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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 22 - The Flag of Truce

About a fortnight after this, Sir Rowland Hill reviewed his division of the army near the town of Almendralejo. In the evening, a strong detachment, consisting of the first brigade of infantry, part of the second brigade, a body of British cavalry, artillery, and Portuguese cacadores, were selected from the division, and marched an hour before daybreak next morning, pursuing the road to Madrid under the command of the general himself, who left Sir William Erskine in charge of the remainder of the division, which continued in cantonments at Almendralejo.

That some great enterprise was on foot there could be no doubt, from the secrecy maintained by the general as to the object of the march, the solitary places through which their route lay after leaving the Madrid road, and the deserted places in which they concealed their bivouacs at night. Great excitement existed among the troops, and many were the surmises as to what might be the ultimate object of this sudden expedition, until it became known that to force the pass of Miravete, and destroy certain forts erected at the bridge of Almarez on the Tagus, were the intentions of their leader.

On the evening of the 15th May the troops destined for this particular service entered the city of Truxillo, the place from which Don Balthazzar takes his title. It is, like most Spanish cities, situated on a rocky eminence, contains about four thousand inhabitants, a handsome Plaza, and several churches. Ronald was billeted on the very house in which the famous conqueror of America, Pizarro, was born, and the moulded coat-armorial of whose noble family yet appeared over the entrance-door. He had just finished a repast of hashed mutton and garlic,—time had reconciled him to the latter,—and was discussing a few jugs of Xeresseco with his host, when the sergeant-major of the Gordon Highlanders, tapping at the door with his cane, warned him to join Captain Stuart's out-picket as a supernumerary subaltern.

His host, Don Gonzago de Conquesta, a lineal descendant of Pizarro, was detailing the once great honours of his now decayed house when this unwelcome intelligence was brought to Stuart, who, snatching his cloak and sword, vented a malediction on the adjutant, and departed in no pleasant mood, bearing with him a couple of bottles of the Xeres seco, which were pressed upon him by Don Gonzago, who said that he never went on duty (he was a Capitan de Cazadores) without plenty of liquor. It was a lesson he had learned in his campaigns ' under the great General Liniers, at Buenos Ayres, in 1807.' The out-picket, which Ronald departed to join, was posted near the river Almonte, at the base of the large mountain, on the summit and sides of which appeared the three divisions of Truxillo,—the castle, the city, and the town, as they are styled. And often, as he hurried down the hill, he looked back at the picturesque Spanish city, with its Gothic spires and belfries, its embattled fortress, lines of frowning ramparts built on masses of rock, and its thousand casements, gleaming like burnished gold in the light of the setting sun. It was a beautiful evening : the air was cool and balmy,—the sky blue and cloudless, and the clear atmosphere showed vividly the various tints of the extensive landscape, where yellow fields, green thickets, and the windings of the Almonte stretched away far in the distance.

The chain of sentinels were posted along the sedgy banks of the river, and on a green grassy knoll beside it, amid groves where the yellow orange and clustering grape were ripening in the sun, sat Ronald and the officer commanding the picket, Captain Stuart of the 50th regiment, discussing the flasks of Xeres seco. While they were conversing on the probable issue of the intended attack on the castle of Miravete and the French forts at Almarez, a sentry by the river-side passed the word of alarm, that some of the enemy were in motion on the other side of the stream. Far down the Almonte, advancing over the level ground from the direction of the Madrid road, appeared four figures on foot, and the glitter of polished metal showed that they were armed men.

'Mr. Stuart,' said the captain of the picket, ' take with you a file of men and a bugler, and see who these may be. You may cross here,—I suppose the river is fordable. Should you see anything suspicious farther off, let the bugle-boy sound, to warn us.'

'This promises to be an adventure,' said Ronald, fixing his sword in his belt, and preparing to start. 'A flag of truce, probably, sent from the castle of Miravete.'

'Most likely: they have come from that direction. Sir Rowland will be ill-pleased to think the enemy know of his vicinity. But as these communications are generally only for the purpose of reconnoitring and gaining intelligence, you must be careful to frustrate any such intentions by answering reservedly all questions, and beware that their cunning does not out-flank your caution.

'Fear not: man to man if they——'

'Nay: should it be a flag of truce, you must receive it with all attention and courtesy; but you had better move off, and meet them as far from here as possible.'

'There are two stout fellows of my own company here; I will take them with me. Ewen Macpherson Mackie, unpile your arms, and follow me. Look sharp there, men!'

Accompanied by two sturdy Highlanders, and a bugler of the 50th foot, he crossed the Almonte, which took them up to the waist, and scrambling over the opposite bank, advanced towards the strangers without feeling much discomfort from the wetting,—fording a river being with them a daily occurrence.

Four French soldiers appeared to be coming straight towards them, through the middle of a waving field of yellow corn, treading it down in a remorseless manner that would have put any bluff English farmer or douce gude-man of the Lothians at his wits' end, had he seen them. It appeared to be a toilsome pathway, as it rose breast-high, and in some places hid them altogether, save the tops of their grenadier caps. On gaining the skirts of the field, they broke their way through the lofty vine-trellis which covered the road like a long green arbour, and could now be perfectly discerned; and as they neared each other, Ronald felt a degree of excitement and pleasure roused within him, for which it was not difficult to account, this being his first meeting with the enemy in arms.

Two of them were tall French grenadiers in dark great-coats, adorned with large red worsted epaulettes, wearing heavy bear-skin caps and hairy knapsacks, and had their bayonets fixed on their long muskets.
In front advanced an officer, wearing the same sort of cap, and the rich uniform of the old Guard. A little tambour, with his brass drum slung on his back, trotted beside him.

'Halt!' exclaimed Ronald, when they were about four hundred yards off. 'With ball-cartridge prime and load.'

The performance of this action was seen by the strangers. The little tambour beat a long roll on his drum; and the officer, halting his file of grenadiers, displayed a white handkerchief, and advanced alone. Ronald did so likewise, and they met at an equal distance from their respective parties. The officer (whose brown cheek bore witness of service) wore the little gold cross that showed he was a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, and raising his hand to his grenadier-cap in salute, he pulled from the breast of his coat a long sealed despatch.

'Monsieur officier,' said he, 'here is a communication from Marshal Soult to General Sir Rowland Hill, which I have the honour to request you will see forwarded.'

Ronald bowed and took the letter, surprised to hear such pure English spoken by a Frenchman; while the latter unslung a metal flask which hung at his waist-belt, to share its contents in friendship.

'Croix Dieu!' he exclaimed, starting back with a look of recognition and surprise. 'Ah, Monsieur Stuart, mon ami, have you forgotten me quite? Do you not remember Victor D'Estouville and the castle of Edinburgh?'

Ronald gazed upon him in astonishment.

'D'Estouville! is this indeed you?'

'I am happy to say it is; who else could it be, monsieur? I was very tired of being a prisonnier de guerre in that gloomy bastile in the Scottish capital; but an exchange of prisoners took place soon after you left it, and now I am again a free man, fighting the battles of the Emperor, with the eagle over my brow, and wearing my belted sword. Brave work it is,—but I am as miserable now as I was then.'

'Hard fighting and no promotion, perhaps?'

'We have plenty of both in the service of the great Emperor. I am now major in the battalion of the Guard.'

'Allow me to congratulate you. And—and—what was the lady's name? Diane de Montmichel?'

'C'est le diable!' muttered he, while his cheek grew pale as death; but the emotion instantly passed away, and a bold and careless look replaced it.

'D'Estouville, you did not find her faithless, I hope?'

'I found her only Madame la Colonelle, as we say in our service.'

'The wife of your colonel ! How much I regret to hear it! The devil! I think women are all alike perfidious.'

'Perfidious indeed, Monsieur Stuart, as many a husband and lover, on his return from captivity, finds to his cost. But I mean to revenge myself on the whole sex, and care no more for the best of them than for the meanest fille de joie that ever was horsed through a camp on a wooden steed. On my return to France, I hastened to the valley of Lillebonne; but it was no longer a paradise to me. My sisters were all married to knaves who cared nothing for me, and a grassy grave in the churchyard was all that remained to me of my dear mother. But miséricorde! la belle Diane was no longer there—she had become the wife of my colonel, the Baron de Clappourknuis, forgetting poor Victor D'Estouville, her first love (that which romance makes such a fuss about) ; he who had preferred her before all the maidens of the valley of Lillebonne,—and there they are numerous and as beautiful as the roses.'

'Learn to forget her, D'Estouville; you may find it------'

'She is forgotten as my love. Croix Dieu! nay, more, she is forgiven.'

'And she is now Baroness Clappourknuis?'

'Oui, monsieur,—such, I suppose, she would rather be, with the boorish old colonel for her husband, than the wife of Victor D'Estouville, a poor subalterne as I was then.'

'Certes, you have got rapid promotion. And you are really now a major?' said Ronald, feeling a little chagrin. ' I am still only an ensign —sub-lieutenant, I believe you style it.'

'Diable! your promotion is long of coming, especially in these times, when heads are broken like egg-shells. But I would rather have my peace of mind, than promotion to the baton of a marshal of the empire.'

'Then you have not forgotten her, although you so often protest you have?'

'I have forgotten to love her, at least. Peste! I am quite cured of that passion. I can regard her, and speak of her, with the utmost nonchalance; and, as a proof, I volunteered to bring this letter from the Duke of Dalmatia to your general, relative to procuring the release of the baron, my chef, by exchanging him for some British prisoners captured at Villa Garcia, where, by some misadventure, our rear-guard was so severely cut up by your heavy cavalry under Sir Stapleton Cotton. You see, Monsieur Stuart, I am so calmed down in this matter, that I can, even without a pang, negotiate for the restoration of her husband to her arms.'

At that moment a bugle from Captain Stuart's post sounded, as if warning Ronald to retire.

'A bugle-call,' said D'Estouville; 'the officer commanding the out-picket has lost his patience.'

'I must now bid you farewell ; we may soon meet again, but in less pleasant circumstances.'

'Then you do mean to carry Miravete?' said the Frenchman, with sudden animation.

'I have not said so,' replied Ronald coldly. ' I merely said we might meet------'

'Not unlikely, if your general comes further this way. The forts of Napoleon and Ragusa, covering the bridge of the Tagus at Almarez, and the town of Miravete, defended as they are by the bravest hearts of the old Guard, might bar the passage of Xerxes with his host.'

'But surely not against the capturers of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo?' said Ronald gently, with a smile.

'Peste! oui. These were misadventures, and the great Emperor will soon make us amends. There was something wrong in this last affair at Badajoz; yet the soldiers fought well, and Phillipon, their general, is, as we say, guerrier sans peur et sans reproche,' replied the Frenchman, while a flush of indignant shame crossed his bronzed cheek, and he twisted up his heavy moustache with an air of military pride and ludicrous confusion.

Again the bugle sounded from the other side of the river, warning them to part. D'Estouville uncorked his flask, and filling up the stopper, which held about a wine-glass, with brandy, presented it to Ronald, and they drank to each other. The two grenadiers of the Guard, their tambour, the two Highlanders, and the young bugler, were now beckoned to advance, and D'Estouville shared the contents of his flask among them, while they shook hands all round heartily, and regarded each other's uniforms, accoutrements, and bronzed visages with evident curiosity.

'We have drunk to the health of your General Hill. C'est un vieux routier, as we Frenchmen say,' observed D'Estouville, replacing his empty flask. 'As for your leader, Monsieur Wellington, I cannot say I admire him: he is not the man to gain the love of the soldier. No medals,— no ribands,—no praise in the grand bulletin,—no crosses like this won under his command. Vive l'Empereur! The great Napoleon is the man for these—the man for a soldier to live and die under. But I must bid you farewell—without returning what you so kindly lent me in the castle of Edinburgh.'

'I beg you will not mention it.'

'There is little use in doing so, all the gold I have being on my shoulders. Nom d'un pape! never will I forget your kindness. But I hope your general has no intention of beating up our quarters at Almarez?'

'I have not heard that such is his intention,' said Ronald, colouring at the equivocal nature of his reply.

'We are very comfortable there at present; quite country quarters in fact.'

'How ! are you stationed there?'

'I am commandant of the forts of the bridge. A wing of my own battalion of the Guard forms part of the garrison. But we must part now, monsieur. How dark the evening has become! Almarez is a long way off among the mountains, and we shall barely reach it by to-morrow. I am anxious to return and console a certain lady there, who has, I suppose, been pining very much in my absence.'

'Indeed! 'Tis no wonder, then, that Diane de Montmichel is so easily forgotten.'

'Peste! I am executing but a part of my grand plot of vengeance against the sex,' replied the other gaily. 'I am a droll fellow, monsieur, but quite the one for a soldier. The young creature is superbly beautiful. I captured her at a town near this a few weeks ago, and carried her to Almarez, to enliven my quarters there. But diable! she is ever drooping like a broken lily, weeping and upbraiding me in Spanish; but I must make a bold effort, when I return, to carry her heart by escalade. I have half won the outworks already, I believe. Soldats!' cried he, turning quickly round, 'portez vos armes; demi-tour à droite,—tnarche!'

He touched his cap and went off with his party, saying in a loud and laughing tone, 'Adieu, mon ami; when I return to Almarez, I shall speak of you to la belle Cataline!

Ronald, who had listened to his last observations with some emotion, started at the name he mentioned, and would have recalled him ; but a long, loud, and angry bugle-blast from the out-picket compelled him to retire and recross the Almonte, but he cast many an anxious glance after the dark and lessening figures of D'Estouville and his soldiers, as they toiled their way through the field of tall corn.

The evening had now given place to the night, the last trace of day had faded from the mountainous ridge of the Lina, and the waning moon was shining coldly and palely above the spires and castle of Truxillo.

'Mr. Stuart,' said one of the soldiers, as they marched along under the dark shadows of the thick and gloomy vine-trellis, 'if I micht daur to advise, it wadna be amiss to ask that chield with the sark owre his claes, what he means by followin' us aboot, as he has dune, glintin' and glidin' here and there in the gloaming.'

'Who—where, Macpherson?'

'Under the vine-trees, on your richt hand, sir.'

Ronald now perceived, for the first time, a priest in a light grav cassock or gown which enveloped his whole body, keeping pace with them—taking step for step, at a short distance.

'He has been close beside ye, sir,' continued the soldier, 'the haill time ye were speaking to the Frenchman, listening and glowering wi' een like a gosshawk, although he aye keepit himsel' sae close amang the leaves o' the bushes, that you couldna see him as we did.'

'Do you really say so? What can the fellow's object be? By the colour of his robe, he looks like one of the Franciscans of Merida,' said Ronald, considerably interested, while he watched the priest narrowly, and saw that he was evidently moving in time with them, but keeping himself concealed as much as possible among the poles of the trellis-work, and the vines which were twisted around them.

'Holloa, Senor Padre, holloa!' cried Stuart. But no sooner did he speak, than the mysterious padre glided away, and, as any monk of romance would have done, disappeared, and no further trace could they find of him at that time. Many were the surmises of the soldiers about the matter, and Ewen Macpherson, a Gael from Loch Oich, gave decidedly his opinion that 'it was something no cannie.' But the affair passed immediately from the mind of Ronald, whose thoughts were absorbed in the idea that Donna Catalina was a prisoner in the hands of the French. It roused a thousand stirring and harrowing emotions within him; and forgetting that he was observed, he often muttered to himself, and grasped his sword with energy, as they hurried along.

Fording the Almonte again, they clambered up the bank, and on gaining the grassy knoll, Ronald presented Soult's letter to Captain Stuart, from whom he endured a very disagreeable cross-questioning as to what his long conversation with the Frenchman had been about. He found his sentiments of regard for D'Estouville very much lessened when he appeared in the new character of a rival, and eagerly he longed for the assault on Almarez, that he might have an opportunity of distinguishing himself, and, if possible, freeing Catalina at the point of the sword. Often he repented not having followed D'Estouville at all risks, and commanded him, on his honour, to treat the lady with the respect which was due to her rank and sex.

It was a clear moonlight night, and he lay awake on the grassy sod, musing on these matters, and thinking of Alice Lisle and the relation in which he stood to her. Old Stuart, the captain of the picket, after having drained the last drop of the Xeres seco, had wrapped himself up in his cloak, and went to sleep under a bush, with a stone for a pillow. From his reverie Ronald was aroused by seeing,close by, the same figure of the monk in the gray tunic, evidently watching him, and with no common degree of interest, as his eyes seemed to sparkle under the laps of his cowl, in a manner which gave him a peculiar and rather uncomfortable aspect.

'Ho! the picket there!' cried Stuart, springing to his feet, and making a plunge among the orange foliage where the figure had appeared. 'Holloa, sentry! seize that fellow! Confound it, he has escaped!' he added, as the appearance vanished again, without leaving a trace behind.

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