Chapter 35 | For the King | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Five.

As the evening drew near, it was to the two young riflemen as if Nature had joined hands with the enemy and had seemed to bid them stand back and rest while she took up their work and finished it to the bitter end.

“It’s just as if Nature were fighting against us,” said Pen.

“Nature! Who’s she? What’s she got to do with it?” grumbled Punch. “Phew! Just feel here! The sun’s as low down as that, and here’s my musket-barrel so hot you can hardly touch it. But I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Pen bitterly. “I only meant that, now the enemy are not coming on, it’s growing hotter and hotter, and one’s so thirsty one feels ready to choke.”

“Oh, I see now. It’s just the same here. But why don’t they come on. Must be half an hour since they made their last charge, and if they don’t come soon my gun will go off all of itself, and then if they come I sha’n’t have a shot for them. Think they will come now?”

“Yes,” said Pen; “but I believe they are waiting till it’s dark and we sha’n’t be able to see to shoot.”

“Why, the cowards!” cried Punch angrily. “The cowardly, mean beggars! Perhaps you are right; but, I say, comrade, they wouldn’t stop till it’s dark if they knew that we had only got one cartridge apiece, and that we were so stupid and giddy that I am sure I couldn’t hit. Why, last time when they came on they seemed to me to be swimming round and round.”

“Yes, it was horrible,” said Pen thoughtfully, as he tried to recollect the varied incidents of the last charge, and gave up in despair. “I wish it was all over, Punch!”

“Well, don’t be in such a hurry about that,” said the boy. “I wish the fighting was over, but to wish it was all over sounds ugly. You see, they must be precious savage with us for shooting as we have, and if they charge home, as you call it, and find that we haven’t got a shot, I want to know what we are going to do then.”

“I don’t feel as if it matters now,” said Pen despondently.

“Oh, don’t you! But I do, comrade. It’s bad enough to be wounded and a prisoner; that’s all in the regular work; but these Frenchies must be horribly wild now, and when we can’t help ourselves it seems to me that we sha’n’t be safe. You are tired, and your wound bothers you, and no wonder. It’s that makes you talk so grumpy. But it seems to me as if it does matter. Course soldiers have to take their chance, even if they are only buglers, and I took mine, and got it. Now my wound’s better, I don’t feel like giving up. I feel as if I hadn’t half had my innings. I haven’t even got to be what you are—full private. But, I say, it ain’t getting dark yet, is it?”

“No, Punch. But I feel so giddy I can hardly see.”

“Look out, then!” cried the boy excitedly. “Here they come; and you are all wrong.”

For the boy had caught sight of another rush being made, with the enemy scattered wildly; and catching up his musket, Punch fired, while it was as if mechanically and hardly knowing what he was about that Pen raised his piece and followed his companion’s example.

What ensued seemed to be part of a nightmare-like dream, during which Pen once more followed his comrade’s example; and, grasping his musket by the heated barrel he clubbed it and struck out wildly for a few minutes before he felt that he was borne down, trampled upon, and then lay half-conscious of what was going on.

He was in no pain, but felt as if he were listening to something that was taking place at a distance. There were defiant shouts, there was the rushing of feet, there was firing. Orders were being given in French; but what it all meant he could not grasp, till all at once it seemed to him that it was very dark, and a hot, wet hand was laid upon his forehead.

Then a voice came—a familiar voice; but this too seemed to be from far away, and it did not seem natural that he should be feeling the touch upon his forehead while the voice came from a distance.

“I say, they haven’t done for you, have they, comrade? Oh, do try to speak. Tell me where it hurts.”

“Hurts! That you, Punch?”

“Course it is. Hooray! Where’s your wound? Speak up, or I can’t make it out in all this row. Where have you got it?”

“Got what?”

“Why, I telled you. The wound.”

“My wound?” said Pen dreamily. Why, you know—in my leg. But it’s better now. So am I. But what does it all mean? Did something hit me on the head?

“I didn’t half see; but you went down a horrid kelch, and must have hit your head against the rocks.”

“Yes, yes, I am beginning to understand now. But where are we? What’s going on? Fighting?”

“Fighting? I should just think there is! Can’t you hear?”

“I can hear the shouting, but I don’t quite understand yet.”

“Never mind, then. I was afraid you were done for.”

“Done for! What, killed?”

“Something of the kind,” grumbled Punch; “but don’t bother about it now.”

“I must,” said Pen, with what was passing around seeming to lighten up. “Here, tell me, are my arms fastened behind me?”

“Yes, and mine too. But I just wriggled one hand out so as to feel for you. We are prisoners, lad, and the Frenchies have chivied right back to where the King and his men have been making a bit of a stand. I can’t tell you all azackly, but that’s something like it, and I think they are fighting now—bad luck to them, as O’Grady would say!—right in yonder where we had our braxfas’. I say, it’s better than I thought, comrade.”

“In what way, Punch?”

“Why, I had made up my mind, though I didn’t like to tell you, that they’d give us both the bay’net. But they haven’t. Perhaps, though, they are keeping us to shoot through the head because they caught us along with the smugglers. That’s what they always do with them.”

“Well,”—began Pen drearily.

“No, ’tain’t. ’Tain’t well, nor anything like it.”

The boy ceased speaking, for the fight that had been raging in the interior of the cavern seemed to be growing fiercer; in fact, it soon became plain to the listeners that the tide of warfare was setting in their direction; the French, who had been driving the contrabandista’s followers backward into the cavern, and apparently carrying all before them, had met with a sudden check. For a fairly brief space they had felt that the day was their own, and eager to make up for the long check they had suffered, principally through the keen firing of the two boys, they had pressed on recklessly, while the undrilled contrabandistas, losing heart in turn, were beginning, in spite of the daring of their leader, who seemed to be in every part of their front at once, to drop back into the cavern, giving way more and more, till at last they had shrunk some distance into the old mine, bearing back with them the royal party, who had struggled to restrain them in vain.

The part of the old workings to which they had retreated was almost in utter darkness, and just when the French were having their own way and the Spanish party were giving up in despair, their enemies came to a stand, the French officers hesitating to continue the pursuit, fearing a trap, or that they might be led into so dangerous a position that they might meet with another reverse.

They felt that where they were they thoroughly commanded the exit, and after a brief colloquy it was decided to give their men breathing-time while a party went back into the great cave, where the fire was still burning, and did what they could to contrive a supply of firebrands or torches before they made another advance.

Fortunately for the Spanish party, the cessation of the attack on the part of the French gave the former breathing-time as well; and, wearied out though he was, and rather badly wounded, the contrabandista hurriedly gathered his men together, and though ready to upbraid them bitterly for the way in which they had yielded to the French attack, he busied himself instead in trying to prepare them for a more stubborn resistance when the encounter was resumed.

He had the advantage of his enemies in this, that they were all thoroughly well acquainted with the ramifications of the old mine, and it would be in his power, he felt, to lead the enemy on by giving way strategically and guiding them where, while they were meeting with great difficulties in tracing their flying foes, these latter would be able to escape through one of the old adits and carry with them the King and his followers.

The contrabandista, too, had this further advantage—that he could easily refresh his exhausted men, who were now suffering cruelly from hunger and thirst. To this end he gave his orders quickly to several, who hurried away, to return at the end of a short time bearing a couple of skins of wine and bread from their regular store. These refreshments were hurriedly distributed, the King and his party not being forgotten; and after all partook most hastily, the men’s leader busied himself in seeing to the worst of the wounded, sending several of these latter into hiding in a long vault where the mules of the party were stabled ready to resume their loads when the next raid was made across the passes.

“Now, my lads,” he said, addressing his men, “I am not going to upbraid you with the want of courage you have shown, only to tell you that when the French come on again it will most likely be with lights. Those are what I believe they are waiting for. The poor fools think that torches will enable them to see us and shoot us down, but they will be to our advantage. We shall be in the darkness; they will be in the light; and I am going to lead you in such an attack that I feel sure if you follow out my instructions we can make them flee. Once get them on the run, it will be your duty to scatter them and not let them stop. Yes,” he added, turning sharply in the darkness to some one who had touched him on the shoulder; “who is it?”

“It is I,” said the officer who had taken the lead in the King’s flight, and to whom the whole of the monarch’s followers looked for direction. “His Majesty wants to speak with you.”

“I’ll come,” replied the contrabandista. “Do you know why he wants me?”

“Yes,” replied the officer briefly.

“I suppose it is to find fault with me for our want of success.”

“I believe that is the case,” said the officer coldly.

“Ha!” ejaculated the contrabandista. “I have as good a right to blame his Majesty for the meagreness of the help his followers have afforded me.”

“I have done my best,” said the officer gravely, “and so have the rest. But this is no time for recriminations. I believe you, sir, are a faithful friend to his Majesty; and I believe you think the same of me.”

“I do,” replied the smuggler, “and his Majesty is not to blame for thinking hard of one who has brought him into such a position as this.”

“Be brief, please,” said the officer, “and be frank with me before you join the King. He feels with me that we are completely trapped, and but a short time back he went so far as to ask me whether the time had not come for us all to make a desperate charge upon the enemy, and die like men.”

The smuggler uttered an ejaculation which the officer misconstrued.

“I meant for us, sir,” he said bitterly, “for I suppose it is possible that you and your men are sufficiently at home in these noisome passages to find hiding-places, and finally escape.”

The smuggler laughed scornfully.

“You speak, sir,” he said, “as if you believe that my men would leave his Majesty to his fate.”

“Their acts to-day have not inspired him with much confidence in them,” said the officer coldly.

“Well, no,” said the smuggler; “but you must consider that my men, who are perfect in their own pursuits and able enough to carry on a guerilla-like fight against the Civil Guards in the mountains, have for the first time in their lives been brought face to face with a body of well-drilled soldiers ten times their number, and armed with weapons far superior to ours.”

“That is true,” said the officer quietly; “but I expected to have seen them do more to-day, and, with this strong place to hold, not so ready to give up as they were.”

“You take it, then,” said the smuggler, “that we are beaten?”

“His Majesty has been the judge, and it is his opinion.”

“His Majesty is a great and good king, then,” said the smuggler, “but a bad judge. We are not beaten. We certainly have the worst of it, and my poor fellows have been a good deal disheartened, and matters would have gone far worse with us if it had not been for the clever marksmanship of those two boys.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the officer, “I may as well come to that. His Majesty speaks bitterly in the extreme about what he calls the cowardice which resulted in those two poor lads being mastered and taken prisoners, perhaps slain, before his eyes.”

“Indeed!” said the smuggler sharply. “But I did not see that his Majesty’s followers did more to save them than my men.”

“There, we had better cease this unfruitful conversation. But before I take you to his Majesty, who is waiting for us, tell me as man to man, perhaps face to face with death, what is really our position? You are beaten, and unable to do more to save the King?”

The smuggler was silent for a few moments, busily tightening a bandage round his arm.

“One moment, sir,” he said. “Would you mind tying this?”

“A wound!” said the officer, starting.

“Yes, and it bleeds more freely than I could wish, for I want every drop of blood to spend in his Majesty’s service.”

The officer sheathed his sword quickly, bent forward, and, in spite of the darkness, carefully tightened the bandage.

“I beg your pardon, Señor el Contrabandista. I trust you more than ever,” he said. “But we are beaten, are we not?”

“Thanks, señor.—Beaten? No! When my fellows have finished their bread and wine they will be more full of fight than ever. We smugglers have plenty of the fox in our nature, and we should not treasure up our rich contraband stores in a cave that has not two holes.”

“Ha! You put life into me,” cried the officer.

“I wish to,” said the smuggler. “Tell his Majesty that in a short time he will see the Frenchmen coming on lighting their way with torches, and that he and his followers will show a good front; but do as we do—keep on retreating farther and farther through the black passages of this old copper-mine.”

“But retreating?” said the officer.

“Yes; they will keep pressing us on, driving us back, as they think, till they can make a rush and capture us to a man—King, noble, and simple smuggler; and when at last they make their final rush they will capture nothing but the darkness, for we shall have doubled round by one of the side-passages and be making our way back into the passes to find liberty and life.”

“But one moment,” said a stern voice from the deeper darkness behind. “What of the entrance to this great cavern-mine? Do you think these French officers are such poor tacticians that they will leave the entrance unguarded by a body of troops?”

“One entrance, sire,” said the smuggler deferentially.

“Your Majesty!” said the officer, “I did not know that you were within hearing.”

“I had grown weary of waiting, Count,” said the King. “I came on, and I have heard all that I wished. Señor Contrabandista, I, your King, ask your pardon. I ask it as a bitterly stricken, hunted man who has been driven by his misfortunes to see enemies on every hand, and who has grown accustomed to lead a weary life, halting ever between doubt and despair.”

“Your Majesty trusts me then,” said the smuggler, sinking upon one knee to seize the hand that was extended to him and pressing it to his lips.

“Ha!” ejaculated the monarch. “Your plans are those of a general; but there is one thing presses hard upon me. For hours I was watching the way in which those two boys held the enemy at bay, fighting in my poor cause like heroes; and again and again as I stood watching, my fingers tingled to grasp my sword and lead my few brave fellows to lend them aid. But it was ever the same: I was hemmed in by those who were ready to give their lives in my defence, and I was forced to yield to their assurances that such an advance would be not merely to throw their lives away and my own, but giving life to the usurper, death to Spain.”

“They spoke the truth, sire,” said the smuggler gravely.

“But tell me,” cried the King with a piteous sigh, “can nothing be done? Your men, you say, will be refreshed. My friends here are as ready as I am. Before you commence the retreat, can we not, say, by a bold dash, drive them past where those two young Englishmen lie prisoners at the back of the little stonework they defended so bravely till the last cartridge was fired away? You do not answer,” said the King.

“Your Majesty stung me to the heart,” said the contrabandista, “in thinking that I played a coward’s part in not rescuing those two lads.”

“I hoped I had condoned all that,” said the King quickly.

“You have, sire, and perhaps it is the weakness and vanity in my nature that makes me say in my defence, I and half-a-dozen of my men made as brave an effort as we could, twice over, when the French made their final rush, and each time my poor fellows helped me back with a bayonet-wound.—Ah! what I expected!” he exclaimed hastily, for there was a flickering light away in front, followed by another and another, and the sound of hurrying feet, accompanied by the clicking of gun and pistol lock as the contrabandistas gathered together, rested and refreshed, and ready for action once again.