'Because I have always new ones.'
'General Rapp must look to his laurels,' said he, his face all breaking into wrinkles as he laughed. 'He has had twenty-one from the enemy's bullets, and as many from Larrey's knives and probes. Knowing that you were hurt, Colonel, I have spared you of late.'
'Which hurt me most of all.'
'Tut, tut! Since the English got behind these accursed lines of Torres Vedras, there has been little for us to do. You did not miss much during your imprisonment at Dartmoor. But now we are on the eve of action.'
My face must have shown my dismay. What, retire before this sacred dog of a Wellington--he who had listened unmoved to my words, and had sent me to his land of fogs? I could have sobbed as I thought of it.
'What would you have?' cried Massena impatiently. 'When one is in check, it is necessary to move the king.'
'Forwards,' I suggested.
He shook his grizzled head.
'The lines are not to be forced,' said he. 'I have already lost General St. Croix and more men than I can replace. On the other hand, we have been here at Santarem for nearly six months. There is not a pound of flour nor a jug of wine on the countryside. We must retire.'
'There are flour and wine in Lisbon,' I persisted.
'Tut, you speak as if an army could charge in and charge out again like your regiment of hussars. If Soult were here with thirty thousand men--but he will not come. I sent for you, however, Colonel Gerard, to say that I have a very singular and important expedition which I intend to place under your direction.'
I pricked up my ears, as you can imagine. The Marshal unrolled a great map of the country and spread it upon the table. He flattened it out with his little, hairy hands.
'This is Santarem,' he said pointing.
'And here, twenty-five miles to the east, is Almeixal, celebrated for its vintages and for its enormous Abbey.'
Again I nodded; I could not think what was coming.
'Have you heard of the Marshal Millefleurs?' asked Massena.
'I have served with all the Marshals,' said I, 'but there is none of that name.'
'It is but the nickname which the soldiers have given him,' said Massena. 'If you had not been away from us for some months, it would not be necessary for me to tell you about him. He is an Englishman, and a man of good breeding. It is on account of his manners that they have given him his title. I wish you to go to this polite Englishman at Almeixal.'
'And to hang him to the nearest tree.'
I turned briskly upon my heels, but Massena recalled me before I could reach the opening of his tent.
'One moment, Colonel,' said he; 'you had best learn how matters stand before you start. You must know, then, that this Marshal Millefleurs, whose real name is Alexis Morgan, is a man of very great ingenuity and bravery. He was an officer in the English Guards, but having been broken for cheating at cards, he left the army. In some manner he gathered a number of English deserters round him and took to the mountains. French stragglers and Portuguese brigands joined him, and he found himself at the head of five hundred men. With these he took possession of the Abbey of Almeixal, sent the monks about their business, fortified the place, and gathered in the plunder of all the country round.'
'For which it is high time he was hanged,' said I, making once more for the door.
'One instant!' cried the Marshal, smiling at my impatience. 'The worst remains behind. Only last week the Dowager Countess of La Ronda, the richest woman in Spain, was taken by these ruffians in the passes as she was journeying from King Joseph's Court to visit her grandson. She is now a prisoner in the Abbey, and is only protected by her----'
'Grandmotherhood,' I suggested.
'Her power of paying a ransom,' said Massena. 'You have three missions, then: To rescue this unfortunate lady; to punish this villain; and, if possible, to break up this nest of brigands.