Read CHAPTER XXLIII - THE MARCH of Charles O' Malley‚ The Irish Dragoon Volume 1, free online book, by Charles Lever, on

What a strange spectacle did the road to Oliveira present upon the morning of the 7th of May! A hurried or incautious observer might, at first sight, have pronounced the long line of troops which wended their way through the valley as the remains of a broken and routed army, had not the ardent expression and bright eye that beamed on every side assured him that men who looked thus could not be beaten ones. Horse, foot, baggage, artillery, dismounted dragoons, even the pale and scarcely recovered inhabitants of the hospital, might have been seen hurrying on; for the order, “Forward!” had been given at Lisbon, and those whose wounds did not permit their joining, were more pitied for their loss than its cause. More than one officer was seen at the head of his troop with an arm in a sling, or a bandaged forehead; while among the men similar evidences of devotion were not unfrequent. As for me, long years and many reverses have not obliterated, scarcely blunted, the impression that sight made on me. The splendid spectacle of a review had often excited and delighted me, but here there was the glorious reality of war, the bronzed faces, the worn uniforms, the well-tattered flags, the roll of the heavy guns mingling with the wild pibroch of the Highlander, or scarcely less wild recklessness of the Irish quick-step; while the long line of cavalry, their helmets and accoutrements shining in the morning sun, brought back one’s boyish dreams of joust and tournament, and made the heart beat high with chivalrous enthusiasm.

“Yes,” said I, half aloud, “this is indeed a realization of what I longed and thirsted for,” the clang of the music and the tramp of the cavalry responding to my throbbing pulses as we moved along.

“Close up, there; trot!” cried out a deep and manly voice; and immediately a general officer rode by, followed by an aide-de-camp.

“There goes Cotton,” said Power. “You may feel easy in your mind now, Charley; there’s some work before us.”

“You have not heard our destination?” said I.

“Nothing is known for certain yet. The report goes, that Soult is advancing upon Oporto; and the chances are, Sir Arthur intends to hasten on to its relief. Our fellows are at Ovar, with General Murray.”

“I say, Charley, old Monsoon is in a devil of a flurry. He expected to have been peaceably settled down in Lisbon for the next six months, and he has received orders to set out for Beresford’s headquarters immediately; and from what I hear, they have no idle time.”

“Well, Sparks, how goes it, man? Better fun this than the cook’s galley, eh?”

“Why, do you know, these hurried movements put me out confoundedly. I found Lisbon very interesting, the little I could see of it last night.”

“Ah, my dear fellow, think of the lovely Andalusian lasses with their brown transparent skins and liquid eyes. Why, you’d have been over head and ears in love in twenty-four hours more, had we stayed.”

“Are they really so pretty?”

“Pretty! downright lovely, man. Why, they have a way of looking at you, over their fans, just one glance, short and fleeting, but so melting, by Jove Then their walk, if it be not profane to call that springing, elastic gesture by such a name, why, it’s regular witchcraft. Sparks, my man, I tremble for you. Do you know, by-the-bye, that same pace of theirs is a devilish hard thing to learn. I never could come it; and yet, somehow, I was formerly rather a crack fellow at a ballet. Old Alberto used to select me for a pas de zephyr among a host; but there’s a kind of a hop and a slide and a spring, in fact you must have been wearing petticoats for eighteen years, and have an Andalusian instep and an india-rubber sole to your foot, or it’s no use trying it. How I used to make them laugh at the old San Josef convent, formerly, by my efforts in the cause!”

“Why, how did it ever occur to you to practise it?”

“Many a man’s legs have saved his head, Charley, and I put it to mine to do a similar office for me.”

“True; but I never heard of a man that performed a pas seul before the enemy.”

“Not exactly; but still you’re not very wide of the mark. If you’ll only wait till we reach Pontalegue, I’ll tell you the story; not that it’s worth the delay, but talking at this brisk pace I don’t admire.”

“You leave a detachment here, Captain Power,” said an aide-de-camp, riding hastily up; “and General Cotton requests you will send a subaltern and two sergeants forward towards Berar to reconnoitre the pass. Franchesca’s cavalry are reported in that quarter.” So speaking, he dashed spurs to his horse, and was out of sight in an instant.

Power, at the same moment, wheeled to the rear, from which he returned in an instant, accompanied by three well-mounted light dragoons. “Sparks,” said he, “now for an occasion of distinguishing yourself. You heard the order, lose no time; and as your horse is an able one, and fresh, lose not a second, but forward.”

No sooner was Sparks despatched on what it was evident he felt to be anything but a pleasant duty, than I turned towards Power, and said, with some tinge of disappointment in the tone, “Well, if you really felt there was anything worth doing there, I flattered myself that ”

“Speak out man. That I should have sent you, eh? Is it not so?”

“Yes, you’ve hit it.”

“Well, Charley, my peace is easily made on this head. Why, I selected Sparks simply to spare you one of the most unpleasant duties that can be imposed upon a man; a duty which, let him discharge it to the uttermost, will never be acknowledged, and the slightest failure in which will be remembered for many a day against him, besides the pleasant and very probable prospect of being selected as a bull’s eye for a French rifle, or carried off a prisoner; eh, Charley? There’s no glory in that, devil a ray of it! Come, come, old fellow, Fred Power’s not the man to keep his friend out of the melee, if only anything can be made by being in it. Poor Sparks, I’d swear, is as little satisfied with the arrangement as yourself, if one knew but all.”

“I say, Power,” said a tall, dashing-looking man of about five-and-forty, with a Portuguese order on his breast, “I say, Power, dine with us at the halt.”

“With pleasure, if I may bring my young friend here.”

“Of course; pray introduce us.”

“Major Hixley, Mr. O’Malley, a 14th man, Hixley.”

“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. O’Malley. Knew a famous fellow in Ireland of your name, a certain Godfrey O’Malley, member for some county or other.”

“My uncle,” said I, blushing deeply, with a pleasurable feeling at even this slight praise of my oldest friend.

“Your uncle! give me your hand. By Jove, his nephew has a right to good treatment at my hands; he saved my life in the year ’98. And how is old Godfrey?”

“Quite well, when I left him some months ago; a little gout, now and then.”

“To be sure he has, no man deserves it better; but it’s a gentlemanlike gout that merely jogs his memory in the morning of the good wine he has drank over night. By-the-bye, what became of a friend of his, a devilish eccentric fellow who held a command in the Austrian service?”

“Oh, Considine, the count?”

“The same.”

“As eccentric as ever; I left him on a visit with my uncle. And Boyle, did you know Sir Harry Boyle?”

“To be sure I did; shall I ever forget him, and his capital blunders, that kept me laughing the whole time I spent in Ireland? I was in the house when he concluded a panegyric upon a friend, by calling him, ’the father to the poor, and uncle to Lord Donoughmore.’”

“He was the only man who could render by a bull what it was impossible to convey more correctly,” said Power.

“You’ve heard of his duel with Dick Toler?”

“Never; let’s hear it.”

“It was a bull from beginning to end. Boyle took it into his head that Dick was a person with whom he had a serious row in Cork. Dick, on the other hand, mistook Boyle for old Caples, whom he had been pursuing with horse-whipping intentions for some months. They met in Kildare Street Club, and very little colloquy satisfied them that they were right in their conjectures, each party being so eagerly ready to meet the views of the other. It never was a difficult matter to find a friend in Dublin; and to do them justice, Irish seconds, generally speaking, are perfectly free from any imputation upon the score of mere delay. No men have less impertinent curiosity as to the cause of the quarrel; wisely supposing that the principals know their own affairs best, they cautiously abstain from indulging any prying spirit, but proceed to discharge their functions as best they may. Accordingly, Sir Harry and Dick were ‘set up,’ as the phrase is, at twelve paces, and to use Boyle’s own words, for I have heard him relate the story,

“We blazed away, sir, for three rounds. I put two in his hat and one in his neckcloth; his shots went all through the skirt of my coat.

“‘We’ll spend the day here,’ says Considine, ’at this rate. Couldn’t you put them closer?’

“‘And give us a little more time in the word,’ says I.

“‘Exactly,’ said Dick.

“Well, they moved us forward two paces, and set to loading the pistols again.

“By this time we were so near that we had full opportunity to scan each other’s faces. Well, sir, I stared at him, and he at me.

“‘What!’ said I.

“‘Eh!’ said he.

“‘How’s this?’ said I.

“‘You’re not Billy Caples?’ said he.

“‘Devil a bit!’ said I, ‘nor I don’t think you are Archy Devine;’ and faith, sir, so it appeared, we were fighting away all the morning for nothing; for, somehow, it turned out it was neither of us!”

What amused me most in this anecdote was the hearing it at such a time and place. That poor Sir Harry’s eccentricities should turn up for discussion on a march in Portugal was singular enough; but after all, life is full of such incongruous accidents. I remember once supping with King Calzoo on the Blue Mountains, in Jamaica. By way of entertaining his guests, some English officers, he ordered one of his suite to sing. We were of course pleased at the opportunity of hearing an Indian war-chant, with a skull and thigh-bone accompaniment; but what was our astonishment to hear the Indian, a ferocious-looking dog, with an awful scalp-lock, and two streaks of red paint across his chest, clear his voice well for a few seconds, and then begin, without discomposing a muscle of his gravity, “The Laird of Cockpen!” I need not say that the “Great Raccoon” was a Dumfries man who had quitted Scotland forty years before, and with characteristic prosperity had attained his present rank in a foreign service.

“Halt! halt!” cried a deep-toned, manly voice in the leading column, and the word was repeated from mouth to mouth to the rear.

We dismounted, and picketing our horses beneath the broad-leaved foliage of the cork-trees, stretched ourselves out at full length upon the grass, while our messmen prepared the dinner. Our party at first consisted of Hixley, Power, the adjutant, and myself; but our number was soon increased by three officers of the 6th Foot, about to join their regiment.

“Barring the ladies, God bless them!” said Power, “there are no such picnics as campaigning presents. The charms of scenery are greatly enhanced by their coming unexpectedly on you. Your chance good fortune in the prog has an interest that no ham-and-cold-chicken affair, prepared by your servants beforehand, and got ready with a degree of fuss and worry that converts the whole party into an assembly of cooks, can ever afford; and lastly, the excitement that this same life of ours is never without, gives a zest ”

“There you’ve hit it,” cried Hixley; “it’s that same feeling of uncertainty that those who meet now may ever do so again, full as it is of sorrowful reflection, that still teaches us, as we become inured to war, to economize our pleasures, and be happy when we may. Your health, O’Malley, and your uncle Godfrey’s too.”

“A little more of the pastry.”

“What a capital guinea fowl this is!”

“That’s some of old Monsoon’s particular port.”

“Pass it round here. Really this is pleasant.”

“My blessing on the man who left that vista yonder! See what a glorious valley stretches out there, undulating in its richness; and look at those dark trees, where just one streak of soft sunlight is kissing their tops, giving them one chaste good-night ”

“Well done, Power!”

“Confound you, you’ve pulled me short, and I was about becoming downright pastoral. Apropos of kissing, I understand Sir Arthur won’t allow the convents to be occupied by troops.”

“And apropos of convents,” said I, “let’s hear your story; you promised it a while ago.”

“My dear Charley, it’s far too early in the evening for a story. I should rather indulge my poetic fancies here, under the shade of melancholy boughs; and besides, I am not half screwed up yet.”

“Come, Adjutant, let’s have a song.”

“I’ll sing you a Portuguese serenade when the next bottle comes in. What capital port! Have you much of it?”

“Only three dozen. We got it late last night; forged an order from the commanding officer and sent it up to old Monsoon, ’for hospital use.’ He gave it with a tear in his eye, saying, as the sergeant marched away, ’Only think of such wine for fellows that may be in the next world before morning! It’s a downright sin!’”

“I say, Power, there’s something going on there.”

At this instant the trumpet sounded “boot and saddle,” and like one man the whole mass rose up, when the scene, late so tranquil, became one of excited bustle and confusion. An aide-de-camp galloped past towards the river, followed by two orderly sergeants; and the next moment Sparks rode up, his whole equipment giving evidence of a hurried ride, while his cheek was deadly pale and haggard.

Power presented to him a goblet of sherry, which, having emptied at a draught, he drew a long breath, and said, “They are coming, coming in force!”

“Who are coming?” said Power. “Take time, man, and collect yourself.”

“The French! I saw them a devilish deal closer than I liked. They wounded one of the orderlies and took the other prisoner.”

“Forward!” said a hoarse voice in the front. “March! trot!” And before we could obtain any further information from Sparks, whose faculties seemed to have received a terrific shock, we were once more in the saddle, and moving at a brisk pace onward.

Sparks had barely time to tell us that a large body of French cavalry occupied the pass of Berar, when he was sent for by General Cotton to finish his report.

“How frightened the fellow is!” said Hixley.

“I don’t think the worse of poor Sparks for all that,” said Power. “He saw those fellows for the first time, and no bird’s-eye view of them either.”

“Then we are in for a skirmish, at least,” said I.

“It would appear not, from that,” said Hixley, pointing to the head of the column, which, leaving the high road upon the left, entered the forest by a deep cleft that opened upon a valley traversed by a broad river.

“That looks very like taking up a position, though,” said Power.

“Look, look down yonder!” cried Hixley, pointing to a dip in the plain beside the river. “Is there not a cavalry picket there?”

“Right, by Jove! I say, Fitzroy,” said Power to an aide-de-camp as he passed, “what’s going on?”

“Soult has carried Oporto,” cried he, “and Franchesca’s cavalry have escaped.”

“And who are these fellows in the valley?”

“Our own people coming up.”

In less than half an hour’s brisk trotting we reached the stream, the banks of which were occupied by two cavalry regiments advancing to the main army; and what was my delight to find that one of them was our own corps, the 14th Light Dragoons!

“Hurra!” cried Power, waving his cap as he came up. “How are you, Sedgewick? Baker, my hearty, how goes it? How is Hampton and the colonel?”

In an instant we were surrounded by our brother officers, who all shook me cordially by the hand, and welcomed me to the regiment with most gratifying warmth.

“One of us,” said Power, with a knowing look, as he introduced me; and the freemasonry of these few words secured me a hearty greeting.

“Halt! halt! Dismount!” sounded again from front to rear; and in a few minutes we were once more stretched upon the grass, beneath the deep and mellow moonlight, while the bright stream ran placidly beside us, reflecting on its calm surface the varied groups as they lounged or sat around the blazing fires of the bivouac.