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HOME > Short Stories > Won by the Sword > CHAPTER XIX: THE PEASANTS' REVOLT
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 After eating a meal Hector had a talk aside with MacIntosh. “Do you really think that these varlets will venture to attack us?”
“I do indeed,” the old sergeant said. “They have taken several places as strong as this by sudden assault. They are desperate, and, as I hear, fight like demons, regardless as to how many fall. As far as stout arms go we are well supplied, for there are at least a hundred men capable of bearing arms, and all have had more or less drill since I have been here. Unfortunately, however, our wall pieces are old and scarce fit for service, several of them will, I feel sure, burst at the first discharge.”
“But they have no artillery at all, MacIntosh?”
“I am sorry to say that they have, sir, and a good amount of it. They captured ten field pieces when they defeated the troops, and have obtained a score of others from the chateaux that they have taken. They have only to plant them three or four hundred yards away at the end of the plateau, and they would easily batter down the gates, and might even in time effect a breach in the walls.”
“That is serious indeed, MacIntosh. Is there any other way in which they can attack us save in front?”
“I think not. I was careful to examine the face of the precipice when I first took command here, and wherever it seemed to me that an active man could climb up I had portions of the rock blown up, and have so scarped the face that I do not think it is scalable by human foot. But there is nothing to prevent their crossing the fosse on a dark night, and so stealing along and making an attack on all sides of the house.”
“Then our first care must be to prevent this, MacIntosh, by building walls along by the fosse from the corner towers to the edge of the plateau. The distance is very short, not more than eight or ten yards at the outside. We have, I see, any number of horses and not a few carts. Let the tenants be set to work at once, and, going down the road into the ravine below, fill their carts with blocks of stone and haul them up here. Let active boys be sent out in all directions as scouts to bring in word when the insurgents are approaching; and at the same time let twenty well armed men of the garrison go down with the carts, so as to give confidence to the tenants and cover their retreat up the road if the insurgents should suddenly make their appearance. Let some of the men take billhooks and axes down with them, and cut poles. These must be sharpened, and as the walls are built, fixed among the stones so as to make a cheval-de-frise. At the same time let half a dozen stout ladders be constructed, so that the defenders of these walls may, if unable to hold them, make their retreat up to the battlements. I wish now that I had ordered a strong bastion to be thrown up so as to cover the gate from an attack by artillery, but it did not seem likely that we should be besieged by any force having guns, and I let the matter remain until the tenants should be better off and we could spend our money on such work. However, it is too late now to think of that. I suppose there is a portcullis to the gate?”
“Yes, and I got it in good working order when I first came here; but the cannon would speedily shatter that, as well as the bridge drawn up in front of it and the gate behind it.”
“Then as I have no doubt that there are plenty of flour sacks, we must fill these with earth and pack them between the bridge and the portcullis, and fasten the bridge in its place with any chains that may be available, so that it will keep erect. The earth packing, however much it may be battered, will protect the portcullis of the gate for some time against their fire.”
“It is a good idea if we have time to carry it out, colonel. We have still four or five hours' daylight, and as I think that this is of even greater importance than the side walls, we will set the tenants to work at once, and it will save time if they take down the sacks, of which, as you say, we have an abundance.”
A few minutes later a dozen active boys left the castle, and scattered to various points on the hills around, so as to command a view over a considerable extent of country. Soon after, some thirty carts went down the road accompanied by a number of men with shovels, and twenty of the garrison commanded by one of the old soldiers. All returned loaded with sacks of earth; these were taken into the castle, when the portcullis was lowered and the drawbridge across the fosse raised. An opening was left on the top to allow the sacks to be lowered into the space between the bridge and the portcullis. A score of men with ropes went on to the wall above and lowered them behind the drawbridge, where five or six men stowed them away. As soon as it became dark torches were lighted, and by ten o'clock a solid mass of sacks filled with earth were packed in the space between the portcullis and the drawbridge.
The night passed off quietly, the horses and carts remaining beyond the fosse. Planks had been placed across one end of this, and the horses and carts taken over. The horses were picketed round the castle, a supply of forage being placed there for their use, while the carts were packed closely by the fosse, so as to form an obstacle to any of the assailants who might try to pass. At daybreak they were again run across the planks, the horses brought round and harnessed, the scouts being sent out as on the day before. All day the work went on, and by nightfall two walls twenty feet long and eight feet high, bristling with pointed staves, were erected. They stood some twenty feet back from the edge of the fosse, and extended from the wall to the verge of the precipice. The carts and horses had, before the walls were built, been taken round to the back of the castle, where the plateau extended some fifty yards beyond the defences. Evening was just coming on when the boys came in, two of them bringing a report that a great crowd of men could be seen approaching from the west.
MacIntosh, with thirty men, were at once lowered down from the battlements, and took up their places in an intrenchment which had been during the day thrown up at the point where the road came up to the plateau, while a score of the tenants assembled at the edge of the cliff, where great piles of blocks of stone had been collected in readiness to throw down. Lighted torches were placed at intervals along the road, and three or four great cressets, holding balls of tow soaked in turpentine and oil, were set up on the edge of the plateau; these were to be lighted when the peasants attempted to mount the hill.
An hour passed, and then a flame sprang up from a house and outbuildings in the valley, lighting up the ground around and showing that a great crowd was gathered on the road there.
“How many should you say there were, MacIntosh?”
“I should put them at four or five thousand.”
“Yes, they are certainly not short of four thousand. What wild looking figures! They are just the same in appearance as those who attacked Madame de Blenfoix's chateau. See, they are lighting torches, and I expect they mean to make an attack at once. Their guns are with that group in the rear of the others; at any rate they will not be of any use in assisting them to make their way up this road. They are evidently working themselves up to a state of madness. There are half a dozen fellows addressing them from various points.”
The men who had been brought down to guard the intrenchments at the head of the road were all armed with muskets, and carried in addition long pikes. Presently a roar of shouts and yells was heard, and then there was a rush on the part of the crowd towards the foot of the long ascent.
Hector moved to the place where the tenants were posted.
“Do not hurl a single stone down until I give you the word, nor light the cressets; the torches they carry will be quite sufficient for us to make them out, and the attack will be all the more successful if it comes as a surprise.”
Then he returned to the breastwork. The men here had been posted by MacIntosh eight abreast. When the head of the column of insurgents were halfway up the hill they opened a scattered fire; they had armed themselves with the muskets they had taken from the troops.
“Their guns will be of little use to them, for few of them can ever have had firearms in their hands before; do not fire a shot, MacIntosh, until I give the order. It is clear that someone must have told them that we have thrown up this intrenchment today, or they would not have wasted their ammunition.”
Not a shot was fired until the leaders of the peasants were within forty yards. Up to this time no torches had been shown in the intrenchments, but now these were suddenly brought forward, and Hector, in his helmet and body armour, mounted on to the breastwork. The head of the column paused on seeing a row of levelled muskets and three rows of pikes forming a hedge of steel.
“My men,” Hector shouted in a loud clear voice, “halt, I beseech you, before harm comes to you! I know that you have sore grievances, I know that you and your wives and families are well nigh famishing, but how do you think that you will better your condition by assaulting castles and burning down chateaux? You are but preparing labour for yourselves and heaping up fresh imposts on your own heads, for it is you who will have to rebuild them, it is you who will have to pay for the damage that you have done. At any rate, none can say that you have cause for enmity against me and mine, for I have done all in my power to mitigate the sufferings of my people, and the proof is that not one of them has joined you. The taxes that press so heavily upon you are not the work of your feudal lords, they are caused by the necessity for defending France against the assaults of foreign enemies, and were every noble in the land slain it would still be necessary that these taxes should be collected, unless France is to be overrun by the Spaniards and Austrians. I would fain abstain from spilling one drop of your blood, but I must defend myself if you attack me, and I warn you that, numerous as you are, you will not succeed in capturing my castle. I am a soldier of France, and as I have shed my blood in defending her against her enemies, so if you persist I shall not hesitate in shedding yours in my own defence. I implore you to disperse to your homes; even if you gain successes for a time, it would but draw down vengeance upon you.”
The assailants had paused when he commenced to speak, and those in front had listened to his words, but those behind, not knowing what was going on, continued to shout and to press up the hill. As he finished speaking there was a yell of defiance, and the column rushed forward.
“Aim low,” Hector shouted as he leapt down among his men, “fire!” Eight muskets flashed out. “Second line, fire! Now handle your pikes, the rear lines will reserve their fire.”
Although ten or twelve of the leading rank of the insurgents had fallen, there was no pause among the others, and they rushed forward to the hedge of pikes.
“Take charge here, MacIntosh; I will run and get the stones at work.” In half a minute he stood by the side of the tenants.
“Heave then down!” he said. He had chosen a spot where the rock rose perpendicularly above the road. “drop them over,” he said, “so that they may fall straight. The biggest you must roll over with your levers, but work them to the edge and let them topple over; don't thrust them out or they will bound over the road. Now!”
Twenty rocks were dropped down together. Even above the din of shouting the crash as they fell below was heard, followed instantly by yells and cries.
“Move farther on and give them another shower,” Hector said; and again the rocks fell on the crowded causeway. The first volley had caused a pause—numbers had been crushed, many of the stones as they rolled down the road had carried confusion to those below; the second volley completed their discomfiture. Appalled by a discharge against which they had no shelter and which was wholly unexpected, those near whom the stones had fallen turned, and in their panic swept those below them on the road down into the valley, many being overthrown and trampled to death. Ignorant of what was going on behind them, the crowd above the spot where the stones had fallen were still pressing upward, those in front hewing with their scythes and axes at the pikeheads.
Hector ran back there. “The two rear ranks will now fire!” he said.
The men dropped their pikes, and two volleys of musketry were poured into the insurgents. Those of the front line were swept away by the fire, and for a moment the whole recoiled.
“Now, men,” Hector shouted, “cross the breastwork and sweep them away with your pikes!”
With a cheer the men leapt over the embankment. There was room for ten abreast, and in a treble line with levelled spears they bore down upon the rebels. The charge was irresistible. A few of the leaders of the peasants threw themselves on to the spears and died there, the others strove, but in vain, to fly. Their comrades behind, ignorant of what was going on, still pressed up, and it was not until the screams and shouts of those in front, and the pressure downwards, brought the column to a stand and then bore it backward, that they learned that the defenders had taken the offensive, and were sweeping all before them. Then a panic arose, and the peasants rushed down the road, the tenants above saluting them as they passed with another volley of rocks. Halfway down the hill Hector halted his men, and led them up to the intrenchment again over a road encumbered with dead bodies.
“I think that will do,” he said. “After the tale those who have got down safely will have to tell, we may be sure they will do nothing until morning, and it may well be that they may think it advisable to be off to attack some other place not so strongly defended. However, we will presently beat them up, and if possible capture their cannon, and without them they could not hope to take any fortified house well defended.”
For a time there was a prodigious din in the valley, sounds of men shouting and quarrelling, of others trying in vain to make their voices heard, and to address the excited peasants. In an hour it quieted down, and by midnight all was still. Hector had been busy with his preparations.
“How many horses have we?” he asked.
“Well nigh a hundred, colonel.”
“That is more than enough. Now, MacIntosh, do you and the men here go down the road and pitch the bodies over; we should never get the horses over them.”
Then he went to where the tenants were still waiting. “Now, my lads,” he said, “I want a big gap made in one of these walls we built today, wide enough for a horse to pass through it, and strong planks laid across the fosse.” Then he ascended the ladder up to the battlements. He found the baroness and her daughter standing over the gateway.
“Is all over?” they asked, as he came up to them.
“Yes, for the present. We have beaten them handsomely, and without the loss of a single man.”
“Will they attack again in the morning, do you think?”
“I feel sure that they will not do so. You see, they relied upon their cannon for taking the chateau, and they find they are useless. I am going to make a sortie before daybreak, for I want to capture those cannon. So long as they hold them they will continue their work, and they may not always meet with so stout a resistance. The loss of their cannon will dishearten them, as well as lessen their power for evil. I shall take every man who can carry arms, and leave ten at the breastwork to defend it; but there is no chance whatever of their attempting to come up here while we are attacking them, so you need have no fear.”
“We shall not be afraid, Colonel Campbell, our confidence in you is absolute; but do you not think that you are running a great risk in attacking a force some forty times as large as your own?”
“One cannot call it a force, it is simply a mob, and a mob that has suffered a terrible repulse, and the loss of three or four hundred men tonight. We shall take them by surprise. I am going to mount all the tenants. MacIntosh tells me that they have all been drilled as cavalry as well as infantry. He, with the twenty men of the regular garrison on foot and ten of the tenants, will make straight for the guns. I shall be with the horsemen, and as soon as we have scattered the mob, we will harness the horses to the guns and bring them up here, so that I shall strengthen the castle as well as weaken the peasants.”
The tenants were all informed of what was going to be done.
“It will be to your benefit as well as ours,” he said, “for you may be sure that in the morning, if they give up the idea of again attacking us, they will scatter all over the estates and sack and burn every house, whereas if we succeed in dispersing them, no small portion of them will at once scatter to their homes, and the rest will take care not to come near this neighbourhood again.”
At twelve o'clock MacIntosh sent a man to............
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