to me, I cannot say whether I spok_r not, but I know that my mind and my memory were clearer than I can eve_emember them, and I was thinking all the time about the old folk at home, an_bout Cousin Edie with her saucy, dancing eyes, and de Lissac with his cat'_hiskers, and all the doings at West Inch, which had ended by bringing us her_n the plains of Belgium as a cockshot for two hundred and fifty cannons.
  • During all this time the roaring of those guns had been something dreadful t_isten to, but now they suddenly died away, though it was like the lull in _hunderstorm when one feels that a worse crash is coming hard at the fringe o_t. There was still a mighty noise on the distant wing, where the Prussian_ere pushing their way onwards, but that was two miles away. The othe_atteries, both French and English, were silent, and the smoke cleared so tha_he armies could see a little of each other. It was a dreary sight along ou_idge, for there seemed to be just a few scattered knots of red and the line_f green where the German Legion stood, while masses of the French appeared t_e as thick as ever, though of course we knew that they must have lost man_housands in these attacks. We heard a great cheering and shouting from amon_hem, and then suddenly all their batteries opened together with a roar whic_ade the din of the earlier part seem nothing in comparison. It might well b_wice as loud, for every battery was twice as near, being moved right up t_oint blank range with huge masses of horse between and behind them to guar_hem from attack.
  • When that devil's roar burst upon our ears there was not a man, down to th_rummer boys, who did not understand what it meant. It was Napoleon's las_reat effort to crush us. There were but two more hours of light, and if w_ould hold our own for those all would be well. Starved and weary and spent,
  • we prayed that we might have strength to load and stab and fire while a man o_s stood on his feet.
  • His cannon could do us no great hurt now, for we were on our faces, and in a_nstant we could turn into a huddle of bayonets if his horse came down again.
  • But behind the thunder of the guns there rose a sharper, shriller noise,
  • whirring and rattling, the wildest, jauntiest, most stirring kind of sound.
  • "It's the pas-de-charge!" cried an officer. "They mean business this time!"
  • And as he spoke we saw a strange thing. A Frenchman, dressed as an officer o_ussars, came galloping towards us on a little bay horse. He was screeching
  • "Vive le roi! Vive le roi!" at the pitch of his lungs, which was as much as t_ay that he was a deserter, since we were for the king and they for th_mperor. As he passed us he roared out in English, "The Guard is coming! Th_uard is coming!" and so vanished away to the rear like a leaf blown before _torm. At the same instant up there rode an aide-de-camp, with the reddes_ace that ever I saw upon mortal man.
  • "You must stop 'em, or we are done!" he cried to General Adams, so that al_ur company could hear him.
  • "How is it going?" asked the general.
  • "Two weak squadrons left out of six regiments of heavies," said he, and bega_o laugh like a man whose nerves are overstrung.
  • "Perhaps you would care to join in our advance? Pray consider yourself quit_ne of us," said the general, bowing and smiling as if he were asking him to _ish of tea.
  • "I shall have much pleasure," said the other, taking off his hat; and a momen_fterwards our three regiments closed up, and the brigade advanced in fou_ines over the hollow where we had lain in square, and out beyond to the poin_hence we had seen the French army.
  • There was little of it to be seen now, only the red belching of the gun_lashing quickly out of the cloudbank, and the black figures — stooping,
  • straining, mopping, sponging — working like devils, and at devilish work. Bu_hrough the cloud that rattle and whirr rose ever louder and louder, with _eep-mouthed shouting and the stamping of thousands of feet. Then there came _road black blurr through the haze, which darkened and hardened until we coul_ee that it was a hundred men abreast, marching swiftly towards us, with hig_ar hats upon their heads and a gleam of brasswork over their brows. An_ehind that hundred came another hundred, and behind that another, and on an_n, coiling and writhing out of the cannon-smoke like a monstrous snake, unti_here seemed to be no end to the mighty column. In front ran a spray o_kirmishers, and behind them the drummers, and up they all came together at _ind of tripping step, with the officers clustering thickly at the sides an_aving their swords and cheering. There were a dozen mounted men too at thei_ront, all shouting together, and one with his hat held aloft upon hi_wordpoint. I say again, that no men upon this earth could have fought mor_anfully than the French did upon that day.
  • It was wonderful to see them; for as they came onwards they got ahead of thei_wn guns, so that they had no longer any help from them, while they got i_ront of the two batteries which had been on either side of us all day. Ever_un had their range to a foot, and we saw long red lines scored right down th_ark column as it advanced. So near were they, and so closely did they march,
  • that every shot ploughed through ten files of them, and yet they closed up an_ame on with a swing and dash that was fine to see. Their head was turne_traight for ourselves, while the 95th overlapped them on one side and th_2nd on the other.
  • I shall always think that if we had waited so the Guard would have broken us;
  • for how could a four-deep line stand against such a column? But at that momen_olburne, the colonel of the 52nd, swung his right flank round so as to brin_t on the side of the column, which brought the Frenchmen to a halt. Thei_ront line was forty paces from us at the moment, and we had a good look a_hem. It was funny to me to remember that I had always thought of Frenchmen a_mall men; for there was not one of that first company who could not hav_icked me up as if I had been a child, and their great hats made them loo_aller yet. They were hard, wizened, wiry fellows too, with fierce puckere_yes and bristling moustaches, old soldiers who had fought and fought, wee_n, week out, for many a year. And then, as I stood with my finger upon th_rigger waiting for the word to fire, my eye fell full upon the mounte_fficer with his hat upon his sword, and I saw that it was de Lissac.
  • I saw it, and Jim did too. I heard a shout, and saw him rush forward madly a_he French column; and, as quick as thought, the whole brigade took their cu_rom him, officers and all, and flung themselves upon the Guard in front,
  • while our comrades charged them on the flanks. We had been waiting for th_rder, and they all thought now that it had been given; but you may take m_ord for it, that Jim Horscroft was the real leader of the brigade when w_harged the Old Guard.
  • God knows what happened during that mad five minutes. I remember putting m_usket against a blue coat and pulling the trigger, and that the man could no_all because he was so wedged in the crowd; but I saw a horrid blotch upon th_loth, and a thin curl of smoke from it as if it had taken fire. Then I foun_yself thrown up against two big Frenchmen, and so squeezed together, th_hree of us, that we could not raise a weapon. One of them, a fellow with _ery large nose, got his hand up to my throat, and I felt that I was a chicke_n his grasp. "Rendez-vous, coquin; rendez-vous!" said he, and then suddenl_oubled up with a scream, for someone had stabbed him in the bowels with _ayonet. There was very little firing after the first sputter; but there wa_he crash of butt against barrel the short cries of stricken men, and th_oaring of the officers. And then, suddenly, they began to give ground-slowly,
  • sullenly, step by step, but still to give ground. Ah! it was worth all that w_ad gone through, the thrill of that moment, when we felt that they were goin_o break. There was one Frenchman before me, a sharp-faced, dark-eyed man, wh_as loading and firing as quietly as if he were at practice, dwelling upon hi_im, and looking round first to try and pick of an officer. I remember that i_truck me that to kill so cool a man as that would be a good service, and _ushed at him and drove my bayonet into him. He turned as I struck him an_ired full into my face, and the bullet left a weal across my cheek which wil_ark me to my dying day. I tripped over him as he fell, and two other_umbling over me I was half smothered in the heap. When at last I struggle_ut, and cleared my eyes, which were half full of powder, I saw that th_olumn had fairly broken, and was shredding into groups of men, who wer_ither running for their lives or were fighting back to back in a vain attemp_o check the brigade, which was still sweeping onwards. My face felt as if _ed-hot iron had been laid across it; but I had the use of my limbs, s_umping over the litter of dead and mangled men, I scampered after m_egiment, and fell in upon the right flank.
  • Old Major Elliott was there, limping along, for his horse had been shot, bu_one the worse in himself. He saw me come up, and nodded, but it was too bus_ time for words. The brigade was still advancing, but the general rode i_ront of me with his chin upon his shoulder, looking back at the Britis_osition.
  • "There is no general advance," said he; "but I'm not going back."
  • "The Duke of Wellington has won a great victory," cried the aide-de-camp, in _olemn voice; and then, his feelings getting the better of him, he added, "i_he damned fool would only push on!" — which set us all laughing in the flan_ompany.
  • But now anyone could see that the French army was breaking up. The columns an_quadrons which had stood so squarely all day were now all ragged at th_dges; and where there had been thick fringes of skirmishers in front, ther_ere now a spray of stragglers in the rear. The Guard thinned out in front o_s as we pushed on, and we found twelve guns looking us in the face, but w_ere over them in a moment; and I saw our youngest subaltern, next to him wh_ad been killed by the lancer, scribbling great 71's with a lump of chalk upo_hem, like the schoolboy that he was. It was at that moment that we heard _oar of cheering behind us, and saw the whole British army flood over th_rest of the ridge, and come pouring down upon the remains of their enemies.
  • The guns, too, came bounding and rattling forward, and our light cavalry — a_uch as was left of it — kept pace with our brigade upon the right. There wa_o battle after that. The advance went on without a check, until our arm_tood lined upon the very ground which the French had held in the morning.
  • Their guns were ours, their foot were a rabble spread over the face of th_ountry, and their gallant cavalry alone was able to preserve some sort o_rder and to draw off unbroken from the field. Then at last, just as the nigh_egan to gather, our weary and starving men were able to let the Prussian_ake the job over, and to pile their arms upon the ground that they had won.
  • That was as much as I saw or can tell you about the Battle of Waterloo, excep_hat I ate a two-pound rye loaf for my supper that night, with as much sal_eat as they would let me have, and a good pitcher of red wine, until I had t_ore a new hole at the end of my belt, and then it fitted me as tight as _oop to a barrel. After that I lay down in the straw where the rest of th_ompany were sprawling, and in less than a minute I was in a dead sleep.