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"Mr. Stillwell," the earl said, a few days after his arrival at Castillon, "will you take twenty dragoons and ride out to the village of Estrella? The district round it is extremely hostile, and they prevent supplies being brought in from that direction. Get hold of the principal men in the place, and tell them that if I hear any more complaints of hostility in that neighborhood I will send out a regiment of horse, burn their village, and ravage all the country. I don't think you need apprehend any opposition; but of course you will keep a good lookout."
"Am I to return tonight, sir?"
"Let that depend upon your reception. If the inhabitants show a fairly good disposition, or if you see that at any rate there is a considerable section of the population well disposed to the cause, stay there for the night, and in the morning make a wide circuit through the district before returning. If you perceive a strong hostile feeling it were best not to sleep there; with so small a force you would be liable to a night attack."
Twenty minutes later Jack rode off with his party, having first obtained directions from the natives as to the best road to Estrella. The village was but some fifteen miles off, and lay in the center of a fertile district on the other side of a range of lofty hills. The road they were traversing ran through the hills by a narrow and very steep valley.
"This would be a nasty place to be attacked," Jack said to the sergeant, who was riding just behind him.
"It would, indeed, sir; and if they were to set some of those stones arolling they would soon knock our horses off their legs."
A mile or two further on the road again descended and the valley opened to a fertile country. Another half hour's sharp riding brought them into Estrella. Their coming had probably been signaled, for the inhabitants evinced no sudden alarm as the little troop rode along the principal street. The women stood at the doors of the houses to look at them, the men were gathered in little knots at the corners; but all were unarmed, and Jack saw at once that there was no intention of offering resistance. He alighted at the door of the village inn, and in a few minutes two or three of the chief men in the village presented themselves.
"The English general," Jack said, "has heard that the people of your neighborhood are hostile, and that those who would pass through with animals and stores for the army are prevented from doing so. He bids me say that he does not wish to war with the people of this country so long as they are peaceful. Those who take up arms he will meet with arms; but so long as they interfere not with him he makes no inquiry as to whether their wishes are for King Charles or Philip of Anjou; but if they evince an active hostility he will be forced to punish them. You know how Marshal Tesse has massacred unarmed citizens whom he deemed hostile, and none could blame the English general did he carry out reprisals; but it will grieve him to have to do so. He has therefore sent me with this small troop to warn you that if the people of this village and district interfere in any way with his friends, or evince signs of active hostility, he will send a regiment of horse with orders to burn the village to the ground, and to lay all the district bare."
"Your general has been misinformed," the principal man in the place said. "There are, it is true, some in the district who hold for Philip of Anjou; but the population are well disposed to King Charles, and this village is ready to furnish any supplies that the English may require. If your honor will give me a list of these I will do my best to have them in readiness by tomorrow morning, and I trust that you will honor us by stopping here till then."
Jack hesitated; he did not much like the appearance of the man or the tone of humility in which he spoke; still, as he offered to furnish supplies, he thought it well to accept the same.
"What horses could you let us have?" he asked.
"We could supply ten horses," the man said, "fit for cavalry, four wagons of grain, and twenty barrels of wine."
"Very well," Jack said; "if these are ready by tomorrow morning I will accept them as an earnest of your goodwill, and now I require food for my men."
"That shall be ready for them in an hour," the man replied.
Jack now gave orders to the sergeant that the girths to the saddles should be loosened, and the horses fastened in readiness for service in the street close to the inn. Four men were then posted as pickets at the distance of a quarter of a mile on each side of the village. Corn was brought for the horses. The women and children gathered round to gaze at the foreign soldiers, and Jack was convinced that there was at any rate no intention to effect a surprise while he remained in the village. In an hour the dinner was served, and there was no reason to complain of the quantity or quality of the provisions.
An hour after dinner the troop again mounted and took a detour of some miles through the district, passing through several other villages, in none of which were the slightest signs of hostility met with.
"Sergeant," Jack said, after they had returned to Estrella, "everything looks very quiet and peaceful; but, considering what we have heard of the feeling in this district, it seems to me that it is almost too peaceful. I can't help feeling somewhat uneasy. When it gets dark divide the troop into two parties; keep one constantly under arms; place sentries in pairs at each end of the village, and keep a most vigilant watch. Do not let the others scatter to the quarters the mayor has provided; but let all lie down here in the inn ready to turn out at a moment's notice. They are a treacherous lot, these Spaniards, and we cannot be too strictly on our guard."
The night passed, however, without an incident, and in the morning, the five wagons with grain and wine, and eight horses, were brought in.
Jack, rather ashamed of his suspicions on the previous night, thanked the mayor warmly. Eight of the troopers took each a led horse. The four countrymen in charge of the wagons shouted to their oxen, and the party moved out from Estrella.
"There are very few men about the village, Mr. Stilwell," the sergeant said, as Jack reined back his horse to speak to him. "Did you notice that, sir?"
"Yes," Jack said; "I did notice it; for except a few old men and boys, there were none but women and children gathered round or standing at their door. There were plenty of men about yesterday; but perhaps they have all gone up to work in the fields; however, we will keep our eyes open. You had best ride forward, sergeant, to the two men in front and tell them to keep a sharp lookout."
They were proceeding only at a slow walk in order to keep pace with the wagons, and it was an hour and a half after leaving Estrella before they entered the hills.
Jack noticed that although many women and girls could be seen working in the fields, not a man was in sight.
"It is curious, sergeant, that there are no men about, and I can't help thinking that all is not right. Do you take four men with you and ride straight on through that nasty narrow valley we noticed as we came. Keep a sharp lookout on both sides, for there are rocks enough on those hills to hide an army."
Jack halted the detachment when the scouting party went forward. In three quarters of an hour the sergeant returned with his men, saying that he had ridden right through the valley and could see no signs of life whatever.
"Very well, sergeant, then we will proceed. But we will do so in groups. If we are to be attacked in that valley, we could make no fight of it were we ten times as many as we are; and if we must be caught, they shall have as few of us as possible; therefore, let a corporal with four men go on a good quarter of a mile ahead, so that he will be past the worst part before the next body enter. Then do you take ten men and go next. I will follow you at the same distance with the other five men and the wagons. Order the corporal if attacked to ride through if possible; if not, to fall back to you. Do you do the same. If you are nearly through the valley when you are attacked, dash straight forward. I shall see what is going on, and will turn and ride back with my party, and making a sweep round through the flat country find my way back by some other road. In that case by no possibility can they get more than a few of us."
These orders, which were well calculated to puzzle a concealed enemy, were carried out. The corporal's party were just disappearing round a turn at the upper end of the valley when the main body under the sergeant entered it. Jack was not quite so far behind, and halted as he entered the valley to allow those who preceded him to get through before he proceeded. They were still some two hundred yards from the further end when a shot was heard, and in an instant men appeared from behind every rock, and the hillside was obscured with smoke as upward of two hundred guns were fired almost simultaneously. Then there was a deep rumbling noise, and the rocks came bounding down from above.
The sergeant carried out Jack's orders. At the flash of the first gun he set off with his men at a gallop; and so quick and sudden was the movement that but few of the bullets touched them, and the rocks for the most part thundered down in their rear. Two or three horses and men were, however, struck down and crushed by the massive rocks; but the rest of the party got through the pass in safety and joined their comrades who had preceded them. They rode on for a short distance further, and then there was a halt, and wounds were examined and bandaged.
"It is well that we came as we did," the sergeant said to his corporal; "if we had been all together, with the wagons blocking up the road, not a man Jack of us would have escaped alive. What an escape it has been! the whole hillside seemed coming down on us."
"What will Mr. Stilwell do, sergeant?"
"He said he should ride back into the plain and take some other way round," the sergeant replied; "but I fear he won't find it so easy. Fellows who would lay such an ambush as that are pretty sure to have taken steps to cut off the retreat of any who might escape and ride back. I am sure I hope he will get out of it, for he is a good officer, and as pleasant a young fellow as one can want to serve under; besides, there are five of our chaps with him."
Jack had halted his men the instant the first shot was fired. "Shall I shoot these fellows, sir ?" one of the troopers asked, drawing his pistol and pointing it at the head of one of the peasants leading a yoke of oxen.
"No," Jack said; "they are unarmed; besides, they are plucky fellows for risking their lives on such a venture. There! the sergeant's troop have got through; but there are two or three of them down. Come along, lads, we must ride back, and there is no time to lose. Keep well together, and in readiness to charge if I give the word. It is likely enough our turn may come next."
They rode on without interruption at full gallop till they neared the lower end of the valley. Then Jack drew up his horse. Across the road and the ground on each side extended a dozen carts, the oxen being taken out, and the carts placed end to end so as to form a barricade. A number of men were standing behind them.
"I expected something of this sort," muttered Jack. He looked at the hills on either side, but they were too steep to ride up on horseback; and as to abandoning the animals and taking to the hills on foot, it was not to be thought of, for the active peasants would easily overtake them.
"We must ride straight forward," he said; "there is no other way out of it. There is level ground enough for a horse to pass round the left of the wagons. Ride for that point as hard as you can, and when you are through keep straight forward for a quarter of a mile till we are together again. Now!"
Giving his horse the spur, Jack dashed off at full speed, followed closely by the troopers. As they approached the line guns flashed out from the wagons, and the bullets sang thickly round them; but they were going too fast to be an easy mark, and the peasants, after firing their guns, seeing the point for which they were making, ran in a body to oppose them, armed with pitch forks and ox goads; few of them had, however, reached the spot when Jack and his troopers dashed up. There was a short sharp struggle, and then, leaving five or six of the peasants dead on the ground, the troopers burst through and rode forward. One man only had been lost in the passage, shot through the head as he approached the gap.
"So far we are safe," Jack said, "and as I expect every man in the country round was engaged in that ambush, we need not hurry for the present. The question is, Which way to go?"
This was indeed a difficult point to settle, for Jack was wholly ignorant of the country. He had made inquiries as to the way to Estrella, but knew nothing of any other roads leading from that village, and indeed, for aught he knew, the road by which he had come might be the only one leading to the south through the range of hills.
"We will turn west," he said, after a moment's thought, "and keep along near the foot of the hills till we come to another road crossing them."
So saying, he set forward at an easy trot across the fields of maize and wheat stubble, vineyards, and occasionally orchards. For upward of two hours Jack led the way, but they saw no signs of a road, and he observed with uneasiness that the plain was narrowing fast and the hills on the left trending to meet those on the right and form an apparently unbroken line ahead.
The horses were showing signs of fatigue, and Jack drew rein on somewhat rising ground and looked anxiously round. If, as it seemed, there was no break in the bills ahead, it would be necessary to retrace their steps, and long ere this the defenders of the ravine would have returned to their homes, and learned from the men at the carts that a small party had escaped. As the women in the fields would be able to point out the way they had taken, the whole population would be out in pursuit of them. Looking round Jack saw among some trees to his right what appeared to be a large mansion, and resolved at once to go there.
"The horses must have food and a rest," he said, "before we set out again; and though it's hardly probable, as the peasants are so hostile, that the owner of this place is friendly, I would even at the worst rather fall into the hands of a gentleman than into those of these peasants, who would certainly murder us in cold blood."
Thus saying, he rode toward the mansion, whose owner must, he thought as he approached it, be a man of importance, for it was one of the finest country residences he had seen in Spain. He rode up to the front door and dismounted and rang at the bell. A man opened the door, and looked with surprise and alarm at the English uniforms. He would have shut the door again, but Jack put his shoulder to it and pushed it open.
"What means this insolence?" he said sternly, drawing his pistol. "Is your master in?"
"No, senor," the man stammered, "the count is from home."
"Is your mistress in?"
The man hesitated.
"I will see," he said.
"Look here, sir," Jack said. "Your mistress is in, and unless you lead me straight to her I will put a bullet through your head."
Several other men servants had now come up, but the four troopers had also entered. The Spaniards looked at each other irresolutely.
"Now, sirrah," Jack said, raising his pistol, "are you going to obey me?"
The Spaniard, seeing Jack would execute his threat unless obeyed, turned sullenly and led the way to a door. He opened it and entered.
"Madam the countess," he said, "an English officer insists on seeing you."
Jack followed him in. A lady had just risen from her seat.
"I must apologize, madam," he began, and then stopped in surprise, while at the same moment a cry of astonishment broke from the lady.
"Senor Stilwell!" she cried. "Oh! how glad I am to see you! but-- but--" And she stopped.
"But how do I come here, countess, you would ask? I come here by accident, and had certainly no idea that I should find you, or that this mansion belonged to your husband. You told me when I saw you last, a fortnight before I left Barcelona, that you were going away to your seat in the country. You told me its name, too, and were good enough to say that you hoped when this war was over that I would come and visit you; but, in truth, as this is not a time for visiting, I had put the matter out of my mind."
"And do you belong, then," the countess asked, "to the party who we heard yesterday had arrived at Estrella? If so--" And she stopped again.
"If so, how have I escaped, you would ask? By good fortune and the speed of my horse."
"What will the count say?" the countess exclaimed. "How will he ever forgive himself? Had he known that our preserver was with that party he would have cut off his right hand before he would have --"
"Led his tenants to attack us. He could not tell, countess, and now I hope that you will give your retainers orders to treat my men with hospitality. At present my four troopers and your men are glowering at each other in the hall like wolves and dogs ready to spring at each other's throats."
The countess at once went out into the hall. The servants had now armed themselves, and, led by the majordomo, were standing in readiness to attack the dragoons on the termination of the colloquy between the officer and their mistress.
"Lay aside your arms, men," the countess said imperiously. "These men are the count's guests. Enrico, do you not recognize this gentleman?"
The majordomo turned, and, at once dropping his musket, ran across, and, falling on his knees, pressed Jack's hand to his lips. The servants, who had at first stood in irresolute astonishment at their mistress' order, no longer hesitated, but placed their arms against the wall.
"This," the majordomo said to them, rising to his feet, "is the noble English lord who saved the lives of the count and countess and my young master from the mob at Barcelona, as I have often told you."
This explained the mystery. The servants saluted Jack with profound respect, for all were deeply attached to the count and countess, and had often thrilled with fury and excitement over the majordomo's relation of that terrible scene at Barcelona.
Jack in a few words explained to the troopers the reason of the change in their position. The dragoons put up their swords, and were soon on the best terms with the retainers in the great kitchen, while Jack and the countess chatted over the events which had happened since they last parted.
"I shall always tremble when I think of today," the countess said. "What a feeling mine would have been all my life had our preserver been killed by my servants! I should never have recovered it. It is true it would have been an accident, and yet the possibility should have been foreseen. The count knew you were with the Earl of Peterborough, and the whole English army should have been sacred in his eyes for your sake; but I suppose he never thought of it any more than I did. Of course every one knows that we belong to Philip's party. It was for that, that the mob at Barcelona would have killed us; but my husband does not talk much, and when he left Barcelona no objection was raised. He did not intend to take part in the war, and he little thought at that time that an enemy would ever come so far from Barcelona; but yesterday, when a message came that a small party of the enemy had entered the valley, and that the peasants had prepared an ambuscade for them on their return, and that they hoped that the count their master would himself come and lead them to annihilate the heretics, the simple man agreed, never thinking that you might be among them. What will his feelings be when, he learns it!"
Late in the afternoon the count arrived. One of the servants who had been on the lookout informed the countess of his approach.
"I will go myself to meet him," she said. "Do you stay here, senor, where you can hear."
The count rode up at full speed, and as the door opened ran hastily in.
"What has happened, Nina?" he exclaimed anxiously. "I have had a great fright. We have been following a small party of the enemy who escaped us from Estrella, and just now a woman returning from work in the fields told us she had seen five strange soldiers ride up here and enter."
"They are here," the countess answered complacently. "They are at present our guests."
"Our guests!" the count exclaimed, astonished "What are you saying, Nina? The enemies of our country our guests! In what a position have you placed me! I have two hundred armed men just behind. I left them to ride on when I heard the news, being too anxious to go at their pace, and now you tell me that these men of whom they are in search are our guests! What am I to say or do? You amaze me altogether."
"What would you have me do?" the countess said. "Could I refuse hospitality to wearied men who asked it, Juan?" she continued, changing her tone. "You have to thank Providence indeed that those men came to our door instead of falling into the hands of your peasants."
"To thank Providence!" the count repeated, astonished.
"Come with me and you will see why."
She led the way into the room, her husband following her. The count gave a cry as his eye fell upon Jack, and every vestige of color left his face.
"Mary, mother of heaven!" he said in a broken voice, "I thank thee that I have been saved from a crime which would have imbittered all my life. Oh, senor, is it thus we meet, thus, when I have been hunting blindly for the blood of the man to whom I owe so much?"
"Happily there is no harm done, count," Jack said, advancing with outstretched hand; "you were doing what you believed to be your duty, attacking the enemy of your country. Had you killed me you would have been no more to blame than I should, did a chance shot of mine slay you when fighting in the ranks of the soldiers of Philip."
The count was some time before he could respond to Jack's greeting, so great was his emotion at the thought of the escape he had had from slaying the preserver of his wife and child. As soon as he recovered himself he hurried out to meet the peasants, whose shouts could be heard as they approached the castle. He soon returned and bade his servants take a cask of wine into the courtyard behind the house, with what bread and meat there might be in the larder.
"You had no trouble with them, I hope?" Jack asked.
"None whatever," the count said. "As soon as I told them the circumstances under which you saved the life of the countess, my boy, and myself, their only wish was to see you and express their gratitude; they are simple fellows, these peasants, and if fairly treated greatly attached to their lords."
"It's a pity their treatment of the prisoners is so savage," Jack said dryly.
"They are savage," the count said, "but you must remember that the history of Spain is one long story of war and bloodshed. They draw knives on each other on the slightest provocation, and in their amusements, as you know, there is nothing that in their eyes can rival a bullfight; it is little wonder, then, that in war they are savage and, as you would say, even bloodthirsty. This is not so in regular warfare. Whatever may have been the conduct of some of our irregulars, none have ever alleged that Spanish troops are less inclined to give quarter to conquered foes than others; but in this rough irregular warfare each peasant fights on his own account as against a personal enemy, and as he would expect and would meet with little mercy if he fell into the enemy's hands, so he grants no mercy to those who fall into his. Indeed, after the brutal treatment which Marshal Tesse has, I am ashamed to say, dealt out to those who opposed him, you can scarcely blame peasants for acting as they see civilized soldiers do."
A short time afterward Jack went out with the count into the courtyard, and was received with the most hearty and cordial greeting by the men who were an hour before thirsting for his blood. Among them was the village mayor.
"Ah, sir," he said, "why did you not tell us that you had saved the life of our lord and lady? You should have had all the horses in the district, and as many wagons of wine and grain as we could collect. We are all in despair that we should have attacked our lord's preserver."
"I could not tell you," Jack said, "because I was in ignorance that the Count de Minas was your lord; had I known it I should have assuredly gone straight to him."
"We shall never forgive ourselves," the man said, "for having killed four of your honor's soldiers."
"I am sorry that it was so," Jack said, "but I cannot blame you; and I am sorry that we on our part must have killed as many of yours."
"Six," the mayor replied. "Yes, poor fellows, but the count will see to their widows and orphans, he has promised us as much. I drink to your health, senor," and all present joined in the shout, "Long live the preserver of the count and countess!"
Jack and the count now returned to the house, and the next morning, after a cordial adieu to the host and hostess, he rode back with his men to Castillon.
"Welcome back, Mr. Stilwell," the general said as he entered; "I have been very uneasy about you. Your men returned at noon yesterday and told me of the ambush in which they had been beset. Your arrangements were excellent except for your own safety. How did you manage to get out? By the way, I was astonished by the arrival here an hour since of the horses and wagons. The men who brought them could give me no account of it, except that the Mayor of Estrella returned late yesterday evening and ordered them to set out before daybreak. It seemed to me a perfect mystery. I suspected at first that the wine was poisoned, and ordered the men who brought it to drink some at once, but as they did so without hesitation or sign of fear, I concluded that I was mistaken. However, I have kept them captive pending news from you to enlighten me."
"I am not surprised you were astonished, sir, but the matter was simple enough ;" and then Jack related the circumstances which had befallen them.
"Bravo!" the earl said; "for once, Mr. Stilwell, a good action has had its reward, which, so far as my experience goes, is an exception."
The earl at once called in a sergeant and ordered the release of the men who had brought the horses and wagons, and gave ten gold pieces to be distributed among them. Jack also went out and begged them to give his compliments and thanks to the mayor.
"I am heartily glad the adventure ended as it did," the earl said when he returned, "for, putting aside the regret I should have felt at your loss, it would have been a difficult business for me to undertake, with my present force, to chastise the men who attacked you, who must be bold and determined fellows, and capable of realizing the advantages of this mountainous country. If all Spaniards would do as much it would tax the power of the greatest military nation to subdue them; and yet I could hardly have suffered such a check without endeavoring to avenge it; so altogether, Mr. Stilwell, we must congratulate ourselves that the affair ended as it did. In any case you would have been in no way to blame, for your dispositions throughout appear to have been excellent, and marked alike with prudence and boldness."
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