Bonnie Prince Charlie; A Tale of Fontenoy and Culloden

CHAPTER IX: Fontenoy

A fortnight after the Scottish Dragoons joined the army the king was present at an inspection of their regiment. As the brilliant cortege passed along the line Ronald saw among the gaily dressed throng of officers riding behind the king and Marshal Saxe the Marquis de Recambours and the Duke de Chateaurouge side by side. Ronald with two other gentlemen volunteers were in their places in the rear of the regiment. It was drawn up in double line, and as the royal party rode along for the second time, Ronald saw that the two noblemen were looking scrutinizingly through the line of troopers at himself and his two companions.

That evening Colonel Hume on his return from a visit to Marshal Saxe told Ronald that the general had inquired after him, and had sent him word that if he won the battle he would not forget the promise he had made him. He had requested Colonel Hume to place Ronald at his disposal on the day of the battle.

“‘I shall want active officers to carry my messages,’ he said, ‘and your young friend may have a greater opportunity of distinguishing himself than he would with the regiment. I should in that case find it all the easier to bring his business before the king.’

“The marshal is terribly ill,” Colonel Hume said as he reported the conversation to Ronald, “so ill that he can only occasionally sit on his horse. Nothing but his indomitable courage sustains him. He is drawn about in a light carriage made of basketwork, and this serves him also for his bed.”

On the 7th of May the enemy were known to be close at hand, and the French selected the position on which they would fight. The village of Fontenoy had already been occupied by a strong body of troops under Marshal Noailles, and the rest of the army now moved forward to the posts allotted to them. The English army were close at hand, and it was certain that the battle would be fought on the morrow. In the evening the king held a grand reception at which all the officers of rank were present.

When Colonel Hume returned to his camp his officers were still sitting round the fire.

“Have you any news for us, sir?”

“No; I believe everything stands as was arranged. The king is in the highest spirits, though I must say his majesty did not choose reminiscences of a nature to encourage those who heard him. He remarked, for instance, that since the days of St. Louis the French had never gained a decisive success over the English, and a few minutes later he observed that the last time a king of France with his son had fought at the head of the French army was at the battle of Poictiers.”

There was a general laugh.

“Certainly the king was not happy with his reminiscences,” Major Munro remarked; “but I think this time the tables are going to be turned. In the first place we considerably outnumbered the enemy, even after leaving 15,000 men to continue the siege. In the second place, the position we have chosen is almost impregnable. The Scheldt covers our right, with the fortified bridge securing our communication, and the village of Antoin resting on the river. Along our front from Antoin to Fontenoy is a narrow and difficult valley. Our left is covered by the wood of Barre, where a strong redoubt has been constructed; and the whole of the position is fortified with breastworks and abattis as far as Fontenoy. Between that village and Barre the natural difficulties are so great that field works are unnecessary. I cannot believe myself that they will attack us in such a position, especially as nearly half their army are Dutch, who will count for little. The English are the only troops which we shall find formidable.”

Before daybreak the camp was astir, and the troops took the positions assigned to them. Even now it was hardly believed that an attack would be made by the enemy so long as the French remained in their all but impregnable position; but presently the columns of the enemy were seen advancing. Ronald had ridden up to the litter on which Marshal Saxe was placed, and after saluting, had taken up his position with a number of other officers, in readiness to carry orders to different parts of the field.

At a short distance from the marshal the King of France with the dauphin and the brilliant cortege of nobles had taken up his post. From the position in which the marshal had caused himself to be placed a complete view of the enemy’s approaching ranks was obtained. It could soon be seen that the Dutch troops, who on the English right were advancing to the attack, were moving against the villages of Antoin and Fontenoy. A strong force, headed, as was known afterwards, by General Ingoldsby, moved towards the wood of Barre; while a solid column of English and Hanoverians, 10,000 strong, marched forward to the attack across the broken ground between Fontenoy and the wood of Barre.

It was as yet but five o’clock in the morning when the cannon broke out into a roar on both sides. The Dutch, who were commanded by the Prince of Waldeck, soon hesitated, and in a short time fell back out of range of fire. On the English right General Ingoldsby penetrated some distance into the wood of Barre, and then fell back again as the Dutch had done.

In an hour after the fighting had commenced the right and left of the allied army had ceased their attack. There remained only the centre, but this was advancing.

Under the command of the Duke of Cumberland the column crossed the ravine in front of Fontenoy. The ground was so broken that the troops were unable to deploy, but moved forward in a solid mass with a front of only forty men.

The French batteries from the right and left mowed them down in lines, but as steadily as if on parade the places were filled up, and unshaken and calm the great column moved forward. The cannon which they dragged along by hand opened against Fontenoy and the redoubts, and as, in spite of the hail of fire, they pressed steadily on, the French gunners were obliged to abandon their cannon and fly.

The regiment of French guards, officered almost entirely by the highest nobles, met the English guards, who composed the front lines of the column. A tremendous volley flashed along the English line, shattering the ranks of the French guard. There was a moment’s fierce fighting, and then the English column swept from before it the remains of the French guard, and cleared the ravine which defended Fontenoy.

Ronald felt his heart beat with excitement and a feeling of pride and admiration as he saw the English advancing unmoved through the storm of fire. They advanced in the most perfect order. The sergeants calmly raised or depressed the soldiers’ muskets to direct the fire; each vacant place was filled quietly and regularly without hesitation or hurry; and exclamations of surprise and admiration broke even from the French officers.

Regiment after regiment was brought up and hurled against the head of the column, but with no more effect than waves against a rock, each being dashed aside shattered and broken by the steady volleys and regular lines of bayonets. Ronald and other officers were sent off to bring up the cavalry, but in vain did these strive to break the serried column. One regiment after another charged down upon it, but the English, retaining their fire until they were within a few yards of their muzzles, received them with such tremendous volleys that they recoiled in disorder.

The French regiment of Vaisseaux next advanced to the attack, and fought with greater gallantry than any which had preceded it; but at last, when almost annihilated, its survivors fell back. And now it seemed as if this 10,000 men were to be victorious over the whole French army. Marshal Saxe begged the king to retire with the dauphin across the bridge of Calonne while he did what he could to retrieve the battle, but the king refused to leave the field. There was a hurried council held round Louis, and it was agreed to make a great effort by calling up the whole of the troops between Fontenoy and Antoin, as the positions they held were no longer threatened by the Dutch.

Had the latter now advanced nothing could have saved the French army from utter defeat; but they remained immovable at a distance from the field of battle. The English now won the crown of the position, had cut through the French centre, and were moving forward towards the bridge of Calonne, when the whole of the French artillery, which had, by the advice of the Duke of Richelieu, been brought up, opened fire on the English column. At the same moment the French regiments from Antoin fell upon it; while Marshal Saxe, who had, when the danger became imminent, mounted his horse, himself brought up the Irish Brigade, who, with a wild yell of hatred, flung itself furiously upon the flank of the English.

Attacked thus on all sides, mown down by a heavy fire of artillery, unsupported amid an army of foes, the column could do no more. Ten thousand men could not withstand fifty thousand. Their ranks were twice broken by the Irish, but twice their officers rallied them; until at last, when it became evident that no more could be done, the column fell slowly back in an order as perfect and regular as that in which it had advanced.

French historians have done ample justice to the extraordinary valour shown by the English troops on this occasion, a valour never surpassed in the long annals of the British army. Had they received the slightest assistance from their cowardly allies the victory must have been theirs.

As it was, although unsuccessful, the glory and honour of the day rested with them, rather than with the victorious army of France. More than half the column had fallen in the desperate engagement, but the loss of the victors was even greater, and comprised many belonging to the noblest families of France.

Ronald had won the warm approval of Marshal Saxe for the manner in which he carried his orders across ground swept by a heavy fire, and brought up the regiments to within close quarters of the English; and after the battle was over Marshal Saxe presented to the king several of his staff who had most distinguished themselves, and calling up Ronald, who was standing near, for his horse had been shot under him as he rode by the side of the marshal with the Irish Brigade to the attack, the marshal said:

“Allow me to present to your majesty Ronald Leslie, a young Scottish gentleman of good family, who is a volunteer in the Scottish Dragoons, and has rendered great service today by the manner in which he has borne my orders through the thickest of the fire.”

“I will bear you in mind, young gentleman,” the king said graciously,

“and I charge the marshal to bring your name before me on a future day.”

His duty as aide de camp over, Ronald rejoined his regiment. They had lost nearly a third of their number in their charges upon the English column. Major Munro had been killed, the colonel severely wounded, and a number of officers had fallen. Ronald went about among the men assisting to bind up wounds, and supplying those who needed it with wine and other refreshments. Presently he was joined by Malcolm.

“Thank God you are safe, Ronald. I tell you, you have given me many a fright today as I watched you galloping along through the line of the English fire.”

“Where were you, Malcolm? I did not see you.”

“I had nothing to do,” Malcolm said, “and I climbed a tree not fifty yards from the marshal’s litter, and keeping the trunk in front of me to protect me from a stray bullet I had a good view of the whole proceedings. At one time I was on the point of slipping down and making a bolt for it, for I thought it was all over with us. How that column did fight! I have been in many a battle, but I never saw anything like it, it was grand; and if it hadn’t been for the Irish Brigade, I think that they would have beaten the whole French army. But if you go into a battle again I sha’n’t come to see you. I have done my share of fighting, and can take hard knocks as well as another; but I would not go through the anxiety I have suffered today about you on any condition. However, this has been a great day for you.”

“You mean about the marshal presenting me to the king? Yes, that ought to help us.”

“No, I didn’t mean that, for I had not heard of it. I mean about that old rascal your grandfather, the Marquis de Recambours.”

“What about him? I have not heard.”

“No!” Malcolm exclaimed; “then I have good news for you. A ball from one of the English field pieces struck him full in the chest, and of course slew him instantly. He was not thirty yards from the tree when I saw him knocked over. He is quite dead, I can assure you, for when the others moved off I took the trouble to clamber down to assure myself. So now the greatest obstacle to the release of your father and mother is out of the way.”

“Thank God for that!” Ronald said. “I have no reason for feeling one spark of regret at what has befallen him. He was the cruel persecutor of my parents, and did his best to get me removed. There is but one obstacle now to obtaining my father’s release, and as he is neither a relation nor an old man I shall be able to deal with him myself”

“Yes, but you must be careful, Ronald; remember the decree against duelling. We must not make a false step now, when fortune is at last favouring us. There will be no more fighting, I fancy. The English will certainly not attack us again, and Tournay must fall, and I don’t think that on our part there will be any desire whatever to go out of our way to seek another engagement with them. The king is sure to go back to Paris at once, where he will be received with enthusiasm. Marshal Saxe will probably follow as soon as Tournay has fallen. I should advise you, therefore, to get leave from the colonel to be absent from the regiment for a time, and we will make our way down to Tours and let your mother know the marquis is dead, and get her to write a memorial to the king requesting permission to leave the convent, and then when the marshall arrives in Paris we will get him to present it.”

Ronald agreed to Malcolm’s proposal, and the next morning, having obtained leave of absence from the colonel, he and Malcolm mounted and rode for Tours.

The message was duly conveyed to the countess by Jeanne, together with Ronald’s earnest request that his mother would again meet him. She sent back by Jeanne the memorial he had asked her to write to the king, begging that she might be allowed to leave the convent; but she refused to agree to his wishes to meet her, bidding Jeanne say that now it seemed there was really a hope of her release shortly, she would less than ever risk any step which if discovered might prejudice their plans.

Although disappointed, Ronald could not deny that her decision was a wise one, and therefore contented himself by sending word that he had obtained one very powerful friend, and that he hoped that she would ere long receive good tidings. After a short stay at Tours, Ronald and Malcolm returned to Paris, where a series of brilliant fetes in honour of the victory of Fontenoy were in preparation. Tournay had surrendered a few days after the battle, the governor of that town having accepted a heavy bribe to open the gates, for the place could have resisted for months, and the allied army were ready to recommence hostilities in order to relieve it.

After its surrender they fell back and resumed a defensive attitude. The king therefore returned at once to Paris, and Marshal Saxe, handing over the command of the army to Marshal de Noailles, followed him by easy stages. Delighted above all things at a success gained over the English, who had for centuries been victorious in every battle in which England and France had met as enemies, the citizens of Paris organized a succession of brilliant fetes, which were responded to by entertainments of all kinds at Versailles. The Scottish Dragoons were still at the front; but Colonel Hume had been brought to Paris, as it would be some time ere he would be able again to take the command of the regiment.

Ronald called at the house where the colonel lodged, upon the day after his return from Tours, and found that he had arrived upon the previous day. Ronald was at once shown up on sending in his name. The colonel was lying on the couch when he entered.

“How are you, colonel?”

“I am going on as well as possible, Ronald; they found the ball and got it out the day before I left the regiment, and I shall do well now. I have been carried on a litter all the way by eight of our troopers, and the good fellows were as gentle with me as if I had been a child, and I scarce felt a jar the whole distance. What I have got to do now is to lie quiet, and the doctor promises me that in six weeks’ time I shall be fit to mount a horse again. Marshal Saxe sent yesterday evening to inquire after me, and I will send you to him to thank him for so sending, and to inquire on my part how he himself is going on. My message will be a good excuse for your presenting yourself.”

Ronald found the antechamber of the marshal crowded with nobles and officers who had come to pay their respects to the victorious general, who was, next to the king himself, at that moment the most popular man in France. Hitherto, as a Protestant and a foreigner, Maurice of Saxony had been regarded by many with jealousy and dislike; but the victory which he had won for the French arms had for the first time obliterated every feeling save admiration and gratitude.

Presently the marshal came out from the inner room with the dauphin, who had called on the part of the king to inquire after his health. He was now able to walk, the excitement of the battle and the satisfaction of the victory having enabled him partially to shake off the disease which afflicted him. After the dauphin had left, the marshal made the tour of the apartment, exchanging a few words with all present.

“Ah! you are there, my young Leslie,” he said familiarly when he came to Ronald. “Where have you been? I have not seen you since the day when you galloped about with my messages through the English fire as if you had a charmed life.”

“Colonel Hume gave me leave, sir, to travel on private business. I am now the bearer of a message from him, thanking you for the kind inquiries as to his wound; he bids me say that he trusts that your own health is rapidly recovering.”

“As you see, Leslie, Fontenoy has done wonders for me as well as for France; but wait here, I will speak with you again.”

In half an hour most of the callers took their departure, then the marshal called Ronald into an inner room.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “I am going to pay my respects to the king at Versailles. I will take you with me. Have you your mother’s memorial? That is right. As her father was killed at Fontenoy there will, I hope, be the less difficulty over the matter; but we must not be too sanguine, for there will be a host of hungry competitors for the estates of the marquis, and all these will unite against you. However, I do not think the king will be able to refuse my first request, and when your mother is out we must put our heads together and see about getting your father’s release.”

Ronald expressed his deep gratitude at the marshal’s kindness.

“Say nothing about it, my lad. Fortunately I want nothing for myself, and it is no use being a victorious general if one cannot utilize it in some way; so I am quite glad to have something to ask the king.”

The next day Ronald presented himself at the hotel of Marshal Saxe and rode by the side of his carriage out to Versailles. The king, surrounded by a brilliant train of courtiers, received the marshal with the greatest warmth, and after talking to him for some time retired with him into his private closet. A few minutes later one of the royal pages came out into the audience chamber and said in a loud voice that the king desired the presence of Monsieur Ronald Leslie.

Greatly embarrassed at finding himself the centre of observation not unmingled with envy at the summons, Ronald followed the page into the presence of the king, who was alone with Marshal Saxe. Louis, who was in high good humour, gave Ronald his hand to kiss, saying:

“I told the marshal to recall your name to me, and he has done so now. He says that you have a boon to ask of me.”

“Yes, sire,” the marshal said; “and please consider graciously that it is I who ask it as well as he. Your majesty has always been gracious to me, and if you think me deserving of any mark of your favour after this success which your majesty and I have gained together, I would now crave that you grant it.”

“It is granted before you name it, marshal,” the king said. “I give you my royal word that whatever be your boon, provided that it be within the bounds of possibility, it is yours.”

“Then, sire, I ask that an old comrade and fellow soldier of mine, who fought bravely for your majesty, but who fell under your majesty’s displeasure many years ago on account of a marriage which he made contrary to your pleasure, may be released. He has now been over sixteen years in prison, and has therefore paid dearly for thwarting your will, and his wife has all this time been confined in a convent. They are the father and mother of this brave lad — Colonel Leslie, who commanded your majesty’s regiment of Scotch Dragoons, and his wife, the Countess Amelie of Recambours. I ask your majesty, as my boon, that you will order this officer to be released and the lady to be allowed to leave the convent.”

“Peste, marshal!” the king said good temperedly; “your request is one of which will get me into hot water with a score of people. From the day the marquis was killed at Fontenoy I have heard nothing but questions about his estates, and I believe that no small portion of them have been already promised.”

“I say nothing about the estates,” the marshal replied; “as to that, your majesty’s sense of justice is too well known for it to be necessary for me to say a single word. The countess has estates of her own, which she inherited from her mother, but even as to these I say nothing. It is her liberty and that of her husband which I and this brave lad ask of your majesty.”

“It is granted, marshal, and had your boon been a great one instead of a small one I would have granted it as freely;” and the king again held out his hand to Ronald, who bent on one knee to kiss it, tears of joy flowing down his cheeks and preventing the utterance of any audible thanks for the boon, which far surpassed his expectations; for the marshal had said nothing as to his intention of asking his father’s freedom, which indeed he only decided to do upon seeing in how favourable a disposition he had found the king.

“You see, marshal,” Louis went on, “marriages like this must be sternly discouraged, or all order in our kingdom would be done away with. Wilful girls and headstrong soldiers cannot be permitted to arrange their affairs without reference to the plans of their parents, and in this instance it happened that the father’s plans had received our approval.

The great estates of France cannot be handed over to the first comer, who may perhaps be utterly unworthy of them. I do not say that in the present case Colonel Leslie was in any way personally unworthy; but the disposal of the hands of the great heiresses of France is in the king’s gift, and those who cross him are against his authority.”

The king touched a bell and bade the page who entered to order his secretary to attend at once.

“Search the register of the state prisons,” he said, “and tell me where Colonel Leslie, who was arrested by our orders sixteen years ago, is confined, and then make out an order to the governor of his prison for his release; also draw up an order upon the lady superior of –,” and he paused.

“The convent of Our Lady at Tours,” Ronald ventured to put in.

“Oh! you have discovered that, eh?” the king said with a smile; and then turned again to the secretary — “bidding her suffer the Countess Amelie de Recambours to leave the convent and to proceed where she will.”

The secretary bowed and retired. Ronald, seeing that his own presence was no longer required, said a few words of deep gratitude to the king and retired to the audience room, where he remained until, ten minutes later, the door of the king’s closet opened, and the king and Marshal Saxe again appeared. The audience lasted for another half hour, and then the marshal, accompanied by many of the nobles, made his way down to his carriage. Ronald again mounted, and as soon as the carriage had left the great courtyard of the palace, rode up alongside and poured out his gratitude to the marshal.

“It has been another Fontenoy,” the marshal said smiling. “Here are the two orders, the one for Tours, the other for the governor of the royal castle at Blois. The king made light of it; but I know his manner so well that I could see he would rather that I had asked for a dukedom for you.

It is not often that kings are thwarted, and he regards your parents as being rebels against his authority. However, he was bound by his promise, and there are the papers. Now, only one word, Leslie. Do not indulge in any hopes that you will see your father more than a shadow of the stalwart soldier that he was sixteen years ago. There are few men, indeed, whose constitution enable them to live through sixteen years’ confinement in a state prison. Therefore prepare yourself to find him a mere wreck. I trust that freedom and your mother’s care may do much for him, but don’t expect too much at first. If you take my advice you will go first and fetch your mother, in order that she may be at hand to receive your father when he leaves the fortress. By the way, I thought it just as well not to produce your mother’s memorial, as it seemed that we should be able to do without it, for it might have struck the king to ask how you obtained it, and he would probably have considered that your communication with your mother was a fresh act of defiance against his authority.”

Malcolm was wild with joy when Ronald returned with the account of his interview with the king and its successful result, and had his not been a seasoned head, the number of bumpers which he drank that night in honour of Marshal Saxe would have rendered him unfit for travel in the morning.

Ronald had, after acquainting him with the news, gone to Colonel Hume, whose pleasure at hearing that his former colonel and comrade was to regain his freedom was unbounded. Every preparation was made for an early start.

“Be sure you look well to the priming of your pistols before you put them in your holsters tomorrow,” Malcolm said.

“Do you think it will be necessary?”

“I am sure of it, Ronald. News travels fast; and you may be sure that by this time the fact that the king has granted an order for the release of your father and mother is known to the Duke of Chateaurouge. If he did not hear it from the king himself, which he would be most likely to do, as Louis would probably lose no time in explaining to him that he had only gone against his wishes because under the circumstances it was impossible for him to refuse the marshal’s request, the secretary who drew out the document would, no doubt, let the duke know of it. There are no secrets at court.”

“But now that the orders for release have been granted,” Ronald said,

“the duke can have no motive in preventing them being delivered, for fresh ones could, of course, be obtained.”

“In the first place, Ronald, the duke will be so furious at your success that he will stick at nothing to have his revenge; in the second place, he and the others, for there are many interested in preventing your mother from coming into her father’s possessions, will consider that the gain of time goes for a good deal. You are the mover in the matter. Were you out of the way, and the documents destroyed, the matter might rest as it is for a long time. The marshal is busy from morning till night, and would be long before he missed you, and would naturally suppose that you had, after obtaining the release of your parents, retired with them to some country retreat, or even left the kingdom.

“This would give ample time for working upon Louis. Besides, the king might never inquire whether the prisoners had been released. Then the marshal might die or be sent away to the frontier. Therefore, as you see, time is everything. I tell you, Ronald, I consider the journey you are going to undertake tomorrow an affair of greater danger than going into a pitched battle. You will have to doubt everyone you meet on the road, the people at the inns you stop at — you may be attacked anywhere and everywhere. As to our travelling by the direct road, I look upon it as impossible. Our only chance is to throw them off the scent, and as they know our destination that will be no easy matter.”

They were astir by daylight, and Malcolm soon brought the horses round to the door.

“It’s a comfort to know,” he said, “that the horses have passed the night in the barracks, and that therefore they have not been tampered with.

Look well to the buckles of your girths, Ronald. See that everything is strong and in good order.”

“That is not your own horse, Malcolm, is it?”

“No, it is one of the troopers’. It is one of the best in the regiment, and I persuaded the man to change with me for a week. No one is likely to notice the difference, as they are as nearly as possible the same colour.

Your horse is good enough for anything; but if I could not keep up with you its speed would be useless. Now, I think, we can keep together if we have to ride for it.

“What have you got in that valise, Malcolm? One would think that you were going upon a campaign.”

“I have got four bottles of good wine, and bread and meat enough to last us for two days. I do not mean, if I can help it, to enter a shop or stop at an inn till we arrive at Tours. We can make a shift to sleep for tonight in a wood. It would be safer a thousand times than an inn, for I will bet fifty to one that if we ventured to enter one we should find one or both of our horses lame on starting again.”

“Oh come, Malcolm, that’s too much! The Duke of Chateaurouge is not ubiquitous. He has not an army to scatter over all France.”

“No, he has not,” Malcolm agreed; “but from what I know of him I doubt not that he can lay his hands on a number of men who will stick at nothing to carry out his orders and earn his money. Paris swarms with discharged soldiers and ruffians of all kinds, and with plenty of gold to set the machine in motion there is no limit to the number of men who might be hired for any desperate deed.”

As they were talking they were making their way towards one of the southern gates. They arrived there before it opened, and had to wait a few minutes. Several other passengers on horseback and foot were gathered there.

“I could bet a crown piece,” Malcolm said, “that some one among this crowd is on the watch for us, and that before another half hour the Duke of Chateaurouge will know that we have started.”

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