Read CHAPTER XXII. - ON THE GREATER TESSON. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

I turned for a look behind us and below.  At the foot of the slope, where daylight had just begun to touch the dark shadows, stood a line of mules ­animals scarcely taller than the loads they carried, which a crowd of Portuguese had already begun to unpack; and already, on the plateau to the left of us half a dozen markers, with a quartermaster, were mapping out a camp for the 52nd.  They went to work so deliberately, and took such careful measurements with their long tapes, that even a tyro could no longer mistake this for an ordinary halt.

I looked at Sergeant Henderson.  Word had just been given to the ranks to dismiss, and he returned my look with a humorous wink.

“That’ll do, eh?” He nodded towards the markers.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means that we’ve done with cold baths, my son, and may leave ’em to the other divisions.  What else it means you’ll discover before you sleep, maybe.”  He glanced up at the ridge, towards which at a dozen different points our sentries were creeping ­some of them escorted by knots of officers ­and ducking low as they neared the sky-line.

“May I go down and watch?” I asked again, pointing at the plateau; for I was young enough to find all operations of war amusing.

“Ay ­if you won’t get in the way and trip over the pegs.  I’ll be down there myself by ’n by with a fatigue party.”

I left him and strolled down the hill.  The morning air was cold and the turf, on this north side of the hill, frozen hard underfoot.  But I felt neither hunger nor weariness.  Here was war, and I was in it!

As I drew near the plateau a young officer came walking across it and, halting beside the quartermaster, held him in talk for a minute.  He wore the collar of his great-coat turned up high about his ears:  but I recognised him at once.  It was Archibald Plinlimmon.

Leaving the quartermaster, he strolled towards the edge of the plateau, hard by where I stood; halted again, and gazed down through his field-glasses upon the muleteers unloading beneath us; but by and by closed his glasses with a snap, faced round, and was aware of me.

“Hallo!” said he, as I saluted:  but his voice was listless and I thought him looking wretchedly ill.  “You’re in Number 4 Company, are you not?  I heard that you’d joined.”

It struck me that at least he might have smiled and seemed glad to welcome me.  He did indeed seem inclined to say something more, but hesitated, and fumbled as he slipped back the glasses into their cases.

“Are they looking after you?” he asked.

I told him of the sergeant.  “But are you well, sir?” I made bold to ask.

He put the question aside.  “Henderson’s a good man,” he said:  “I wish we had him in our company.  Ah,” he broke off, “they won’t be long pitching tents now!”

He swung slowly on his heel and left me, at a pace almost as listless as his voice.  I felt hurt, rebuffed.  To be sure he was an officer now, and I a small bugler:  still, without compromising himself, he might (I felt) have spoken more kindly.

The fatigue party descended, the tents were brought up and distributed, and at a silent signal sprang up and expanded like lines of mushrooms.  The camp was formed; and the 52nd, in high good humour, opened their haversacks and fell to their breakfast.

The meal over, the men lit their pipes and stretched themselves within the tents to make up arrears of sleep.  It does not take a boy long to learn how to snatch a nap even on half-thawed turf packed with moisture, and to manage it without claiming much room.  We were eleven in our tent, not counting the sergeant ­who had gone off on some errand which he did not explain, but which interested the men sufficiently to keep them awake for a while discussing it in low voices.

I was at once too shy to ask questions and too sleepy to listen attentively.  Here was war, I told myself, and I was in it.  To be sure, I had not yet seen a shot fired, nor ­save for the infrequent boom of a gun beyond the hill ­had I heard one:  and yet all my ideas of war were undergoing a change.  My uppermost sense ­ odd as it may seem ­was one of infinite protection.  It seemed impossible that, with all these cheerful men about me, joking and swearing, I could come to much harm.  It surprised me, after my months of yearning and weeks of tramping to reach this army, to discover how little my presence was regarded even in my own regiment.  The men took me for granted, asking no questions.  I might have strolled in upon them out of nowhere, with my hands in my pockets.  And the officers, it appeared, were equally incurious.  Captain Lockhart, commanding the company, had scarcely flung me a look.  The Colonel I had not seen:  the Adjutant had dismissed me to the devil:  and Archibald Plinlimmon had treated me as I have told.  All this indifference contained much comfort.  I began to understand the restfulness of a great army ­a characteristic left clean out of account in a boy’s imaginings, who thinks of war as a series of combats and brilliant personal efforts at once far more glorious and more terrifying than the reality.

So I dreamed, secure, until awakened by my comrades’ voices, lifted all together and all excitedly questioning Sergeant Henderson, whose head and shoulders intruded through the flap-way.

“Light Company and Number 3,” he was announcing.

“Blasted favouritism!” swore the man next to me.  “Ain’t there no other battalion company in the regiment, that Number 3’s been picked for special twice now in four days?”

“The Major’s sweet on ’em, that’s why,” snarled another.

“I ain’t saying nothing against the Bobs.  But what’s the matter with us, I’d like to know?  Why Number 3 again?  Ugh, it makes me sick!”

“Our fun’ll come later, lads,” said the sergeant cheerfully.  “When you reach my years you’ll have learnt to wait.  Now, if you’d asked me, I’d have chosen the grenadiers:  they’re every bit as good as a light company for this work.”

“Ay ­grenadiers and Number 4.  Why not?  It’s cruel hard.”

I asked in my ignorance what was happening.  My neighbour turned to me with a grin.  “Happening?  Why, you’ve a-lost your chance of death or victory, that’s all.  Here you are, company bugler for twenty-four hours by the grace of Heaven and the sergeant’s contrivance, and because everyone’s forgot you and because, as it happens, for twenty-four hours there’s no bugling wanted.  To-morrow you’ll be found out and sent back to the band, where there’s five supernumeraries waiting for your shoes.  And the bandmaster’ll cuff your head every day for months before you get such another chance.  Whereas, if N Company had been chosen for to-night, by to-morrow you’d have blown the charge, and half the drummers in the regiment would be blacking your eyes out of envy.  See?”

I did not, very clearly.  “Is there to be an attack to-night?” I asked.  “And shan’t we even see it?”

“Oh yes, we’ll see it fast enough.  I reckon they won’t go so far as to grudge us free seats for the show.”

Sure enough, at eight o’clock, we formed up by companies and were marched over the dark crest of the hill and a short way down it in face of the lights of Ciudad Rodrigo.  Right below us, on our left, shone a detached light.  We ourselves showed none.  The word for silence in the ranks had been given at starting, and the captains spoke in the lowest of voices as they drew their companies together in battalion.  The light company having been withdrawn, we found ourselves on the extreme left flank, parted by a few yards only from another dark mass of men ­the 43rd, as a tallish young bugler whispered close beside me.

“But how the hell do you come here?” he went on, mistaking me in the darkness, I suppose, for one of the youngsters in the band.

“Shut your head, bugler,” commanded a corporal close on my right.

The men grounded arms and waited, their breath rising like a fog on the frozen air.  Their two tall ranks made a wall before us, shutting out all view of the lights in the valley.  The short or supernumerary line of non-commissioned officers on our right stood motionless as a row of statues.

Suddenly a rocket shot up from below, arched its trail of light, and exploded:  and on the instant the whole valley answered and exploded below us.  Between the détonations a cheer rang up the hillside and was drowned in the noise of musketry, as under a crackle of laughter.  Forgetting discipline, I crawled forward three paces and tried to peer between the legs of the rank in front, but was hauled back by the ear and soundly cursed.  The musketry crackled on without intermission.  Away in Ciudad Rodrigo the walls seemed to open and vomit fireworks, shell after shell curving up and dropping into the valley.

“Glory be!” cried someone.  “The old man’s done it!  The Johnnies wouldn’t be shelling their own works.”

“Ah, be quiet with ye!” answered an Irish voice; “and the fun not ten minutes old!”

“He’s done it, I say!  Whist now, see yonder ­there’s Elder going down with his Greasers!  Heh?  What did I tell you?”

“Silence in the ranks!” commanded an officer, but his own voice shook with excitement, and we read that he believed the news to be true.

“Arrah now, sir,” a man in the front rank wheedled softly, “it’s against flesh and blood you’re ordering us.”

“Wait a moment, then.  They’ve done it, I believe ­but no cheering, mind!”

What had been done was this.  From the summit of the hill where we stood we looked into Ciudad Rodrigo over a lesser hill, and between these two (called the Great and the Lesser Tesson) the French had fortified and palisaded a convent and built a lunette before it, protecting that side of the town where the ground was least rocky and could be worked by the sappers.  Upon the lunette before this Convent of San Francisco, Colborne (our Colonel of the 52nd) had now flung himself, with two companies from each of the Light Division regiments, and carried it with a rush:  and this feat, made possible by our night march across the Agueda and the negligence of the French sentries, in its turn gave the signal for the siege to open.  The place was scarcely carried before Elder had his Portuguese at work spading a trench to the right of it and under what cover its walls afforded from the artillery of the town, which ceased not all night to pound away at the lost redoubt.

The cacadores ­seven hundred in all ­toiled with a will under shot and shell; and when day broke a trench three feet deep and four wide had been opened and pushed for no less than six hundred yards towards the town!  Next night the Portuguese were replaced by the First Division, which had been marched over the Agueda.  While the Light Division cooked its food and enjoyed itself on Mount Tesson, the others had to cross and recross the river between their work and their quarters; and I fear that we took their misfortunes philosophically, feeling that our luck was deserved.  To be sure I had been taken from my company and relegated to the band:  but during the twelve days the siege lasted there was always a call for boys to watch the explosions from the town and warn the workmen when a shell was coming:  and, on the whole, since Ciudad Rodrigo contained plenty of ammunition and did not spare it, I enjoyed myself amazingly.

On the night of the 9th, while the First Division dug at the trenches, our men helped with the building of three counter-batteries a little ahead of the convent; and, because the French guns began to make our hill uncomfortable, we shifted camp and laid a shallow trench from it, along which we could steal to work under fair cover.  On the 10th the Fourth Division took over the siege trenches, and on the 11th the Third Division relieved:  on the 12th came our turn.

The day breaking with a thick fog, Lord Wellington determined to profit by it and hurry on the digging, which the bitter frost was now miserably impeding.  To him, or to someone, it occurred that by scooping pits in front of the trenches our riflemen (the 95th) might give ease to the diggers by picking off the enemy’s gunners.  And with this object we were hurried down in force to take up the work as the Third Division dropped it.

Now I knew the North Wilts to belong to this Division, and it had occurred to me on the way down that as likely as not I might run across Leicester.  And keeping a sharp look-out as his regiment filed forth from the trench, I spied him before he caught sight of me.  He recognised me at once; but instead of passing with a scowl (as I had expected) he treated me to a grin as nearly humorous as his sallow face allowed, and came to a halt.

“D’ye know who’s in there?” he asked, jerking his thumb back towards Ciudad Rodrigo.

“No, sir,” I answered, scarcely grasping the question, but quaking as this man always made me quake.

“Thought you mightn’t.  Well then, our friend is in there.”

“Our friend?” I echoed.  “Who?”

“Whitmore.”  His grin became ferocious now.  “We have him, now ­have him sure enough, this time ­eh?”

But how on earth could Mr. Whitmore have come in Ciudad Rodrigo?  Leicester read the question in my eyes, and answered it, pushing his face close to mine in the fog.

“He’s a deserter.  If the river don’t come down in flood, we’ll have him sure enough.  And it won’t, you mark my words!  Two or three days of flood would let up Marmont upon us and spoil everything.  But this weather’s going to hold, and ­it’s a bad death for deserters,” he wound up, with a snarling laugh.

“Mr. Whitmore a deserter?  But how?”

“Ah, you’ve come to the right man to ask.  I bear you no grudge, boy; and as for Plinlimmon ­how’s he doing, by the way?”

“I’ve scarcely seen him since I joined.  He passed you just now, didn’t he?”

“Ay, I saw him.  For a man in luck’s way he carries a queer sort of face.  What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing wrong that I know of.  The men reckon him a good officer, too.”

“Well, I’ll be even with Master Archibald yet.  You hear?  But about Whitmore now ­I caught up with him in Lisbon.  You see, he’d got this money off the Jew and he counted on another pocketful from that Belcher woman.  He always was a devil to get around women, ’specially the old ones.  I don’t know if you guessed it, that night, but he’d persuaded the old fool to run off and marry him.  Yes, and meantime he’d taken his passage in one of the Falmouth packets, meaning to give her the slip ­and give me the slip too ­as soon as he’d laid hands on her purse.  Well, you headed him off that little plan; and to save his skin, as you know, he rounded on me.  Now what puzzles me is, how you let him slip?”

I did not answer this.

“The Belcher woman had a hand in it, I’ll lay odds.  Never mind ­ don’t you answer if you’d rather not.  But when I caught up with him, he didn’t escape me:  that’s to say, he won’t:  and it’ll be a sight worse for him than if he hadn’t tried.”

He paused again, and laughed to himself silently ­a laugh unhealthy to watch.

“I came on him in Lisbon streets,” he went on; “came on him from behind and put a hand on his shoulder.  He’s an almighty coward ­ that’s his secret ­and the way he jumped did me good.  ’Recruit for the North Wilts,’ said I. He turned and his knees caved under him.  ‘Wha ­what do you mean by that?’ says he” ­and here Leicester burlesqued the poor cold stammering knave to the life ­“’Oh, for the Lord’s sake, Leicester, have mercy on me!’ ’You’ll see the kind of mercy you’re going to get,’ says I; ’but meantime you’ve a choice between hanging and coming along to join the North Wilts.’  ’But why should I join the North Wilts?’ he asked.  ‘Well, to begin with,’ I said, ’you’re a dreadful coward, and there you’ll have some chance to feel what it’s really like.  And what’s more,’ I said, ’I’ll take care you’re in my company, and I’m going to live beside you and give you hell.  I’m going to eat beside you, sleep beside you, march beside you:  and when things grow hot, and your lilywhite soul begins to shiver, I’ll be close to you still ­but behind you, my daisy!’ So I promised him, and, being a coward, he chose it.  I tell you I kept my word too:  it’s lucky for you, boy, that I’m a connoisseur in my grudges.  But Whitmore ­he’d betrayed me, you see.  Often and often I had him alone and crying! and I promised myself to be behind him on just such a job as we’re in for ­a night assault:  oh, he’d have enjoyed that!  But he couldn’t stand it.  At Celorico he gave me the slip and deserted:  and now he’s in Ciudad Rodrigo, yonder, and the trap’s closing, and ­what’s he feeling like, think you?  Eh?  I know him:  it’ll get worse and worse for him till the end, and ­it’s a bad death for deserters.”

He paused, panting with hate and coughing the fog out of his lungs.  I shrank away against the wall of the trench.

“When he’s done with, I won’t say but what I’ll turn my attention to you ­or to Plinlimmon.  You know what Plinlimmon was after ­that morning ­on the roof?  He was there to steal.”

He eyed me.

“Yes,” said I with sudden courage, “he was there to steal.  And you were waiting below, to share profits.”

He fell back a pace, still eyeing me.

“I’ll have to find another way with you than with Whitmore ­that’s evident,” he said with a short laugh, and was gone.