"Casal Novo." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
There is something exceedingly interesting in knowing what a brave and generous man, who had never flinched from any danger, looked back upon in his last days as the one Golden Deed of his life; and therefore, among the many noble and spirited actions during the war by which the British arms chased the usurping French out of the Peninsula, that one is selected of which the doer spoke thus, forty-seven years later, when he thought himself upon his deathbed.
"As I lie here and think of my past life," said Sir William Napier, "I feel small–very small indeed. I try to remember if I have done any good, but the evil far overbalances it. We shall all be weighed in the balance, and found wanting. In the eye of the great good God, earthly goodness can have no positive existence, yet He sees and makes allowances for us all, giving more credit for good and less blame for evil than our fellow creatures' harsh judging would have done. Men should strive after those priceless virtues of patience, wisdom, charity, self-sacrifice. In looking back on my life, it would be a comfort to me now if I could remember to have done a perfectly self-sacrificing act–if I could think I had been ready and willing at any moment to lay down my life for another person's good. I try to remember, but I can't remember that I ever did. I have often run into danger, and exposed myself to pain sometimes, to save others. Yes, I have done that! but there was always a springing hope, a sort of conviction that I should escape; and that being so, away flies the merit. The nearest thing I ever did to absolute self-sacrifice was at Casal Novo, when I received in my back the ball that lies there still."
The old soldier's deliberate judgment of all the noblest deeds of a long life was the realising of the truth that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags", and no eye but his own would have looked at them so critically. But let us see the manner of the one thing that "came nearest to self-sacrifice".
It was in the year 1811, when Wellington had entrenched his army on the slopes of Torres Vedras, in Portugal, and there, by his patience and sagacity, had repulsed the French army under Marshal Massena, and was following up his retreat out of the kingdom of Portugal. The English and Portuguese troops used to rise at three in the morning, and march at four; and on the 14th of March, when the army was setting out in the morning twilight, there was a heavy fog covering all the valley in front. Sir William Erskine, the general in command of the Light Division, consisting of the 52nd and 43rd Regiments and the Rifles, all the very flower of the army, was an incompetent man, and fancying the French were in full retreat, ordered his troops to move forward on their march. Some of the officers objected to the rashness of plunging into the mist without precaution; but they were not heeded, and the order to advance was given.
The 52nd moved forward first, in a column of sections, and were to be followed by the Rifles. Down the hillside they went, then across a narrow ravine at the bottom, and were mounting the steep road on the other side, when there was a sudden hail of round shot and bullets close upon them. The fog cut off their view, but the bugles continued to sound the advance, and they pushed on through walled fields, the enemy giving way before them, till they gained the ridge of the hill, though with loss of men, and with three captains wounded–one of them George Napier, and another "Jack Jones", afterwards the hero of the powder-magazine at Ciudad Rodrigo.
The mist suddenly drew up, and displayed to the English troops the hillside covered with dark masses of the blue-clad French soldiers, and in the midst what looked like a red pimple on the ridge, being in fact the 52nd in the very middle of Marshal Ney's division–so near the Marshal himself, the bravest of the brave, that if they had only been able to see him, they might have made him prisoner by his own bivouac fire.
The rest of the Light Division were put in motion to support them, and Captain William Napier was sent forward, with six companies of his regiment, the 43rd, to aid them on the left. When he came to a round hill, he halted, and left four companies to watch, while, with the other two, he descended into one of the narrow ravines to join the left of the 52nd, whom he heard, though he could not see over the ridge of the hill. Part of the regiment had charged, but not the whole, and thus Napier, coming up into a walled field where he expected to join the left side of the 52nd, found only Captain Dobbs and two men of the 52nd cut off from the rest of their regiment.
The French came gathering fast about them, and cutting off their retreat. The two officers agreed that the boldest course would be the safest, so they called to the two companies behind them to follow, and sprang over the wall in front, meaning to force their way on to the 52nd in front. But only the two 52nd men followed, both the companies of the 43rd held back; and when the two captains had reached a second wall, they found merely this pair of men with them, and a great body of the enemy in front, closing upon them and firing.
The wall gave a moment's protection, and Napier declared he would either save Dobbs or lose his own life by bringing up his two companies. Dobbs entreated him not to attempt it, saying that it was impossible to make two steps from the wall and live. Still, however, Napier, who was stung by the backwardness of his men, dashed back unhurt. His men were crouching under the wall; they had perhaps failed before from being out of breath, from their charge up the hill with their heavy knapsacks on their backs, and still more from the mismanagement of the two lieutenants in command of them, both dull, rude men, tyrannical in their behaviour. One, who was noted for his fighting duels, was lying down with his face to the ground, and when the captain called–shouted to him, and bade him remember his uniform, and come on with the men–he did not stir, till, in extremity of provocation, Napier threw a stone at his head. This made him get up, and scramble over the wall with his men; but on the other side he was wild with terror–eyes staring and hands spread out–and when Napier ordered the men on to where Dobbs was, and ran forward himself, they, under their lieutenant's cowardly leading, all edged away to the right, out of the fire, and again Napier reached his friend alone.
Maddened at the failure, he again sprang back to lead them, but ere he could reach them was struck by a bullet in the spine, and fell. The French most ungenerously continued to fire at him as he lay, and his legs had been paralysed by the effect of his wound, so that he could only drag himself by his hands towards a heap of stones, behind which he sheltered his head and shoulders. No less than twenty shots struck the heap in the moment before Captain Lloyd with his own company of the 43rd, and some of the 52nd, came up, and drove off the enemy. Napier was carried away from this spot, and laid for a time under an olive tree, while the fight lasted, and the French were driven on from ridge to ridge.
While he was lying there, helpless and exhausted, the grenadier company of Royal Scots were hastening forward, and their captain seeing the wounded man, ran up, and said, "I hope you are not seriously wounded." He could not speak, but only shook his head; and being asked again, "Can I be of any service to you?" made the same sign; but when Captain Wilson offered him some cold tea, and brandy from his flask, he raised his head with a sudden flash of pleasure, and gladly drank two tumblerfuls; then thanked with his eyes and hands. "Heaven protect you," the captain said, and hurried on to overtake his men. Napier was a singularly handsome, noble-looking man, with perfect features, jet-black hair and dark-grey eyes, and though now deadly pale, the remarkably beautiful outline of his features and the sweet and noble expression of his countenance made a great impression on Captain Wilson; but among the numbers of the army, they were never again thrown together, and did not know each other's names.
Napier was thought to be mortally wounded, and his brother Charles, who, half-recovered from a wound, had ridden ninety miles to join the army, met a litter of branches, covered by a blanket, and borne by the soldiers. He asked who it was? "Captain Napier, of the 52nd–broken arm." Then came another litter–"Captain Napier, of the 43rd–mortally wounded." Charles Napier looked at his brothers, and passed on to the battle.
The brothers were placed in a house at Condeixa, but, besides their wounds, they, like all the army, suffered terribly from famine, for the French had destroyed everything before them, and the villagers themselves were absolutely starving. A tallow candle that the brothers found in the house was eaten up with the utmost relish! By some chance a loaf of bread came into the hands of Captain Light, a cavalry officer, at the end of a long day's march. Hungry as he was, he would not look at it, but mounted again, and rode twenty miles to Condeixa, over the mountains, and there, fearing a refusal, he flung the loaf into the room where the brothers lay, and rode back to his regiment.
William Napier soon partially recovered, but the bullet could never be extracted, and caused him agonies at intervals throughout the rest of his life. The story of the combat, which he felt as that of his greatest deed, was told by him in his great history of the Peninsular war, but without a hint of his own concern in the matter. Sixteen years after the battle, he met at a dinner party a gentleman, who, àpropos to some mention of handsome men, said that the very handsomest he had ever seen, was one whom he had found lying speechless under an olive tree at Casal Novo, and had succoured as above described. Sir William Napier sprang from his chair, exclaiming, "My dear Wilson! that was you–that glass of tea and brandy saved my life." He had already become acquainted with Sir John Morillyon Wilson, but till that moment neither had known that the other was his partner in the adventure of the olive tree.
Assuredly that stony field was a scene to look back on from old age with thankful satisfaction. And no less worthy of honour was, it seems to us, that twenty miles' ride by the hungry, weary officer, to bring his wounded comrades the loaf of bread.
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