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   Chapter 4 TICONDEROGA.

Fort Amity By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 12519

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


At the alarm-post next morning the men were in high spirits again. Everyone seemed to be posted in the day's work ahead. The French had thrown up an outwork on the landward end of the ridge; an engineer had climbed Rattlesnake Mountain at daybreak and conned it through his glass, and had brought down his report two hours ago. The white-coats had been working like niggers, helped by some reinforcements which had come in overnight-Lévis with the Royal Roussillon, the scouts said: but the thing was a rough-and-ready affair of logs and the troops were to carry it with the bayonet. John asked in what direction it lay, and thumbs were jerked towards the screening forest across the river. The distance (some said) was not two miles. Colonel Beaver, returning from a visit to the saw-mill, confirmed the rumour. The 46th would march in a couple of hours or less.

At breakfast Howe's death seemed to be forgotten, and John found no time for solemn thoughts. Bets were laid that the French would not wait for the assault, but slip away to their boats; even with Lévis they could scarcely be four thousand strong. Bradstreet, having finished his bridge, had started back for the landing-stage to haul a dozen of the lighter bateaux across the portage and float them down to Lake Champlain filled with riflemen. Bradstreet was a glutton for work-but would he be in time? That old fox Montcalm would never let his earths be stopped so easily, and to pile defences on the ridge was simply to build himself into a trap. A good half of the officers maintained that there would be no fighting.

Well, fighting or no, some business was in hand. Here was the battalion in motion; and, to leave the enemy in no doubt of our martial ardour, here were the drums playing away like mad. The echo of John's feet on the wooden bridge awoke him from these vain shows and rattlings of war to its real meaning, and his thoughts again kept him solemn company as he breasted the slope beyond and began the tedious climb to the right through the woods.

The scouts, coming in one by one, reported them undefended: and the battalion, though perforce moving slowly, kept good order. Towards the summit, indeed, the front ranks appeared to straggle and extend themselves confusedly: but the disorder, no more than apparent, came from the skirmishers returning and falling back upon either flank as the column scrambled up the last five hundred yards and halted on the fringe of the clearing. Of the enemy John could see nothing: only a broad belt of sunlight beyond the last few tree-trunks and their green eaves. The advance had been well timed, the separate columns arriving and coming to the halt almost at clockwork intervals; nor did the halt give him much leisure to look about him. To the right were drawn up the Highlanders, their dark plaids blending with the forest glooms. In the space between, Beaver had stepped forward and was chatting with their colonel. By and by the dandified Gage joined them, and after a few minutes' talk Beaver came striding back, with his scabbard tucked under his armpit, to be clear of the undergrowth. At once the order was given to fix bayonets, and at a signal the columns were put in motion and marched out upon the edge of the clearing.

There, as he stepped forth, the flash of the noonday sun upon lines of steel held John's eyes dazzled. He heard the word given again to halt, and the command "Left, wheel into line!" He heard the calls that followed-"Eyes front!" "Steady," "Quick march," "Halt, dress "-and felt, rather than saw, the whole elaborate manoeuvre; the rear ranks locking up, the covering sergeants jigging about like dancers in a minuet-pace to the rear, side step to the right-the pivot men with stiff arms extended, the companies wheeling up and dressing; all happening precisely as on parade.

What, after all, was the difference? Well, to begin with, the clearing ahead in no way resembled a parade-ground, being strewn and criss-crossed with fallen trees and interset with stumps, some cleanly cut, others with jagged splinters from three to ten feet high. And beyond, with the fierce sunlight quivering above it, rose a mass of prostrate trees piled as if for the base of a tremendous bonfire. Not a Frenchman showed behind it. Was that what they had to carry?

"The battalion will advance!"

Yes, there lay the barrier; and their business was simply to rush it; to advance at the charge, holding their fire until within the breastwork.

The French, too, held their fire. The distance from the edge of the clearing to the abattis was, at the most, a long musket-shot, and for two-thirds of it the crescent-shaped line of British ran as in a paper-chase, John à Cleeve vaulting across tree-trunks, leaping over stumps, and hurrahing with the rest.

Then with a flame the breastwork opened before him, and with a shock as though the whole ridge lifted itself against the sky-a shock which hurled him backward, whirling away his shako. He saw the line to right and left wither under it and shrink like parchment held to a candle flame. For a moment the ensign-staff shook in his hands, as if whipped by a gale. He steadied it, and stood dazed, hearkening to the scream of the bullets, gulping at a lump in his throat. Then he knew himself unhurt, and, seeing that men on either hand were picking themselves up and running forward, he ducked his head and ran forward too.

He had gained the abattis. He went into it with a leap, a dozen men at his heels. A pointed bough met him in the ribs, piercing his tunic and forcing him to cry out with pain. He fell back from it and tugged at the interlacing boughs between him and the log-wall, fighting them with his left, pressing them aside, now attempting to leap them, now to burst through them with his weight. The wall jetted flame through its crevices, and the boughs held him fast within twenty yards of it. He could reach it easily (he told himself) but for the staff he carried, against which each separate twig hitched itself as though animated by special malice.

He swung himself round and forced his body backwards against the tangle; and a score of men, rallying to the colours, leapt in after him. As their weight pressed him down supine

and the flag sank in his grasp, he saw their faces-Highlanders and redcoats mixed. They had long since disregarded the order to hold their fire; and were blazing away idly and reloading, cursing the boughs that impeded their ramrods. A corporal of the 46th had managed to reload and was lifting his piece when-a bramble catching in the lock-the charge exploded in his face, and he fell, a bloody weight, across John's legs. Half a dozen men, leaping over him, hurled themselves into the lane which John had opened.

Ten seconds later-but in such a struggle who can count seconds?- John had flung off the dead man and was on his feet again with his face to the rampart. The men who had hurried past him were there, all six of them; but stuck in strange attitudes and hung across the withering boughs like vermin on a gamekeeper's tree-corpses every one. The rest had vanished, and, turning, he found himself alone. Out in the clearing, under the drifted smoke, the shattered regiments were re-forming for a second charge. Gripping the colours he staggered out to join them, and as he went a bullet sang past him and his left wrist dropped nerveless at his side. He scarcely felt the wound. The brutal jar of the repulse had stunned every sense in him but that of thirst. The reek of gunpowder caked his throat, and his tongue crackled in his mouth like a withered leaf.

Someone was pointing back over the tree-tops toward Rattlesnake Mountain; and on the slopes there, as the smoke cleared, sure enough, figures were moving. Guns? A couple of guns planted there could have knocked this cursed rampart to flinders in twenty minutes, or plumped round shot at leisure among the French huddled within. Where was the General?

The General was down at the saw-mill in the valley, seated at his table, penning a dispatch. The men on Rattlesnake Mountain were Johnson's Indians-Mohawks, Oneidas, and others of the Six Nations- who, arriving late, had swarmed up by instinct to the key of the position and seated themselves there with impassive faces, asking each other when the guns would arrivé. They had seen artillery, perhaps, once in their lives; and had learnt what it cost our Generals some seventy more years to learn-imperfectly.

Oh, it was cruel! By this time there was not a man in the army but could have taught the General the madness of it. But the General was down at the sawmill, two miles away; and the broken regiments reformed and faced the rampart again. The sun beat down on the clearing, heating men to madness. The wounded went down through the gloom of the woods and were carried past the saw-mill, by scores at first, then by hundreds. Within the saw-mill, in his cool chamber, the General sat and wrote. Someone (Gage it is likely) sent down, beseeching him to bring the guns into play. He answered that the guns were at the landing-stage, and could not be planted within six hours. A second messenger suggested that the assault on the ridge had already caused inordinate loss, and that by the simple process of marching around Ticonderoga and occupying the narrows of Lake Champlain Montcalm could be starved out in a week. The General showed him the door. Upon the ridge the fight went on.

John à Cleeve had by this time lost count of the charges. Some had been feeble; one or two superb; and once the Highlanders, with a gallantry only possible to men past caring for life, had actually heaved themselves over the parapets on the French right. They had gone into action a thousand strong; they were now six hundred. Charge after charge had flung forward a few to leap the rampart and fall on the French bayonets; but now the best part of a company poured over. For a moment sheer desperation carried the day; but the white-coats, springing back off their platforms, poured in a volley and settled the question. That night the Black Watch called its roll: there answered five hundred men less one.

It was in the next charge after this-half-heartedly taken up by the exhausted troops on the right-that John à Cleeve found himself actually climbing the log-wall toward which he had been straining all the afternoon. What carried him there-he afterwards affirmed-was the horrid vision of young Sagramore of the 27th impaled on a pointed branch and left to struggle in death-agony while the regiments rallied. The body was quivering yet as they came on again; and John, as he ran by, shouted to a sergeant to drag it off: for his own left hand hung powerless, and the colours encumbered his right. In front of him repeated charges had broken a sort of pathway through the abattis, swept indeed by an enfilading fire from two angles of the breastwork, slippery with blood and hampered with corpses; but the grape-shot which had accounted for most of these no longer whistled along it, the French having run off their guns to the right to meet the capital attack of the Highlanders. Through it he forced his way, the pressure of the men behind lifting and bearing him forward whenever the ensign-staff for a moment impeded him. He noted that the leaves, which at noon had been green and sappy, with only a slight crumpling of their edges, were now grey and curled into tight scrolls, crackling as he brushed them aside. How long had the day lasted, then? And would it ever end? The vision of young Sagramore followed him. He had known Sagramore at Halifax and invited him to mess one night with the 46th-as brainless and sweet-tempered a boy as ever muddled his drill.

John was at the foot of the rampart. While with his injured hand he fumbled vainly to climb it, someone stooped a shoulder and hoisted him. He flung a leg over the parapet and glanced down? moment at the man's face. It was the sergeant to whom he had shouted just now.

"Right, sir," the sergeant grunted; "we're after you!"

John hoisted the colours high and hurrahed.

"Forward! Forward, Forty-sixth!"

Then, as a dozen men heaved themselves on to the parapet, a fiery pang gripped him by the chest, and the night-so long held back-came suddenly, swooping on him from all corners of the sky at once. The grip of his knees relaxed. The sergeant, leaping, caught the standard in the nick of time, as the limp body slid and dropped within the rampart.

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