As a ghost he awed them. For a moment he stood looking from one to the other, and so, drawing the charge, tossed the pistol back at its owner’s feet and resumed his way.
Corporal Sam, who had merely seen the slight figure pass beyond the edge of the dunes, went back and flung himself again on the warm bank.
‘If a man did that wrong to me—’ he repeated.
Certainly, just or unjust, the Marquis could make himself infernally unpleasant. Having ridden over from head-quarters and settled the plans for the new assault, he returned to his main army and there demanded fifty volunteers from each of the fifteen regiments composing the First, Fourth, and Light Divisions—men (as he put it) who could show other troops how to mount a breach. It may be guessed with what stomach the Fifth Division digested this; and among them not a man was angrier than their old general, Leith, who now, after a luckless absence, resumed command. The Fifth Division, he swore, could hold their own with any soldiers in the Peninsula. He was furious with the seven hundred and fifty volunteers, and, evading the Marquis’s order, which was implicit rather than direct, he added an oath that these interlopers should never lead his men to the breaches.
Rage begets rage. During the misty morning hours of August 31st, the day fixed for the assault, these volunteers, held back and chafing with the reserves, could scarcely be restrained from breaking out of the trenches. ‘Why,’ they demanded, ’had they been fetched here if not to show the way?’—a question for which their officers were in no mood to provide a soft answer.
Yet their turn came. Sergeant Wilkes, that amateur in siege-operations, had rightly prophesied from the first that the waste of life at the breaches would be wicked and useless until the hornwork had been silenced and some lodgment made there. So as the morning wore on, and the sea-mists gave place to burning sunshine, and this again to heavy thunder-clouds collected by the unceasing cannonade, still more and more of the reserves of the Fifth Division were pushed up, until none but the volunteers and a handful of the 9th Regiment remained in the trenches. Them, too, at length Leith was forced to unleash, and they swept forward on the breaches yelling like a pack of hounds; but on the crest-line they fared at first no better than the regiments they had taunted. Thrice and four times they reached it only to topple back. The general, watching the fight from the batteries across the Urumea, now directed the gunners to fire over the stormers’ heads; and again a cry went up that our men were being slaughtered by their own artillery. Undismayed by this, with no recollections of the first assault to daunt them, a company of the Light Division took advantage of the fire to force their way over the rampart on the right of the great breach and seize a lodgment in some ruined houses actually within the town. There for an hour or so these brave men were cut off, for the assault in general made no headway.