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   Chapter 5 A BIRTHDAY PRESENT—OFF TO THE WARS—AN ADVENTURE AT MESSINA

Yule Logs By Various Characters: 8788

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


"Tom, my dear boy," said my father, Colonel Sir John Cotton, K.B., as he entered the breakfast room on the morning of the 18th September 1806, "I wish you many happy returns of to-day. There's a present which will give you genuine pleasure," he went on, handing me a formidable-looking letter; "it is your appointment to an ensigncy in my old regiment, the gallant 35th."

I had that day attained my seventeenth year, and was at home on a short exeat from Eton; but now Eton would know me no more-at least, not as a fifth-form boy-for had I not suddenly blossomed into a subaltern in his Majesty's service? It was a proud moment, and I cannot recall any event in my life that has caused me greater satisfaction.

I received the congratulations of my parents and sisters-I had no brother-with becoming modesty; but the congratulations of the ladies were turned into lamentations when Sir John informed us that I was to embark, to join headquarters in Sicily, in a fortnight's time.

"John!" exclaimed my mother, the tears welling up into her eyes, "are we really to lose the dear boy so soon?"

"What a shame!" chorused my three sisters.

"Nonsense! Tom has not entered the army to dangle about drawing-rooms and exhibit himself in a red coat to all the young ladies of his acquaintance," retorted my father. "The 35th lost a good many men at Maida-egad! I wish I had been there-and a draft is going out to fill up the gaps. Tom will sail with the draft, which is under command of our friend Charles Holroyd, who-Halloa! where has Kate gone?" For my eldest sister had hurriedly left the room.

"How thoughtless of you, John!" said my mother reproachfully.

"Yes, father," chimed in Miss Laura; "have you forgotten that Kate and Captain Holroyd are engaged?"

"And she had no idea that he was going abroad again so soon," added Annie; "he only came home early in August!"

"Tut! tut! I am always putting my foot in it," exclaimed Sir John, looking very guilty. "Poor Katie! she will lose her lover and her brother at the same time."

This unfortunate remark called forth a flood of tears from the ladies, and muttering something about being "a blundering old idiot," my father beat a hasty retreat.

Captain Charles Holroyd-the mention of whose name caused our family circle to break up "i' the most admir'd disorder"-had served in the 35th with my father, with whom he was a great favourite. Holroyd now commanded the light company of the 35th, and was home on sick leave, in consequence of a wound received at the battle of Maida. He had not long been engaged to my sister, who, until Sir John spoke, knew nothing of his approaching departure. Hinc ill? lachrym?!

The next two weeks were busy ones-uniforms and necessaries had to be ordered, farewell visits to relatives and friends paid, &c.-and they passed all too quickly. It was a wrench to leave the dear ones at home, and both Charles Holroyd and I were in very subdued spirits when we jumped into the post-chaise which was to take us to Gravesend, there to embark on board the Lord Bacon, a battered, wall-sided old collier, whose owners found it more profitable to carry troops to the Mediterranean than coals from Newcastle.

Adverse winds kept us bobbing about in the Downs for several days. Then we met with heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay. Thus it was not until the middle of November that we disembarked at Messina, where the headquarters and flank companies of the 35th were stationed. I received a cordial welcome from my brother officers, and quickly became quite at home amongst them. They all appeared pleased to have the son of their old colonel in the regiment.

At the request of Charles Holroyd, I was posted to the light company; a great honour for a newly-fledged ensign, though one I owed rather to Holroyd's influence, and the respect felt for my father, than to my own merits.

The adjutant and drill-sergeant soon initiated me into the mysteries of drill, guards, &c., and at the end of six weeks I was reported fit for duty.

I have no intention of giving any account of my life during the time I remained at Messina, but will pass at once to an adventure which befell me a few weeks before the departure of the regiment from Sicily.

At that time there were in Messina several French officers on parole; amongst them a certain Lieutenant Eugene de Vignes. De Vignes was a gent

lemanly, well-bred man of six or seven and twenty, and as he spoke a little English, and seemed to wish to be friendly, Holroyd and I struck up an acquaintance with him. He used to ride and walk with us, and often passed an evening at our quarters; when he would relate his experiences of service, under "Le Petit Caporal," in Italy and Egypt. After a while we began to see less of De Vignes, and his evening visits almost entirely ceased; though, when we did meet, he was as pleasant and companionable as ever. One night, towards the end of January 1807, I was returning to my quarters, after visiting a brother subaltern at the other side of the town. Part of my way lay along a lonely road, skirting the garden walls of a convent, in which many young Sicilian ladies of noble family were domiciled. I had nearly reached the end of this wall, when I heard a shrill scream, followed by angry shouts and other sounds of strife. I immediately ran forward to the scene of action, and, though it was very dark, could just discern four men assailing a fifth, who, with his back to the wall, was making a stout defence. Naturally I espoused the weaker cause, and in another minute three of the cowardly assailants had fled, while the fourth lay on the ground with a sword-thrust through his body.

"I immediately ran forward to the scene of action."

"A thousand thanks, m'sieur!" exclaimed the man to whom I had rendered such timely aid; "you have saved my life! That charge of yours was splendid! it--"

"De Vignes!" I cried, recognising his voice.

"Ha! it is you, then, mon ami," he said, wiping the blade of his sword. "I shall never forget this service. Are you alone?"

"Yes. Why did the ruffians attack you?"

"Hope of plunder, I suppose," replied De Vignes, shrugging his shoulders. And stooping down he proceeded to examine his fallen foe.

"Have you killed him?" I asked.

"He still breathes, and might be saved if we could get assistance."

"I am afraid there will be trouble over this business," I remarked, wishing that my friend had not been quite so handy with his sword.

"Bah! these little affairs are common enough in Sicily," De Vignes rejoined. "However, we may as well try to save his life. Will you go for help? There is a house some fifty yards down the road, and I shall want water, rags for bandages, and a little cognac or other spirit."

"Suppose the other ruffians return?" I objected.

"They will not return," he answered impatiently. "Come, mon ami! be quick, I pray you, or this unhappy wretch will bleed to death." Thus exhorted, I started off down the road; but not a sign of any sort of habitation could I discover.

I retraced my steps, and on reaching the spot where the encounter took place, found, to my astonishment, that both De Vignes and the wounded robber had disappeared-not a trace of them was to be seen! I waited about a few minutes, and then hastened to my quarters.

Charles Holroyd had not gone to bed when I returned, and to him I related my adventure.

"It is a queer business," he remarked; "seems to me that our French friend sent you on a fool's errand, with the express intention of getting rid of you."

"I believe he did," I answered. "Shall I make an official report of the affair?"

"We will see what the colonel says, Tom," was his reply.

On the following morning there was a terrible hue and cry, for the daughter of Prince T-- was missing from the convent, and one of his Highness's servants had been found dead in a ditch hard by the convent walls, with a sword-thrust through his heart.

"There can be no doubt the young woman has gone off with De Vignes," said my captain when we heard the news. "They were probably watched and surprised by the prince's servants. You say you heard a woman scream?"

"I am certain of that."

"Just so," continued Holroyd; "I see the whole thing! She got away, and her lover covered her retreat; then you came to the rescue, and his assailants having fled, De Vignes wanted to rejoin the girl without your knowledge; so he sent you off on pretence of seeking aid for the wounded man, and, as soon as he had got rid of you, bolted himself. Tom, we will hold our tongues about this affair."

That Holroyd was right in his conjectures was pretty evident, for we saw no more of Eugene de Vignes in Messina; though we were destined to meet him again elsewhere.

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