Chapter 36 | In the Rout | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Six.

It is one thing—or two things—to make plans mentally or upon paper, and another thing to carry them out. A general lays down his plan of campaign, but a dozen hazards of the war may tend to baffle and spoil courses which seem as they are laid down sure ways leading to success.

The contrabandista chief had made his arrangements in a way that when he explained them made his hearers believe that nothing could be better. His reluctant silence respecting the position of the two lads had impressed the Spanish King with the belief that he considered the young riflemen’s situation to be hopeless, and that he felt that he had done everything possible.

In fact, he doubted their being alive, and the possibility, even if they still breathed where they were struck down, of forcing his way through the strong force of French that occupied the mine, and reaching their side. Above all, he felt that he would not be justified in risking the lives of many men for the sake of two.

And now the flickering lights in the distance told that the French had somehow contrived the means for making their way through the darkness easier. They had evidently been busy breaking up case and keg, starting the brands thoroughly in the fire, and keeping them well alight by their bearers brandishing them to and fro as they advanced, with the full intent of driving the Spaniards into some cul-de-sac among the ancient workings of the mine, and there bayoneting them or forcing them to lay down their arms.

All this was in accordance with the orders given by the French officers, and the chasseurs advanced perfect in their parts and with a bold front. But the contrabandista’s followers and those of the King were also as perfect in what they would do, and they knew exactly that they were to fire and bring down their adversaries as they had an opportunity given them by their exposure in the light, and after firing they were to lead the untouched on by an orderly retreat, thus tempting the enemy farther and farther into the winding intricacies of the old workings.

Those advancing and those in retreat began to carry out their orders with exactitude; the chasseurs cheered and advanced in about equal numbers, torch-bearers and musketeers with fixed bayonets, the former waving their burning brands, and all cheering loudly as in the distance they caught sight of those in retreat; but it was only to find as the rattle and echoing roll of carbine and pistol rang out and smoke began to rise, that they were forming excellent marks for those who fired, and before they had advanced, almost at a run, fifty yards, the mine-floor was becoming dotted with those who were wounded and fell.

The distance between the advancing and retreating lines remained about the same, but the pace began to slacken, the run soon became a walk, and a very short time afterwards a stand on the part of those who attacked, and the smoke of the pieces began to grow more dense as the firing increased.

Orders kept on ringing out as the French officers shouted “Forward!” but in vain, and the light that, as they ran, had flashed brilliantly, as they stood began to pale, and the well-drilled men who now saw a dense black curtain of smoke before them, riven here and there by flashes of light, began to hesitate, then to fall back, slowly at first, and before many paces to the rear had been taken they found the light begin to increase again and more men fell.

That pause had been the turning-point, for from a slow falling back the pace grew swifter, the waving and tossing lights burned more brightly, and those who fired sent ragged volley after volley in amongst the now clearly seen chasseurs; while the Spaniards, forgetful now of the commands they had received, kept on advancing, in fact, pursuers in their turn, firing more eagerly as each few steps took them clear of the cloud of smoke which they left behind.

It was a completely unexpected change of position. The French officers shouted their commands, and the contrabandista captain gave forth his, but in both cases it was in vain, for almost before he could realise the fact a panic had seized upon chasseur and torch-bearer alike, and soon all were in flight—a strangely weird medley of men whose way was lit up by the lights that were borne and blazed fiercely on their side, while their pace was hastened by the firing in their rear.

It was only a matter of some few minutes before the French officers found that all their attempts to check the rout were in vain.

The hurry of the flight increased till the darkness of the mine-passage was left behind and all raced onward through the great store-cavern and out into the narrow gully, now faint in the evening light, and on past the rough stone-piled defences, where the officers once more tried to check the headlong flight.

Here their orders began to have some effect, for there were dead and wounded lying in the way, and some from breathlessness, some from shame, now slackened their pace and stooped to form litters of their muskets, on which some poor wretch who was crying for help with extended hands was placed and carried onward.

And somehow, in the confusion of the flight, as the fallen wounded were snatched up in the semi-darkness from where they lay, the last burning brand having been tossed aside as useless by those who could now see their way, two of the wounded who lay with their arms secured behind them with straps were lifted and borne onward, for those who were now obeying their officers’ orders were too hurried and confused, hastened as they were in their movements by the rattle and crash of firearms in their rear, to scrutinise who the wounded were. It was sufficient for them that they were not wearers of the rough contrabandista’s garb; and so it was that the dark-green uniform of the bandaged wounded was enough, and the two young riflemen became prisoners and participators in the chasseurs’ rout.