Read CHAPTER XXI. - I GO CAMPAIGNING WITH LORD WELLINGTON. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

The vessel to which they rowed me was the Bute transport, bound for Portugal with one hundred and fifty officers and men of the 52nd Regiment, one hundred and twenty of the third battalion 95th Rifles, and a young cornet and three farriers of the 7th Light Dragoons in charge of fifty remounts for that regiment.

We weighed anchor at daybreak (the date, I may mention, was July 28th), and cleared the Sound.  At ten o’clock or thereabouts the wind fell, and for two days and nights we drifted aimlessly about the Channel at the will of the tides, while the sergeant ­a veteran named Henderson, who had started twenty-five years before by blowing a bugle in the 52nd, and therefore served me as index and example of what by patience I might attain to ­filled the most of my time between sleep and meals with lessons upon that instrument.  From a hencoop abaft the mainmast (the Bute was a brig, by the way) I blew back inarticulate farewells to the shores receding from us imperceptibly, if at all; and so illustrated a profound remark of the war’s great historian, that the English are a bellicose rather than a martial race, and by consequence sometimes find themselves committed to military enterprises without having counted the cost or made complete preparation.

On the third day the wind freshened and blew dead foul, decimating the horses with sea-sickness, prostrating three-fourths of the men, and shaking the two regiments down into a sociability which outlasted their sufferings.  To be sure my comrades of the 52nd (as, with a fearful joy, I named them to myself in secret), being veterans for the most part, recovered or recovering from wounds taken in the land to which they were returning with common memories of Sir John Moore, of Benevente, Calcabellos and Corunna, treated the riflemen with that affable condescension which was all that could be claimed by third battalion youngsters with their soldiering before them.  But the 52nd knew the 95th of old.  And, veterans and youths, were they not bound to be enrolled together in that noble Light Division, the glory of which was already lifting above the horizon, soon to blaze across heaven?

Sergeant Henderson did not suffer from seasickness.  For no reward ­ unless it be the fierce delight of tackling a difficulty for its own sake ­he had sworn to make a bugler of me, given moderately bad weather:  and when the evening of September 2nd brought us off the coast of Portugal, he allowed me to shake hands over his success.  Early next morning we began to disembark at a place called Figueira, by the mouth of the Mondego river.  I stepped ashore with a swelling heart.

But I carried also a portentously swollen under-lip, with a crack in it which showed signs of festering.  Now there was a base hospital at Figueira, to the surgeon in charge of which fell the duty of inspecting the men as they landed and detaining those who were sick or physically unfit.  I need not say that his eye was arrested at once by my unfortunate lip.  He examined it.

“Blood-poisoning,” he announced.  “Nasty, if not attended to.  Detained for a week.”

He saw my eyes fill with tears at this blow, the more cruel because quite unexpected; and added not unkindly: 

“Eh?  What?  In a hurry?  Never mind, my lad ­you’ll go up with the next draft I dare say.  Jericho won’t fall between this and then.”

I was young, and never doubted that even so slight a promise must be remembered.

Still, that my merit might leave him no excuse for forgetting, I determined that it should not escape attention:  and finding myself confined to hospital with a trifling hurt which in no way interfered with my activity, and being at once pounced upon by an over-worked and red-eyed orderly and pressed into service as emergency-man, nurse, and general bottle-washer for three over-crowded tents, I flung into my new duties a zeal which ended by undoing me.  Drummers might be wanted at the front, but meanwhile the hospital-camp was undoubtedly short-handed.  And my hopes faded as, with the approach of Christmas, wagon after wagon laden with sick soldiers crawled back to us from the low-lying country over which Lord Wellington had spread his forces between the Agueda and the upper Mondego ­men shuddering with ague or bent double with rheumatism, and all bringing down the same tales of short food, sodden quarters, and arrears of pay.  For three days, they told me, the army had gone without bread, and the commissariat crawled over unthreatened roads at the pace of five to nine miles a day.  They cursed the war, the Government at home, above all the Portuguese and everything in Portugal; and yet their hardships seemed heaven to me in comparison with the hospital in which, though its duties were frequently disgusting, I had plenty to eat and nothing to complain of but over-work.

It was not until Christmas that I won my release, and by a singular accident.

It happened that after nightfall on the 23rd of December an ambulance train arrived of six wagons, all full of sick demanding instant attention; and, close upon these, four other wagons laden with cavalrymen, wounded more or less severely in a foraging excursion beyond the Agueda, which had brought them into conflict with a casual party of Marmont’s dragoons.  The weather was bitterly cold; the men, apart from this, were unfit for so long a journey and should have been attended to promptly at their own headquarters.  To make matters worse, one of the wagons had been overturned six miles back on the frozen road, and the assistant-surgeon who, owing to the seriousness of the business, had been sent down in attendance, lost his balance completely.  Three of the poor fellows had succumbed as they lay, of cold, wounds and exhaustion, and a dozen others were in desperate case.

Our surgeons went to work at once, and until midnight I attended on them, preparing the lint, washing the blood-stained instruments, changing the water in the pails, and performing other necessary but more gruesome tasks which I need not particularise.  At midnight the young cavalry surgeon, who had been freely dosed with brandy, professed himself ready to take over the minor casualties.  The two hospital surgeons, by this time worn out, accepted the offer and withdrew.  No one thought of me.

I understand that about an hour later as I sat waiting for orders on the edge of an unoccupied bed (from which a dead man had been carried out a little before midnight) I must have dropped across it in a sleep of utter exhaustion.  It appears too that the young doctor, finding me there a short while after, carried me out and laid me on the ground with my head against the hut.  He never admitted this:  for I had been attending upon him, off and on, since his arrival, and that he failed to recognise me might have been awkwardly accounted for.  But I cannot believe (as certainly I do not remember) that of my own motion I crawled outside the hut and stretched myself on the frozen ground, or that, exhausted as I was, I could have walked ten yards in my sleep.

At all events, the chill of the bitter dawn awoke me there; and with a yawn I stretched out both arms.  My right hand encountered ­what? ­ the body of a man stretched beside me!  Still dazed and numb, I rolled over to my elbow, raised myself a little and peered into his face.

It was pinched and cold.  Its eyes stared straight up at the dawn.  From it my gaze travelled slowly over the faces of three other men laid out accurately alongside of him, feet to feet, head to head.

I sank back, not yet comprehending, gazed up at the grey sky for a while, then slowly raised myself on my left elbow.

On that side lay a score of sleepers, all flat on their backs, and all equally still.  Then I understood and leapt up with a scream.  It was a line of corpses, and I had been laid out beside them for burial at dawn.

A sleepy orderly ­a friend of mine ­poked his head out of the doorway of the next hut.  I pointed to the spot where I had been lying.

“They must ha’ done it in the dark,” he said, slowly regarding the bodies.

I suppose that my story, spreading about the camp, at length penetrated to headquarters:  for on Christmas Day, a transport arriving and landing some light guns and a detachment of artillery, I was sent forward with them towards Villa del Ciervo on the left bank of the Agueda, where, by all accounts, the 52nd were posted.

Our battery was but six light six-pounders; yet even with these we moved over the frozen and slippery roads at a snail’s pace, the men tearing their boots to ribbons as they hung on to the drag-ropes ­for the artillery captain was a martinet and refused to lock the wheels, declaring that it would damage the carriages.  Of damage to his men he never seemed to think:  and I, being fool enough to volunteer ­ though my weight on the rope could have counted for next to nothing ­ found myself on the second day without heels to my shoes, and on the third without shoes at all.  Nor is it likely that I had ever reached the Agueda in time for the fighting had we not been met at Coimbra by an order to leave our guns in the magazine there and hurry forward to Ciudad Rodrigo, where my comrades were required to work the 24-pounders which composed the bulk of Lord Wellington’s siege-train.

Having been supplied with new boots from the stores in Coimbra, we pushed on eastward through torrents of rain which converted every valley bottom into a quag, so that our march was scarcely less toilsome than before, and the men grumbled worse than they had when dragging the guns over the frozen hill-roads.  They had been forced to leave their wagons behind at Coimbra, and marched like infantry soldiers, each man carrying a haversack with four days’ provisions, as well as an extra pair of boots.  But what seemed to vex and deject them most was a rumour that Quartermaster-General Murray had been sent down from the front on leave of absence for England.  They argued positively that, with Murray absent, the Commander-in-Chief could not be intending any action of importance:  they doubted that he had twenty siege-guns at his call even if he stripped Almeida and left that fortress defenceless.  Moreover, who would open a siege in such a country, in the depth of such a winter as this?

Nevertheless we had no sooner passed the bridge of the Coa than we discovered our mistake; the roads below Almeida being choked with a continuous train of mule transports, tumbrils, light carts, and wagons heaped with fascines, gabions, long balks of timber, sheaves of spades and siege implements ­all crawling southwards.  Our artillerymen were now halted to await and take charge of three brass guns said to be on their way down from Pinhel under an escort of Portuguese militia; and, taking leave of them, I was handed over to a company of the 23rd Regiment ­hurrying in from one of the outlying hamlets near Celorico ­with whom I reached on the 7th of January the squalid village of Boden, in and around which the 52nd lay in face of the doomed fortress across the river.

“Here then is war at last,” thought I that night, as I curled myself to sleep in a loft where Sergeant Henderson considerately found a corner for me under some pathetically empty fowl-roosts.  Sergeant Henderson in his captain’s absence had claimed me from a distracted adjutant who wanted to know where the devil I had come from, and why, and if I would kindly make myself scarce and leave him in peace ­a display of temper pardonable in a man who had just come in wet to his middle from fording the river amid cannoning blocks of ice.

Here was war at last, and I was not long in making acquaintance with it.  I awoke to find, by the light of the lantern swung from the roost overhead, the dozen men in the loft awake and pulling on their boots.  They had lain in their sodden clothes all night:  but of their boots, I found, they were as careful as dandies, and to grease them would hoard up a lump of fat even while their stomachs craved for it.  Sergeant Henderson motioned me to pull on mine.  From my precious bugle I had never parted, even to unsling it, since leaving Figueira.  And so I stood ready.

We bundled on our great-coats, climbed down the ladder, and filed out into the street.  It was dark yet, though I could not guess the hour; and bitter cold, with an east wind which seemed to set the very stars shivering.  The men stamped their feet on the frozen road as we hurried to the alarm-post, and there I walked into a crowd of dark figures which closed around me at once.  For a moment I supposed the whole army to be massed there in the darkness, and wondered foolishly if we were to assault Ciudad Rodrigo at once.  A terrible murmur filled the night ­the more terrible because, while the few words spoken near me were idle and jocular, it ran down the jostling crowd into endless darkness, gathering menace as it went.

But the sergeant, gripping my shoulder, ordered me gruffly to keep close beside him, and promised to find me my place.  The jostling grew regular, almost methodical, and by and by an officer came down the road carrying a lantern, and spoke with Henderson for a moment.  At a word from him the men began to number off.  Far up the road, other lanterns were moving and voices calling.  Then after a long pause, on the reason of which the company speculated in whispers, the troops ahead began to move and the order came down to us ­“Order arms ­Fix bayonets ­Shoulder arms!” ­a pause ­“By the right, quick march!”

An hour later, still in darkness, we halted beside the Agueda while company after company marched down into the water.  A body of cavalry had been drawn across the upper edge of the ford, four deep ­the horses’ bodies forming a barrier against the swirling blocks of ice; and under this shelter we crossed, the water rising to my small ribs and touching my heart with a shiver that I recall as I write.  But the sergeant’s hand was on my collar and steadied me over.

“How much farther?” I made bold to whisper to him as we groped our way up the bank.

“Three miles, maybe:  that’s as the crow flies.  But you mustn’t talk.”

And not another word did I say.  We plodded on ­not straight for the fortress, the distant lights of which seemed to be waiting for us, but athwart and, for a mile and more, almost away from it.  By and by the road began to climb; and, a little later, we had left it and were crossing the shoulder of a grassy hill behind which the lights of Ciudad Rodrigo disappeared from view.

Here the dawn overtook us; and here at length, along the northern slope of the hill and close under its summit, we were halted.

Sergeant Henderson gave a satisfied grunt.  “Good for The Division ­the One and Only!” he remarked.  “Now, for my part, I’m ready for breakfast.”