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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Snare - Chapter 1. The Affair At Tavora
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The Snare - Chapter 1. The Affair At Tavora Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1526

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The Snare - Chapter 1. The Affair At Tavora

CHAPTER I. THE AFFAIR AT TAVORA

It is established beyond doubt that Mr. Butler was drunk at the time. This rests upon the evidence of Sergeant Flanagan and the troopers who accompanied him, and it rests upon Mr. Butler's own word, as we shall see. And let me add here and now that however wild and irresponsible a rascal he may have been, yet by his own lights he was a man of honour, incapable of falsehood, even though it were calculated to save his skin. I do not deny that Sir Thomas Picton has described him as a "thieving blackguard." But I am sure that this was merely the downright, rather extravagant manner, of censure peculiar to that distinguished general, and that those who have taken the expression at its purely literal value have been lacking at once in charity and in knowledge of the caustic, uncompromising terms of speech of General Picton whom Lord Wellington, you will remember, called a rough, foulmouthed devil.

In further extenuation it may truthfully be urged that the whole hideous and odious affair was the result of a misapprehension; although I cannot go so far as one of Lieutenant Butler's apologists and accept the view that he was the victim of a deliberate plot on the part of his too-genial host at Regoa. That is a misconception easily explained. This host's name happened to be Souza, and the apologist in question has very rashly leapt at the conclusion that he was a member of that notoriously intriguing family, of which the chief members were the Principal Souza, of the Council of Regency at Lisbon, and the Chevalier Souza, Portuguese minister to the Court of St. James's. Unacquainted with Portugal, our apologist was evidently in ignorance of the fact that the name of Souza is almost as common in that country as the name of Smith in this. He may also have been misled by the fact that Principal Souza did not neglect to make the utmost capital out of the affair, thereby increasing the difficulties with which Lord Wellington was already contending as a result of incompetence and deliberate malice on the part both of the ministry at home and of the administration in Lisbon.

Indeed, but for these factors it is unlikely that the affair could ever have taken place at all. If there had been more energy on the part of Mr. Perceval and the members of the Cabinet, if there had been less bad faith and self-seeking on the part of the Opposition, Lord Wellington's campaign would not have been starved as it was; and if there had been less bad faith and self-seeking of an even more stupid and flagrant kind on the part of the Portuguese Council of Regency, the British Expeditionary Force would not have been left without the stipulated supplies and otherwise hindered at every step.

Lord Wellington might have experienced the mental agony of Sir John Moore under similar circumstances fifteen months earlier. That he did suffer, and was to suffer yet more, his correspondence shows. But his iron will prevented that suffering from disturbing the equanimity of his mind. The Council of Regency, in its concern to court popularity with the aristocracy of Portugal, might balk his measures by its deliberate supineness; echoes might reach him of the voices at St. Stephen's that loudly dubbed his dispositions rash, presumptuous and silly; catch-halfpenny journalists at home and men of the stamp of Lord Grey might exploit their abysmal military ignorance in reckless criticism and censure of his operations; he knew what a passionate storm of anger and denunciation had arisen from the Opposition when he had been raised to the peerage some months earlier, after the glorious victory of Talavera, and how, that victory notwithstanding, it had been proclaimed that his conduct of the campaign was so incompetent as to deserve, not reward, but punishment; and he was aware of the growing unpopularity of the war in England, knew that the Government--ignorant of what he was so laboriously preparing--was chafing at his inactivity of the past few months, so that a member of the Cabinet wrote to him exasperatedly, incredibly and fatuously--"for God's sake do something--anything so that blood be spilt."

A heart less stout might have been broken, a genius less mighty stifled in this evil tangle of stupidity, incompetence and malignity that sprang up and flourished about him can every hand. A man less single-minded must have succumbed to exasperation, thrown up his command and taken ship for home, inviting some of his innumerable critics to take his place at the head of the troops, and give free rein to the military genius that inspired their critical dissertations. Wellington, however, has been rightly termed of iron, and never did he show himself more of iron than in those trying days of 1810. Stern, but with a passionless sternness, he pursued his way towards the goal he had set himself, allowing no criticism, no censure, no invective so much as to give him pause in his majestic progress.

Unfortunately the lofty calm of the Commander-in-Chief was not shared by his lieutenants. The Light Division was quartered along the River Agueda, watching the Spanish frontier, beyond which Marshal Ney was demonstrating against Ciudad Rodrigo, and for lack of funds its fiery-tempered commander, Sir Robert Craufurd, found himself at last unable to feed his troops. Exasperated by these circumstances, Sir Robert was betrayed into an act of rashness. He seized some church plate at Pinhel that he might convert it into rations. It was an act which, considering the general state of public feeling in the country at the time, might have had the gravest consequences, and Sir Robert was subsequently forced to do penance and afford redress. That, however, is another story. I but mention the incident here because the affair of Tavora with which I am concerned may be taken to have arisen directly out of it, and Sir Robert's behaviour may be construed as setting an example and thus as affording yet another extenuation of Lieutenant Butler's offence.

Our lieutenant was sent upon a foraging expedition into the valley of the Upper Douro, at the head of a half-troop of the 8th Dragoons, two squadrons of which were attached at the time to the Light Division. To be more precise, he was to purchase and bring into Pinhel a hundred head of cattle, intended some for slaughter and some for draught. His instructions were to proceed as far as Regoa and there report himself to one Bartholomew Bearsley, a prosperous and influential English wine-grower, whose father had acquired considerable vineyards in the Douro. He was reminded of the almost hostile disposition of the peasantry in certain districts; warned to handle them with tact and to suffer no straggling on the part of his troopers; and advised to place himself in the hands of Mr. Bearsley for all that related to the purchase of the cattle. Let it be admitted at once that had Sir Robert Craufurd been acquainted with Mr. Butler's feather-brained, irresponsible nature, he would have selected any officer rather than our lieutenant to command that expedition. But the Irish Dragoons had only lately come to Pinhel, and the general himself was not immediately concerned.

Lieutenant Butler set out on a blustering day of March at the head of his troopers, accompanied by Cornet O.'Rourke and two sergeants, and at Pesqueira he was further reinforced by a Portuguese guide. They found quarters that night at Ervedoza, and early on the morrow they were in the saddle again, riding along the heights above the Cachao da Valleria, through which the yellow, swollen river swirled and foamed along its rocky way. The prospect, formidable even in the full bloom of fruitful and luxuriant summer, was forbidding and menacing now as some imagined gorge of the nether regions. The towering granite heights across the turgid stream were shrouded in mist and sweeping rain, and from the leaden heavens overhead the downpour was of a sullen and merciless steadiness, starting at every step a miniature torrent to go swell the roaring waters in the gorge, and drenching the troop alike in body and in spirit. Ahead, swathed to the chin in his blue cavalry cloak, the water streaming from his leather helmet, rode Lieutenant Butler, cursing the weather, the country; the Light Division, and everything else that occurred to him as contributing to his present discomfort. Beside him, astride of a mule, rode the Portuguese guide in a caped cloak of thatched straw, which made him look for all the world like a bottle of his native wine in its straw sheath. Conversation between the two was out of the question, for the guide spoke no English and the lieutenant's knowledge of Portuguese was very far from conversational.

Presently the ground sloped, and the troop descended from the heights by a road flanked with dripping pinewoods, black and melancholy, that for a while screened them off from the remainder of the sodden world. Thence they emerged near the head of the bridge that spanned the swollen river and led them directly into the town of Regoa. Through the mud and clay of the deserted, narrow, unpaved streets the dragoons squelched their way, under a super-deluge, for the rain was now reinforced by steady and overwhelming sheets of water descending on either side from the gutter-shaped tiles that roofed the houses.

Inquisitive faces showed here and there behind blurred windows; odd doors were opened that a peasant family might stare in questioning wonder--and perhaps in some concern--at the sodden pageant that was passing. But in the streets themselves the troopers met no living thing, all the world having scurried to shelter from the pitiless downpour.

Beyond the town they were brought by their guide to a walled garden, and halted at a gateway. Beyond this could be seen a fair white house set in the foreground of the vineyards that rose in terraces up the hillside until they were lost from sight in the lowering veils of mist. Carved on the granite lintel of that gateway, the lieutenant beheld the inscription, "BARTHOLOMEU BEARSLEY, 1744," and knew himself at his destination, at the gates of the son or grandson--he knew not which, nor cared--of the original tenant of that wine farm.

Mr. Bearsley, however, was from home. The lieutenant was informed of this by Mr. Bearsley's steward, a portly, genial, rather priestly gentleman in smooth black broadcloth, whose name was Souza--a name which, as I have said, has given rise to some misconceptions. Mr. Bearsley himself had lately left for England, there to wait until the disturbed state of Portugal should be happily repaired. He had been a considerable sufferer from the French invasion under Soult, and none may blame him for wishing to avoid a repetition of what already he had undergone, especially now that it was rumoured that the Emperor in person would lead the army gathering for conquest on the frontiers.

But had Mr. Bearsley been at home the dragoons could have received no warmer welcome than that which was extended to them by Fernando Souza. Greeting the lieutenant in intelligible English, he implored him, in the florid manner of the Peninsula, to count the house and all within it his own property, and to command whatever he might desire.

The troopers found accommodation in the kitchen and in the spacious hall, where great fires of pine logs were piled up for their comfort; and for the remainder of the day they abode there in various states of nakedness, relieved by blankets and straw capotes, what time the house was filled with the steam and stench of their drying garments. Rations had been short of late on the Agueda, and, in addition, their weary ride through the rain had made the men sharp-set. Abundance of food was placed before them by the solicitude of Fernando Souza, and they feasted, as they had not feasted for many months, upon roast kid, boiled rice and golden maize bread, washed down by a copious supply of a rough and not too heady wine that the discreet and discriminating steward judged appropriate to their palates and capable of supporting some abuse.

Akin to the treatment of the troopers in hall and kitchen, but on a nobler scale, was the treatment of Lieutenant Butler and Cornet O'Rourke in the dining-room. For them a well-roasted turkey took the place of kid, and Souza went down himself to explore the cellars for a well-sunned, time-ripened Douro table wine which he vowed--and our dragoons agreed with him--would put the noblest Burgundy to shame; and then with the dessert there was a Port the like of which Mr. Butler--who was always of a nice taste in wine, and who was coming into some knowledge of Port from his residence in the country--had never dreamed existed.

For four and twenty hours the dragoons abode at Mr. Bearsley's quinta, thanking God for the discomforts that had brought them to such comfort, feasting in this land of plenty as only those can feast who have kept a rigid Lent. Nor was this all. The benign Souza was determined that the sojourn there of these representatives of his country's deliverers should be a complete rest and holiday. Not for Mr. Butler to journey to the uplands in this matter of a herd of bullocks. Fernando Souza had at command a regiment of labourers, who were idle at this time of year, and whom his good nature would engage on behalf of his English guests. Let the lieutenant do no more than provide the necessary money for the cattle, and the rest should happen as by enchantment--and Souza himself would see to it that the price was fair and proper.

The lieutenant asked no better. He had no great opinion of himself either as cattle dealer or cattle drover, nor did his ambitions beget in him any desire to excel as one or the other. So he was well content that his host should have the bullocks fetched to Regoa for him. The herd was driven in on the following afternoon, by when the rain had ceased, and our lieutenant had every reason to be pleased when he beheld the solid beasts procured. Having disbursed the amount demanded--an amount more reasonable far than he had been prepared to pay--Mr. Butler would have set out forthwith to return to Pinhel, knowing how urgent was the need of the division and with what impatience the choleric General Craufurd would be awaiting him.

"Why, so you shall, so you shall," said the priestly, soothing Souza. "But first you'll dine. There is good dinner--ah, but what good dinner!--that I have order. And there is a wine--ah, but you shall give me news of that wine."

Lieutenant Butler hesitated. Cornet O'Rourke watched him anxiously, praying that he might succumb to the temptation, and attempted suasion in the form of a murmured blessing upon Souza's hospitality.

"Sir Robert will be impatient," demurred the lieutenant.

"But half-hour," protested Souza. "What is half-hour? And in half-hour you will have dine."

"True," ventured the cornet; "and it's the devil himself knows when we may dine again."

"And the dinner is ready. It can be serve this instant. It shall," said Souza with finality, and pulled the bell-rope.

Mr. Butler, never dreaming--as indeed how could he?--that Fate was taking a hand in this business, gave way, and they sat down to dinner. Henceforth you see him the sport of pitiless circumstance.

They dined within the half-hour, as Souza had promised, and they dined exceedingly well. If yesterday the steward had been able without warning of their coming to spread at short notice so excellent a feast, conceive what had been accomplished now by preparation. Emptying his fourth and final bumper of rich red Douro, Mr. Butler paid his host the compliment of a sigh and pushed back his chair.

But Souza detained him, waving a hand that trembled with anxiety, and with anxiety stamped upon his benignly rotund and shaven countenance.

"An instant yet," he implored. "Mr. Bearsley would never pardon me did I let you go without what he call a stirrup-cup to keep you from the ills that lurk in the wind of the Serra. A glass--but one--of that Port you tasted yesterday. I say but a glass, yet I hope you will do honour to the bottle. But a glass at least, at least!" He implored it almost with tears. Mr. Butler had reached that state of delicious torpor in which to take the road is the last agony; but duty was duty, and Sir Robert Craufurd had the fiend's own temper. Torn thus between consciousness of duty and the weakness of the flesh, he looked at O'Rourke. O'Rourke, a cherubic fellow, who had for his years a very pretty taste in wine, returned the glance with a moist eye, and licked his lips.

"In your place I should let myself be tempted," says he. "It's an elegant wine, and ten minutes more or less is no great matter."

The lieutenant discovered a middle way which permitted him to take a prompt decision creditable to his military instincts, but revealing a disgraceful though quite characteristic selfishness.

"Very well," he said. "Leave Sergeant Flanagan and ten men to wait for me, O'Rourke, and do you set out at once with the rest of the troop. And take the cattle with you. I shall overtake you before you have gone very far."

O'Rourke's crestfallen air stirred the sympathetic Souza's pity.

"But, Captain," he besought, "will you not allow the lieutenant--"

Mr. Butler cut him short. "Duty," said he sententiously, "is duty. Be off, O'Rourke."

And O'Rourke, clicking his heels viciously, saluted and departed.

Came presently the bottles in a basket--not one, as Souza had said, but three; and when the first was done Butler reflected that since O'Rourke and the cattle were already well upon the road there need no longer be any hurry about his own departure. A herd of bullocks does not travel very quickly, and even with a few hours' start in a forty-mile journey is easily over-taken by a troop of horse travelling without encumbrance.

You understand, then, how easily our lieutenant yielded himself to the luxurious circumstances, and disposed himself to savour the second bottle of that nectar distilled from the very sunshine of the Douro--the phrase is his own. The steward produced a box of very choice cigars, and although the lieutenant was not an habitual smoker, he permitted himself on this exceptional occasion to be further tempted. Stretched in a deep chair beside the roaring fire of pine logs, he sipped and smoked and drowsed away the greater par of that wintry afternoon. Soon the third bottle had gone the way of the second, and Mr. Bearsley's steward being a man of extremely temperate habit, it follow: that most of the wine had found its way down the lieutenant's thirsty gullet.

It was perhaps a more potent vintage than he had at first suspected, and as the torpor produced by the dinner and the earlier, fuller wine was wearing off, it was succeeded by an exhilaration that played havoc with the few wits that Mr. Butler could call his own.

The steward was deeply learned in wines and wine growing and in very little besides; consequently the talk was almost confined to that subject in its many branches, and he could be interesting enough, like all enthusiasts. To a fresh burst of praise from Butler of the ruby vintage to which he had been introduced, the steward presently responded with a sigh:

"Indeed, as you say, Captain, a great wine. But we had a greater."

"Impossible, by God," swore Butler, with a hiccup.

"You may say so; but it is the truth. We had a greater; a wonderful, clear vintage it was, of the year 1798--a famous year on the Douro, the quite most famous year that we have ever known. Mr. Bearsley sell some pipes to the monks at Tavora, who have bottle it and keep it. I beg him at the time not to sell, knowing the value it must come to have one day. But he sell all the same. Ah, meu Deus!" The steward clasped his hands and raised rather prominent eyes to the ceiling, protesting to his Maker against his master's folly. "He say we have plenty, and now"--he spread fat hands in a gesture of despair--"and now we have none. Some sons of dogs of French who came with Marshal Soult happen this way on a forage they discover the wine and they guzzle it like pigs." He swore, and his benignity was eclipsed by wrathful memory. He heaved himself up in a passion.

"Think of that so priceless vintage drink like hogwash, as Mr. Bearsley say, by those god-dammed French swine, not a drop--not a spoonful remain. But the monks at Tavora still have much of what they buy, I am told. They treasure it for they know good wine. All priests know good wine. Ah yes! Goddam!" He fell into deep reflection.

Lieutenant Butler stirred, and became sympathetic.

"'San infern'l shame," said he indignantly. "I'll no forgerrit when I... meet the French." Then he too fell into reflection.

He was a good Catholic, and, moreover, a Catholic who did not take things for granted. The sloth and self-indulgence of the clergy in Portugal, being his first glimpse of conventuals in Latin countries, had deeply shocked him. The vows of a monastic poverty that was kept carefully beyond the walls of the monastery offended his sense of propriety. That men who had vowed themselves to pauperism, who wore coarse garments and went barefoot, should batten upon rich food and store up wines that gold could not purchase, struck him as a hideous incongruity.

"And the monks drink this nectar?" he said aloud, and laughed sneeringly. "I know the breed--the fair found belly wi' fat capon lined. Tha's your poverty stricken Capuchin."

Souza looked at him in sudden alarm, bethinking himself that all Englishmen were heretics, and knowing nothing of subtle distinctions between English and Irish. In silence Butler finished the third and last bottle, and his thoughts fixed themselves with increasing insistence upon a wine reputed better than this of which there was great store in the cellars of the convent of Tavora.

Abruptly he asked: "Where's Tavora?" He was thinking perhaps of the comfort that such wine would bring to a company of war-worn soldiers in the valley of the Agueda.

"Some ten leagues from here," answered Souza, and pointed to a map that hung upon the wall.

The lieutenant rose, and rolled a thought unsteadily across the room. He was a tall, loose-limbed fellow, blue-eyed, fair-complexioned, with a thatch of fiery red hair excellently suited to his temperament. He halted before the map, and with legs wide apart, to afford him the steadying support of a broad basis, he traced with his finger the course of the Douro, fumbled about the district of Regoa, and finally hit upon the place he sought.

"Why," he said, "seems to me 'sif we should ha' come that way. I's shorrer road to Pesqueira than by the river."

"As the bird fly," said Souza. "But the roads be bad--just mule tracks, while by the river the road is tolerable good."

"Yet," said the lieutenant, "I think I shall go back tha' way."

The fumes of the wine were mounting steadily to addle his indifferent brains. Every moment he was seeing things in proportions more and more false. His resentment against priests who, sworn to self-abnegation, hoarded good wine, whilst soldiers sent to keep harm from priests' fat carcasses were left to suffer cold and even hunger, was increasing with every moment. He would sample that wine at Tavora; and he would bear some of it away that his brother officers at Pinhel might sample it. He would buy it. Oh yes! There should be no plundering, no irregularity, no disregard of general orders. He would buy the wine and pay for it--but himself he would fix the price, and see that the monks of Tavora made no profit out of their defenders.

Thus he thought as he considered the map. Presently, when having taken leave of Fernando Souza--that prince of hosts--Mr. Butler was riding down through the town with Sergeant Flanagan and ten troopers at his heels, his purpose deepened and became more fierce. I think the change of temperature must have been to blame. It was a chill, bleak evening. Overhead, across a background of faded blue, scudded ragged banks of clouds, the lingering flotsam of the shattered rainstorm of yesterday: and a cavalry cloak afforded but indifferent protection against the wind that blew hard and sharp from the Atlantic.

Coming from the genial warmth of Mr. Souza's parlour into this, the evaporation of the wine within him was quickened, its fumes mounted now overwhelmingly to his brain, and from comfortably intoxicated that he had been hitherto, the lieutenant now became furiously drunk; and the transition was a very rapid one. It was now that he looked upon the business he had in hand in the light of a crusade; a sort of religious fanaticism began to actuate him.

The souls of these wretched monks must be saved; the temptation to self-indulgence, which spelt perdition for them, must be removed from their midst. It was a Christian duty. He no longer though of buying the wine and paying for it. His one aim ow was to obtain possession of it not merely a part of it, but all of it--and carry it off, thereby accomplishing two equally praiseworthy ends: to rescue a conventful of monks from damnation, and to regale the much-enduring, half-starved campaigners of the Agueda.

Thus reasoned Mr. Butler with admirable, if drunken, logic. And reasoning thus he led the way over the bridge, and kept straight on when he had crossed it, much to the dismay of Sergeant Flanagan, who, perceiving the lieutenant's condition, conceived that he was missing his way. This the sergeant ventured to point out, reminding his officer that they had come by the road along the river.

"So we did," said Butler shortly. "Bu' we go back by way of Tavora."

They had no guide. The one who had conducted them to Regoa had returned with O'Rourke, and although Souza had urged upon the lieutenant at parting that he should take one of the men from the quinta, Butler, with wit enough to see that this was not desirable under the circumstances, had preferred to find his way alone.

His confused mind strove now to revisualise the map which he had consulted in Souza's parlour. He discovered, naturally enough, that the task was altogether beyond his powers. Meanwhile night was descending. They were, however, upon the mule track, which went up and round the shoulder of a hill, and by this they came at dark upon a hamlet.

Sergeant Flanagan was a shrewd fellow and perhaps the most sober man in the troop--for the wine had run very freely in Souza's kitchen, too, and the men, whilst awaiting their commander's pleasure, had taken the fullest advantage of an opportunity that was all too rare upon that campaign. Now Sergeant Flanagan began to grow anxious. He knew the Peninsula from the days of Sir John Moore, and he knew as much of the ways of the peasantry of Portugal as any man. He knew of the brutal ferocity of which that peasantry was capable. He had seen evidence more than once of the unspeakable fate of French stragglers from the retreating army of Marshal Soult. He knew of crucifixions, mutilations and hideous abominations practised upon them in these remote hill districts by the merciless men into whose hands they happened to fall, and he knew that it was not upon French soldiers alone--that these abominations had been practised. Some of those fierce peasants had been unable to discriminate between invader and deliverer; to them a foreigner was a foreigner and no more. Others, who were capable of discriminating, were in the position of having come to look upon French and English with almost equal execration.

It is true that whilst the Emperor's troops made war on the maxim that an army must support itself upon the country it traverses, thereby achieving a greater mobility, since it was thus permitted to travel comparatively light, the British law was that all things requisitioned must be paid for. Wellington maintained this law in spite of all difficulties at all times with an unrelaxing rigidity, and punished with the utmost vigour those who offended against it. Nevertheless breaches were continual; men broke out here and there, often, be it said, under stress of circumstances for which the Portuguese were themselves responsible; plunder and outrage took place and provoked indiscriminating rancour with consequences at times as terrible to stragglers from the British army of deliverance as to those from the French army of oppressors. Then, too, there was the Portuguese Militia Act recently enforced by Wellington--acting through the Portuguese Government--deeply resented by the peasantry upon whom it bore, and rendering them disposed to avenge it upon such stray British soldiers as might fall into their hands.

Knowing all this, Sergeant Flanagan did not at all relish this night excursion into the hill fastnesses, where at any moment, as it seemed to him, they might miss their way. After all, they were but twelve men all told, and he accounted it a stupid thing to attempt to take a short cut across the hills for the purpose of overtaking an encumbered troop that must of necessity be moving at a very much slower pace. This was the way not to overtake but to outdistance. Yet since it was not for him to remonstrate with the lieutenant, he kept his peace and hoped anxiously for the best.

At the mean wine-shop of that hamlet Mr. Butler inquired his way by the simple expedient of shouting "Tavora?" with a strong interrogative inflection. The vintner made it plain by gestures--accompanied by a rattling musketry of incomprehensible speech that their way lay straight ahead. And straight ahead they went, following that mule track for some five or six miles until it began to slope gently towards the plain again. Below them they presently beheld a cluster of twinkling lights to advertise a township. They dropped swiftly down, and in the outskirts overtook a belated bullock-cart, whose ungreased axle was arousing the hillside echoes with its plangent wail.

Of the vigorous young woman who marched barefoot beside it, shouldering her goad as if it were a pikestaff, Mr. Butler inquired--by his usual method--if this were Tavora, to receive an answer which, though voluble, was unmistakably affirmative.

"Covento Dominicano?" was his next inquiry, made after they had gone some little way.

The woman pointed with her goad to a massive, dark building, flanked by a little church, which stood just across the square they were entering.

A moment later the sergeant, by Mr. Butler's orders, was knocking upon the iron-studded main door. They waited awhile in vain. None came to answer the knock; no light showed anywhere upon the dark face of the convent. The sergeant knocked again, more vigorously than before. Presently came timid, shuffling steps; a shutter opened in the door, and the grille thus disclosed was pierced by a shaft of feeble yellow light. A quavering, aged voice demanded to know who knocked.

"English soldiers," answered the lieutenant in Portuguese. "Open!"

A faint exclamation suggestive of dismay was the answer, the shutter closed again with a snap, the shuffling steps retreated and unbroken silence followed.

"Now wharra devil may this mean?" growled Mr. Butler. Drugged wits, like stupid ones, are readily suspicious. "Wharra they hatching in here that they are afraid of lerring Bri'ish soldiers see? Knock again, Flanagan. Louder, man!"

The sergeant beat the door with the butt of his carbine. The blows gave out a hollow echo, but evoked no more answer than if they had fallen upon the door of a mausoleum. Mr. Butler completely lost his temper. "Seems to me that we've stumbled upon a hotbed o' treason. Hotbed o' treason!" he repeated, as if pleased with the phrase. "That's wharrit is." And he added peremptorily: "Break down the door."

"But, sir," began the sergeant in protest, greatly daring.

"Break down the door," repeated Mr. Butler. "Lerrus be after seeing wha' these monks are afraid of showing us. I've a notion they're hiding more'n their wine."

Some of the troopers carried axes precisely against such an emergency as this. Dismounting, they fell upon the door with a will. But the oak was stout, fortified by bands of iron and great iron studs; and it resisted long. The thud of the axes and the crash of rending timbers could be heard from one end of Tavora to the other, yet from the convent it evoked no slightest response. But presently, as the door began to yield to the onslaught, there came another sound to arouse the town. From the belfry of the little church a bell suddenly gave tongue upon a frantic, hurried note that spoke unmistakably of alarm. Ding-ding-ding-ding it went, a tocsin summoning the assistance of all true sons of Mother Church.

Mr. Butler, however, paid little heed to it. The door was down at last, and followed by his troopers he rode under the massive gateway into the spacious close. Dismounting there, and leaving the woefully anxious sergeant and a couple of men to guard the horses, the lieutenant led the way along the cloisters, faintly revealed by a new-risen moon, towards a gaping doorway whence a feeble light was gleaming. He stumbled over the step into a hall dimly lighted by a lantern swinging from the ceiling. He found a chair, mounted it, and cut the lantern down, then led the way again along an endless corridor, stone-flagged and flanked on either side by rows of cells. Many of the doors stood open, as if in silent token of the tenants' hurried flight, showing what a panic had been spread by the sudden advent of this troop.

Mr. Butler became more and more deeply intrigued, more and more deeply suspicious that here all was not well. Why should a community of loyal monks take flight in this fashion from British soldiers?

"Bad luck to them!" he growled, as he stumbled on. "They may hide as they will, but it's myself 'll run the shavelings to earth."

They were brought up short at the end of that long, chill gallery by closed double doors. Beyond these an organ was pealing, and overhead the clapper of the alarm bell was beating more furiously than ever. All realised that they stood upon the threshold of the chapel and that the conventuals had taken refuge there.

Mr. Butler checked upon a sudden suspicion. "Maybe, after all, they've taken us for French," said he.

A trooper ventured to answer him. "Best let them see we're not before we have the whole village about our ears."

"Damn that bell," said the lieutenant, and added: "Put your shoulders to the door."

Its fastenings were but crazy ones, and it yielded almost instantly to their pressure--yielded so suddenly that Mr. Butler, who himself had been foremost in straining against it, shot forward half-a-dozen yards into the chapel and measured his length upon its cold flags.

Simultaneously from the chancel came a great cry: "Libera nos, Domine!" followed by a shuddering murmur of prayer.

The lieutenant picked himself up, recovered the lantern that had rolled from his grasp, and lurched forward round the angle that hid the chancel from his view. There, huddled before the main altar like a flock of scared and stupid sheep, he beheld the conventuals--some two score of them perhaps and in the dim light of the heavy altar lamp above them he could make out the black and white habit of the order of St. Dominic.

He came to a halt, raised his lantern aloft, and called to them peremptorily:

"Ho, there!"

The organ ceased abruptly, but the bell overhead went clattering on.

Mr. Butler addressed them in the best French he could command: "What do you fear? Why do you flee? We are friends--English soldiers, seeking quarters for the night."

A vague alarm was stirring in him. It began to penetrate his obfuscated mind that perhaps he had been rash, that this forcible rape of a convent was a serious matter. Therefore he attempted this peaceful explanation.

From that huddled group a figure rose, and advanced with a solemn, stately grace. There was a faint swish of robes, the faint rattle of rosary beads. Something about that figure caught the lieutenant's attention sharply. He craned forward, half sobered by the sudden fear that clutched him, his eyes bulging in his face.

"I had thought," said a gentle, melancholy woman's voice, "that the seals of a nunnery were sacred to British soldiers."

For a moment Mr. Butler seemed to be labouring for breath. Fully sobered now, understanding of his ghastly error reached him at the gallop.

"My God!" he gasped, and incontinently turned to flee.

But as he fled in horror of his sacrilege, he still kept his head turned, staring over his shoulder at the stately figure of the abbess, either in fascination or with some lingering doubt of what he had seen and heard. Running thus, he crashed headlong into a pillar, and, stunned by the blow, he reeled and sank unconscious to the ground.

This the troopers had not seen, for they had not lingered. Understanding on their own part the horrible blunder, they had turned even as their leader turned, and they had raced madly back the way they had come, conceiving that he followed. And there was reason for their haste other than their anxiety to set a term to the sacrilege of their presence. From the cloistered garden of the convent uproar reached them, and the metallic voice of Sergeant Flanagan calling loudly for help.

The alarm bell of the convent had done its work. The villagers were up, enraged by the outrage, and armed with sticks and scythes and bill-hooks, an army of them was charging to avenge this infamy. The troopers reached the close no more than in time. Sergeant Flanagan, only half understanding the reason for so much anger, but understanding that this anger was very real and very dangerous, was desperately defending the horses with his two companions against the vanguard of the assailants. There was a swift rush of the dragoons and in an instant they were in the saddle, all but the lieutenant, of whose absence they were suddenly made conscious. Flanagan would have gone back for him, and he had in fact begun to issue an order with that object when a sudden surge of the swelling, roaring crowd cut off the dragoons from the door through which they had emerged. Sitting their horses, the little troop came together, their sabres drawn, solid as a rock in that angry human sea that surged about them. The moon riding now clear overhead irradiated that scene of impending strife.

Flanagan, standing in his stirrups, attempted to harangue the mob. But he was at a loss what to say that would appease them, nor able to speak a language they could understand. An angry peasant made a slash at him with a billhook. He parried the blow on his sabre, and with the flat of it knocked his assailant senseless.

Then the storm burst, and the mob flung itself upon the dragoons.

"Bad cess to you!" cried Flanagan. "Will ye listen to me, ye murthering villains." Then in despair "Char-r-r-ge!" he roared, and headed for the gateway.

The troopers attempted in vain to reach it. The mob hemmed them about too closely, and then a horrid hand-to-hand fight began, under the cold light of the moon, in that garden consecrated to peace and piety. Two saddles had been emptied, and the exasperated troopers were slashing now at their assailants with the edge, intent upon cutting a way out of that murderous press. It is doubtful if a man of them would have survived, for the odds were fully ten to one against them. To their aid came now the abbess. She stood on a balcony above, and called upon the people to desist, and hear her. Thence she harangued them for some moments, commanding them to allow the soldiers to depart. They obeyed with obvious reluctance, and at last a lane was opened in that solid, seething mass of angry clods.

But Flanagan hesitated to pass down this lane and so depart. Three of his troopers were down by now, and his lieutenant was missing. He was exercised to resolve where his duty lay. Behind him the mob was solid, cutting off the dragoons from their fallen comrades. An attempt to go back might be misunderstood and resisted, leading to a renewal of the combat, and surely in vain, for he could not doubt but that the fallen troopers had been finished outright.

Similarly the mob stood as solid between him and the door that led to the interior of the convent, where Mr. Butler was lingering alive or dead. A number of peasants had already invaded the actual building, so that in that connection too the sergeant concluded that there was little reason to hope that the lieutenant should have escaped the fate his own rashness had invoked. He had his remaining seven men to think of, and he concluded that it was his duty under all the circumstances to bring these off alive, and not procure their massacre by attempting fruitless quixotries.

So "Forward!" roared the voice of Sergeant Flanagan, and forward went the seven through the passage that had opened out before them in that hooting, angry mob.

Beyond the convent walls they found fresh assailants awaiting them, enemies these, who had not been soothed by the gentle, reassuring voice of the abbess. But here there was more room to manoeuvre.

"Trot!" the sergeant commanded, and soon that trot became a gallop. A shower of stones followed them as they thundered out of Tavora, and the sergeant himself had a lump as large as a duck-egg on the middle of his head when next day he reported himself at Pesqueira to Cornet O'Rourke, whom he overtook there.

When eventually Sir Robert Craufurd heard the story of the affair, he was as angry as only Sir Robert could be. To have lost four dragoons and to have set a match to a train that might end in a conflagration was reason and to spare.

"How came such a mistake to be made?" he inquired, a scowl upon his full red countenance.

Mr. O'Rourke had been investigating and was primed with knowledge.

"It appears, sir, that at Tavora there is a convent of Dominican nuns as well as a monastery of Dominican friars. Mr. Butler will have used the word 'convento,' which more particularly applies to the nunnery, and so he was directed to the wrong house."

"And you say the sergeant has reason to believe that Mr. Butler did not survive his folly?"

"I am afraid there can be no hope, sir."

"It's perhaps just as well," said Sir Robert. "For Lord Wellington would certainly have had him shot."

And there you have the true account of the stupid affair of Tavora, which was to produce, as we shall see, such far-reaching effects upon persons nowise concerned in it.

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