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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 53 - Flanders

A FEW days afterwards he was on his way, hastening to join the army in Belgium. His orders were to travel with speed, as hostilities were expected daily. All Europe was alarmed, great events were expected, and mail and telegraph arrivals were watched with the most feverish anxiety.

On landing at Ostend, Stuart heard that Buonaparte had joined the French army, and had issued a proclamation calling to mind their former victories, and telling them that fresh dangers were to be dared and battles won; but he felt assured their familiarity with hardship and death, their steadiness, discipline, and inherent bravery, would make them, in every encounter, most signally victorious.

'Time will prove all this,' thought Ronald, as, seated on an inverted keg, he was deciphering this proclamation in a French paper, while travelling on the canal of Ostend in a flat-bottomed boat for Bruges.

The broad and waveless surface of the long yellow canal was gleaming under the meridian sun like polished metal; and, when standing erect on the roof or upper deck of the barge, he could see it for miles winding away through the country, which on every side was verdant and flat, like a vast bowling-green. The monotony of the scenery struck Stuart the more forcibly, because, as a Highlander, he could not help drawing comparisons between it and the tremendous hills, the solemn valleys, and the majestic rivers of his native Scotland. At times, a few bulbous-shaped boors, in steeple-crowned hats, or fur caps, and enormous breeches, appeared on the canal bank, singly or in groups, smoking their long pipes, and staring hard with their great lack-lustre eyes on the passing boat, the slow motion of which they would watch for miles, standing on the same spot, immovable as a milestone. Very plump and very red-cheeked country girls, wearing short petticoats, and making an unusual display of legs, which were more substantial than elegant, appeared tripping along the banks, bearing jars of milk or butter on their heads, where they were poised with miraculous exactness. Sometimes a party of these rustic fair ones passed in a gaudily-painted cart or waggon, all laughing and talking merrily,—their noisy vivacity forming a strange contrast with the sulky demeanour of the silent and phlegmatic boor, who sat smoking and driving on the tram of the car, keeping his seat there with the same lurching motion that a bag of oats would have done. There is little disposition in Dutch or German blood to be gallant or cavalierlike.

Afar in the distance, where the landscape stretched away as level as the sea, were seen great squares of light green or bright yellow, showing where lay the fields of golden corn and other grain, waving, ripe and tall, everywhere ready for the sickle. In some places appeared a cluster of pretty little cottages, their walls white as alabaster, and roofed with bright yellow thatch, embosomed among a grove of light willow-trees, from the midst of which arose the tall and slender church spire, surmounted by a clumsy vane, around which flew scores of cawing rooks, fluttering and contesting for footing on the gilded weathercock. Sometimes the canal barge passed through the very midst of a farm and close to the mansion, with its deep, thatched roof, having walls of glaring white or yellow, and gaudy red or blue streaks six inches broad painted round each door and window,—the brass knocker on the green door, the burnished windows, the gilt vanes, and painted walls all gleaming in the light of the sun. Contrasting with the rural dwelling, the parterres before it, the stackyard behind, the ducks, the geese, the pigs, and the children in the yard, or among the reeds by the canal bank, appeared, perhaps, close by a vessel of two hundred tons or so, laid up in ordinary, or high and dry in the farmyard, with hens roosting beside her keel. In some places these craft lay in small docks having a flood-gate, with their top-masts struck, their rigging and spars all dismantled, and stowed away below or on deck. Most of the Dutch and Belgian farmers are also shipowners ; and by means of those great and beautiful canals, which like veins intersect the whole country, they bring their craft to their farmyards, perhaps fifty or eighty miles inland, and there keep them during the winter. They can thus the more readily load or provision them with. their own farm produce, before they are again sent to sea.

As Ronald was totally ignorant of Dutch, and knew very little of French, he could neither converse with the boatmen nor the dull Flemish boors who happened to be passengers ; and he passed his time monotonously enough, yawning over a few London newspapers, or watching every schuytje sculled along by its 'twenty-breeched' boatmen.

In the evening he arrived at the busy and opulent, but smoky town of Bruges: and hence, passing the night at an hotel, and rising next morning with the lark, he proceeded to Ghent, that city of bustle and bridges. On landing at one of the quays, he was surprised to observe a French soldier on sentry, walking briskly about before his box. When passing, monsieur came slightly to 'his front,' and presented arms. In traversing the streets, he met many French officers in undress, all of whom politely touched their caps on passing. They all wore their swords and belts, and were to be seen promenading everywhere, singly or in parties, in the streets, on the bridges, on the quays, or flirting with the girls who kept the booths and fancy warehouses in the great square.

At the portal of a large and handsome mansion, a British soldier of the line, and a Frenchman in the uniform of the garde-du-corps, were on duty together as sentinels. It was the residence of Louis XVIII., who, on the landing of Buonaparte, had accepted the asylum offered him by the King of the Netherlands, and now resided in Ghent, spending his time like some plodding citizen, when he should have been in the field aiding his allies, and heading the few soldiers of France who still remained true to him. A British guard was mounted at his residence, in addition to the garde-du-corps, and the officers dined every day at the royal table.

Of the French army, about seven hundred officers and a thousand soldiers remained stanch to Louis, when the whole of their comrades joined Napoleon en masse. The privates were all quartered at Alost, but the officers he kept near his own person.

Warlike preparations were manifest everywhere around Ghent. Nearly eight thousand men were employed in repairing the ancient fortifications and raising new, digging ditches, mounting cannon, erecting bulwarks, forts, and gates; for rumours of the coming strife, and of the invasion of Flanders by Buonaparte and his furious frenchmen, were compelling the drowsy people to lay aside their phlegm, and show some courage, energy, and activity.

In the evening Ronald was roused by the ringing of the church-bells, as for an alarm. A commotion and noise arose in the city, as if the people of Ghent had suddenly cast off their apathy, and set all their tongues to work. Above the increasing din, he heard the officers and soldiers of the garde-du-corps crying Vive le Roi! Vive Louis! in that true turncoat style for which the French had become so notorious. Conceiving it to be some unlooked-for attack, he clasped on his belt, and repaired to a neighbouring table d'hote, where a French officer informed him that the uproar was caused by the arrival of a courier, bearing intelligence that the entire French army was in motion, and headed by the Emperor,—while he spoke, a flush crossed his cheek, betraying the enthusiasm he could not conceal,—led by their Emperor, had crossed the Sambre, and were marching on Charleroi.

Anxious to join his regiment before hostilities began, and being heartily tired of the slow and chilly mode of travelling by canal barges, Stuart purchased a horse at Ghent, as no Belgian would lend one for hire. It was a poor-looking hack, and he paid for it thrice its real value. Leaving his baggage to be sent after him, he set off on the spur for Brussels, among whose plodding citizens the advance of the French had stricken. a terror beyond description. But two alternatives were before them in the case of Wellington's defeat,—flight, or to remain and encounter sack and slaughter ; for well they knew that Napoleon would fearfully avenge the abandonment of his standard.

Ronald departed from Ghent at daybreak, and halted for breakfast at Alost. He repaired to an hotel, where his uniform procured him every attention, but there was consternation pre-eminently visible in every Belgian face. Here he was informed that the first corps of the Prussian army, posted at Charleroi, under the command of General Zeithen, had been attacked, and, after a sharp contest, compelled to retreat towards Fleurs. Notwithstanding their fears, the people boasted much of the Belgian troops, and declared that, when the strife was fairly begun, they would do wonders.

'Ah, why should we fear?' they repeated continually. 'Lord Wellington has the Belgians with him.'

Having been misdirected and sent far out of his way by one of the terrified natives, it was dark before the young soldier arrived at Brussels, where confusion, fear, and uproar reigned supreme. He was permitted to pass the fortifications and barriers only, after a great deal of troublesome altercation with the Belgic and German sentries and guards, who scrupled to admit an armed man without the parole. After entering, he found his poor horse in a state of the utmost exhaustion. He had ridden nearly forty miles that day, and stood greatly in need of refreshment himself; but he was determined to travel on without halting, and to join the regiment at all risk and expense. He went straight to an hotel, and hired another horse, leaving twice its value, together with the Bucephalus he had purchased at Ghent, which was to be restored to him on his return—when that should take place.

The French army were still pressing impetuously forward. Marshal Ney, in command of the left, had proceeded along the road for Brussels, and attacking the Prince of Saxe Weimar, drove him back from Frasnes to the famous position named Les Quatre Bras; while Napoleon, with his own immediate command, the right and centre, followed the retreating Prussians towards Brie and Sombref.

At half-past three on that morning (the 16th June), the British had marched out of Brussels towards the enemy. Fear was impressed on every heart and visible on every face after their departure.

The bells were tolling mournfully, and many persons were lamenting in the streets as if the day of universal doom was at hand. The churches were lighted for night-service when Stuart entered the city. From the tall Gothic windows of the church of St. Gudule, vivid flakes of variously tinted light streamed on the groups of anxious and gossiping citizens, who were assembled in knots and crowds in the great Sablon Square, or on the magnificent flight of steps ascending to the doorway, through which streams of radiance, and strains of choral music, came gushing into the streets below. The bells in the two great towers were booming away in concert with others, and flinging their deep hollow tones to the midnight wind. Business of every kind was suspended ; the shops were shut ; and the paunchy magistrates were all in the Hotel de Ville, assembled in solemn conclave, consulting, not about the best means of defence, but the best mode—to use a homely phrase—'of cutting their stick, and without beat of drum.

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