Read CHAPTER XX of The Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence, free online book, by William Lawrence, on

Things now seemed to assume an entirely different aspect, indeed to take a new birth altogether. All were in a most joyous state, and none more so than the Spaniards, who were always only too ready to give up fighting. The Portuguese had always shown themselves the better race in the field of action, but they likewise now enjoyed the thought of returning to their own country, although it had been so pillaged. I had many a long conversation with stragglers of both these nations before we started on our long march, and so I had an opportunity of studying their thoughts on the subject.

We did not seem to be in any hurry to quit the country before everything was thoroughly arranged, and having no enemy pushing on our rear, we were often billeted at towns and villages longer than we need have been, which caused our march to take more time to accomplish, but made it much more comfortable. We were generally billeted on the inhabitants during our halts, the best billets being of course chosen for the officers, then for the sergeants, and then for the corporals and privates, the numbers being suited to the accommodation of the places; but I very seldom had more than one with me besides myself.

The inhabitants could not have behaved better to us if they had been our own countrymen; and I well remember how at the last stage where we put up before coming to Bordeaux two of us, myself and a private of the same company, were billeted at quite a gentleman’s house, the owners of which were unusually kind to us. We found we had completely jumped into clover, and fortunately it happened to be Saturday night, so that our halt was till Monday morning; not that Sunday in those times had been used to make much difference to us, for two of our bloodiest conflicts had happened on that day, but in this case, our haste not being urgent, it gave us a kind of sweet repose.

As soon as we arrived at our house we were shown into our room, which was a very nice one and beautifully furnished; and when we had taken off our accoutrements, we went downstairs to a sort of bath-room, where we had a good wash in tubs of water that were placed in readiness for us. Then the gentleman had some clean stockings brought up to us, and when we had made ourselves comfortable he sent up to our room a loaf of bread and a large bottle of wine holding about three pints, which we found most acceptable; and it not being long before the family’s dinner was ready, our hostess would insist on our dining with them. For my own part, not being used to such pomp, and never having before even seen it, being more accustomed to the kind of dinners and suppers in which I have described our own colonel and captain as taking part, I would sooner have crept out of the invitation; but being pressed we consented, and having been shown into the dining-room, we sat down to an excellent repast with nobody else but the lady and gentleman.

The table was laid out most gorgeously with glittering silver, which came very awkward to our clumsy hands, as we had been more accustomed to using our fingers for some years; to set off which gorgeousness our waiter, who was evidently the family footman, wore an out-of-the-way fine and ugly dress, with his hair plastered up with white powder, of which I had such an aversion during the first part of my stay in the army. A most palatable dinner was served of which I freely partook, though I had very little idea of what it consisted, and some good wine was likewise often handed round with which our glasses were constantly kept filled.

After dinner was over, the white-headed gentleman entered with coffee, a fashion which then surprised us very much; but nevertheless, more out of compliment than because we needed it, we took a cup each with some sugar-candy which was also handed round to sweeten it. When that was finished, just to keep us still going, the gentleman asked us if we smoked, and on our saying we both did, the bell was rung, and the footman entering with tobacco, we took a pipe with the gentleman, the lady having previously retired into the drawing-room. Then getting more used to the distinguished style, and the wine no doubt having made us more chatty, we for a time thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with our pipes, and began to feel new men with all our grandeur.

We were next invited to partake of tea in the drawing-room, but being very tired, we begged to be excused; and this being granted, the bed-candles being rung for, and having wished him good-night, we went to our room and there had a hearty laugh over the evening’s business; though we had not been able to understand half what the gentleman had said, not being used to the French so well as to the Spanish language. We retired to rest in a fine feather bed, which being a luxury we had not seen for years, was consequently too soft for our hard bones, and we found we could not sleep owing to the change. My comrade soon jumped out of bed, saying, “I’ll be bothered, sergeant, I can’t sleep here!” “No,” said I, “no more can I;” so we prepared our usual bed by wrapping ourselves into a blanket, and then with a knapsack as a pillow we lay on the floor and soon sank into a profound slumber.

Late in the morning, for we had overslept ourselves, the servant knocked at the door and said breakfast was waiting; and in a very short time the master himself came up and knocked, and on our calling to him to come in he opened the door, and looking in, found we had been sleeping on the floor. On his wanting to know if there were fleas in the bed, or what was the cause of our lying on the floor, we made him understand as well as we could, but it must have been very imperfectly at the best. He then went down again, and we soon following him, found an excellent breakfast ready, of which we made a first-rate meal, and after they had left us, for they had finished long before us, my comrade and I agreed that we had fallen on luck now, and no mistake.

Very soon after we had finished our breakfast, the servant entered to conduct us to the drawing-room, which was splendidly furnished, though for my own part I would rather have been down in the kitchen. We went in, however, and our hostess took down a book describing the French and English languages, so that they might understand some of our words better, and again asked us the reason why we did not sleep on our bed. I told her we had not slept on a feather bed for six years, and answered her other questions, giving her a slight description of the trials of a soldier in the time of war. She was very much touched, and could not forbear from crying, more especially when I added that two privates were to be whipped that very morning for having got drunk overnight and making a disturbance in the town, to serve as an example to the regiment. They had been tried by court-martial and sentenced to a hundred lashes, to be administered in the town and witnessed by the inhabitants.

Although it was Sunday, the drums beat for the regiment to assemble, and the men were brought into our square; and their sentence having been read in the presence of all, the first man was led to the halberds, and the drummers got ready to begin. But five or six gentlemen of the town made their way into our square and begged the colonel so hard to let them off, as that was the general wish of the inhabitants, that at last he dismissed the victims with a reprimand. The two then thanked the colonel, but he told them not to do so, for had it not been for the timely interference of the gentlemen, he would have given them every lash. All were then ordered to disperse, and I returned to my excellent quarters, where we again received for the rest of the day no end of kindnesses in the way of luxurious meals, luncheons, dinner, and coffee, together with plenty of wine, and before we went to bed, brandy was introduced as a finish: and having taken a hot glass of that with water, we retired and slept in a similar way to the night before.

On the following morning we had to assemble by seven o’clock, so no time was allowed us for breakfast; but our host had ordered our canteens to be filled with their best wine, and a parcel of sandwiches to be made up for each of us. We shook hands with the gentleman, duly thanking him for his kindness, and, rejoining our regiment, were soon on the march again for Bordeaux, which being not more than a day’s march distant we reached the same night. We encamped at a place two miles off the city on the banks of the River Garonne, to which even large ships were able to ascend. Here we lay for five or six weeks, during which time the inhabitants made many excursions from the city especially on Sundays, to inspect our army, swarms of costermongers likewise visiting us every day with wine, spirits, bread, meat, fish, and fruit of every description for sale. Every Sunday afternoon the bands of all the regiments played, while the French amused themselves with dancing, many of them, both male and female, on stilts, which entertained us more than anything, and besides this there were all kinds of other jollities in which our soldiers freely joined.

And now I will take the opportunity of saying a few more words as regards the skulkers. As soon as the peace was declared no less than seven sergeants of my own company alone had either at this place or on the march thither made their appearance from the snug dens where they had been lying, most of whom had been occupying themselves with some trivial employment in the pay of the Spaniards or Portuguese, but had now at this crisis abandoned whatever they had been doing, for fear of being left in the country, or perhaps because they thought that they might still come in for a share of the praise and pay. Before they appeared I was the only sergeant in our company, while if the proper number had been there, there would have been six. I do not mean to say that there had been no cause at first for their staying behind, for there were some laid up like myself at Elvas and Estremoz, but it was their duty to follow up the regiment when they were able, as I had done myself.

The captain of my company, who had been like myself through the whole campaign excepting when actually in hospital, pretended not to know them when he saw them, and asked them, “Where on earth do you come from? you certainly don’t belong to my company, by your appearance.” He then called me to say if I knew them. I remarked, “They seem to have been in luck’s way about their clothes, at any rate;” and so they did, for whilst ours were as ragged as sheep and as black as rooks, theirs were as red and new as if they had never been on, and their shoes were to match, whilst ours were completely worn out by our continual marches, the captain’s being quite as bad as any private’s.

We found that two of these men had left the regiment for hospital on our retreat from Talavera, and had never shown themselves since, the others having been away in like manner for rather shorter periods. Now the whole had returned we were overstocked with sergeants, having two more than our complement, so our captain sent the two who had been longest absent to the colonel with a written request that they should be transferred somewhere else; the other five he allowed to remain, but only for as short a time as possible till he could get rid of them also, as he told them his company should not be disgraced by them longer than he could help. He likewise told them that many of his privates deserved the stripes more than they did; and indeed it was not long before he got them transferred, and their places filled up by some of the braver heroes from among such of the privates as had at all distinguished themselves in any conflict.