George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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As the chief approached, the people seemed to have gone out of their minds. Caps were thrown up recklessly, at the risk of never being recovered, and the people literally roared as the general, looking in good health, though older and greyer than when Henty last saw him in 1859, rode along the ranks of the seven thousand or so of volunteers that he was about to review and passed on, waving his hand in reply to the cheering, as if thoroughly appreciating the greeting, much as he did during his reception in London.

The town seemed afterwards to be swarming with his soldiers. It appeared as if two out of every three persons in the streets upon close examination proved to be Garibaldians – close examination was necessary, for it needed research to make sure that they were volunteers, consequent upon the fact that in many cases anything in the shape of uniforms was wanting.

As a rule their uniform, he points out, should have been the familiar red shirt, belt, and dark-grey trousers with red stripe, surmounted by red caps, with green bands and straight peaks. In one of his early letters at this stage Henty describes the incongruous nature of the men’s dress. Perhaps one-fourth would have the caps; another fourth would look like the ancient Phrygians or the French fishermen. Perhaps one-third would have the red shirts; possibly nearly half, the regulation trousers; and where uniform was wanting they made up their dress with articles of their usual wear – wide-awakes, hats, caps of every shape, jackets, coats black and coloured. Some were dressed like gentlemen, some like members of the extreme lower order, altogether looking such an unsatisfactory motley group as that which old Sir John Falstaff declared he would not march with through Coventry.

But in spite of this there seemed to be the material for a dashing army amongst these men. They promised to make the finest of recruits, though certainly the observant eyes of Henty told him that many of them were far too young to stand the fatigue that they would be called upon to suffer during the war, a number of them being mere boys, not looking above fifteen. But Garibaldi was said to be partial to youngsters, and he liked the activity of the boys, who, he declared, fought as well as men.

On the whole, according to Henty’s showing, Garibaldi’s volunteer troops were very much the same as flocked to our best volunteer regiments in London during the early days. In short, the enthusiasm of the Garibaldians was contagious, and Henty wrote of them with a running pen; but his enthusiasm was leavened with the common sense and coolness of the well-drilled organising young soldier, who made no scruple while admiring the Garibaldians’ pluck, self-denial, and determination to oust the hated Austrian, to point out their shortcomings as an army and their inability to prove themselves much more than a guerrilla band.

They were an army of irregulars, of course, but with a strong adhesion based upon enthusiastic patriotism.

With such an army as this it may be supposed that the followers of their camp sent order and discipline to the winds, and the war correspondent had to thank once more that portion of his athletic education that had made him what he was. To use his own words, out there in Italy he “thanked his stars” that his youthful experience had made him a pretty good man with his hands. He found himself in his avocations amongst a scum of Italian roughs ready to play the European Ishmaelite, with their hands against every man – hands that in any encounter grasped the knife-like stiletto, ready, the moment there was any resistance to their marauding, to stab mercilessly Italian patriot or believer in the Austrian yoke, friend or foe, or merely an English spectator if he stood in their way. But to their cost in different encounters these gentry learned that the young correspondent was no common man, for Henty, in recording his experience with the pugnacious Garibaldian camp-followers, says calmly and in the most na?ve manner, and moreover so simply that there is not even a suggestion of boastfulness or brag: “I learned from experiment that if necessary I could deal with about four of them at once; and they were the sort of gentry who would make no bones about getting one down and stabbing one if they got the chance.” It was no Falstaff who spoke these words, for they were the utterances of a perfectly sincere, modest Englishman, albeit rather proud, after such a childhood, of his robust physique and of the way in which he could use his fists or prove how skilfully he could deal with an attacking foe and hurl him headlong, much in the same sort of way as a North-country wrestler might dispose of some malicious monkey or any wasp-like enemy of pitiful physique – comparatively helpless unless he could use his sting.

Henty took all such matters as these quite as a matter of course. He felt, as he wrote, that a war correspondent to do his duty must accept all kinds of risks in his search for interesting material to form the basis of his letters to his journal. But incidentally we learn about semi-starvation, the scarcity of shelter, the rumours of the old dire enemy, cholera, whose name was so strongly associated with past adventures in the Crimea, risks from shell and shot, and ugly dangers too from those who should have been friends.

For there is one word – spy – that always stands out as a terror, and it was during this campaign that in his eagerness to obtain information he approached so closely to the lines that he was arrested as such by one of the sentries and passed on from pillar to post among the ignorant soldiery.

In this case he had started with a friend for an investigating drive in the neighbourhood of Peschiera, at a time when encounters had been taking place between the Italian army and the Austrians. Upon reaching a spot where a good view of the frowning earth-works with their tiers of cannon could be obtained, they left the carriage, and climbed a hill or two, when they were attracted by the sound of firing, and hurrying on they came to a spot where some of the peasants were watching what was going on across a river. Upon reaching the little group they found out that it was not a skirmish, but that the Austrians were engaged in a sort of review on the ground where there had been a battle a few days before.

Henty felt that he was in luck, for he found that the peasants had been witnesses of the battle from that very position and were eager to point out what had taken place, the men giving a vivid description of the horrors they had witnessed and the slaughter that had taken place.

Having obtained sufficient from one of the speakers to form an interesting letter, he and his friend returned to their carriage and told the driver to go back. Henty had picked up a good deal of Italian, but not sufficient to make himself thoroughly understood by the driver, and, as is often the case, a foreigner of the lower orders failed to grasp that which a cultivated person would comprehend at once. The consequence was that the man drove on instead of returning, and his fares did not find out the mistake till they caught sight of a couple of pickets belonging to the Guides, the finest body of cavalry in the Italian service. Seeing that they were on the wrong track, Henty stopped the driver, questioned him, and then, fully understanding the mistake, told him to drive back at once. But the pickets had seen them, and came cantering up. Explanations were made, but the Guides were not satisfied. They had noticed the coming of the carriage, and had become aware of what to them was a very suspicious act. The occupants were strangers, and had been making use of a telescope, which from their point of view was a spyglass – that is to say, an instrument that was used by a spy – while they might have come from the Austrian side before ascending the hill. This was exceedingly condemnatory in the eyes of a couple of fairly intelligent men, but they treated them politely enough when they explained matters and produced their passports.

A very unpleasant contretemps, however, began to develop when the pickets said the passports might be quite correct, but they did not feel justified in releasing the two foreign strangers, who might be, as they said, Englishmen, but who were in all probability Austrians. So they must be taken to their officer, who was about a mile farther on.

It was a case of only two to two, and Henty’s blood began to grow hot at the opposition. He was on the point of showing his resentment, but wiser counsels prevailed; after all, it was two well-mounted and well-armed soldiers of the flower of the Italian cavalry against a couple of civilians, and, feeling that this was one of the occasions when discretion is the better part of valour, especially as a seat in a carriage was a post of disadvantage when opposed to a swordsman in a saddle, he swallowed his wrath and told the driver to go in the direction indicated by his captors. For the first time in his life he realised what it was to be a prisoner with a mounted guard.

The officer, who proved to be a sergeant, received them with Italian politeness, listened to their explanations, and at the end pointed out that the movements of the carriage, which might have come from an entirely different direction from that which they asserted, and the use of the telescope, looked so suspicious in the face of the nearness of the enemy, that he must make them accompany him to his captain about a couple of miles away.

Matters were beginning to grow dramatic, and the feeling of uneasiness increased, for as a war correspondent no one could have realised more readily than Henty that he was undoubtedly looked upon as a spy, and one whom the sergeant felt he must in no wise suffer to escape, for he and his companion were now being escorted by a guard of four of the Guides.

There was nothing for it, however, but to put a good face upon the matter and keep perfectly cool, though, to say the least of it, affairs were growing very unpleasant. It was an accident the consequences of which might be very ugly indeed, and this appealed very strongly to his active imagination. When he set off from the offices of the Standard upon his letter-writing mission, no thought of ever being arrested and possibly sentenced as a spy had ever entered into his calculations.

Henty gives the merest skeleton of his adventure, but as a man who was in the habit of writing adventures and who possessed the active imaginative brain previously alluded to, it stands to reason that in the circumstances he must have thought out what he would have set down if he had been writing an account of the treatment likely to be meted out to an enemy’s spy, especially to a hated Austrian, by the hot-blooded patriotic Italians.

Some distance farther on in the warlike district, Henty and his companion were escorted to a small village occupied by about a hundred of the Guides and about twice as many Bersaglieri. Here they were in the presence of superior officers, before whom they were brought, and to whom they again explained and produced their passports, and in addition Henty brought out a letter of recommendation to the officers of the Italian army, with which he had been furnished before starting on his journey by the kindness of the Italian ambassador in London.

Here there was another example of the refined Italian politeness, and Henty must have felt a strange resentment against this extreme civility, so suggestive of the treatment that was being meted out to a man who was being adjudged before an ultimate condemnation, for the officers declared that the explanations were no doubt perfectly correct, but that in the circumstances it was their duty to forward the two prisoners to their general. The general was about half a dozen miles away, while, as unfortunately one of their men had been wounded, they must ask the strangers to put their carriage at the service of the poor fellow, who was suffering terribly from the jolting of the bullock-cart in which he lay with five other wounded men, lesser sufferers.

Accordingly Henty and his friend had to take their places on the bullock-cart with five wounded Austrian prisoners, and the procession started. A circumstance that was extremely ominous was that they were preceded by another cart in which was another prisoner. This man was a spy about whom there was not the slightest doubt, for he had been caught in the reprehensible act, and his fate would most probably be to have an extremely short shrift and be shot in the morning. These were facts that impressed themselves very painfully upon the imagination of the young war correspondent, who must have felt that going before the general in such extremely bad company was almost enough to seal his fate, and he felt the more bitter from the simple and natural fact that it would be most likely impossible for him to send a final letter to the Standard to record that his unfortunate engagement was at an end.

The decision having been made as well as the change, matters looked worse and worse, for the procession was now guarded by a line of about thirty cavalry. In front and rear marched a company of the Italian foot, while the officers proceeded cautiously, as the road on their side ran close to the Mincio, across which the Austrians might at any moment make a sortie.

Then the proceedings grew still more dramatic and depressing, for several military camps were passed, out of which the men came running to look at the prisoners, and on hearing from the escort that one of the party was a spy, they began to make remarks that were the reverse of pleasant. All the same the young captain in command of the Guides was particularly civil to Henty, and did all he could to make his position as little unpleasant as possible, chatting freely about the last engagement and the part his squadron had taken in the fight. But he was much taken up in looking after his troops, and his English prisoners had plenty of time for meditation as to their future prospects, and the outlook was not reassuring.

At last head-quarters were reached, and after a short detention the prisoners were taken before the General, Henty preserving all the time the calm, firm appearance that he had maintained from the first; and in all probability it was his quiet confidence that saved his life.

The General examined the passports and the Italian ambassador’s letter of recommendation, and at length in the most polite way set them at liberty, but in a manner that suggested that Henty must grasp the fact that in a state of war, if he went too close to the scene of action, such incidents were bound to occur.

Their carriage was brought round, and in better spirits they started back. At the first town they reached they found the place was full of troops. Hungry and hopeful of a pleasant meal, they tried, but in vain, at the different hostelries to get something to eat, though finally, as a favour, they obtained a piece of bread, the last in the house, and some wine. They again started, but when they reached another town their tired horses gave in, and they had to get out and walk.

It was now nearly eleven o’clock at night, and one may imagine the weary tramp they had before they reached the Garibaldian pickets. There they were again stopped and were told that without the password they could not enter the town, but must spend the night in their carriage.

More arguments, more explanations, but all proved in vain, and there was a wretched prospect of the rest of the night being passed in misery; but Fate seemed at last to have ceased to persecute them, for by good fortune the officer of the night approached making his rounds, and after some parley allowed them to accompany him back to the town. Here, however, more trouble awaited them, for on reaching their hotel at midnight, utterly famished, and calling for supper, it was to find that the Garibaldians had consumed everything. All they could obtain was a cup of coffee, without milk, and they retired to rest, Henty with the feeling upon him that he had had a very narrow escape from being either shot or hanged.

A culminating disaster, by the way, connected with the miserable march to the presence of the general, who was to decide whether or not the war correspondent and his companion were to be treated as spies, was the disappearance of the valuable telescope with which Henty had come provided for making observations in connection with the various engagements between the Italian and the Austrian forces. It was in the carriage when it had to be given up for the use of the wounded, and, as the owner very mildly puts it, “someone took a fancy” to his glass, and he never saw it again, though he met with plenty of occasions when he had bitter cause to regret its loss.

Chapter Six.
The Search for an Army and a Meal

In his early days as war correspondent everything was fresh and bright, and his letters display the keenness of his observation, especially in the way in which he compares, with a soldier’s eye, the uniforms and accoutrements of the Italian soldier with those of the troops at home. The special war dress, adapted to the season (June), was of coarse brown holland or canvas, with a loose blue-grey greatcoat, and belt at the waist outside; the cavalry, it being summer time, wore red caps with tassels in place of helmets; the artillery had short jackets and canvas trousers. Everything seemed useful and serviceable. But now the critic comes in, for he writes: “I do not so much like the appearance of the army when on the march.” The rate of march was about one-fourth quicker than that of our own soldiers, and to keep up this swift pace the men seemed to be too heavily laden, the greatcoats too hot and cumbrous, and the knapsacks of calf-skin too heavy. He begins to calculate what a slaughter there must have been of calves to furnish skins of exactly the same shade of brown for the four hundred thousand infantry of the Italian army.

Then, to add to their load, the men’s water-bottles, which were barrel-shaped, were rather larger than those of the British soldier, and each man also carried a canteen about the same size. They had a blue haversack well filled, and to crown all, at the top of the knapsack each man bore the canvas and sticks which form a little tent under which the Sardinian soldier sleeps during a campaign.

Of course he bore also his rifle, bayonet or sword, and ammunition, which increased the weight he had to carry; but the tent added immensely to his comfort, for whereas the British soldier has to pass the night as best he can, perhaps in heavy rain on wet ground, to wake cold, wet through, and unrefreshed, with the seeds of rheumatism in his limbs, the Italian pitches his tent d’abri and sleeps in comparative comfort. During the campaign in the Crimea Henty often had occasion to note the magical way in which the Sardinian camp sprang up. The little tents were pitched, the cooking-places established, arbours were made of boughs of trees for the officers’ mess-tents, and everything assumed a general air of cheerfulness which contrasted favourably with the camps of the English and of the French.

In these early days in Italy difficulties were many, and he laughingly commences one letter by stating that his doings ought to be headed “The Adventures of a War Correspondent in Search of an Army,” for though battalions, regiments, brigades, and even small armies were on the move, the difficulty of getting upon their track was supreme. He writes on one occasion: “We drove through the village” (he was with a companion) “down to the water-side.” Here lay the Po, a wide, deep river, as broad as the Thames. There was no bridge of boats. How, then, had the Italians crossed? There was a sentry who looked at them peculiarly, and who when asked if they could pass over to the other side shook his head. They explained that they wished to join the camp, where they had friends, but they could obtain no information. Meanwhile their presence had been attracting attention, and it was evident that they took Henty’s companion, who was wearing a red shirt, for one of Garibaldi’s lieutenants in disguise. The people were appealed to for information as to whether the Italian army had crossed there, and at last they managed to gain the information that fifty thousand soldiers had crossed in the night. But that was all the news to be gleaned.

At last, however, they got upon the track of the army and well amidst the fighting that was going on, and he writes to his paper that he proposes during the next few days to give full accounts of the desperate encounters between the Sardinian army, aided by the Garibaldians, and the Austrians, “unless a bullet should put a period to my writing.”

But, as stated in another place, where Henty deals with the effect produced upon an observer by shells and the amount of mischief they do in the open, a man who has his business to think of in connection with reporting the movements of an army has not time to think of the risks he runs, and Henty troubled himself but little concerning the destiny of a stray bullet. The old proverb says that every bullet has its billet, the falsity of which statement has been often enough proved in modern warfare by statisticians comparing the numbers of killed and wounded with those of the ball cartridges expended during some fight, unless, indeed, the word billet is taken to include the place where every missile falls. In fact, when dealing with the firing at Magdala, where the British infantry made use of the breech-loading rifle for the first time, Henty criticised severely the waste of cartridges by the men, who, armed with the new easily-loaded weapon, scattered the bullets, without stopping to aim, at a rate calculated to leave them without cartridges in a very short space of time.



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