The Two Scouts, by Arthur Quiller-Couch
and Other Fireside Tales
Chapters from the Memoirs of Manuel (or Manus) McNeill, an agent
in the Secret Service of Great Britain during the campaigns of the
Peninsula (1808-1813). A Spanish subject by birth, and a Spaniard in
all his upbringing, he traces in the first chapter of his Memoirs
his descent from an old Highland family through one Manus McNeill,
a Jacobite agent in the Court of Madrid at the time of the War of
Succession, who married and settled at Aranjuez. The authenticity of
these Memoirs has been doubted, and according to Napier the name of
the two scouts whom Marmont confused together (as will appear in a
subsequent chapter) was not McNeill, but Grant: which is probable
enough, but not sufficient to stamp the Memoirs as forgeries. Their
author may have chosen McNeill as a nom de guerre, and been at pains
to deceive his readers on this point while adhering to strictest
truth in his relation of events. And this I conceive to be the real
explanation of a narrative which itself clears up, and credibly,
certain obscurities in Napier.—Q.]
THE TWO SCOUTS
THE FORD OF THE TORMES
In the following chapters I shall leave speaking of my own adventures
and say something of a man whose exploits during the campaigns of
1811-1812 fell but a little short of mine. I do so the more readily
because he bore my own patronymic, and was after a fashion my kinsman;
and I make bold to say that in our calling Captain Alan McNeill and
I had no rival but each other. The reader may ascribe what virtue he
will to the parent blood of a family which could produce at one time
in two distinct branches two men so eminent in a service requiring the
rarest conjunction of courage and address.
I had often heard of Captain McNeill, and doubtless he had as often
heard of me. At least thrice in attempting a coup d'espionage upon
ground he had previously covered—albeit long before and on a quite
different mission—I had been forced to take into my calculations
the fame left behind by "the Great McNeill," and a wariness in our
adversaries whom he had taught to lock the stable door after the horse
had been stolen. For while with the Allies the first question on
hearing of some peculiarly daring feat would be "Which McNeill?" the
French supposed us to be one and the same person; which, if possible,
heightened their grudging admiration.
Yet the ambiguity of our friends upon these occasions was scarcely
more intelligent than our foes' complete bewilderment; since to anyone
who studied even the theory of our business the Captain's method and
mine could have presented but the most superficial resemblance. Each
was original, and each carried even into details the unmistakable
stamp of its author. My combinations, I do not hesitate to say, were
the subtler. From choice I worked alone; while the Captain relied
for help on his servant José (I never heard his surname), a Spanish
peasant of remarkable quickness of sight, and as full of resource as
of devotion. Moreover I habitually used disguises, and prided myself
in their invention, whereas it was the Captain's vanity to wear his
conspicuous scarlet uniform upon all occasions, or at most to cover
it with his short dark-blue riding cloak. This, while to be sure it
enhanced the showiness of his exploits, obliged him to carry them
through with a suddenness and dash foreign to the whole spirit of
my patient work. I must always maintain that mine were the sounder
methods; yet if I had no other reason for my admiration I could not
withhold it from a man who, when I first met him, had been wearing a
British uniform for three days and nights within the circuit of the
French camp. I myself had been living within it in a constant twitter
for hard upon three weeks.
It happened in March, 1812, when Marmont was concentrating his forces
in the Salamanca district, with the intent (it was rumoured) of
marching and retaking Ciudad Rodrigo, which the Allies had carried
by assault in January. This stroke, if delivered with energy, Lord
Wellington could parry; but only at the cost of renouncing a success
on which he had set his heart, the capture of Badajos. Already he had
sent forward the bulk of his troops with his siege-train on the march
to that town, while he kept his headquarters to the last moment in
Ciudad Rodrigo as a blind. He felt confident of smashing Badajos
before Soult with the army of the south could arrive to relieve it;
but to do this he must leave both Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo exposed
to Marmont, the latter with its breaches scarcely healed and its
garrison disaffected. He did not fear actual disaster to these
fortresses; he could hurry back in time to defeat that, for he
knew that Marmont had no siege guns, and could only obtain them by
successfully storming Almeida and capturing the battering train which
lay there protected by 3,000 militia. Nevertheless a serious effort by
Marmont would force him to abandon his scheme.
All depended therefore (1) on how much Marmont knew and (2) on his
readiness to strike boldly. Consequently, when that General began to
draw his scattered forces together and mass them on the Tormes before
Salamanca, Wellington grew anxious; and it was to relieve that anxiety
or confirm it that I found myself serving as tapster of the Posada del
Rio in the village of Huerta, just above a ford of the river, and six
miles from Salamanca. Neither the pay it afforded nor the leisure had
attracted me to the Posada del Rio. Pay there was little, and leisure
there was none, since Marmont's lines came down to the river here, and
we had a battalion of infantry quartered about the village—sixteen
under our roof—and all extraordinarily thirsty fellows for Frenchmen;
besides a squadron of cavalry, vedettes of which constantly patrolled
the farther bank of the Tormes. The cavalry officers kept their
chargers—six in all—in the ramshackle stable in the court-yard
facing the inn; and since (as my master explained to me the first
morning) it was a tradition of the posada to combine the duties of
tapster and ostler in one person, I found all the exercise I needed
in running between the cellar and the great kitchen, and between the
kitchen and the stable, where the troopers had always a job for me,
and allowed me in return to join in their talk. They seemed to think
this an adequate reward, and I did not grumble.
Now, beside the stable, and divided from it by a midden-heap, there
stood at the back of the inn a small outhouse with a loft. This in
more prosperous days had accommodated the master's own mule, but now
was stored with empty barrels, strings of onions, and trusses of
hay—which last had been hastily removed from the larger stable when
the troopers took possession. Here I slept by night, for lack of room
indoors, and also to guard the fodder—an arrangement which suited me
admirably, since it left me my own master for six or seven hours of
the twenty-four. My bedroom furniture consisted of a truss of hay, a
lantern, a tinder-box, and a rusty fowling piece. For my toilet I went
to the bucket in the stable yard.
On the fifth night, having some particular information to send to
headquarters, I made a cautious expedition to the place agreed upon
with my messenger—a fairly intelligent muleteer, and honest, but new
to the business. We met in the garden at the rear of his cottage,
conveniently approached by way of the ill-kept cemetery which stood
at the end of the village. If surprised, I was to act the nocturnal
lover, and he the angry defender of his sister's reputation—a foolish
but not ill-looking girl, to whom I had confided nothing beyond a few
amorous glances, so that her evidence (if unluckily needed) might
carry all the weight of an obvious incapacity to invent or deceive.
These precautions proved unnecessary. But my muleteer, though plucky,
was nervous, and I had to repeat my instructions at least thrice in
detail before I felt easy. Also he brought news of a fresh movement
of battalions behind Huerta, and of a sentence in the latest General
Order affecting my own movements, and this obliged me to make some
slight alteration in my original message. So that, what with one thing
and another, it wanted but an hour of dawn when I regained the yard of
the Posada del Rio and cautiously re-entered the little granary.
Rain had fallen during the night—two or three short but heavy
showers. Creeping on one's belly between the damp graves of a cemetery
is not the pleasantest work in the world, and I was shivering with wet
and cold and an instant want of sleep. But as I closed the door behind
me and turned to grope for the ladder to my sleeping loft, I came to
a halt, suddenly and painfully wide awake. There was someone in
the granary. In the pitch darkness my ear caught the sound of
breathing—of someone standing absolutely still and checking his
breath within a few paces of me—perhaps six, perhaps less.
I, too, stood absolutely still, and lifted my hand towards the hasp of
the door. And as I did so—in all my career I cannot recall a nastier
moment—as my hand went up, it encountered another. I felt the fingers
closing on my wrist, and wrenched loose. For a moment our two hands
wrestled confusedly; but while mine tugged at the latch the other
found the key and twisted it round with a click. (I had oiled the lock
three nights before.) With that I flung myself on him, but again my
adversary was too quick, for as I groped for his throat my chest
struck against his uplifted knee, and I dropped on the floor and
rolled there in intolerable pain.
No one spoke. As I struggled to raise myself on hands and knees, I
heard the chipping of steel on flint, and caught a glimpse of a face.
As its lips blew on the tinder this face vanished and reappeared, and
at length grew steady in the blue light of the sulphur match. It was
not the face, however, on which my eyes rested in a stupid wonder,
but the collar below it—the scarlet collar and tunic of a British
And yet the face may have had something to do with my bewilderment. I
like, at any rate, to think so; because I have been in corners quite
as awkward, yet have never known myself so pitifully demoralised. The
uniform might be that of a British officer, but the face was that of
Don Quixote de la Mancha, and shone at me in that blue light straight
out of my childhood and the story-book. High brow, high cheek-bone,
long pointed jaw, lined and patient face—I saw him as I had known him
all my life, and I turned up at the other man, who stooped over me, a
look of absurd surmise.
He was a Spanish peasant, short, thick-set and muscular, but assuredly
no Sancho: a quiet quick-eyed man, with a curious neat grace in his
movements. Our tussle had not heated him in the least. His right fist
rested on my back, and I knew he had a knife in it; and while I gasped
for breath he watched me, his left hand hovering in front of my mouth
to stop the first outcry. Through his spread fingers I saw Don Quixote
light the lantern and raise it for a good look at me. And with that in
a flash my wits came back, and with them the one bit of Gaelic known
"Latha math leat" I gasped, and caught my breath again as the
fingers closed softly on my jaw, "O Alan mhic Neill!"
The officer took a step and swung the lantern close to my eyes—so
close that I blinked.
"Gently, José." He let out a soft pleased laugh while he studied my
face. Then he spoke a word or two in Gaelic—some question which I did
"My name is McNeill," said I; "but that's the end of my mother
The Captain laughed again. "We've caught the other one, José," said
he. And José helped me to my feet—respectfully, I thought. "Now
this," his master went on, as if talking to himself, "this explains a
I guessed. "You mean that my presence has made the neighbourhood a
trifle hot for you!"
"Exactly; there is a General Order issued which concerns one or both
I nodded. "In effect it concerns us both; but, merely as a matter of
history, it was directed against me. Pardon the question, Captain, but
how long have you been within the French lines?"
"Three days," he answered simply; "and this is the third night."
"What? In that uniform?"
"I never use disguises," said he—a little too stiffly for my taste.
"Well, I do. And I have been within Marmont's cantonments for close,
on three weeks. However, there's no denying you're a champion. But did
you happen to notice the date on the General Order?"
"I did; and I own it puzzled me. I concluded that Marmont must have
been warned beforehand of my coming."
"Not a bit of it. The order is eight days old. I secured a copy on the
morning it was issued; and the next day, having learnt all that
was necessary in Salamanca, I allowed myself to be hired in the
market-place of that city by the landlord of this damnable inn."
"I disapprove of swearing," put in Captain McNeill, very sharp and
"As well as of disguises? You seem to carry a number of scruples into
this line of business. I suppose," said I, nettled, "when you read in
the General Order that the notorious McNeill was lurking disguised
within the circle of cantonments, you took it that Marmont was putting
a wanton affront on your character, just for the fun of the thing?"
"My dear sir," said the Captain, "if I have expressed myself rudely,
pray pardon me: I have heard too much of you to doubt your courage,
and I have envied your exploits too often to speak slightingly of your
methods. As a matter of fact, disguise would do nothing, and worse
than nothing, for a man who speaks Spanish with my Highland accent. I
may, perhaps, take a foolish pride in my disadvantage, but," and here
he smiled, "so, you remember, did the fox without a tail."
"And that's very handsomely spoken," said I; "but unless I'm mistaken,
you will have to break your rule for once, if you wish to cross the
Tormes this morning."
"It's a case of must. Barring the certainty of capture if I don't,
I have important news to carry—Marmont starts within forty-eight
"Since it seems that for once we are both engaged on the same
business, let me say at once, Captain, and without offence, that my
news is as fresh as yours. Marmont certainly starts within forty-eight
hours to assault Ciudad Rodrigo, and my messenger is already two hours
on his way to Lord Wellington."
I said this without parade, not wishing to hurt his feelings. Looking
up I found his mild eyes fixed on me with a queer expression, almost
with a twinkle of fun.
"To assault Ciudad Rodrigo? I think not."
"Almeida, then, and Ciudad Rodrigo next. So far as we are concerned
the question is not important."
"My opinion is that Marmont intends to assault neither."
"But, my good sir," I cried, "I have seen and counted the
"And so have I. I spent six hours in Salamanca itself," said the
"Well, but doesn't that prove it? What other place on earth can he
want to assault? He certainly is not marching south to join Soult." I
turned to José, who had been listening with an impassive face.
"The Captain will be right. He always is," said José, perceiving that
I appealed to him.
"I will wager a month's pay—"
"I never bet," Captain McNeill interrupted, as stiffly as before. "As
you say, Marmont will march upon the Agueda, but in my opinion he will
not assault Ciudad Kodrigo."
"Then he will be a fool."
"H'm! As to that I think we are agreed. But the question just now is
how am I to get across the Tormes? The ford, I suppose, is watched on
both sides." I nodded. "And I suppose it will be absolutely fatal to
remain here long after daybreak?"
"Huerta swarms with soldiers," said I, "we have sixteen in the posada
and a cavalry picket just behind. A whole battalion has eaten the
village bare, and is foraging in all kinds of unlikely places. To be
sure you might have a chance in the loft above us, under the hay."
"Even so, you cannot hide our horses."
"Yes, they're outside at the back. I didn't know there was a cavalry
picket so close, and José must have missed it in the darkness."
José looked handsomely ashamed of himself.
"They are well-behaved horses," added the Captain. "Still, if they
cannot be stowed somewhere, it is unlikely they can be explained away,
and of course it will start a search."
"Our stable is full."
"Of course it is. Therefore you see we have no choice—apart from
our earnest wish—but to cross the ford before daybreak. How is it
patrolled on the far side?"
"Cavalry," said I; "two vedettes."
"Meeting, I suppose, just opposite the ford? How far do they patrol?"
"Three hundred yards maybe: certainly not more."
The Captain pursed up his lips as if whistling.
"Is there good cover on the other side? My map shows a wood of fair
"About half a mile off; open country between. Once there, you ought to
be all right; I mean that a man clever enough to win there ought to
make child's-play of the rest."
He mused for half a minute. "The stream is two wide for me to hear the
movements of the patrols opposite. José has a wonderful ear."
"Yes, Captain, I can hear the water from where we stand," José put in.
"He is right," said I, "it's not a question of distance, but of the
noise of the water. The ford itself will not be more than twenty yards
"Three feet in the middle, as near as can be. I have rubbed down too
many horses these last three days not to know. The river may have
fallen an inch since yesterday. They have cleared the bottom of the
ford, but just above and below there are rocks, and slippery ones."
"My horse is roughed. Of course the bank is, watched on this side?"
"Two sentries by the ford, two a little up the road, and the
guard-house not twenty yards beyond. Captain, I think you'll have to
put on a disguise for once in your life."
"Not if I can help it."
"Then, excuse me, but how the devil do you propose to manage?"
He frowned at the oath, recovered himself, and looked at me again with
something like a twinkle of fun in his solemn eyes.
"Do you know," said he, "it has just occurred to me to pay you a
tremendous compliment—McNeill to McNeill, you understand? I propose
to place myself entirely in your hands."
"Oh, thank you!" I pulled a wry face. "Well, it's a compliment if ever
there was one—an infernally handsome compliment. Your man, I suppose,
can look after himself?" But before he could reply I added, "No; he
shall go with me: for if you do happen to get across, I shall have to
follow, and look sharp about it." Then, as he seemed inclined to
protest, "No inconvenience at all—my work here is done, and you are
pretty sure to have picked up any news I may have missed. You had best
be getting your horse at once; the dawn will be on us in half an hour.
Bring him round to the door here. José will find
straw—hay—anything—to deaden his footsteps. Meanwhile I'll ask you to
excuse me for five minutes."
The Spaniard eyed me suspiciously.
"Of course," said I, reading his thoughts, "if your master doubts
"I think, Señor McNeill, I have given you no cause to suspect it," the
Captain gravely interrupted. "There is, however, one question I should
like to ask, if I may do so without offence. Is it your intention that
I should cross in the darkness or wait for daylight?"
"We must wait for daylight; because although it increases some obvious
"Excuse me; your reasons are bound to be good ones. I will fetch
around my horse at once, and we shall expect you back here in five
In five minutes time I returned to find them standing in the darkness
outside the granary door. José had strewn a space round about with
hay; but at my command he fetched more and spread it carefully, step
by step, as Captain McNeill led his horse forward. My own arms were
full; for I had spent the five minutes in collecting a score of French
blankets and shirts off the hedges, where the regimental washermen had
spread them the day before to dry.
The sketch on the following page will explain my plan and our
movements better than a page of explanation:—
The reader will observe that the Posada del Rio, which faces inwards
upon its own courtyard, thrusts out upon the river at its rear a gable
which overhangs the stream and flanks its small waterside garden from
view of the village street. Into this garden, where the soldiers were
used to sit and drink their wine of an evening, I led the Captain,
whispering him to keep silence, for eight of the Frenchmen slept
behind the windows above. In the corner by the gable was an awning,
sufficient, when cleared of stools and tables, to screen him and his
horse from any eyes looking down from these windows, though not tall
enough to allow him to mount. And at daybreak, when the battalion
assembled at its alarm-post above the ford, the gable itself would
hide him. But of course the open front of the garden—where in two
places the bank shelved easily down to the water—would leave him in
full view of the troopers across the river. It was for this that I
had brought the blankets. Across the angle by the gable there ran
a clothes line on which the house-servant, Mercedes, hung her
dish-clouts to dry. Unfastening the inner end, I brought it forward
and lashed it to a post supporting a dovecote on the river wall. To
fasten it high enough I had to climb the post, and this set the birds
moving uneasily in the box overhead. But before their alarm grew
serious I had slipped down to earth again, and now it took José and
me but a couple of minutes to fling the blankets over the line and
provide the Captain with a curtain, behind which, when day broke, he
could watch the troopers and his opportunity. Already, in the village
behind us, a cock was crowing. In twenty minutes the sun would be up
and the bugles sounding the reveille. "Down the bank by the gable," I
whispered. "It runs shallow there, and six or seven yards to the right
you strike the ford. When the vedettes are separated—just before they
turn to come back—that's your time."
I took José by the arm. "We may as well be there to see. How were you
planning to cross?"
"Oh," said he, "a marketer—with a raw-boned Galician horse and two
panniers of eggs—for Arapiles—"
"That will do; but you must enter the village at the farther end and
come down the road to the ford. Get your horse"—we crept back to the
granary together—"but wait a moment, and I will show you the way
When I rejoined him at the back of the granary he had his horse ready,
and we started to work around the village. But I had miscalculated the
time. The sky was growing lighter, and scarcely were we in the lane
behind the courtyard before the bugles began to sound.
"Well," said I, "that may save us some trouble after all."
Across the lane was an archway leading into a wheelwright's yard. It
had a tall door of solid oak studded with iron nails; but this was
unlocked and unbolted, and I knew the yard to be vacant, for the
French farriers had requisitioned all the wheelwright's tools three
days before, and the honest man had taken to his bed and proposed to
stay there pending compensation.
To this archway we hastily crossed, and had barely time to close the
door behind us before the soldiers, whose billets lay farther up the
lane, came running by in twos and threes for the alarm-post, the later
ones buckling their accoutrements as they ran halting now and then,
and muttering as they fumbled with a strap or a button. José at my
instruction had loosened his horse's off hind shoe just sufficiently
to allow it to clap; and as soon as he was ready I opened the door
boldly, and we stepped out into the lane among the soldiers, cursing
the dog's son of a smith who would not arise from his lazy bed to
attend to two poor marketers pressed for time.
Now it had been dim within the archway, but out in the lane there was
plenty of light, and it did me good to see José start when his eyes
fell on me. For a couple of seconds I am sure he believed himself
betrayed: and yet, as I explained to him afterwards, it was perhaps
the simplest of all my disguises and—barring the wig—depended more
upon speech and gait than upon any alteration of the face. (For a
particular account of it I must refer the reader back to my adventure
in Villafranca. On this occasion, having proved it once, I felt more
confident; and since it deceived José, I felt I could challenge
scrutiny as an aged peasant travelling with his son to market.)
A couple of soldiers passed us and flung jests behind them as we
hobbled down the lane, the loose shoe clacking on the cobbles, José
tugging at his bridle, and I limping behind and swearing volubly, with
bent back and head low by the horse's rump, and on the near side,
which would be the unexposed one when we gained the ford. And so we
reached the main street and the river, José turning to point with
wonder at the troops as we hustled past. One or two made a feint to
steal an egg from our panniers. José protested, halting and calling in
Spanish for protection. A sergeant interfered; whereupon the men began
to bait us, calling after us in scraps of camp Spanish. José lost his
temper admirably; for me, I shuffled along as an old man dazed with
the scene; and when we came to the water's edge felt secure enough to
attempt a trifle of comedy business as José hoisted my old limbs on to
the horse's back behind the panniers. It fetched a shout of laughter.
And then, having slipped off boots and stockings deliberately, José
took hold of the bridle again and waded into the stream. We were safe.
I had found time for a glance at the farther bank, and saw that the
troopers were leisurely riding to and fro. They met and parted just as
we entered the ford. Before we were half-way across they had come near
to the end of their beat, with about three hundred yards between them,
and I was thinking this a fair opportunity for the Captain when José
whispered, "There he goes," very low and quick, and with a souse,
horse and rider struck the water behind us by the gable of the inn. As
the stream splashed up around them we saw the horse slip on the stony
bottom and fall back, almost burying his haunches, but with two short
heaves he had gained the good gravel and was plunging after us. The
infantry spied him first—the two vedettes were in the act of wheeling
about and heard the warning before they saw. Before they could put
their charges to the gallop Captain McNeill was past us and climbing
the bank between them. A bullet or two sang over us from the Huerta
shore. Not knowing of what his horse was capable, I feared he might
yet be headed off; but the troopers in their flurry had lost their
heads and their only chance unless they could drop him by a fluking
shot. They galloped straight for the ford-head, while the Captain
slipped between, and were almost charging each other before they could
pull up and wheel at right angles in pursuit.
"Good," said José simply. A shot had struck one of our panniers,
smashing a dozen eggs (by the smell he must have bought them cheap),
and he halted and gesticulated in wrath like a man in two minds about
returning and demanding compensation. Then he seemed to think better
of it, and we moved forward; but twice again before we reached dry
land he turned and addressed the soldiers in furious Spanish across
the babble of the ford. José had gifts.
For my part I was eager to watch the chase which the rise of the
bank hid from us, though we could hear a few stray shots. But José's
confidence proved well grounded, for when we struck the high road
there was the Captain half a mile away within easy reach of the wood,
and a full two hundred yards ahead of the foremost trooper.
"Good!" said José again. "Now we can eat!" and he pulled out a loaf of
coarse bread from the injured pannier, and trimming off an end where
the evil-smelling eggs had soaked it, divided it in two. On this and a
sprig of garlic we broke our fast, and were munching and jogging along
contentedly when we met the returning vedettes. They were not in the
best of humours, you may be sure, and although we drew aside and
paused with crusts half lifted to our open mouths to stare at them
with true yokel admiration, they cursed us for taking up too much of
the roadway, and one of them even made a cut with his sabre at the
near pannier of eggs.
"It's well he broke none," said I as we watched them down the road. "I
don't deny you and your master any reasonable credit, but for my taste
you leave a little too much to luck."
Our road now began to skirt the wood into which the Captain had
escaped, and we followed it for a mile and more, José all the while
whistling a gipsy air which I guessed to carry a covert message; and
sure enough, after an hour of it, the same air was taken up in the
wood to our right, where we found the Captain dismounted and seated
comfortably at the foot of a cork tree.
He was good enough to pay me some pretty compliments, and, after
comparing notes, we agreed that—my messenger being a good seven hours
on his way with all the information Lord Wellington could need for the
moment—we would keep company for a day or two, and a watch on the
force and disposition of the French advance. We had yet to discover
Marmont's objective. For though in Salamanca the French officers had
openly talked of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, there was still a
chance (though neither of us believed in it) that their general meant
to turn aside and strike southward for the Tagus. Our plan, therefore,
was to make for Tammames where the roads divided, where the hills
afforded good cover, and to wait.
So towards Tammames (which lay some thirty miles off) we turned our
faces, and arriving there on the 27th, encamped for two days among
the hills. Marmont had learnt on the 14th that none of Wellington's
divisions were on the Algueda, and we agreed, having watched his
preparations, that on the 27th he would be ready to start. These two
days, therefore, we spent at ease, and I found the Captain, in spite
of his narrow and hide-bound religion, an agreeable companion. He
had the McNeills' genealogy at his finger ends, and I picked up more
information from him concerning our ancestral home in Ross and our
ancestral habits than I have ever been able to verify. Certainly our
grandfathers, Manus of Aranjuez and Angus (slain at Sheriff-muir), had
been first cousins. But this discovery had no sooner raised me to a
claim on his regard than I found his cordiality chilled by the thought
that I believed in the Pope or (as he preferred to put it) Antichrist.
My eminence as a genuine McNeill made the shadow of my error the
taller. In these two days of inactivity I felt his solicitude growing
until, next to the immediate movements of Marmont, my conversion
became for him the most important question in the Peninsula, and I saw
that, unless I allowed him at least to attempt it, another forty-eight
hours would wear him to fiddle-strings.
Thus it happened that mid-day of the 30th found us on the wooded hill
above the cross-roads; found me stretched at full length on my back
and smoking, and the Captain (who did not smoke) seated beside me with
his pocket Testament, earnestly sapping the fundamental errors of
Rome, when José, who had been absent all the morning reconnoitring,
brought news that Marmont's van (which he had been watching, and ahead
of which he had been dodging since ten o'clock) was barely two miles
away. The Captain pulled out his watch, allowed them thirty-five
minutes, and quietly proceeded with his exposition. As the head of the
leading column swung into sight around the base of the foot-hills, he
sought in his haversack and drew out a small volume—the Pilgrim's
Progress—and having dog's-eared a page of it inscribed my name on
the fly-leaf, "from his kinsman, Alan McNeill."
"It is a question," said he, as I thanked him, "and one often debated,
if it be not better that a whole army, such as we see approaching,
should perish bodily in every circumstance of horror than that one
soul, such as yours or mine, should fail to find the true light. For
my part"—and here he seemed to deprecate a weakness—"I have never
been able to go quite so far; I hope not from any lack of intellectual
courage. Will you take notes while I dictate?"
So on the last leaf of the Pilgrim's Progress I entered the strength
of each battalion, and noted each gun as the great army wound its way
into Tammames below us, and through it for the cross-roads beyond,
but not in one body, for two of the battalions enjoyed an hour's halt
there before setting forward after their comrades, by this time out of
sight. They had taken the northern road.
"Ciudad Rodrigo!" said I. "And there goes Wellington's chance of
The Captain beckoned to José and whispered in his ear, then opened his
Testament again as the sturdy little Spaniard set off down the hill
with his leisurely, lopping gait, so much faster than it seemed. The
sun was setting when he returned with his report.
"I thought so," said the Captain. "Marmont has left three-fourths of
his scaling ladders behind in Tammames. Ciudad Rodrigo he will not
attempt; I doubt if he means business with Almeida. If you please,"
he added, "José and I will push after and discover his real business,
while you carry to Lord Wellington a piece of news it will do him good
THE BARBER-SURGEON OF SABUGAL
So, leaving my two comrades to follow up and detect the true object of
Marmont's campaign, I headed south for Badajos. The roads were heavy,
the mountain torrents in flood, the only procurable horses and mules
such as by age or debility had escaped the strictest requisitioning.
Nevertheless, on the 4th of April I was able to present myself at
Lord Wellington's headquarters before Badajos, and that same evening
started northwards again with his particular instructions. I
understood (not, of course, by direct word of mouth) that disquieting
messages had poured in ahead of me from the allied commanders
scattered in the north, who reported Ciudad Rodrigo in imminent peril;
that my news brought great relief of mind; but that in any case our
army now stood committed to reduce Badajos before Soult came to its
relief. Our iron guns had worked fast and well, and already three
breaches on the eastern side of the town were nearly practicable.
Badajos once secured, Wellington would press northward again to teach
Marmont manners; but for the moment our weak troops opposing him must
even do the best they could to gain time and protect the magazines and
At six o'clock then in the evening of the 4th, on a fresh mount, I
turned my back on the doomed fortress, and crossing the Guadiana by
the horse ferry above Elvas, struck into the Alemtejo.
On the 6th I reached Castello Branco and found the position of the
Allies sufficiently serious. Victor Alten's German cavalry were in the
town—600 of them—having fallen back before Marmont without striking
a blow, and leaving the whole country four good marches from Rodrigo
exposed to the French marauders. They reported that Rodrigo itself had
fallen (which I knew to be false, and, as it turned out, Marmont had
left but one division to blockade the place); they spoke openly of a
further retreat upon Vilha Velha. But I regarded them not. They had
done mischief enough already by scampering southward and allowing
Marmont to push in between them and the weak militias on whom it now
depended to save Almeida with its battering train, Celorico and Pinhel
with their magazines, and even Ciudad Rodrigo itself; and while I
listened I tasted to myself the sarcastic compliments they were likely
to receive from Lord Wellington when he heard their tale.
Clearly there was no good to be done in Castello Branco, and the next
morning I pushed on. I had no intention of rejoining Captain McNeill;
for, as he had observed on parting—quoting some old Greek for his
authority—"three of us are not enough for an army, and for any other
purpose we are too many," and although pleased enough to have a
kinsman's company he had allowed me to see that he preferred to work
alone with José, who understood his methods, whereas mine (in spite
of his compliments) were unfamiliar and puzzling. I knew him to be
watching Marmont, and even speculated on the chances of our meeting,
but my own purpose was to strike the Coa, note the French force there
and its disposition, and so make with all serviceable news for the
north, where Generals Trant and Wilson with their Portuguese militia
were endeavouring to cover the magazines.
Travelling on mule-back now as a Portuguese drover out of work, I
dodged a couple of marauding parties below Penamacor, found Marmont in
force in Sabugal at the bend of the Coa, on the 9th reached Guarda, a
town on the top of a steep mountain, and there found General Trant in
position with about 6,000 raw militiamen. To him I presented myself
with my report—little of which was new to him except my reason for
believing Ciudad Rodrigo safe for the present; and this he heard with
real pleasure, chiefly because it confirmed his own belief and gave it
a good reason which it had hitherto lacked.
And here I must say a word on General Trant. He was a gallant soldier
and a clever one, but inclined (and here lay his weakness) to be on
occasion too clever by half. In fact, he had a leaning towards my own
line of business, and naturally it was just here that I found him out.
I am not denying that during the past fortnight his cleverness had
served him well. He had with a handful of untrained troops to do his
best for a group of small towns and magazines, each valuable and each
in itself impossible of defence. His one advantage was that he knew
his weakness and the enemy did not, and he had used this knowledge
with almost ludicrous success.
For an instance; immediately on discovering the true line of Marmont's
advance he had hurried to take up a position on the lower Coa, but had
been met on his march by an urgent message from Governor Le Mesurier
that Almeida was in danger and could not resist a resolute assault.
Without hesitation Trant turned and pushed hastily with one brigade to
the Cabeça Negro mountain behind the bridge of Almeida, and reached it
just as the French drew near, driving 200 Spaniards before them across
the plain. Trant, seeing that the enemy had no cavalry at hand, with
the utmost effrontery and quite as if he had an army behind him, threw
out a cloud of skirmishers beyond the bridge, dressed up a dozen
guides in scarlet coats to resemble British troopers, galloped with
these to the glacis of Almeida, spoke the governor, drew off a score
of invalid troopers from the hospital in the town, and at dusk made
his way back up the mountain, which in three hours he had covered with
sham bivouac fires.
These were scarcely lit when the governor, taking his cue, made a
determined sortie and drove back the French light troops, who in the
darkness had no sort of notion of the numbers attacking them. So
completely hoaxed, indeed, was their commander that he, who had come
with two divisions to take Almeida, and held it in the hollow of his
hand, decamped early next morning and marched away to report, the
fortress so strongly protected as to be unassailable.
Well this, as I say, showed talent. Artistically conceived as a ruse
de guerre, in effect it saved Almeida. But a success of the kind too
often tempts a man to try again and overshoot his mark. Now Marmont,
with all his defects of vanity, was no fool. He had a strong army
moderately well concentrated; he had, indeed, used it to little
purpose, but he was not likely, with his knowledge of the total force
available by the Allies in the north, to be seriously daunted or for
long by a game of mere impudence. In my opinion Trant, after brazening
him away from Almeida, should have thanked Heaven and walked humbly
for a while. To me even his occupation of Guarda smelt of dangerous
bravado, for Guarda is an eminently treacherous position, strong in
itself, and admirable for a force sufficient to hold the ridges behind
it, but capable of being turned on either hand, affording bad retreat,
and, therefore, to a small force as perilous as it is attractive. But
I was to find that Trant's enterprise reached farther yet.
To my description of Marmont's forces he listened (it seemed to me)
impatiently, asking few questions and checking off each statement with
"Yes, yes," or "Quite so." All the while his fingers were drumming on
the camp table, and I had no sooner come to an end than he began to
question me about the French marshal's headquarters in Sabugal. The
town itself and its position he knew as well as I did, perhaps better.
I had not entered it on my way, but kept to the left bank of the Coa.
I knew Marmont to be quartered there, but in what house or what part
of the town I was ignorant. "And what the deuce can it matter?" I
"But could you not return and discover?" the general asked at length.
"Oh, as for that," I answered, "it's just as you choose to order."
"It's risky of course," said he.
"It's risky to be sure," I agreed; "but if the risk comes in the day's
work I take it I shall have been in tighter corners."
"Excuse me," he said with a sort of deprecatory smile, "but I was not
thinking of you; at least not altogether." And I saw by his face that
he held something in reserve and was in two minds about confiding it.
"I beg that you won't think of me," I said simply, for I have always
made it a rule to let a general speak for himself and ask no questions
which his words may not fairly cover. Outside of my own business (the
limits of which are well defined) I seek no responsibility, least of
all should I seek it in serving one whom I suspect of over-cleverness.
"Look here," he said at length, "the Duke of Ragusa is a fine figure
of a man."
"Notoriously," said I. "All Europe knows it, and he certainly knows it
"I have heard that his troops take him at his own valuation."
"Well," I answered, "he sits his horse gallantly; he has courage. At
present he is only beginning to make his mistakes; and soldiers, like
women, have a great idea of what a warrior ought to look like."
"In fact," said General Trant, "the loss of him would make an almighty
Now he had asked me to be seated and had poured me out a glass of wine
from his decanter. But at these words I leapt up suddenly, jolting the
table so that the glass danced and spilled half its contents.
"What the dickens is wrong?" asked the general, snatching a map out of
the way of the liquor. "Good Lord, man! You don't suppose I was asking
you to assassinate Marmont!"
"I beg your pardon," said I, recovering myself. "Of course not; but it
"Oh, did it?" He mopped the map with his pocket handkerchief and
looked at me as who should say "Guess again."
I cast about wildly. "This man cannot be wanting to kidnap him!"
thought I to myself.
"You tell me his divisions are scattered after supplies. I hear that
the bulk of his troops are in camp above Penamacor; that at the
outside he has in Sabugal under his hand but 5,000. Now Silveira
should be here in a couple of days; that will make us roughly 12,000."
"Ah!" said I, "a surprise?" He nodded. "Night?" He nodded again. "And
your cavalry?" I pursued.
"I could, perhaps, force General Bacellar to spare his squadron of
dragoons from Celorico. Come, what do you think of it?"
"I do as you order," said I, "and that I suppose is to return to
Sabugal and report the lie of the land. But since, general, you ask my
opinion, and speaking without local knowledge, I should say—"
"Excuse me, but I will send you my opinion in four days' time." And I
rose to depart.
"Very good, but keep your seat. Drink another glass of wine."
"Sabugal is twenty miles off, and when I arrive I have yet to discover
how to get into it," I protested.
"That is just what am going to tell you."
"Ah," said I, "so you have already been making arrangements?"
He nodded while he poured out the wine. "You come opportunely, for I
was about to rely on a far less rusé hand. The plan, which is my
own, I submit to your judgment, but I think you will allow some merit
Well, I was not well-disposed to approve of any plan of his. In truth
he had managed to offend me seriously. Had an English gentleman
committed my recent error of supposing him to hint at assassination,
General Trant (who can doubt it?) would have flamed out in wrath; but
me he had set right with a curt carelessness which said as plain as
words that the dishonouring suspicion no doubt came natural enough to
a Spaniard. He had entertained me with a familiarity which I had not
asked for, and which became insulting the moment he allowed me to
see that it came from cold condescension. I have known a dozen
combinations spoilt by English commanders who in this way have
combined extreme offensiveness with conscious affability; and I
have watched their allies—Spaniards and Portuguese of the first
nobility—raging inwardly, while ludicrously impotent to discover a
peg on which to hang their resentment.
I listened coldly, therefore, leaving the general's wine untasted and
ignoring his complimentary deference to my judgment. Yet the neatness
and originality of his scheme surprised me. He certainly had talent.
He had found (it seemed) an old vine-dresser at Bellomonte, whose
brother kept a small shop in Sabugal, where he shaved chins, sold
drugs, drew teeth, and on occasion practised a little bone-setting.
This barber-surgeon or apothecary had shut up his shop on the approach
of the French and escaped out of the town to his brother's roof. As a
matter of fact he would have been safer in Sabugal, for the excesses
of the French army were all committed by the marauding parties
scattered up and down the country-side and out of the reach of
discipline, whereas Marmont (to his credit) sternly discouraged
looting, paid the inhabitants fairly for what he took, and altogether
treated them with uncommon humanity.
It was likely enough, therefore, that the barber-surgeon's shop stood
as he had left it. And General Trant proposed no less than that
I should boldly enter the town, take down the shutters, and open
business, either personating the old man or (if I could persuade him
to return) going with him as his assistant. In either case the danger
of detection was more apparent than real, for so violently did the
Portuguese hate their invaders that scarcely an instance of treachery
occurred during the whole of this campaign. The chance of the
neighbours betraying me was small enough, at any rate, to justify the
risk, and I told the General promptly that I would take it.
Accordingly I left Guarda that night, and reaching Bellomonte a little
after daybreak, found the vine-dresser and presented Trant's letter.
He was on the point of starting for Sabugal, whither he had perforce
to carry a dozen skins of wine, and with some little trouble I
persuaded the old barber-surgeon to accompany us, bearing a petition
to Marmont to be allowed peaceable possession of his shop. We arrived
and were allowed to enter the town, where I assisted the vine-dresser
in handling the heavy wine skins, while his brother posted off to
headquarters and returned after an hour with the marshal's protection.
Armed with this, he led me off to the shop, found it undamaged, helped
me to take down the shutters, showed me his cupboards, tools, and
stock in trade, and answered my rudimentary questions in the art of
compounding drugs—in a twitter all the while to be gone. Nor did I
seek to delay him (for if my plans miscarried, Sabugal would assuredly
be no place for him). Late in the afternoon he left me and went off
in search of his brother, and I fell to stropping my razors with what
cheerfulness I could assume.
Before nightfall my neighbours on either hand had looked in and given
me good evening. They asked few questions when I told them I was
taking over old Diego's business for the time, and kept their
speculations to themselves. I lay down to sleep that night with a
The adventure itself tickled my humour, though I had no opinion at
all of the design—Trant's design—which lay at the end of it. This,
however, did not damp my zeal in using eyes and ears; and on the third
afternoon, when the old vine-dresser rode over with more wine skins,
and dropped in to inquire about business and take home a pint of
rhubarb for the stomach-ache, I had the satisfaction of making up for
him, under the eyes of two soldiers waiting to be shaved, a packet
containing a compendious account of Marmont's dispositions with a
description of his headquarters. My report concluded with these
"With regard to the enterprise on which I have had the honour to be
consulted I offer my opinion with humility. It is, however, a fixed
one. You will lose two divisions; and even a third, should you bring
On the whole I had weathered through these three days with eminent
success. The shaving I managed with something like credit (for a
Portuguese). My pharmaceutics had been (it was vain to deny) in the
highest degree empirical, but if my patients had not been cured they
even more certainly had not died—or at least their bodies had not
been found. What gravelled me was the phlebotomy. Somehow the chance
of being called upon to let blood had not occurred to me, and on the
second morning when a varicose sergeant of the line dropped into
my operating chair and demanded to have a vein opened, I bitterly
regretted that I had asked my employer neither where to insert the
lancet nor how to stop the bleeding. I eyed the brawn in the chair, so
full of animal life and rude health—no, strike at random I could not!
I took his arm and asked insinuatingly, "Now, where do you usually
have it done?" "Sometimes here, sometimes there," he answered. Joy! I
remembered a bottle of leeches on the shelf. I felt the man's pulse
and lifted his eyelids with trembling fingers. "In your state," said
I, "it would be a crime to bleed you. What you want is leeches." "You
think so?" he asked—"how many?" "Oh, half-a-dozen—to begin with."
In my sweating hurry I forgot (if I had ever known) that the bottle
contained but three. "No," said I, "we'll start with a couple and work
up by degrees." He took them on his palm and turned them over with a
stubby forefinger. "Funny little beasts!" said he and marched out of
the shop into the sunshine. To this day when recounting his Peninsular
exploits he omits his narrowest escape.
I can hardly describe the effect of this ridiculous adventure upon my
nerves. My heart sank whenever a plethoric customer entered the shop,
and I caught fright or snatched relief even from the weight of a
footfall or the size of a shadow in my doorway. A dozen times in
intervals of leisure I reached down the bottle from its shelf and
studied my one remaining leech. A horrible suspicion possessed me that
the little brute was dead. He remained at any rate completely torpid,
though I coaxed him almost in agony to show some sign of life.
Obviously the bottle contained nothing to nourish him; to offer him my
own blood would be to disable him for another patient. On the fourth
afternoon I went so far as to try him on the back of my hand. I waited
five minutes; he gave no sign. Then, startled by a footstep outside, I
popped him hurriedly back in his bottle.
A scraggy, hawk-nosed trooper of hussars entered and flung himself
into my chair demanding a shave. In my confusion I had lathered his
chin and set to work before giving his face any particular attention.
He had started a grumble at being overworked (he was just off duty and
smelt potently of the stable), but sat silent as men usually do at the
first scrape of the razor. On looking down I saw in a flash that this
was not the reason. He was one of the troopers whose odd jobs I had
done at the Posada del Rio in Huerta, an ill-conditioned Norman called
Michu—Pierre Michu. Since our meeting, with the help of a little
walnut juice, I had given myself a fine Portuguese complexion with
other small touches sufficient to deceive a cleverer man. But by
ill-luck (or to give it a true name, by careless folly) I had knotted
under my collar that morning a yellow-patterned handkerchief which I
had worn every day at the Posada del Rio, and as his eyes travelled
from this to my face I saw that the man recognised me.
There was no time for hesitating. If I kept silence, no doubt he would
do the same; but if I let him go, it would be to make straight for
headquarters with his tale. I scraped away for a second or two in dead
silence, and then holding my razor point I said, sharp and low, "I am
going to kill you."
He turned white as a sheet, opened his mouth, and I could feel him
gathering his muscles together to heave himself out of the chair; no
easy matter. I laid the flat of the razor against his flesh, and he
sank back helpless. My hand was over his mouth. "Yes, I shall have
plenty of time before they find you." A sound in his throat was the
only answer, something between a grunt and a sob. "To be sure" I went
on, "I bear you no grudge. But there is no other way, unless—"
"No, no," he gasped. "I promise. The grave shall not be more secret."
"Ah," said I, "but how am I to believe that?"
"I must have even a little more than that." I made him swear by the
faith of a soldier and half-a-dozen other oaths which occurred to me
as likely to bind him if, lacking honour and religion, he might still
have room in his lean body for a little superstition. He took every
oath eagerly, and with a pensive frown I resumed my shaving. At the
first scrape he winced and tried to push me back.
"Indeed no," said I; "business is business," and I finished the job
methodically, relentlessly. It still consoles me to think upon what he
must have suffered.
When at length I let him up he forced an uneasy laugh. "Well, comrade,
you had the better of me I must say. Eh! but you're a clever one—and
at Huerta, eh?" He held out his hand. "No rancour though—a fair trick
of war, and I am not the man to bear a grudge for it. After all war's
war, as they say. Some use one weapon, some another. You know," he
went on confidentially, "it isn't as if you had learnt anything out
of me. In that case—well, of course, it would have made all the
I fell to stropping my razor. "Since I have your oath—" I began.
"That's understood. My word, though, it is hard to believe!"
"You had best believe it, anyway," said I; and with a sort of
shamefaced swagger he lurched out of the shop.
Well, I did not like it. I walked to the door and watched him down the
street. Though it wanted an hour of sunset I determined to put up my
shutters and take a stroll by the river. I had done the most necessary
part of my work in Sabugal; to-morrow I would make my way back to
Bellomonte, but in case of hindrance it might be as well to know how
the river bank was guarded. At this point a really happy inspiration
seized me. There were many pools in the marsh land by the river—pools
left by the recent floods. Possibly by hunting among these and
stirring up the mud I might replenish my stock of leeches. I had the
vaguest notion how leeches were gathered, but the pursuit would at the
worst give me an excuse for dawdling and spying out the land.
I closed the shop at once, hunted out a tin box, and with this and my
bottle (to serve as evidence, if necessary, of my good faith) made my
way down to the river side north of the town. The bank here was well
guarded by patrols, between whom a number of peaceful citizens sat
a-fishing. Seen thus in line and with their backs turned to me they
bore a ludicrous resemblance to a row of spectators at a play; and
gazing beyond them, though dazzled for a moment by the full level rays
of the sun, I presently became aware of a spectacle worth looking at.
On the road across the river a squadron of lancers was moving
"Hallo!" thought I, "here's a reconnaissance of some importance." But
deciding that any show of inquisitiveness would be out of place under
the eyes of the patrols, I kept my course parallel with the river's,
at perhaps 300 yards distance from it. This brought me to the first
pool, and there I had no sooner deposited my bottle and tin box on the
brink than beyond the screen of the town wall came pushing the head of
a column of infantry.
Decidedly here was something to think over. The column unwound itself
in clouds of yellow dust—a whole brigade; then an interval, then
another dusty column—two brigades! Could Marmont be planning against
Trant the very coup which Trant had planned against him? Twenty
miles—it could be done before daybreak; and the infantry (I had seen
at the first glance) were marching light.
I do not know to this day if any leeches inhabit the pools outside
Sabugal. It is very certain that I discovered none. About a quarter
of a mile ahead of me and about the same distance back from the river
there stood a ruinous house which had been fired, but whether recently
or by the French I could not tell; once no doubt the country villa
of some well-to-do townsman, but now roofless, and showing smears of
black where the flames had licked its white outer walls. Towards this
I steered my way cautiously, that behind the shelter of an outbuilding
I might study the receding brigades at my leisure.
The form of the building was roughly a hollow square enclosing a
fair-sized patio, the entrance of which I had to cross to gain the
rearward premises and slip out of sight of the patrols. The gate of
this entrance had been torn off its hinges and now lay jammed aslant
across the passage; beyond it the patio lay heaped with bricks and
rubble, tiles, and charred beams. I paused for a moment and craned in
for a better look at the débris.
And then the sound of voices arrested me—a moment too late. I was
face to face with two French officers, one with a horse beside him.
They saw me, and on the instant ceased talking and stared; but without
changing their attitudes, which were clearly those of two disputants.
They stood perhaps four paces apart. Both were young men, and the
one whose attitude most suggested menace I recognised as a young
lieutenant of a line regiment (the 102nd) whom I had shaved that
morning. The other wore the uniform of a staff officer, and at the
first glance I read a touch of superciliousness in his indignant face.
His left hand held his horse's bridle, his other he still kept tightly
clenched while he stared at me.
"What the devil do you want here?" demanded the lieutenant roughly
in bad Portuguese. "But, hallo!" he added, recognising me, and turned
a curious glance on the other.
"Who is it?" the staff officer asked.
"It's a barber; and I believe something of a surgeon. That's so, eh?"
He appealed to me.
"In a small way," I answered apologetically.
The lieutenant turned again to his companion. "He might do for us; the
sooner the better, unless—"
"Unless," interrupted the staff officer with cold politeness, "you
prefer the apology you owe me."
The lieutenant swung round again with a brusque laugh. "Look here,
have you your instruments about you?"
For answer I held up my bottle with the one absurd leech dormant at
the bottom. He laughed again just as harshly.
"That is about the last thing to suit our purpose. Listen"—he glanced
out through the passage—"the gates won't be shut for an hour yet. It
will take you perhaps twenty minutes to fetch what is necessary. You
understand? Return here, and don't keep us waiting. Afterwards, should
the gates be shut, one of us will see you back to the town."
I bowed without a word and hurried back across the water meadow. Along
the river bank between the patrols the anglers still sat in their
patient row. And on the road to the north-west the tail of the second
brigade was winding slowly out of sight.
Once past the gate and through the streets, I walked more briskly,
paused at my shop door to fit the key in the lock, and was astonished
when the door fell open at the push of my hand.
Then in an instant I understood. The shop had been ransacked—by
that treacherous scoundrel Michu, of course. Bottles, herbs, shaving
apparatus all was topsy-turvy. Drawers stood half-open; the floor was
in a litter.
I had two consolations: the first that there were no incriminating
papers in the, house; the second that Michu had clearly paid me a
private visit before carrying his tale to headquarters. Otherwise the
door would have been sealed and the house under guard. I reflected
that the idiot would catch it hot for this unauthorised piece of work.
Stay! he might still be in the house rummaging the upper rooms. I
No, he was gone. He had left my case of instruments, too, after
breaking the lock and scattering them about the floor. I gathered them
together in haste, descended again, snatched up a roll of lint, and
pausing only at the door for a glance up and down the street, made my
escape post haste for the water meadow.
In the patio I found the two disputants standing much as I had left
them, the staff officer gently and methodically smoothing his horse's
crupper, the lieutenant with a watch in his hand.
"Good," said he, closing it with a snap, "seventeen minutes only. By
the way, do you happen to understand French?"
"A very little," said I.
"Because, as you alone are the witness of this our little difference,
it will be in order if I explain that I insulted this gentleman."
"Somewhat grossly," put in the staff officer.
"Somewhat grossly, in return for an insult put upon me—somewhat
grossly—in the presence of my company, two days ago, in the camp
above Penamacor, when I took the liberty to resent a message conveyed
by him to my colonel—as he alleges upon the authority of the marshal,
the Duke of Ragusa."
"An assertion," commented the staff officer, "which I am able to prove
on the marshal's return and with his permission, provided always that
the request be decently made."
They had been speaking in French and meanwhile removing their tunics.
The staff officer had even drawn off his riding boots. "Do you
understand?" asked the lieutenant.
"A little," said I; "enough to serve the occasion."
"Excellent barber-surgeon! Would that all your nation were no more
inquisitive!" He turned to the staff officer. "Ready? On guard, then,
The combat was really not worth describing. The young staff officer
had indeed as much training as his opponent (and that was little), but
no wrist at all. He had scarcely engaged before he attempted a blind
cut over the scalp. The lieutenant, parrying clumsily, but just
in time, forced blade and arm upward until the two pointed almost
vertically to heaven, and their forearms almost rubbed as the pair
stood close and chest to chest. For an instant the staff officer's
sword was actually driven back behind his head; and then with a
rearward spring the lieutenant disengaged and brought his edge clean
down on his adversary's left shoulder and breast, narrowly missing
his ear. The cut itself, delivered almost in the recoil, had no great
weight behind it, but the blood spurted at once, and the wounded man,
stepping back for a fresh guard, swayed foolishly for a moment and
then toppled into my arms.
"Is it serious?" asked the lieutenant, wiping his sword and looking,
it seemed to me, more than a little scared.
"Wait a moment," said I, and eased the body to the ground. "Yes, it
looks nasty. And keep back, if you please; he has fainted."
Being off my guard I said it in very good French, which in his
agitation he luckily failed to remark.
"I had best fetch help," said he.
"I'll run for one of the patrols; we'll carry him back to the town."
But this would not suit me at all. "No," I objected, "you must fetch
one of your surgeons. Meanwhile I will try to stop the bleeding; but I
certainly won't answer for it if you attempt to move him at once."
I showed him the wound as he hurried into his tunic. It was a long and
ugly gash, but (as I had guessed) neither deep nor dangerous. It ran
from the point of the collar-bone aslant across the chest, and had the
lieutenant put a little more drag into the stroke it must infallibly
have snicked open the artery inside the upper arm. As it was, my
immediate business lay in frightening him off before the bleeding
slackened, and my heart gave a leap when he turned and ran out of the
patio, buttoning his tunic as he went.
It took me ten minutes perhaps to dress the wound and tie a rude
bandage; and perhaps another four to pull off coat and shoes and slip
into the staff officer's tunic, pull on his riding boots over my blue
canvas trousers—at a distance scarcely discernible in colour from
his tight-fitting breeches—and buckle on his sword-belt. I had some
difficulty in finding his cap, for he had tossed it carelessly behind
one of the fallen beams, and by this time the light was bad within
the patio. The horse gave me no trouble, being an old campaigner, no
doubt, and used to surprises. I untethered him and led him gently
across the yard, picking my way in a circuit which would take him as
far as possible from his fallen master. But glancing back just before
mounting, to my horror I saw that the wounded man had raised himself
on his right elbow and was staring at me. Our eyes met; what he
thought—whether he suspected the truth or accepted the sight as a
part of his delirium—I shall never know. The next instant he fell
back again and lay inert.
I passed out into the open. The warning gun must have sounded without
my hearing it, for across the meadow the townspeople were retracing
their way to the town gate, which closed at sunset. At any moment now
the patrols might be upon me; so swinging myself into the saddle I set
off at a brisk trot towards the gate.
My chief peril for the moment lay in the chance of meeting the
lieutenant on his way back with the doctor; yet I must run this
risk and ride through the town to the bridge gate, the river being
unfordable for miles to the northward and trending farther and farther
away from Guarda; and Guarda must be reached at all costs, or by
to-morrow Trant's and Wilson's garrisons would have ceased to exist.
My heart fairly sank when on reaching the gate I saw an officer in
talk with the sentry there, and at least a score of men behind him. I
drew aside; he stepped out and called an order to his company, which
at once issued and spread itself in face of the scattered groups of
citizens returning across the meadow.
"Yes, captain," said the sentry, answering the question in my look,"
they are after a spy, it seems, who has been practising here as a
barber. They say even the famous McNeill."
I rode through the gateway and spurred my horse to a trot again,
heading him down a side street to the right. This took me some
distance out of my way, but anything was preferable to the risk of
meeting the lieutenant, and I believed that I had yet some minutes to
spare before the second gunfire.
In this I was mistaken. The gun boomed out just as I came in sight of
the bridge gate, and the lieutenant of the guard appeared clanking out
on the instant to close the heavy doors. I spurred my horse and dashed
down at a canter, hailing loudly:—
"A spy!—a barber fellow; here, hold a minute!"
"Yes, we have had warning half an hour ago. Nobody has passed out
"At the gate below," I panted, "they sighted him; and he made for the
river—tried to swim it. Run out your men and bring them along to
search the bank!"
He began to shout orders. I galloped through the gate and hailed the
sentry at the tête du pont. "A spy!" I shouted—"in the river. Keep
your eyes open if he makes the bank!"
The fellow drew aside, and I clattered past him with a dozen soldiers
at my heels fastening their belts and looking to their muskets as they
ran. Once over the bridge I headed to the right again along the left
bank of the river.
"This way! This way! Keep your eyes open!"
I was safe now. In the rapidly falling dusk, still increasing the
distance between us, I led them down past the town and opposite the
astonished patrols on the meadow bank. Even then, when I wheeled to
the left and galloped for the high road, it did not occur to them to
suspect me, nor shall I ever know when first it dawned on them that
they had been fooled. Certainly not a shot was sent after me, and I
settled down for a steady gallop northward, pleasantly assured of
being at least twenty minutes ahead of any effective pursuit.
I was equally well assured of overtaking the brigades, but my
business, of course, was to avoid and get ahead of them. And with this
object, after an hour's brisk going, I struck a hill-track to the left
which, as I remembered (having used it on my journey from Badajoz), at
first ran parallel with the high road for two miles or more and then
cut two considerable loops which the road followed along the valley
Recent rains had unloosed the springs on the mountain side and set
them chattering so loudly that I must have reined up at least a score
of times before I detected the tramp of the brigades in the darkness
below me. Of the cavalry, though I rode on listening for at least
another two miles, I could hear no sound. Yet, as I argued, they could
not be far distant; and I pushed forward with heart elate at the
prospect of trumping Marmont's card, for I remembered the staff
officer's words, "on the marshal's return." I knew that Marmont had
been in Sabugal no longer ago than mid-day; and irregular and almost
derogatory as it might be thought for a marshal of France to be
conducting a night surprise against a half-disciplined horde of
militia, I would have wagered my month's pay that this was the fact.
And then, with a slip of my horse on the stony track, my good fortune
suddenly ended, and smash went my basket of eggs while I counted the
chickens. The poor brute with one false step came down heavily on his
near side. Quick as I was in flinging my foot from the stirrup, I was
just a moment too late; I fell without injury to bone, but his weight
pinned me to earth by the boot, and when I extricated myself it was
with a wrenched ankle. I managed to get him to his feet, but he had
either dislocated or so severely wrung his near shoulder that he could
scarcely walk a step. It went to my heart to leave him there on the
mountain side, but it had to be done, for possibly the fate of the
garrison at Guarda depended on it.
I left him, therefore, and limped forward along the track until it
took an abrupt turn around a shoulder of the mountain. Immediately
below me, unless I erred in my bearings, a desolate sheep farm stood
but a short distance above the high road. Towards this I descended,
and finding it with no great difficulty, knocked gently at the back
door. To my surprise the shepherd opened it almost at once. He was
fully dressed in spite of the lateness of the hour, and seemed greatly
perturbed; nor, I can promise you, was he reassured when, after giving
him the signal arranged between Trant and the peasantry, I followed
him into his kitchen and his eyes fell on my French uniform.
But it was my turn to be perturbed when, satisfied with my
explanation, he informed me that a body of cavalry had passed along
the road towards Guarda a good twenty minutes before. It was this had
awakened him. "No infantry?" I asked.
He shook his head positively. He had been on the watch ever since. And
this, while it jumped with my own conviction that the infantry was at
least a mile behind me, gave me new hope. I could not understand this
straggling march, but it was at least reasonable to suppose that
Marmont's horse would wait upon his foot before attempting such a
position as Guarda.
"I must push on," said I, and instructed him where to seek for my
He walked down with me to the road. My ankle pained me cruelly.
"See here," said he, "the señor had best let me go with him. It is but
six miles, and I can recover the horse in the morning."
He was in earnest, and I consented. It was fortunate that I did, or
I might have dropped in the road and been found or trodden on by the
French column behind us.
As it was I broke down after the second mile. The shepherd took me in
his arms like a child and found cover for me below a bank to the left
of the road beside the stream in the valley bottom. I gave him my
instructions and he hurried on.
Lying there in the darkness half an hour later I heard the tramp of
the brigade approaching, and lay and listened while they went by.
I have often, in writing these memoirs, wished I could be inventing
instead of setting down facts. With a little invention only, how I
could have rounded off this adventure! But that is the way with real
events. All my surprising luck ended with the casual stumble of a
horse, and it was not I who saved Guarda, nor even my messenger, but
Marmont's own incredible folly.
When my shepherd reached the foot of the ascent to the fortress he
heard a drum beaten suddenly in the darkness above. This single drum
kept rattling (he told me) for at least a minute before a score of
others took up the alarm. There had been no other warning, not so much
as a single shot fired; and even after the drums began there was no
considerable noise of musketry until the day broke and the shepherd
saw the French cavalry retiring slowly down the hill scarcely 500
yards ahead of the Portuguese militia, now pouring forth from the
gateway. These were at once checked and formed up in front of the
town, the French still retiring slowly, with a few English dragoons
hanging on their heels. A few shots only were exchanged, apparently
without damage. The man assured me that the whole 400 or 500 troopers
passed within a hundred yards of him and so down the slope and out of
What had happened was this: Marmont, impatient at the delay of his two
brigades of infantry (which by some bungle in the starting did not
reach the foot of the mountain before daylight), had pushed his
horsemen up the hill and managed to cut off and silence the outposts
without their firing a shot. Encouraged by this he pressed on to the
very gates of the town, and had actually entered the street when the
alarm was sounded—and by whom? By a single drummer whom General
Trant, distrusting the watchfulness of his militia, had posted at his
bedroom door! Trant's servant entering with his coffee at daybreak
brought a report that the French were at the gates; the drummer plied
his sticks like a madman; other drummers all over the town caught up
their sticks and tattooed away without the least notion of what was
happening; the militia ran helter-skelter to their alarm post; and the
French marshal, who might have carried the town at a single rush and
without losing a man, turned tail! Such are the absurdities of war.
But in fancy I sometimes complete the picture and see myself, in
French staff officer's dress, boldly riding up to the head of the
French infantry column and in the name of the, Duke of Ragusa
commanding its general to halt. True, I did not know the
password—which might have been awkward. But a staff officer can
swagger through some small difficulties, as I had already proved twice
that night. But for the stumble of a horse—who knows? The possibility
seems to me scarcely more fantastic than the accident which actually
Marmont's night attack on Guarda, though immediately and even
absurdly unsuccessful, did, in fact, convince Trant that the hill was
untenable, and he at once attempted to fall back upon Celorico across
the river Mondego, where lay Lord Wellington's magazines and very
considerable stores, for the moment quite unprotected.
Marmont had from four to six thousand horsemen and two brigades of
infantry. The horse could with the utmost ease have headed Trant off
and trotted into Celorico while the infantry fell on him, and but for
the grossest blundering the militia as a fighting force should have
been wiped out of existence. But blunders dogged Marmont throughout
this campaign. Trant and Wilson marched their men (with one day's
provisions only) out of Guarda and down the long slopes toward the
river. Good order was kept for three or four miles, and the head of
the column was actually crossing by a pretty deep ford when some forty
dragoons (which Trant had begged from Bacellar to help him in his
proposed coup upon Sabugal, and which had arrived from Celorico but
the day before) came galloping down through the woods with a squadron
of French cavalry in pursuit, and charging in panic through the
rearguard flung everything into confusion. The day was a rainy one,
and the militia, finding their powder wet, ran for the ford like
sheep. The officers, however, kept their heads and got the men over,
though with the loss of two hundred prisoners. Even so, Marmont might
have crossed the river on their flank and galloped into Celorico
ahead of them. As it was, he halted and allowed the rabble to save
themselves in the town. While blaming his head I must do justice to
his heart and add that, finding what poor creatures he had to deal
with, he forbade his horsemen to cut down the fugitives, and not a
single man was killed.
Foreseeing that Trant must sooner or later retreat upon
Celorico—though ignorant, of course, of what was happening—I was
actually crossing the river at the time by a ford some four miles
above, not in the French staff officer's uniform which I had worn out
of Sabugal, but in an old jacket lent me by my friend the shepherd.
By the time I reached the town Wilson had swept in his rabble and
was planting his outposts, intending to resist and, if this became
impossible, to blow up the magazines before retiring. Trant and
Bacellar with the bulk of the militia were continuing the retreat
meanwhile towards Lamego.
I need only say here that Wilson's bold front served its purpose.
Once, when the French drove in his outposts, he gave the order to fire
the powder, and a part of the magazine was actually destroyed when
Marmont (who above all things hated ridicule, and was severely taxing
the respect of his beautiful army by these serio-comic excursions
after a raw militia) withdrew his troops and retired in an abominable
temper to Sabugal.
How do I know that Marmont's temper was abominable? By what follows.
On March 30th I had left my kinsman, Captain Alan McNeill, with his
servant José at Tammanies. They were to keep an eye on the French
movements while I rode south and reported to Lord Wellington at
Badajoz. It was now April 16th, and in the meanwhile a great deal had
happened; but of my kinsman's movements I had heard nothing. At first
I felt sure he must be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Marmont's
headquarters; but even in Sabugal itself no hint of him could I hear,
and at length I concluded that having satisfied himself of the main
lines of Marmont's campaign he had gone off to meet and receive fresh
instructions from Wellington, now posting north to save the endangered
On the evening of the 16th General Wilson sent for me.
"Here is a nasty piece of news," said he. "Your namesake is a
"In Sabugal; but it seems he was brought there from the main camp
above Penamacor. Trant tells me that you are not only namesakes but
kinsmen. Would you care to question the messenger?"
The messenger was brought in—a peasant from the Penamacor district.
Out of his rambling tale one or two certainties emerged. McNeill—the
celebrated McNeill—was a prisoner; he had been taken on the 14th
somewhere in the pass above Penamacor, and conveyed to Sabugal to
await the French marshal's return. His servant was dead—killed in
trying to escape, or to help his master's escape. So much I sifted
out of the mass of inaccuracies. For, as usual, the two McNeills had
managed to get mixed up in the story, a good half of which spread
itself into a highly coloured version of my own escape from Sabugal on
the evening of the 13th; how I had been arrested by a French officer
in a back shop in the heart of the town; how, as he overhauled my
incriminating papers, I had leapt on him with a knife and stabbed him
to the heart, while my servant did the same with his orderly; how,
having possessed ourselves of their clothes and horses, we had ridden
boldly through the gate and southward to join Lord Wellington; and a
great deal more equally veracious. As I listened I began to understand
how legends grow and demigods are made.
It was flattering; but without attempting to show how I managed to
disengage the facts, I will here quote the plain account of them, sent
to me long afterwards by Captain Alan himself:—
Captain Alan McNeill's Statement.
"You wish, for use in your Memoirs, an account of my capture in the
month of April, 1811, and the death of my faithful servant, José. I
imagine this does not include an account of all our movements from the
time you left us at Tammames (though this, too, I shall be happy to
send if desired), and so I come at once to the 14th, the actual date
of the capture.
"The preceding night we had spent in the woods below the great French
camp, and perhaps a mile above the mouth of the pass opening on
Penamacor. All through the previous day there had been considerable
stir in the camp, and I believed a general movement to be impending. I
supposed Marmont himself to be either with the main army or behind
in his headquarters at Sabugal, and within easy distance. It never
occurred to me—nor could it have occurred to any reasonable
man—to guess, upon no evidence, that a marshal of France had gone
gallivanting with six thousand horse and two brigades of infantry in
chase of a handful of undrilled militia.
"My impression was that his move, if he made one, would be a resolute
descent through Penamacor and upon Castello Branco. As a matter of
fact, although Victor Alten had abandoned that place to be held
by Lecor and his two thousand five hundred militiamen, the French
(constant to their policy of frittering away opportunities) merely
sent down two detachments of cavalry to menace it, and I believe that
my capture was the only success which befel them.
"Early on the 14th, and about an hour before these troops (dragoons
for the most part) began to descend the pass, I had posted myself with
José on one of the lower ridges and (as I imagined) well under cover
of the dwarf oaks which grew thickly there. They did indeed screen
us admirably from the squadrons I was watching, and they passed
unsuspecting within fifty yards of us. Believing them to be but an
advance guard, and that we should soon hear the tramp of the main
army, I kept my shelter for another ten minutes, and was prepared to
keep it for another hour, when José—whose eyes missed nothing—caught
me by the arm and pointed high up the hillside behind us.
"'Scouts!' he whispered. 'They have seen us, sir!'
"I glanced up and saw a pair of horsemen about two gunshots away
galloping down the uneven ridge towards us, with about a dozen in a
cluster close behind. We leapt into saddle at once, made off through
the oaks for perhaps a couple of hundred yards, and then wheeling
sharply struck back across the hillside towards Sabugal. We were still
in good cover, but the enemy had posted his men more thickly than
we had guessed, and by-and-by I crossed a small clearing and rode
straight into the arms of a dragoon. Providentially I came on him with
a suddenness which flurried his aim, and though he fired his pistol at
me point-blank he wounded neither me nor my horse. But hearing shouts
behind him in answer to the shot, we wheeled almost right-about and
set off straight down the hill.
"This new direction did not help us, however; for almost at once a
bugle was sounded above, obviously as a warning to the dragoons at the
foot of the pass, who halted and spread themselves along the lower
slopes to cut us off. Our one chance now lay in abandoning our horses
and crawling deep into the covert of the low oaks where cavalry would
have much ado to follow. This we promptly did, and for twenty minutes
we managed to elude them, so that my hopes began to grow. But
unhappily a knot of officers on the ridge above had watched this
manoeuvre through their telescopes, and now detached small parties of
infantry down either side of the pass to beat the covers. Our hiding
place quickly became too hot, and as we broke cover and dashed across
another small clearing we were spied again by those on the ridge, who
shouted to the soldiers and directed the chase by waving their caps.
For another ten minutes we baffled them, and then crawling on hands
and knees from a thicket where we could hear our enemies not a dozen
yards away beating the bushes with the flat of their swords, we came
face to face with a second party advancing straight upon us. I stood
up straight and was on the point of making a last desperate run for it
when I saw José sink on his face exhausted.
"'Do not shoot!' I called to the officer. 'We have hurt no man,
monsieur.'—For it is, as you know, a fact that in our business I
strongly disapprove of bloodshed, and in all our expeditions together
José had never done physical injury to a living creature.
"But I was too late. The young officer fired, and though the ball
entered my poor servant's skull and killed him on the instant, a
hulking fellow beside him had the savagery to complete what was
finished with a savage bayonet-thrust through the back.
"I stood still, fully expecting to be used no more humanely, but the
officer lowered his pistol and curtly told me I was his prisoner. By
this time the fellows had come up from beating the thicket behind and
surrounded me. I therefore surrendered, and was marched up the hill
to the camp with poor José's body at my heels borne by a couple of
"In all the hurry and heat of this chase I had found time to wonder
how our pursuers happened to be so well posted. For a good fortnight
and more—in fact, since my escape across the ford at Huerta—I could
remember nothing that we had done to give the French the slightest
inkling that we were watching them or, indeed, were anywhere near. And
yet the affair suggested no casual piece of scouting, but a deliberate
plan to entrap somebody of whose neighbourhood they were aware.
"Nor was this perplexity at all unravelled by the general officer to
whose tent they at once conveyed me—a little round white-headed man,
Ducrôt by name. He addressed me at once as Captain McNeill, and seemed
vastly elated at my capture.
"'So we have you at last!' he said, regarding me with a jocular smile
and a head cocked on one side, pretty much after the fashion of a
thrush eyeing a worm. 'But, excuse me, after so much finesse it was a
"Now finesse is not a word which I should have claimed at any time
for my methods,[A] and I cast about in my memory for the exploit to
which he could be alluding.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.—Here the captain, in his hurry
to pay me a compliment, does himself some injustice. Finesse, to be
sure, was not generally characteristic of his methods, but he used it
at times with amazing dexterity, as, for instance, the latter part
of this very adventure will prove, if I can ever prevail on him to
narrate it. On the whole I should say that he disapproved of finesse
much as he disapproved of swearing, but had a natural aptitude for
"'It is the mistake of clever men,' continued General Ducrôt sagely,
'to undervalue their opponents; but surely after yesterday the
commonest prudence might have warned you to put the greatest possible
distance between yourself and Sabugal.'
"'Sabugal?' I echoed.
"'Oh, my dear sir, we know. It was amusing—eh!—the barber's shop?
I assure you I laughed. It was time for you to be taken; for really,
you know, you could never have bettered it, and it is not for an
artist to wind up by repeating inferior successes.'
"For a moment I thought the man daft. What on earth (I asked myself)
was this nonsense about Sabugal and a barber's shop? I had not been
near Sabugal; as for the barber's shop it sounded to me like a piece
out of the childish rigmarole about cutting a cabbage leaf to make
an apple pie. Some fleeting suspicion I may have had that here was
another affair in which you and I had again managed to get confused;
but if so the suspicion occurred only to be dismissed. A fortnight
before you had left me on your way south to Badajoz, and you will
own that to connect you with something which apparently had happened
yesterday in a barber's shop in Sabugal was to overstrain guessing.
Having nothing to say, I held my tongue; and General Ducrôt put on a
more magisterial air. He resented this British phlegm in a prisoner
with whom he had been graciously jocose and fell back on his national
belief that we islanders, though occasionally funny, are so by force
of eccentricity rather than by humour.
"'I do not propose to deal with you myself,' he announced. 'At
one time and another, sir, you have done our cause an infinity of
mischief, and I prefer that the Duke of Ragusa should decide your
fate. I shall send you therefore to Sabugal to await his return.'
"This gave me my first intimation that Marmont was neither in Sabugal
nor with his main army. That same afternoon they marched me off to the
town and set me under guard in a house next door to his headquarters.
"Marmont returned from Celorico (if my memory serves me) on the
afternoon of the 17th. I was taken before him at once. He treated
me with the greatest apparent kindness, hoped I had suffered no
ill-usage, and wound up by inviting me to dinner. A couple of hours
later I was escorted to headquarters, where, on entering the room
where he received his guests, I found him in conversation with a young
staff officer who wore his arm in a sling.
"The marshal turned to me at once, and very gaily. 'I understand,'
said he with a smile, 'that I have no need to introduce you to Captain
"I looked from him to the young officer in some bewilderment, and saw
in a moment that Captain de Brissac was certainly not less bewildered
"'But Monsieur le Maréchal—but this is not the man!'
"'Not the man?'
"'Most decidedly not. The man of whom I spoke was dark and not above
middle height. He spoke Portuguese like a native, and belonged to a
class altogether different. It would be impossible for this gentleman
to disguise himself so.'
"For a moment Marmont seemed no less puzzled than we. Then he broke
out laughing again.
"'Ah! of course; that will have been Captain McNeill's servant—the
poor fellow who was killed,' he added more gravely. 'I am told, sir,
that this servant shared and furthered most of your adventures?'
"'He did indeed, M. le Maréchal,' said I; 'but excuse me if I am at a
"The Duke interrupted me by laughing again and laying a hand on my
shoulder as an orderly announced dinner. 'Rest easy, my friend, we
know of all your little tricks.' And at table he amused himself and
more and more befogged me by a precise account of my haunts and
movements. How I had kept a barber's shop in Sabugal under his very
nose; what disguises I used (and you know that I never used a disguise
in my life); how my servant had assisted M. de Brissac in a duel and
afterwards escaped in his uniform—with much more, and all of it news
to me. My astonished face merely excited his laughter; he set it down
to my eccentricity. But after dinner, when M. de Brissac had taken his
departure, Marmont crossed his handsome legs and came to business.
"'Sir,' said he, 'I am going to pay you a compliment. We have suffered
heavily through your cleverness; and although Lord Wellington may
choose to call you a scouting officer, you must be aware (and will
forgive me for reminding you) that I might well be excused for calling
you by an uglier name.'
"You may be sure I did not like this. You may also remember how at
Huerta on the occasion of our first meeting the question of disguise
came up between us, and how I assured you that to me, with my Scottish
face and accent, a disguise would be worse than useless. Well, that
was true enough so far as it went; but I fear that in my anxiety not
to offend your feelings I spoke less than the whole truth, for I have
always held that in our business as soon as a man resorts to disguise
his work ceases to be legitimate scouting. It may be no less
justifiable and even more useful, but it is no longer scouting. I
admit the distinction to be a nice one;[A] and I have sometimes asked
myself, when covering my uniform with my dark riding cloak, 'What,
after all, is a disguise?' Nevertheless, I had always observed it,
and standing before Marmont now in His Majesty's scarlet, which (as I
might have told him) I had never discarded either to further a plan
or to avoid a danger, I put some constraint on myself to listen in
silence on the merest off-chance that my silence might help an affair
with which the marshal assumed my perfect acquaintance, while I could
only surmise that somehow you were mixed up in it, and therefore
presumably it aimed at some advantage to our arms. I did keep silence,
however, though without so much as a bow to signify that I assented.
[Footnote A: NOTE BY MANUEL MCNEILL.—I should think so indeed! To me
the moral difference, say, between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding
under a wig is not worth discussing outside a seminary.]
"'But you are a gentleman,' Marmont continued, 'and I propose to treat
you as one. You will be sent in safe custody to France, and beyond
this I propose to take no revenge on you—but upon one condition.'
"'The condition is you give me your parole that on your journey
through Spain to France you not only make no effort to escape, but
will not consent to be rescued should the attempt be made by any of
the partidas in hope of reward.'
"I considered this for a moment. 'That is not a small thing to
require, since Wellington may be reasonably expected to offer a round
price for my recapture.'
"The marshal laughed not too pleasantly. 'Truly,' said he, 'I have
heard that Scotsmen are hard bargainers. But considering that I could
have you shot out of hand for a spy, I believed I was offering you
"Well, that was unfortunately true; so after a few seconds' pause I
answered, 'Monsieur le Duc, by imposing these terms on me you at any
rate pay me a handsome compliment. I accept it and give you my word.'
"Upon this parole, then, on the 19th I began my journey towards France
and captivity, escorted only by M. Gérard, a young lieutenant of
dragoons, and one trooper. The rest you know."
(Conclusion of Captain McNeill's Statement.)
As I have said, the bare news of my kinsman's capture and of poor
José's death reached me at Celorico on the 16th, late in the evening.
Knowing that Lord Wellington was by this time well on his way
northward, and believing that for more than one reason the captain's
fate would concern him deeply—feeling, moreover, some compunction at
the toils I had all innocently helped to wind about an honest man—I
at once sought and obtained leave from General Wilson to ride
southward to meet the Commander-in-Chief with the tidings, and if
necessary solicit his help in a rescue. The captain (on this point the
messenger was precise) had been taken to Sabugal to await Marmont's
return. I did not know that Marmont was actually at that moment on his
way thither, but I thought him at least likely to be returning very
soon. To be sure he might decide to shoot Captain Alan out of hand. My
recent performances gave him a colourable excuse, unless the prisoner
could disassociate himself from these and prove an alibi, which
under the circumstances and without the help of José's evidence he
could scarcely hope to do. I built, however, some faith on Marmont's
known humanity, of which in his pursuit of the militia he had just
given striking proof. The longer I weighed the chances the more
certain I became that Marmont would treat him as an ordinary prisoner
of war and send him up to France under escort.
Why, then (the reader may ask), did I lose time in seeking Lord
Wellington instead of making my way at once to the north and doing my
best to incite the partidas to attempt a rescue somewhere on the
road north of Burgos, or even between Valladolid and Burgos? My answer
is that such an affair would certainly turn on the question of money.
The French held the road right away to the Pyrenees, not so strongly
perhaps as to forbid hope, but strongly enough to make an attempt upon
it risky in the extreme. The bands of Mendizabal, Mina, and Merino
were kept busy by Generals Bonnet and Abbé; for a big convoy they
might be counted on to exert themselves, but for a single prisoner
they as certainly had no time to spare without the incitement of such
a reward as only the Commander-in-Chief could offer.
Accordingly I made my way south to Castello Branco and reached it on
the 18th, to find Lord Wellington arrived there and making ready to
push on as soon as overtaken by the bulk of his troops. I had always
supposed him to cherish a peculiar liking for my kinsman, but was
fairly astonished by the emotion he showed.
"Rescued? Of course he must be rescued!" He broke off to use (I must
confess) some very strong words upon Trant's design against Marmont
and the tomfoolery, as he called it, which had taken me into Sabugal,
and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over "the best scouting officer
in my service; the only man of the lot, sir, who knows his business."
Lord Wellington could, when he lost his temper, be singularly unjust.
I strove to point out that my "tomfoolery" in Sabugal had as a matter
of fact put a stop to the very scheme of General Trant's which he
condemned. He cut me short by asking if I proposed to argue with him.
"Ride back, sir. Choose the particular blackguard who can effect your
purpose, and inform him that on the day he rescues Captain McNeill I
am his debtor for twelve thousand francs."
The speech was ungracious enough, but the price more than I had dared
to hope for. Feeling pretty sure that in his lordship's temper a word
of thanks would merely invite him to consign my several members to
perdition, I bowed and left him. Twenty minutes later I was on the
road and galloping north again.
Before starting from Celorico I had sent the peasant who brought news
of Captain Alan's plight back to Sabugal with instructions to discover
what more he could, and bring his report to Bellomonte on my northward
road not later than the 20th. On the afternoon of the 19th when I rode
into that place I could hear no news of him. But late in the evening
he arrived with word that "the great McNeill" had been sent off under
escort towards Salamanca. Of the strength of that escort he could tell
me nothing, and had very wisely not stayed to inquire; he had picked
up the news from camp gossip and brought it at once, rightly judging
that time was more valuable to me just now than detailed information.
His news was doubly cheering; it assured me that my kinsman still
lived, and also that by riding to secure Lord Wellington's help I had
not missed my opportunity. Yet there was need to hurry, for I had not
only to fetch a long circuit by difficult paths before striking the
road to the Pyrenees,—I had to find the partidas, persuade them,
and get them on to the road ahead of their quarry.
I need not describe my journey at length. I rode by Guarda, Almeida,
Ledesma, keeping to the north of the main road, and travelling, not by
day only, but through the better part of each night. Beyond the ford
of Tordesillas, left for the while unguarded, I was in country where
at any moment I might stumble on the guerilla bands, or at least get
news of them. The chiefs most likely for my purpose were "the three
M's"—the curate Merino, Mina and Mendizabal. Of these, the curate was
about the biggest scoundrel in Spain. I learned on my way that having
lately taken about a hundred prisoners near Aranda, he had hanged the
lot, sixty to avenge three members of the local junta put to death by
the French, and the rest in proportion of ten for every soldier of his
lost in the action. From dealing with such a blackguard I prayed to be
spared. And by all accounts Mina ran him close for brutal ferocity. I
hoped, therefore, for Mendizabal, but at Sedano I heard that Bonnet,
after foiling an attack by him on a convoy above Burgos, had beaten
him into the Asturias, where his scattered bands were now shifting as
best they could among the hills. Merino was in no better case, and
my only hope rested on Mina, who after a series of really brilliant
operations, helped out by some lucky escapes, had on the 7th with
five thousand men planted himself in ambush behind Vittoria, cut up
a Polish regiment, and mastered the same enormous convoy which had
escaped the curate and Mendizabal at Burgos, releasing no less than
four hundred Spanish prisoners and enriching himself to the tune of
a million francs, not to speak of carriages, arms, stores, and a
quantity of church plate.
This was no cheerful hearing, since so much in his pocket must needs
lessen the attractiveness of my offer of twelve thousand francs. And,
indeed, when I found him in his camp above the road a little to the
east of Salvatierra his first answer was to bid me go to the devil.
Although for months he had only supported his troops on English money
conveyed through Sir Howard Douglas, this ignorant fellow snapped his
dirty fingers at the mention of Wellington and, flushed with a casual
triumph, had nothing but contempt for the allied troops who were
saving his country while he and his like wasted themselves on futile
raids. I can see him now as he sat smoking and dangling his legs on a
rock in the midst of his unwashed staff officers.
"For an Englishman," he scoffed, "I won't say but twelve thousand
francs is a high price to pay. Unfortunately, it is no price for my
troops to earn. Here am I expecting at any moment a convoy which is
due from the Valencia side, and Lord Wellington asks me to waste my
men and miss my chance for the sake of a single redcoat. He must be a
Said I, nettled, "For a Spaniard you have certainly acquired a rare
suit of manners. But may I suggest that their rarity will scarcely
prove worth the cost when your answer comes to Lord Wellington's
He glared at me for a moment, during which no doubt he weighed the
temptation of shooting me against the probable risk. Then his features
relaxed into a grin, and withdrawing the chewed cigarette from his
teeth he spat very deliberately on the ground. "The interview," he
announced, "is ended."
I took my way down the hillside in no gay mood. I had travelled far;
my nerves were raw with lack of sleep. I judged myself at least a day
ahead of any convoy with which the captain could be travelling, even
though it had moved with the minimum of delay. But where in the next
two days was I to find the help which Mina had refused? To be sure I
had caught up at Sedano a flying rumour that the curate Merino had
eluded Bonnet, broken out of the Asturias, and was again menacing the
road above Burgos. I had come across no sign of him on my way, yet
could hit on no more hopeful course than to hark back along the road
on the chance of striking the trail of a man who as likely as not was
a hundred miles away.
It was about nine in the morning when Mina gave me his answer, and at
three in the afternoon I was scanning the road towards Miranda de Ebro
from a hill about a mile beyond Arinez (the same hill, in fact, where
General Gazan's centre lay little more than a year afterwards on the
morning of the battle of Vittoria). I had been scanning the road
perhaps for ten minutes when my heart gave a jump and my hand, I
am not ashamed to confess, shook on the small telescope. To the
south-west, between me and Nanclares three horsemen were advancing at
a walk, and the rider in the middle wore a scarlet jacket.
It took me some seconds to get my telescope steady enough for a second
look, and with that I wheeled my horse, struck spur and posted back
towards Salvatierra as fast as the brute would carry me through the
I reached Mina's camp again at nightfall, and found the chief seated
exactly as I had left him, still smoking and still dangling his legs.
Were it not that he now wore a cloak against the night air I might
have supposed him seated there all day without stirring, and the guard
who led me to him promised with a grin that I was dangerously near one
of those peculiar modes of death which his master passed his amiable
leisure in inventing.
At the sight of me Mina's eyebrows went up and he chuckled, "Indeed,"
said he, "it has been a dull day, and I have been regretting that I
let you off so easily this morning."
"This morning," I said, "I made you an offer of twelve thousand
francs. You replied that you considered it too little for the services
of your army. Perhaps it was; but you will admit it to be pretty fair
pay for the services of a couple of men."
"Hullo!" He eyed me sharply. "What has happened?"
"That," I answered, "is my secret. Lend me a couple of men, say, for
forty-eight hours. In return, on producing this paper, you receive
twelve thousand francs; that is, as soon as Lord Wellington has
assured himself on my report that you received the paper from me and
did as I requested."
"Two men? This begins to look like business."
"It is business," said I curtly. "To your patriotism I should not
have troubled to appeal a second time."
He warned me to keep a civil tongue in my head; but I knew my man, and
within half-an-hour I rode out of his camp with two of his choicest
ruffians, one beside me and one ahead to guide me through the
Now at Vittoria the road towards Irun and the frontier runs almost due
north for some distance and then bends about in a rough arc towards
the east. Another road runs almost due east from Vittoria to Pamplona.
The first road would certainly be taken by my kinsman and his escort:
Mina's camp lay above the second: but, a little way beyond, at
Alsasua, a third road of about five leagues joins the two, and by this
short cut I was certain of heading off our quarry.
There was no call to hurry. If, as I judged likely, the party meant to
sleep the night at Vittoria, I had almost twenty-four hours in hand.
So we rode warily, on the look-out for French vedettes, and reaching
Beasain a little before two in the morning took up a comfortable
position on the hillside above the junction of the roads.
At dawn we shifted into better shelter—a shepherd's hut, dilapidated
and roofless—and eked out a long day with tobacco and a greasy pack
of cards. A few bullock carts passed along the road below us, the
most of them bound westward, and perhaps half-a-dozen peasants on
mule-back. At about four in the afternoon a French patrol trotted by.
As the evening drew on I began to feel anxious.
A little before sunset I sent off one of my ruffians—Alonso
something-or-other (I forget his magnificent surname)—to scout
along the road. He had been gone half-an-hour when his fellow, Juan
Gallegos, flung down his cards in the dusk—the more readily perhaps
because he held a weak hand—and pricked up his ears.
"Horses!" he whispered, and after a pause nodded confidently. "Three
We picked up our muskets and crept down towards the road. Halfway down
we met Alonso ascending with the news. Yes, there were three horsemen
on this side of Zumarraga and coming at a trot. One of them wore a red
"Be careful, then, how you pick them off. The man in red must not be
hurt; the money depends on that."
They nodded. Night was now falling fast, yet not so fast but that as
the horsemen came up I could distinguish Captain Alan. He was riding
on the left beside the young French officer, the orderly about six
yards behind. As they came abreast of us Juan let fly, and the
orderly's horse pitched forward at once and fell, flinging his man,
who struck the road and lay either stunned or dead. At the noise of
the report the other horses shied violently and separated, thus giving
us our chance without danger to the prisoner. Alonso and I fired
together, and rushed out upon the officer, who groaned in the act of
wheeling upon us. One of the bullets had shattered his sword arm.
Within the minute we had him prisoner, the captain not helping us at
"What is this?" he demanded in Spanish, peering at me out of the dusk
and breaking off to quiet his frightened horse. "What is this, and who
"Well, it looks like a rescue," said I; "and I am your kinsman, Manus
McNeill, and have been at some pains to effect it."
"You!" he peered at me. "I thank you," said he, "but you have done a
bad evening's work. I am on parole, as a man so clever as you might
have guessed by the size of my escort."
"We will talk of that later," I answered, and sent Juan and Alonso off
to examine the fallen trooper. "Meanwhile the man here has fainted.
Oblige me by helping him a little way up the hill, or by leading his
horse while I carry him. The road here is not healthy."
Captain Alan followed in silence while I bore my burden up to the hut.
Having tethered the horses outside, he entered and stood above me
while I lit a lantern and examined the young officer's wound.
"Nothing serious," I announced, "a fracture of the forearm and maybe a
splintered bone. I can fix this up in no time."
"You had better leave it to me and run," my kinsman answered. "This
M. Gérard is an amiable young man and a friend of mine, and I charge
myself to see him safe to Tolosa to-night. What are you doing?"
"Searching for his papers."
"I forbid it."
"Alain mhic Neill," said I, "you are not yet the head of our clan."
And I broke the seal of a letter addressed to the Governor of Bayonne.
"Ah! I thought as much," I added, having glanced over the missive. "It
seems, my dear kinsman, that my knowledge of the Duke of Ragusa goes
a bit deeper than yours. Listen to this: 'The prisoner I send you
herewith is one Captain McNeill, a spy and a dangerous one, who has
done infinite mischief to our arms. I have not executed him on the
spot out of respect to something resembling an uniform which he wears.
But I desire you to place him at once in irons and send him up to
Paris, where he will doubtless suffer as he deserves' …"
Captain Alan took the paper from me and perused it slowly, biting his
upper lip the while. "This is very black treachery," said he.
"It acquits you at any rate."
"Of my parole?" He pondered for a moment; then, "I cannot see that it
does," he said. "If the Duke of Ragusa chooses to break an implied
bond with me it does not follow that I can break an explicit promise
"No? Well, I should have thought it did."
At once my kinsman put on that stiff pedantic tone which had irritated
me at Huerta. "I venture to think," said he, "that no McNeill would
say so unless he had been corrupted by traffic with the Scarlet
"Scarlet grandmother!" I broke out. "You seem to forget that I have
ridden a hundred leagues to effect this rescue, for which, by the way,
Lord Wellington offers twelve thousand francs. I have promised them to
the biggest scoundrel in Spain; but because he happens to be even a
bigger scoundrel than the Duke of Ragusa must I break my bond with him
and let you go to be shot for the sake of your silly punctilio?"
I spoke with heat, and bent over the groaning officer. My kinsman
rubbed his chin. "What you say," he replied, "demands a somewhat
complicated answer, or rather a series of answers. In the first
place, I thank you sincerely for what you have done, and not the less
sincerely because I am going to nullify it. I shall, perhaps, not
cheat myself by believing that a clansman's spirit went some way to
help your zeal"—here I might well have blushed in truth, for it had
not helped my zeal a peseta. "I thank Lord Wellington, too, for the
extravagant price he has set upon my services, and I beg you to convey
my gratitude to him. As for being shot, I might answer that my parole
extends only to the Pyrenees; but I consider myself to have extended
it tacitly to my young friend here, who has treated me with all
possible consideration on the journey; and I shall go to Bayonne."
He spoke quietly and in the most matter-of-fact voice. But I have
often thought since of his words; and often when I call up the figure
of Marmont in exile at Venice, where, as he strode gloomily along the
Riva dei Schiavoni, the very street urchins pointed and cried after
him, "There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon!" I call up and
contrast with it the figure of this humble gentleman of Scotland in
the lonely hut declining simply and without parade to buy his life at
the expense of a scruple of conscience.
"But," he continued, "I fancy I may persuade M. Gérard at least to
delay the delivery of that letter, in which case I see my way at
least to a chance of escape. For the rest, these partidas have been
promised twelve thousand francs for a service which they have duly
rendered. My patrimony is not a rich one, but I can promise that this
sum, whether I escape or not, shall be as duly paid. Hush!" he ended
as I sprang to my feet, and Juan and Alonso appeared in the doorway
supporting the trooper, who had only been stunned after all.
"We did not care to kill him," Juan explained blandly, "until we had
the señor's orders."
"You did rightly," I answered, and glanced at my kinsman. His jaw was
set. I pulled out a couple of gold pieces for each. "An advance on
your earnings," said I. "My orders are that you leave the trooper here
with me, ride back instantly to your chief, report that your work has
been well done and successfully, and the money for which he holds
an order shall be forwarded as soon as I return and report to Lord
Wellington in Beira."