He pulled a cross from under his zammara or jacket of black sheepskin.
"I swear it," said he.
Oh, my joy as I heard the words! What an end-- what an end for the first swordsman of France! I could have laughed with delight at the thought.
"Now, your questions!" said I.
"You swear in turn to answer them truly?"
"I do, upon the honour of a gentleman and a soldier."
It was, as you perceive, a terrible thing that I promised, but what was it compared to what I might gain by compliance?
"This is a very fair and a very interesting bargain," said he, taking a note-book from his pocket.
"Would you kindly turn your gaze toward the French camp?"
Following the direction of his gesture, I turned and looked down upon the camp in the plain beneath us. In spite of the fifteen miles, one could in that clear atmosphere see every detail with the utmost distinctness.
There were the long squares of our tents and our huts, with the cavalry lines and the dark patches which marked the ten batteries of artillery. How sad to think of my magnificent regiment waiting down yonder, and to know that they would never see their colonel again! With one squadron of them I could have swept all these cut-throats of the face of the earth. My eager eyes filled with tears as I looked at the corner of the camp where I knew that there were eight hundred men, any one of whom would have died for his colonel. But my sadness vanished when I saw beyond the tents the plumes of smoke which marked the headquarters at Torres Novas. There was Massena, and, please God, at the cost of my life his mission would that night be done. A spasm of pride and exultation filled my breast. I should have liked to have had a voice of thunder that I might call to them, "Behold it is I, Etienne Gerard, who will die in order to save the army of Clausel!" It was, indeed, sad to think that so noble a deed should be done, and that no one should be there to tell the tale.
"Now," said the brigand chief, "you see the camp and you see also the road which leads to Coimbra. It is crowded with your fourgons and your ambulances. Does this mean that Massena is about to retreat?"
One could see the dark moving lines of waggons with an occasional flash of steel from the escort. There could, apart from my promise, be no indiscretion in admitting that which was already obvious.
"He will retreat," said I.
"I believe so."
"But the army of Clausel?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Every path to the south is blocked. No message can reach them. If Massena falls back the army of Clausel is doomed."
"It must take its chance," said I.
"How many men has he?"
"I should say about fourteen thousand."
"How much cavalry?"
"One brigade of Montbrun's Division."
"The 4th Chasseurs, the 9th Hussars, and a regiment of Cuirassiers."
"Quite right," said he, looking at his note-book. "I can tell you speak the truth, and Heaven help you if you don't." Then, division by division, he went over the whole army, asking the composition of each brigade.
Need I tell you that I would have had my tongue torn out before I would have told him such things had I not a greater end in view? I would let him know all if I could but save the army of Clausel.
At last he closed his note-book and replaced it in his pocket. "I am obliged to you for this information, which shall reach Lord Wellington to-morrow," said he.
"You have done your share of the bargain; it is for me now to perform mine. How would you wish to die? As a soldier you would, no doubt, prefer to be shot, but some think that a jump over the Merodal precipice is really an easier death. A good few have taken it, but we were, unfortunately, never able to get an opinion from them afterward. There is the saw, too, which does not appear to be popular. We could hang you, no doubt, but it would involve the inconvenience of going down to the wood. However, a promise is a promise, and you seem to be an excellent fellow, so we will spare no pains to meet your wishes."
"You said," I answered, "that I must die before midnight.