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 Gassion conducted the movements of the army so adroitly that he had brought it to within almost striking distance of the Spanish divisions before Marshal l'Hopital perceived the fact that it was so placed that a battle was almost inevitable. He besought Enghien to fall back while there was yet time, pointing out the orders that had been given that a battle was not to be hazarded, and the terrible misfortunes that would fall upon France in case of defeat. Enghien, however, was deaf to his advice, and refused to acknowledge his authority. Turenne, under similar circumstances, would have drawn off and forced the enemy to raise the siege by threatening their line of communications; but Turenne thought nothing of personal glory, and fought only for France. Enghien, on the other hand, throughout his career was animated by personal motives, and cared nothing for the general welfare of France. Turenne was wholly unselfish; Enghien was ready to sacrifice anything or everything for his own glory or interest. At present, surrounded as he was by young nobles as eager to fight as he was himself, and backed by Gassion, one of the most able and enterprising soldiers of the day, he declared that he had come to fight and would do so. Even had l'Hopital known the news that had been received by Enghien, he would have been powerless to check or control him. A courier had indeed the day before brought the young duke a despatch containing the news of the king's death and peremptory orders not to fight. Enghien simply put the letter in his pocket, and the contents were known only to Gassion and a few of his most intimate friends.
De Malo was as anxious to bring on a general engagement as was his fiery opponent. He was kept well informed of what was going on in Paris, and knew that the king's death was imminent. His position on a plain, surrounded on all sides by woods and marshes with but one approach, and that through a narrow defile, was practically impregnable; and by occupying the defile he could have kept the French at bay without the slightest difficulty until Rocroi surrendered. He knew, too, that General Beck with a considerable force was hastening to join him; but he feared that prudent counsels might at the last moment prevail in the French camp, or that the news of the king's death might reach them, and he therefore left the defile open and allowed the French army to gain the plain and form up in order of battle facing him, without offering the slightest opposition or firing a single gun.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the French were in position, and as both commanders were anxious that the battle should be a decisive one neither took any step to bring on the fight, but contented themselves with preparing for the encounter next morning. The night was cold and somewhat thick, and the positions of the two armies were marked by lines of fire. The march had been a long and fatiguing one, and silence soon fell upon the scene. Enghien wrapped himself in his cloak, and, lying down by a watch fire, was speedily asleep, wholly unoppressed by the tremendous responsibilities that he had assumed, or the fact that he had risked the destinies of France for the sake of his personal ambition, and that in any case the slaughter that must ensue in the morning would be terrible. Gassion, however, with a few of the older officers, sat for hours discussing the probabilities of the battle. Hector, remembering the manner in which Turenne exercised the most ceaseless vigilance, and nightly inspected all the outposts, endeavouring to ascertain the plans and positions of the enemy, had, as night closed in, requested Gassion's permission to go the rounds.
“Certainly, if it so pleases you, Captain Campbell. The watchword tonight is 'Conde', but I will in addition give you a pass enjoining all officers to allow you to go where you please, you being on the staff of the prince. I shall go round myself later on, for de Malo may intend a night attack, by which he would certainly gain advantages. His troops are fresh, while ours are weary. He has had every opportunity of studying the ground, while it is all new to us. Still, I hardly think that he will move till morning. Enterprise is not the strong point of the Spaniards, they love to fight in solid bodies, and hitherto their infantry have never been broken by cavalry. At night they would lose the advantage of their steadiness of formation. It is clear, by his willingness to allow us to pass the defile and take up this position, that de Malo is absolutely certain of victory and will wait, for daylight would permit him to make his expected victory a complete one, while at night great numbers of our army would be able to make their escape through the woods.”
Hector returned to the spot where his horses were picketed with those of Enghien's staff. He found Paolo lying down under a tree where he had been ordered to take up his post, so that Hector could find him if required.
“Are you asleep, Paolo?”
“No, master; I have been thinking about the battle tomorrow, and where I had best bestow myself.”
“As to that, Paolo, I should say that you had better keep with the prince's servants here. You will, of course, have your horse saddled and be ready to ride on the instant. If we are victorious there will be no occasion for you to move, but if you see that we are beaten, my orders are that you are not to think of waiting for me. I must keep with the others. Doubtless the cavalry would cover the retreat, and it would be a serious inconvenience for me to have to come here to look after you, therefore as soon as you see that the day has gone against us mount and ride. You can wait at our halting place of last night until you see the prince's party come along. If I am alive I shall be with them; if not, my advice to you is to ride south and to report yourself to Turenne. He will, I doubt not, either take you into his own service, or give you such strong recommendations that you will have no difficulty in obtaining a post with some officer of distinction should you wish to continue with the army. Now, I am going along our line of outposts, and I intend to reconnoitre the ground between us and the enemy. That is what Turenne would be doing were he in command here.”
“I will go with you, master; when it comes to reconnoitering, methinks that I am as good as another. I can run like a hare, and though a bullet would go faster, I am quite sure that none of these heavily armed Spaniards would have a chance of catching me.”
“I intended to take you with me, Paolo. We shall need as much care and caution here as we did in getting into the citadel of Turin.”
“I think, master, that it would be well for you to leave your armour behind you. It will be of small avail if you fall into the midst of a band of Spanish spearmen, while it would be a sore hindrance in passing through these woods, and the lighter you are accoutred the better.”
“That is so, and I will take your advice. I will give it into the charge of the horse guard. I will, of course, take my sword and pistols, and you may as well take yours.”
“I like a knife better than a sword, master, but I will take the both. I think it would be as well for you to lay aside your helmet also, for the light from one of these watchfires might glint upon it and catch the eye of a Spaniard.”
“You are right, Paolo; have you got the hat?”
“Yes, sir, it is here with your valises.”
“That is certainly more comfortable,” Hector said as he put it on. “Now, you had better carry the things across to that fire where the prince's staff are sitting. There is no fear of anyone interfering with them there.”
As soon as this had been done they started, picking their way carefully through numbers of sleeping men, and stopping once or twice to exchange a word with the groups still gathered round the fires. First they passed along the whole line of outposts, answering the challenges by the words, “Officer of the prince's staff on duty.” They found the sentries fairly vigilant, for with so powerful an enemy within striking distance every soldier felt that the occasion was one for unusual watchfulness. At each post Hector questioned the sentinels closely as to whether they had heard any sounds indicating the movement of troops in the interval between the two armies, and in only one case was there an affirmative answer.
“I heard a sound such as might be made by the clash of armour against a tree or by an armed man falling. I have listened attentively since, but have heard nothing more.”
“From which direction did the noise seem to come?”
“From across there, sir. It seemed to me to come from that copse in the hollow.”
“That is just what I thought might be likely, Paolo,” Hector said as he walked on. “That hollow ground between the armies, with its wood and low brushwood, is just the place where an ambush might be posted with advantage. Turenne would have taken possession of it as soon as darkness closed in, for it would not only prevent the possibility of the army being taken by surprise during the night, but it might be invaluable during the fight tomorrow, for a force ambushed there might take an advancing enemy in the rear. We will go farther on till we get to a point where the brushwood extends nearly up to our line. We will enter it there, and make our way along until we see whether de Malo has taken advantage of our failure to utilize the wood.”
As soon as they reached the point he indicated they moved forward, crouching low until they reached the bushes; then they crawled along, keeping outside but close to them. In this way they would be invisible to any sentries posted near the edge of the wood, and would also avoid the risk of drawing the enemy's attention by accidentally breaking a dried branch or even snapping a twig. In ten minutes they entered the wood that extended along the greater portion of the hollow.
“Keep on your hands and knees,” Hector whispered, “and feel the ground as you go to make sure that there are no broken branches that would crack if you placed your knee upon them. We may come upon the Spaniards at any moment. Keep close to me. Touch me if you hear the slightest sound, and I will do the same to you. The touch will mean stop. Move your sword along the belt till the handle is round at your back; in that way there will be no risk of it striking a tree or catching in a projecting root.”
“I will do that, master, and will keep my knife between my teeth. It may be that we shall come upon a Spanish sentinel who may need silencing.”
“No, Paolo; only in the last extremity and to save our lives must we resort to arms. Were a sentry found killed in the morning they would know that their position in the wood had been discovered. It is most important that they should believe that their ambush is unsuspected.”
Their progress was very slow. When they were nearly opposite the centre of their position Paolo was suddenly touched by his master. They listened intently, and could hear at no great distance ahead low sounds at regular intervals.
“Men snoring,” Paolo whispered in his ear.
They moved forward again even more cautiously than before. Presently they stopped, for at the edge of the wood facing the camp they heard a slight movement and a low clash of arms, as if a sentinel on the lookout had changed his position. Feeling sure that the guards would all be placed along the edge of the wood, they moved forward again, stopping every few yards to listen. There was no doubt now that they were close to a large body of sleepers. Occasional snores, broken murmurs, and a sound as one turned from side to side rose from in front of them.
“You go round on one side, I will go round on the other, Paolo. We will meet again when we have passed beyond them. It is important that we should form some estimate as to their numbers.”
In half an hour they met again, and crawled along for some distance side by side in silence.
“How many should you say, Paolo?”
“They were lying four deep as far as I could make out, master. I kept very close to the outside line. I could not count them accurately because of the trees, but I should say that there were about two hundred and fifty in a line.”
“That was very close to what I reckoned them at. At any rate, it is a regiment about a thousand strong. They are musketeers, for several times I went close enough to feel their arms. In every case it was a musket and not a pike that my hand fell on. Now we will go on till we are opposite our last watchfire, and then crawl up the hill.”
They were challenged as they approached the lines.
“A friend,” Hector replied. “An officer of the prince's staff.”
“Give the countersign,” the soldier said.
“That is right, but wait until I call an officer.”
“Good! but make no noise; that is important.”
The sentinel went to the watchfire, and an officer sitting there at once rose and came forward.
“Advance, officer of the staff!” he said in low tones. “That is right, monsieur,” he went on as Hector advanced close enough to be seen by the light of the fire.
“I have a special pass signed by General Gassion,” he said.
The officer took it, and looked at it by the light of the fire.
“That is all in order,” he said as he returned it; “but the sentry had the strictest orders that no one coming from the side of the enemy was to be allowed to enter our lines, even if he gave the countersign correctly, until he had been examined by an officer.”
“He did his duty, sir. One cannot be too careful on the eve of battle. A straggler might stray away and be captured, and be forced under pain of death to give up the countersign, and once in our lines much information might be obtained as to our position. However, I hardly think that any such attempts will be made. The Spaniards saw us march in and take up our position, and must have marked where our cavalry and artillery were posted. Good night!”
The greater part of the night had already gone, for in May the days are already lengthening out. After the troops had fallen out from their ranks wood had to be collected and rations cooked, and it was past ten o'clock before any of them lay down, and an hour later, before Hector left on his expedition. The examination of the outposts had taken more than an hour; it was now three o'clock in the morning, and the orders were that the troops should all be under arms before daybreak. Hector returned to the spot where he had left General Gassion. All was quiet there now, and he lay down until, somewhat before five, a bugle sounded. The signal was repeated all along the line, and almost at the same moment the Spanish trumpets told that the enemy, too, were making preparations for the day's work. General Gassion was one of the first to spring to his feet. Hector............
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