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

During the three days which succeeded the battle, all things remained as they were before. The enemy had gradually withdrawn all his forces, and our most advanced pickets never came in sight of a French detachment. Still, although we had gained a great victory, our situation was anything but flattering. The most strenuous exertions of the commissariat were barely sufficient to provision the troops; and we had even already but too much experience of how little trust or reliance could be reposed in the most lavish promises of our allies. It was true, our spirits failed us not; but it was rather from an implicit and never-failing confidence in the resources of our great leader, than that any among us could see his way through the dense cloud of difficulty and danger that seemed to envelop us on every side.

To add to the pressing emergency of our position, we learned on the evening of the 31st that Soult was advancing from the north, and at the head of fourteen thousand chosen troops in full march upon Placentia; thus threatening our rear, at the very moment too, when any further advance was evidently impossible.

On the morning of the 1st of August, I was ordered, with a small party, to push forward in the direction of the Alberche, upon the left bank of which it was reported that the French were again concentrating their forces, and if possible, to obtain information of their future movements. Meanwhile the army was about to fall back upon Oropesa, there to await Soult’s advance, and if necessary, to give him battle; Cuesta engaging with his Spaniards to secure Talavera, with its stores and hospitals, against any present movement from Victor.

After a hearty breakfast, and a kind “Good-by!” from my brother officers, I set out. My road along the Tagus, for several miles of the way, was a narrow path scarped from the rocky ledge of the river, shaded by rich olive plantations that throw a friendly shade over us during the noonday heat.

We travelled along silently, sparing our cattle from time to time, but endeavoring ere nightfall to reach Torrijos, in which village we had heard several French soldiers were in hospital. Our information leading us to believe them very inadequately guarded, we hoped to make some prisoners, from whom the information we sought could in all likelihood be obtained. More than once during the day our road was crossed by parties similar to our own, sent forward to reconnoitre; and towards evening a party of the 23d Light Dragoons, returning towards Talavera, informed us that the French had retired from Torrijos, which was now occupied by an English detachment under my old friend O’Shaughnessy.

I need not say with what pleasure I heard this piece of news, and eagerly pressed forward, preferring the warm shelter and hospitable board the major was certain of possessing, to the cold blast and dripping grass of a bivouac. Night, however, fell fast; darkness, without an intervening twilight, set in, and we lost our way. A bleak table-land with here and there a stunted, leafless tree was all that we could discern by the pale light of a new moon. An apparently interminable heath uncrossed by path or foot-track was before us, and our jaded cattle seemed to feel the dreary uncertainty of the prospect as sensitively as ourselves, stumbling and over-reaching at every step.

Cursing my ill-luck for such a misadventure, and once more picturing to my mind the bright blazing hearth and smoking supper I had hoped to partake of, I called a halt, and prepared to pass the night. My decision was hastened by finding myself suddenly in a little grove of pine-trees whose shelter was not to be despised; besides that, our bivouac fires were now sure of being supplied.

It was fortunate the night was fine, though dark. In a calm, still atmosphere, when not a leaf moved nor a branch stirred, we picketed our tired horses, and shaking out their forage, heaped up in the midst a blazing fire of the fir-tree. Our humble supper was produced, and even with the still lingering revery of the major and his happier destiny, I began to feel comfortable.

My troopers, who probably had not been flattering their imaginations with such gourmand reflections and views, sat happily around their cheerful blaze, chatting over the great battle they had so lately witnessed, and mingling their stories of some comrade’s prowess with sorrows for the dead and proud hopes for the future. In the midst, upon his knees beside the flame, was Mike, disputing, detailing, guessing, and occasionally inventing, all his arguments only tending to one view of the late victory: “That it was the Lord’s mercy the most of the 48th was Irish, or we wouldn’t be sitting there now!”

Despite Mr. Free’s conversational gifts, however, his audience one by one dropped off in sleep, leaving him sole monarch of the watch-fire, and what he thought more of a small brass kettle nearly full of brandy-and-water. This latter, I perceived, he produced when all was tranquil, and seemed, as he cast a furtive glance around, to assure himself that he was the only company present.

Lying some yards off, I watched him for about an hour, as he sat rubbing his hands before the blaze, or lifting the little vessel to his lips; his droll features ever and anon seeming acted upon by some passing dream of former devilment, as he smiled and muttered some sentences in an under-voice. Sleep at length overpowered me; but my last waking thoughts were haunted with a singular ditty by which Mike accompanied himself as he kept burnishing the buttons of my jacket before the fire, now and then interrupting the melody by a recourse to the copper.

“Well, well; you’re clean enough now, and sure it’s little good brightening you up, when you’ll be as bad to-morrow. Like his father’s son, devil a lie in it! Nothing would serve him but his best blue jacket to fight in, as if the French was particular what they killed us in. Pleasant trade, upon my conscience! Well, never mind. That’s beautiful sperets, anyhow. Your health, Mickey Free; it’s yourself that stands to me.

“It’s little for glory I care; Sure ambition is only a fable; I’d as soon be myself as Lord Mayor, With lashings of drink on the table. I like to lie down in the sun And drame, when my faytures is scorchin’ That when I’m too ould for more fun, Why, I’ll marry a wife with a fortune.

“And in winter, with bacon and eggs, And a place, at the turf-fire basking, Sip my punch as I roasted my legs, Oh, the devil a more I’d be asking! For I haven’t a janius for work, It was never the gift of the Bradies, But I’d make a most illigant Turk, For I’m fond of tobacco and ladies.”

This confounded refrain kept ringing through my dream, and “tobacco and ladies” mingled with my thoughts of storm and battle-field long after their very gifted author had composed himself to slumber.

Sleep, and sound sleep, came at length, and many hours elapsed ere I awoke. When I did so, my fire was reduced to its last embers. Mike, like the others, had sunk in slumber, and midst the gray dawn that precedes the morning, I could just perceive the dark shadows of my troopers as they lay in groups around.

The fatigues of the previous day had so completely overcome me, that it was with difficulty I could arouse myself so far as to heap fresh logs upon the fire. This I did with my eyes half closed, and in that listless, dreamy state which seems the twilight of sleep.

I managed so much, however, and was returning to my couch beneath a tree, when suddenly an object presented itself to my eyes that absolutely rooted me to the spot. At about twenty or thirty yards distant, where but the moment before the long line of horizon terminated the view, there now stood a huge figure of some ten or twelve feet in height, two heads, which surmounted this colossal personage, moved alternately from side to side, while several arms waved loosely to and fro in the most strange and uncouth manner. My first impression was that a dream had conjured up this distorted image; but when I had assured myself by repeated pinchings and shakings that I was really awake, still it remained there. I was never much given to believe in ghosts; but even had I been so, this strange apparition must have puzzled me as much as ever, for it could not have been the representative of anything I ever heard of before.

A vague suspicion that some French trickery was concerned, induced me to challenge it in French; so, without advancing a step, I halloed out, “Qui va la?”

My voice aroused a sleeping soldier, who, springing up beside me, had his carbine at the cock; while, equally thunderstruck with myself, he gazed at the monster.

“Qui va la?” shouted I again, and no answer was returned, when suddenly the huge object wheeled rapidly around, and without waiting for any further parley, made for the thicket.

The tramp of a horse’s feet now assured me as to the nature of at least part of the spectacle, when click went the trigger behind me, and the trooper’s ball rushed whistling through the brushwood. In a moment the whole party were up and stirring.

“This way, lads!” cried I, as drawing my sabre, I dashed into the pine wood.

For a few moments all was dark as midnight; but as we proceeded farther, we came out upon a little open space which commanded the plain beneath for a great extent.

“There it goes!” said one of the men, pointing to a narrow, beaten path, in which the tall figure moved at a slow and stately pace, while still the same wild gestures of heads and limbs continued.

“Don’t fire, men! don’t fire!” I cried, “but follow me,” as I set forward as hard as I could.

As we neared it, the frantic gesticulations grew more and more remarkable, while some stray words, which we half caught, sounded like English in our ears. We were now within pistol-shot distance, when suddenly the horse for that much at least we were assured of stumbled and fell forward, precipitating the remainder of the object headlong into the road.

In a second we were upon the spot, when the first sounds which greeted me were the following, uttered in an accent by no means new to me:

“Oh, blessed Virgin! Wasn’t it yourself that threw me in the mud, or my nose was done for? Shaugh, Shaugh, my boy, since we are taken, tip them the blarney, and say we’re generals of division!”

I need not say with what a burst of laughter I received this very original declaration.

“I ought to know that laugh,” cried a voice I at once knew to be my friend O’Shaughnessy’s. “Are you Charles O’Malley, by any chance in life?”

“The same, Major, and delighted to meet you; though, faith, we were near giving you a rather warm reception. What, in the Devil’s name, did you represent, just now?”

“Ask Maurice, there, bad luck to him. I wish the Devil had him when he persuaded me into it.”

“Introduce me to your friend,” replied the other, rubbing his shins as he spoke. “Mr. O’Mealey,” so he called me, “I think. Happy to meet you; my mother was a Ryan of Killdooley, married to a first cousin of your father’s before she took Mr. Quill, my respected progenitor. I’m Dr. Quill of the 48th, more commonly called Maurice Quill. Tear and ages! how sore my back is! It was all the fault of the baste, Mr. O’Mealey. We set out in search of you this morning, to bring you back with us to Torrijos, but we fell in with a very pleasant funeral at Barcaventer, and joined them. They invited us, I may say, to spend the day; and a very jovial day it was. I was the chief mourner, and carried a very big candle through the village, in consideration of as fine a meat-pie, and as much lush as my grief permitted me to indulge in afterwards. But, my dear sir, when it was all finished, we found ourselves nine miles from our quarters; and as neither of us were in a very befitting condition for pedestrian exercise, we stole one of the leaders out of the hearse, velvet, plumes, and all, and set off home.

“When we came upon your party we were not over clear whether you were English, Portuguese, or French, and that was the reason I called out to you, ‘God save all here!’ in Irish. Your polite answer was a shot, which struck the old horse in the knee, and although we wheeled about in double-quick, we never could get him out of his professional habits on the road. He had a strong notion he was engaged in another funeral, as he was very likely to be, and the devil a bit faster than a dead march could we get him to, with all our thrashing. Orderly time for men in a hurry, with a whole platoon blazing away behind them! But long life to the cavalry, they never hit anything!”

While he continued to run on in this manner, we reached our watch-fire, when what was my surprise to discover, in my newly-made acquaintance, the worthy doctor I had seen a day or two before operating at the fountain at Talavera.

“Well, Mr. O’Mealey,” said he, as he seated himself before the blaze, “What is the state of the larder? Anything savory, anything drink-inspiring to be had?”

“I fear, Doctor, my fare is of the very humblest; still ”

“What are the fluids, Charley?” cried the major; “the cruel performance I have been enacting on that cursed beast has left me in a fever.”

“This was a pigeon-pie, formerly,” said Dr. Quill, investigating the ruined walls of a pasty; “and, but come, here’s a duck; and if my nose deceive me not, a very tolerable ham. Peter Larry Patsy What’s the name of your familiar there?”

“Mickey Mickey Tree.”

“Mickey Free, then; come here, avick! Devise a little drink, my son, none of the weakest no lemon –­hot! You understand, hot! That chap has an eye for punch; there’s no mistaking an Irish fellow, Nature has endowed them richly, fine features and a beautiful absorbent system! That’s the gift! Just look at him, blowing up the fire, isn’t he a picture? Well, O’Mealey, I was fretting that we hadn’t you up at Torrijos; we were enjoying life very respectably, we established a little system of small tithes upon fowl, sheep, pigs’ heads, and wine skins that throve remarkably for the time. Here’s the lush! Put it down there, Mickey, in the middle; that’s right. Your health, Shaugh. O’Mealey, here’s a troop to you; and in the mean time I’ll give you a chant:

’Come, ye jovial souls, don’t over the bowl be sleeping, Nor let the grog go round like a cripple creeping; If your care comes, up, in the liquor sink it, Pass along the lush, I’m the boy can drink it. Isn’t that so, Mrs. Mary Callaghan? Isn’t that so, Mrs. Mary Callaghan?’

“Shaugh, my hearty, this begins to feel comfortable.”

“Your man, O’Mealey, has a most judicious notion of punch for a small party; and though one has prejudices about a table, chairs, and that sort of thing, take my word for it, it’s better than fighting the French, any day.”

“Well, Charley, it certainly did look quite awkward enough the other day towards three o’clock, when the Legion fell back before that French column, and broke the Guards behind them.”

“Yes, you’re quite right; but I think every one felt that the confusion was but momentary, the gallant Forty-eighth was up in an instant.”

“Faith, I can answer for their alacrity!” said the doctor “I was making my way to the rear with all convenient despatch, when an aide-de-camp called out,

“‘Cavalry coming! Take care, Forty-eighth!’

“‘Left face, wheel! Fall in there, fall in there!’ I heard on every side, and soon found myself standing in a square, with Sir Arthur himself and Hill and the rest of them all around me.

“‘Steady, men! Steady, now!’ said Hill, as he rode around the ranks, while we saw an awful column of cuirassiers forming on the rising ground to our left.

“‘Here they come!’ said Sir Arthur, as the French came powdering along, making the very earth tremble beneath them.

“My first thought was, ’The devils are mad, and they’ll ride down into us, before they know they’re kilt!’ And sure enough, smash into our first rank they pitched, sabring and cutting all before them; when at last the word ‘Fire!’ was given, and the whole head of the column broke like a shell, and rolled horse over man on the earth.

“‘Very well done! very well, indeed!’ said Sir Arthur, turning as coolly round to me as if he was asking for more gravy.

“‘Mighty well done!’ said I, in reply; and resolving not to be outdone in coolness, I pulled out my snuff-box and offered him a pinch, saying, ’The real thing, Sir Arthur; our own countryman, blackguard.’

“He gave a little grim kind of a smile, took a pinch, and then called out,

“‘Let Sherbroke advance!’ while turning again towards me, he said, ’Where are your people, Colonel?’

“‘Colonel!’ thought I; ‘is it possible he’s going to promote me?’ But before I could answer, he was talking to another. Meanwhile Hill came up, and looking at me steadily, burst out with,

“‘Why the devil are you here, sir? Why ain’t you at the rear?’

“‘Upon my conscience,’ said I, ’that’s the very thing I’m puzzling myself about this minute! But if you think it’s pride in me, you’re greatly mistaken, for I’d rather the greatest scoundrel in Dublin was kicking me down Sackville Street, than be here now!’

“You’d think it was fun I was making, if you heard how they all laughed, Hill and Cameron and the others louder than any.

“‘Who is he?’ said Sir Arthur, quickly.

“’Dr. Quill, surgeon of the Thirty-third, where I exchanged, to be near my brother, sir, in the Thirty-fourth.’

“’A doctor, a surgeon! That fellow a surgeon! Damn him, I took him for Colonel Grosvenor! I say, Gordon, these medical officers must be docked of their fine feathers, there’s no knowing them from the staff, look to that in the next general order.’

“And sure enough they left us bare and naked the next morning; and if the French sharpshooters pick us down now, devil mend them for wasting powder, for if they look in the orderly books, they’ll find their mistake.”

“Ah, Maurice, Maurice!” said Shaugh, with a sigh, “you’ll never improve, you’ll never improve!”

“Why the devil would I?” said he. “Ain’t I at the top of my profession full surgeon with nothing to expect, nothing to hope for? Oh, if I had only remained in the light company, what wouldn’t I be now?”

“Then you were not always a doctor?” said I.

“Upon my conscience, I wasn’t,” said he. “When Shaugh knew me first, I was the Adonis of the Roscommon militia, with more heiresses in my list than any man in the regiment; but Shaugh and myself were always unlucky.”

“Poor Mrs. Rogers!” said the major, pathetically, drinking off his glass and heaving a profound sigh.

“Ah, the darling!” said the doctor. “If it wasn’t for a jug of punch that lay on the hall table, our fortune in life would be very different.”

“True for you, Maurice!” quoth O’Shaughnessy.

“I should like much to hear that story,” said I, pushing the jug briskly round.

“He’ll tell it you,” said O’Shaughnessy, lighting his cigar, and leaning pensively back against a tree, “he’ll tell it you.”

“I will, with pleasure,” said Maurice. “Let Mr. Free, meantime, amuse himself with the punch-bowl, and I’ll relate it.”