I ENTER THE CELLARS.
It happened on a broiling afternoon in July 1812, and midway in a fortnight of exquisite weather, during which Wellington and Marmont faced each other across the Douro before opening the beautiful series of evolutions–or, rather, of circumvolutions–which ended suddenly on the 22nd, and locked the two armies in the prettiest pitched battle I have lived to see.
For the moment neither General desired a battle. Marmont, thrust back from Salamanca, had found a strong position where he could safely wait for reinforcements, and had indeed already collected near upon forty thousand of all arms, when, on the 8th, Bonnet marched into camp from Asturias with another six thousand infantry. He had sent, too, to borrow some divisions from Caffarelli’s Army of the North. But these he expected in vain: for Bonnet’s withdrawal from Asturias had laid bare the whole line of French communication, and so frightened Caffarelli for the safety of his own districts that he at once recalled the twelve thousand men he was moving down to the Douro, and in the end sent but a handful of cavalry, and that grudgingly.
All this I had the honour to predict to Lord Wellington just twelve hours before Bonnet’s arrival on the scene. I staked my reputation that Caffarelli (on whom I had been watching and waiting for a month past) would not move. And Lord Wellington on the spot granted me the few days’ rest I deserved–not so much in joy of the news (which, nevertheless, was gratifying) as because for the moment he had no work for me. The knot was tied. He could not attack except at great disadvantage, for the fords were deep, and Marmont held the one bridge at Tordesillas. His business was to hold on, covering Salamanca and the road back to Portugal, and await Marmont’s first move.
The French front stretched as a chord across an arc of the river, which here takes a long sweep to the south; and the British faced it around this arc, with their left, centre, and right, upon three tributary streams–the Guarena, Trabancos, and Zapardiel–over which last, and just before it joins the Douro, towers the rock of Rueda, crowned with a ruinated castle.
Upon this rock–for my quarters lay in face of it, on the opposite bank of the stream–I had been gazing for the best part of an idle afternoon. I was comfortable; my cigarritos lay within reach; my tent gave shade enough; and through the flapway I found myself watching a mighty pretty comedy, with the rock of Rueda for its back-scene.
A more satisfactory one I could not have wished, and I have something of a connoisseur’s eye. To be sure, the triangular flapway narrowed the picture, and although the upstanding rock and castle fell admirably within the frame, it cut off an animated scene on the left, where their distant shouts and laughter told me that French and British were bathing together in the river below and rallying each other on the battles yet to be fought. For during these weeks, and indeed through the operations which followed up to the moment of fighting, the armies behaved less like foes than like two teams before a cricket-match, or two wrestlers who shake hands and afterwards grin amicably as they move in circles seeking for a hitch. As I lay, however, the bathing-place could only be brought into view by craning my neck beyond the tent-door: and my posture was too well chosen to be shifted. Moreover, I had a more singular example of these amenities in face of me, on the rock of Rueda itself.
The cliff, standing out against the sun’s glare like ivory beneath the blue, and quivering with heat, was flecked here and there with small lilac shadows; and these shadows marked the entrances of the caves with which Rueda was honeycombed. I had once or twice resolved to visit these caves; for I had heard much of their renown, and even (although this I disbelieved) that they contained wine enough to intoxicate all the troops in the Peninsula. Wine in abundance they certainly contained, and all the afternoon men singly and in clusters had been swarming in and out of these entrances like flies about a honeypot. For whatever might be happening on the Trabancos under Lord Wellington’s eye, here at Rueda, on the extreme right, discipline for the while had disappeared: and presumably the like was true of Marmont’s extreme left holding the bridge of Tordesillas. For from the bridge a short roadway leads to Rueda; and among the figures moving about the rock, diminished by distance though they were, I counted quite a respectable proportion of Frenchmen. No one who loves his calling ever quite forgets it: and though no one could well have appeared (or indeed felt) lazier, I was really giving my eye practice in discriminating, on this ant-hill, the drunk from the sober, and even the moderately drunk from the incapable.