Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Our ride to Busaco

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In the spring of 1859 I was stationed at Coimbra, in the Kingdom of Portugal, one of a staff of engineers who were conducting the surveys for a railway, the concession for which had been granted by the government to an English company. Having a day’s leisure, myself and one of our party, whom for the nonce I will christen Smith, determined to avail ourselves of it to pay a visit to the Convent and battle-field of Busaco, at about four leagues distance. Having provided for the commissariat in the shape of a cold fowl, salad, and divers other comestibles, which were stowed in a pair of capacious alforges (cloth saddle-bags) behind my friend’s saddle, we started from Coimbra early in the morning, with the object of arriving at Busaco before the heat of midday. We were mounted on a pair of little scrambling active hacks which we had hired from an alguiere in the town, and were attended by the inevitable arriero without whom no one thinks of going a mile on horseback anywhere throughout the Peninsula. This lad, José by name, had already accompanied me in some previous expeditions, and I had taken a liking to him from his good nature, intelligence, and untiring activity. For about two leagues we followed the main road from Lisbon to Oporto, and then struck off on a track which led us through alternate pine-woods and olive-groves, to the foot of the mountain ridge, on the crest of which, on the glorious 27th of August, 1810, 50,000 British and Portuguese soldiers, commanded by the Duke, then Lord Wellington, met the onslaught of 70,000 French troops under the conduct of the Marshals of France, of whom Massena, the “spoilt child of victory,” was the chief, and drove them broken and discomfited down its rugged slopes with fearful slaughter.

On arriving at the convent, which nestles deep amid the thick cork forest which clothes the western side of the Serra de Busaco, we proceeded, before setting forth to explore the battle-field, to examine our resources, and discovered that we were without wine or any other potable, and that none was to be procured at the convent (from which the monks have long since been evicted) for love or money. Our arriero José, relieved us from the difficulty by proposing to run down to the village of Luz at the foot of the mountain, and bring back some Vinho do Duque, which he assured us should be something very superior. Girding his loins tightly with his particoloured ciata, he started off down the hill at as brisk a pace as if he had not already run twelve miles beside our horses that morning, and we proceeded to view the battle-field. The day was very hot, and by the time we returned to the convent we were thoroughly tired with our scramble over the steep slopes of the mountain, and were well pleased to find that our messenger had got back from Luz with four bottles of wine, the orange tawny hue and rich aroma of which showed that it was the real old vintage of the Alto Douro, unadulterated with the brandy and geropiga with which it is fortified for the voyage, and adapted to the palate of the British consumer. Smith was still more tired than myself; he professed to be something of a botanist, and had burthened himself with a great armful of weeds which he had collected in the course of our ramble. Having discussed our provisions, we sat lounging over our pipes and the wine until three bottles had disappeared, and the lengthening shadows of the tall cypresses in front of the convent showed that the sun had well nigh run its course. I determined to mount once more to the huge granite cross which crowns the peak of the Serra above the convent, to see the sun set in the Atlantic, but my companion had grown drowsy after his dinner, and I could not prevail on him to accompany me.

I only just reached the cross in time to see the sun disappear behind a mass of dense black clouds which were piling themselves up in the western horizon, and which seemed to threaten to interfere with the pleasure of the moonlight ride back to Coimbra which we had promised ourselves. I therefore at once hastened back down the steeply-winding, densely-wooded path to the convent, and found that Smith had in my absence nearly finished the remaining bottle of port, and had gone fast asleep. He grumbled and complained of feeling very queer on my rousing him up, and I saw at once that the wine had produced a considerable effect upon him. I went out to the stable to hurry the arriero round with the horses, and got back just in time to catch him in the act of finishing a large glass of the raw, burning, fig brandy of the country, which he assured me would set him all right, but which I much misdoubted was likely to produce an entirely opposite effect.

We had scarcely reached the foot of the mountain, before the clouds, which had rapidly spread over the sky, obscured the rising moon; and the lightning which began to play behind the shoulder of the Serra, showed that we were in for one of those tremendous thunder-storms to which anything we ever experience in our more temperate climate is a mere bagatelle. We now entered the dense olive groves, in which our horses stumbled every moment over the knotted and projecting roots, and to my annoyance I found that the wine he had drunk, and the acrid brandy with which he had topped it up, had produced such an effect upon my companion, that it was only by riding close alongside of him, grasping him tightly by the shoulder, with the arriero holding his leg on the other side, that I could keep him upon his horse.

It soon became evident that we could not proceed much farther in this manner, and I therefore consulted José as to what was to be done. After pondering some time, he suggested, and I thought somewhat reluctantly, that there was a small venda on a bye-road at a little distance where we might take shelter for a short time until the Señor had recovered himself a little, and we could proceed. The rain now began to fall in torrents, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I could keep Smith, who had become quite insensible, upon his horse. After a struggle of nearly an hour, we at length reached the venda, which stood on a high precipitous bank above the road, up which the lad scrambled to rouse the inmates; whilst I remained below holding the horses and supporting my insensible companion, who now and then muttered a few inarticulate words, upon my shoulder. It seemed an age before the arriero returned, accompanied by a decrepid old man bearing a lantern, who piloted us up the bank by a circuitous path which brought us to the back of the venda. This I found to be a long, low building, one end of which was appropriated to cattle, and the other end, shut off by a rough partition, was the kitchen and day-room, while a loft above it formed the sleeping-room of its inhabitants.

I succeeded in getting my intoxicated friend—just then I entitled him a drunken beast—into this shelter, and laid him at full length upon the floor beside a fire of pine-wood which burned at the further end, supporting his head upon the alforges with little regard for the botanical specimens with which he had crammed them, and loosening his scarf and collar. I then sat down on the other side of the fire, lighted my pipe, and tried as well as I could to dry my saturated garments. I was in the greatest perplexity what to do; it was absolutely necessary that I should be in Coimbra at an early hour in the morning, to make up and despatch by that day’s post, which left at ten o’clock for Lisbon, several business letters which it was important should go by the next day’s mail steamer to England. It was now past midnight, and Smith was in a state of stolid insensibility from which there seemed no prospect of his recovering for hours. The old man and woman, who seemed to be the sole inmates of our refuge, were both of them upwards of sixty years of age; and I knew that the pesantry of this part of Portugal, though wretchedly poor, are generally honest and inoffensive. I therefore set myself to interrogate the arriero, who having led his beasts into the other end of the cottage, and shaken them out a scanty meal of maize husks, the only fodder procurable, was now crouched in front of the fire, puffing his cigarro, as to whether he thought it would be safe to leave Smith here, while we pushed on to Coimbra with the two horses. I had some difficulty in explaining to him in my imperfect Portuguese, that it was necessary that I should reach Coimbra before the mail left in the morning, but when I had succeeded in doing so, he assured me that the Señor would be perfectly safe where he was, and that a seje (a species of hooded gig) could be sent for him in the morning. The hesitation which I had fancied he manifested before taking us to the venda had passed away so thoroughly, that I thought it must have been merely my imagination which had conjured it up to add to my other perplexities. I proceeded to explain to the old man and woman what I proposed doing, and in their presence emptied my friend’s pockets of his money and watch, covered him over with a manta, and left him, with his head supported by the alforges, to sleep off his intoxication, while we rode on through the storm which still raged without. We had some difficulty in getting the horses down the steep pathway, and when we reached the road, which was little more than a bridle-path, we could proceed but slowly, for the night was pitchy dark, and the arriero seemed less certain of his way, as we had diverged from the direct road to Coimbra for the purpose of getting to the venda. We had not gone above two miles, and had just entered a thick pine-wood, when we heard the trampling of a horse approaching in the direction we were going. The lad hailed the rider; but the latter, instead of pulling up, spurred his horse as we approached him, and dashed past us at a hard gallop. I was astonished at this unlooked-for proceeding, and still more so when the arriero stopped, listened till the footfall of the stranger’s horse died away in the distance, and then declared that we were in the wrong road, and should never reach Coimbra in the direction in which we were going. I could not account for this sudden change of purpose, and insisted on proceeding until, finding me determined, he at length told me, after much hesitation, that he believed the man who had passed us so abruptly to be the son of the old couple who kept the venda, that he was a noted contrabandista, and a lawless and unscrupulous character. He confessed that his fear, lest this man should be at home, had been the cause of the hesitation he had shown in going there in the first instance, which had been set at rest when the old folks informed him that their son had gone to Figuera, the nearest seaport, and was not expected home for some days. He said also that we must now be in the road to Figuera, which he had mistaken for that to Coimbra, and urged me to return at once to the venda to see to the safety of my friend. On this statement of facts, I at once assented, and we hurried back on the way we had come as speedily as the darkness would permit us.

On reaching the foot of the bank on which the venda stood we found, after several attempts, that it was impossible to get the horses up the steep and narrow pathway without a light, or some one who knew its windings better than we did, and I therefore left him at the bottom with the animals and scrambled up alone. On reaching the building I knocked heavily at the door without receiving any answer, though I fancied I could hear a movement within. My anxiety for my friend’s safety grew intense; for though the old people had seen me take possession of his watch and money, the contrabandista did not know this, and I feared that he might have entered the house, and perhaps murdered him before my return. I went round to a small window in the inhabited part of the house, first taking the precaution to open a large clasp knife which I had about me, and to place it in my bosom ready for a hasty grasp. I succeeded in unfastening the window, or rather shutters,—for glazed windows are a luxury unknown in the rural districts of Portugal;—but on throwing it open my worst fears seemed realised; my poor friend lay almost in the position in which I had eft him; but I was horrified to see that his face, neck, and head were crimsoned and clotted in gore. For a moment I stood paralysed with horror; but recovering myself immediately I sprang into the room. In doing so I knocked over the small settle, on which stood a large brass lamp, the light from which had revealed to me the fearful spectacle. The fire had burned low, and the brands only gave a dim red glow, insufficient to reveal surrounding objects. I stayed for a moment in the position in which I had fallen, only raising myself on my elbow, and clutching my knife to repel the attack which I expected; for the murderer might even now be in the room, scared only for a moment from his victim by my sudden entrance. I heard no sound save the beating of the storm and the muttered roll of the thunder, which was now dying away in the distance. Still I listened, till the drums of my ears seemed to throb and ring with the anxious tension of my excited nerves. Then I cautiously felt my way towards the fire. As I did so my hand came for a moment in contact with the face of my friend; horror, it was dabbled with his blood. Reaching the fire, I pushed the brands together, striving to raise a flame, still holding my knife in readiness to strike, and peering into the darkness to meet, if possible, the attack I momentarily expected. My dread was that my antagonist might have fire-arms, and that a bullet might fell me without the chance of retaliation. In a hand-to-hand struggle my knife would stand me in good stead, and man to man I held myself as good as any Portuguese that ever drew breath. Now the brands which I had stirred broke into a slight flicker of flame, and as they did so I crouched back behind the body, lest the light should make me a mark for the dreaded bullet. Still no sound was within the house, though I could hear distinctly the pulsation of my heart, and each beat seemed to send the blood in a rush to my brain. Yes, I heard two or three words indistinctly spoken and then a muffled footfall overhead. The trap-door at the top of the ladder was gently raised, and a bare foot appeared. I started up, with my knife raised ready to throw myself on the intruder as he should descend the ladder. He came down three or four steps, and then stopped below the trap-door, and held forward a lamp which seemed to throw a dazzling flood of light into the room. It was the old man whom I had seen on our first arrival, he saw me standing drawn together, my knife raised in act to spring upon him. He shrieked “O Deos!” and sprang up through the trap, which fell with a clang behind him, and I was again in darkness. The evident terror which he showed somewhat reassured me. I could hear him moving hurriedly overhead, and apparently rousing his wife. Was it possible, I thought, that this weak old man could have nerved himself to commit so horrible a crime? and if so, to what purpose? Just at this moment there came a hasty knocking at the door, and I heard the voice of my arriero, crying:

“Ola, Senor! Ola! abri a porta.”

Pushing the ashes of the fire again together, I went to the door, and after some difficulty succeeded in removing the heavy bar which fastened it. I said nothing as he came in, for I feared if I suddenly told him of the horrible crime which had been committed, that he might take flight, and I should be again left alone. After letting him in, I stood for a moment holding the door ajar, and listened to hear if any footstep without should tell that he was followed. In the meantime, and while I was closing the door, José had drawn from some nook around the hearth a bunch of maize husks, which he lighted among the ashes. The flame immediately revealed to him the bloody spectacle, and he started back, exclaiming, “Bom Jesus!” At the same moment the prostrate figure rose slowly to a sitting posture, and passing one hand across his face, stared first at one and then at the other of us, and finally stammered:

“I say Charley, old fellow, why, what’s the matter?”

I sprang forward, and caught him by the shoulders to support him, delighted to find even that he was alive, and while I did so the arriero picked up and relighted the lamp which I had thrown down in entering. As he brought it forward I gazed anxiously at my friend. He was covered with blood, indeed, but it flowed not from the gaping wound which I expected to see in his neck or breast, but from his nose. I stared stupidly at him for an instant, and then burst into a roar of laughter; the sudden revulsion of feeling quite overcame me, and if it is physically possible for a man to be hysterical, I was so on that occasion, for I ended by bursting into tears, and it was some minutes before I could reply to Smith’s confused and astonished inquiries. I then bethought me that the old couple upstairs must be almost as much terrified as I myself had been, and I directed José to mount the ladder and call to them. They had piled some heavy articles upon the trap, and it took a great deal of expostulation and persuasion before he could prevail on the old man to come down and be paid preparatory to our departure. The manner in which Smith had inflicted on himself the injury which had caused my alarm was easily perceptible. In his drunken sleep he had thrown himself over from one side to the other, and in doing so, had struck himself a severe blow against a large block of wood, which was lying close by the fire ready to replenish it. His proboscis was considerably swollen, and he had lost a good deal of blood; but this had a beneficial effect, for he was soon sufficiently steadied to mount his horse, and ride forward to Coimbra.

Whether the horseman who had passed us on the road was or was not the smuggler son of our host and hostess, we could not ascertain satisfactorily, but our arriero seemed to think that it must have been him, and that, alarmed at our appearance, and perhaps taking us for the officers of the tobacco contract, which is farmed out by the government, he had ridden to some safe place of deposit for the goods he had brought from Figuera, in place of going to his home, where they would naturally repair to look for him. I reached Coimbra just in time to save the mail to Lisbon, but my nerves were so shaken by the excitement I had undergone, that it was many days before I got over the effects of our ride to Busaco.