It must have failed, even after five hours’ fighting, but for an accident. A line of powder-barrels collected behind the traverses by the great breach took fire and blew up, driving back all the French grenadiers but the nearest, whom it scattered in mangled heaps. As explosion followed explosion, the bright flame spread and ran along the high curtain. The British leapt after it, breaking through the traverse and swarming up to the curtain’s summit. Almost at the same moment the Thirteenth and Twenty-fourth Portuguese, who had crossed the river by a lower ford, hurled themselves over the lesser breach to the right; and as the swollen heavens burst in a storm of rain and thunder, from this point and that the besiegers, as over the lip of a dam, swept down into the streets.
‘Treat men like dogs, and they’ll behave like dogs,’ grumbled Sergeant Wilkes, as he followed to prevent what mischief he might. But this, he well knew, would be little enough.
Corporal Sam Vicary, coming up to the edge of the camp-fire’s light, stood there for a moment with a white face. The cause of it—though it would have been a sufficient one—was not the story to which the men around the fire had been listening; for the teller, at sight of the corporal, had broken off abruptly, knowing him to be a religious fellow after a fashion, with a capacity for disapproval and a pair of fists to back it up. So, while his comrades guffawed, he rather cleverly changed the subject.
‘Oh, and by the way, talkin’ of the convent’—he meant the Convent of Santa Teresa, a high building under the very slope of the citadel, protected by its guns and still held by the enemy, after three days’ fighting—’do any of you know a small house to the left of it, with only a strip of garden between? Sort of a mud-nest it is, like a swallow’s, stuck under overhang o’ the cliff. No? Well, that’s a pity, for I hear tell the general has promised five pounds to the first man who breaks into that house.’
‘But why, at all?’ inquired a man close on his right.
‘I know the place,’ put in another; ’a mean kind of building, with one window lookin’ down the street, and that on the second floor, as you might say. It don’t look to me the sort of house to hold five pounds’ worth, all told—let be that, to force it, a man must cross half the fire from the convent, and in full view. Five pounds be damned! Five pounds isn’t so scarce in these times that a man need go there to fetch it for his widow.’
The corporal was turning away. For three days San Sebastian had been a hell, between the flames of which he had seen things that sickened his soul. They sickened it yet, only in remembrance. Yes, and the sickness had more than once come nigh to be physical. His throat worked at the talk of loot, now that he knew what men did for it.
‘The general ain’t after the furnitcher,’ answered the first speaker. ‘It consarns a child.’