You have read, no doubt, of this famous siege of Saragossa, and I will only say that no general could have had a harder task than that with which Marshal Lannes was confronted. The immense city was crowded with a horde of Spaniards– soldiers, peasants, priests– all filled with the most furious hatred of the French, and the most savage determination to perish before they would surrender. There were eighty thousand men in the town and only thirty thousand to besiege them. Yet we had a powerful artillery, and our engineers were of the best. There was never such a siege, for it is usual that when the fortifications are taken the city falls, but here it was not until the fortifications were taken that the real fighting began. Every house was a fort and every street a battle-field, so that slowly, day by day, we had to work our way inwards, blowing up the houses with their garrisons until more than half the city had disappeared. Yet the other half was as determined as ever and in a better position for defence, since it consisted of enormous convents and monasteries with walls like the Bastille, which could not be so easily brushed out of our way. This was the state of things at the time that I joined the army.
I will confess to you that cavalry are not of much use in a siege, although there was a time when I would not have permitted anyone to have made such an observation. The Hussars of Conflans were encamped to the south of the town, and it was their duty to throw out patrols and to make sure that no Spanish force was advancing from that quarter. The colonel of the regiment was not a good soldier, and the regiment was at that time very far from being in the high condition which it afterwards attained. Even in that one evening I saw several things which shocked me, for I had a high standard, and it went to my heart to see an ill-arranged camp, an ill-groomed horse, or a slovenly trooper. That night I supped with twenty-six of my new brother-officers, and I fear that in my zeal I showed them only too plainly that I found things very different to what I was accustomed in the army of Germany.
There was silence in the mess after my remarks, and I felt that I had been indiscreet when I saw the glances that were cast at me. The colonel especially was furious, and a great major named Olivier, who was the fire-eater of the regiment, sat opposite to me curling his huge black moustaches, and staring at me as if he would eat me. However, I did not resent his attitude, for I felt that I had indeed been indiscreet, and that it would give a bad impression if upon this my first evening I quarrelled with my superior officer.
So far I admit that I was wrong, but now I come to the sequel. Supper over, the colonel and some other officers left the room, for it was in a farm-house that the mess was held. There remained a dozen or so, and a goat-skin of Spanish wine having been brought in we all made merry. Presently this Major Olivier asked me some questions concerning the army of Germany and as to the part which I had myself played in the campaign. Flushed with the wine, I was drawn on from story to story. It was not unnatural, my friends.
You will sympathise with me. Up there I had been the model for every officer of my years in the army. I was the first swordsman, the most dashing rider, the hero of a hundred adventures. Here I found myself not only unknown, but even disliked. Was it not natural that I should wish to tell these brave comrades what sort of man it was that had come among them? Was it not natural that I should wish to say, “Rejoice, my friends, rejoice! It is no ordinary man who has joined you to-night, but it is I, THE Gerard, the hero of Ratisbon, the victor of Jena, the man who broke the square at Austerlitz”? I could not say all this. But I could at least tell them some incidents which would enable them to say it for themselves. I did so. They listened unmoved. I told them more. At last, after my tale of how I had guided the army across the Danube, one universal shout of laughter broke from them all. I sprang to my feet, flushed with shame and anger. They had drawn me on. They were making game of me. They were convinced that they had to do with a braggart and a liar. Was this my reception in the Hussars of Conflans?
I dashed the tears of mortification from my eyes, and they laughed the more at the sight.
“Do you know, Captain Pelletan, whether Marshal Lannes is still with the army?” asked the major.
“I believe that he is, sir,” said the other.
“Really, I should have thought that his presence was hardly necessary now that Captain Gerard has arrived.”
Again there was a roar of laughter. I can see the ring of faces, the mocking eyes, the open mouths– Olivier with his great black bristles, Pelletan thin and sneering, even the young sub-lieutenants convulsed with merriment. Heavens, the indignity of it! But my rage had dried my tears. I was myself again, cold, quiet, self-contained, ice without and fire within.
“May I ask, sir,” said I to the major, “at what hour the regiment is paraded?”
“I trust, Captain Gerard, that you do not mean to alter our hours,” said he, and again there was a burst of laughter, which died away as I looked slowly round the circle.
“What hour is the assembly?” I asked, sharply, of Captain Pelletan.
Some mocking answer was on his tongue, but my glance kept it there. “The assembly is at six,” he answered.
“I thank you,” said I. I then counted the company and found that I had to do with fourteen officers, two of whom appeared to be boys fresh from St. Cyr. I could not condescend to take any notice of their indiscretion.
There remained the major, four captains, and seven lieutenants.
“You will have no difficulty upon that score,” said the major. “I am prepared to waive my rank and to give you every satisfaction in the name of the Hussars of Conflans.”
“I thank you,” I answered. “I feel, however, that I have some claim upon these other gentlemen who laughed at my expense.”
“Whom would you fight, then?” asked Captain Pelletan.
“All of you,” I answered.
They looked in surprise from one to the other. Then they drew off to the other end of the room, and I heard the buzz of their whispers. They were laughing. Evidently they still thought that they had to do with some empty braggart. Then they returned.
“Your request is unusual,” said Major Olivier, “but it will be granted. How do you propose to conduct such a duel? The terms lie with you.”
“Sabres,” said I. “And I will take you in order of seniority, beginning with you, Major Olivier, at five o'clock. I will thus be able to devote five minutes to each before the assembly is blown. I must, however, beg you to have the courtesy to name the place of meeting, since I am still ignorant of the locality.”
They were impressed by my cold and practical manner.
Already the smile had died away from their lips.
Olivier's face was no longer mocking, but it was dark and stern.
“There is a small open space behind the horse lines,” said he. “We have held a few affairs of honour there and it has done very well. We shall be there, Captain Gerard, at the hour you name.”
I was in the act of bowing to thank them for their acceptance when the door of the mess-room was flung open and the colonel hurried into the room, with an agitated face.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “I have been asked to call for a volunteer from among you for a service which involves the greatest possible danger. I will not disguise from you that the matter is serious in the last degree, and that Marshal Lannes has chosen a cavalry officer because he can be better spared than an officer of infantry or of engineers. Married men are not eligible. Of the others, who will volunteer?”
I need not say that all the unmarried officers stepped to the front. The colonel looked round in some embarrassment.
I could see his dilemma. It was the best man who should go, and yet it was the best man whom he could least spare.
“Sir,” said I, “may I be permitted to make a suggestion?”
He looked at me with a hard eye. He had not forgotten my observations at supper. “Speak!” said he.
“I would point out, sir,” said I, “that this mission is mine both by right and by convenience.”
“Why so, Captain Gerard?”
“By right because I am the senior captain. By convenience because I shall not be missed in the regiments since the men have not yet learned to know me.”
The colonel's features relaxed.
“There is certainly truth in what you say, Captain Gerard,” said he. “I think that you are indeed best fitted to go upon this mission. If you will come with me I will give you your instructions.”
I wished my new comrades good-night as I left the room, and I repeated that I should hold myself at their disposal at five o'clock next morning. They bowed in silence, and I thought that I could see from the expression of their faces that they had already begun to take a more just view of my character.
I had expected that the colonel would at once inform me what it was that I had been chosen to do, but instead of that he walked on in silence, I following behind him.
We passed through the camp and made our way across the trenches and over the ruined heaps of stones which marked the old wall of the town. Within, there was a labyrinth of passages formed among the debris of the houses which had been destroyed by the mines of the engineers. Acres and acres were covered with splintered walls and piles of brick which had once been a populous suburb. Lanes had been driven through it and lanterns placed at the corners with inscriptions to direct the wayfarer. The colonel hurried onward until at last, after a long walk, we found our way barred by a high grey wall which stretched right across our path.
Here behind a barricade lay our advance guard. The colonel led me into a roofless house, and there I found two general officers, a map stretched over a drum in front of them, they kneeling beside it and examining it carefully by the light of a lantern. The one with the clean-shaven face and the twisted neck was Marshal Lannes, the other was General Razout, the head of the engineers.
“Captain Gerard has volunteered to go,” said the colonel.
Marshal Lannes rose from his knees and shook me by the hand.
“You are a brave man, sir,” said he. “I have a present to make to you,” he added, handing me a very tiny glass tube. “It has been specially prepared by Dr. Fardet. At the supreme moment you have but to put it to your lips and you will be dead in an instant.”
This was a cheerful beginning. I will confess to you, my friends, that a cold chill passed up my back and my hair rose upon my head.
“Excuse me, sir,” said I, as I saluted, “I am aware that I have volunteered for a service of great danger, but the exact details have not yet been given to me.”
“Colonel Perrin,” said Lannes, severely, “it is unfair to allow this brave officer to volunteer before he has learned what the perils are to which he will be exposed.”
But already I was myself once more.
“Sir,” said I, “permit me to remark that the greater the danger the greater the glory, and that I could only repent of volunteering if I found that there were no risks to be run.”