You must know, my friends, said he, that it was towards the end of the year eighteen hundred and ten that I and Massena and the others pushed Wellington backwards until we had hoped to drive him and his army into the Tagus. But when we were still twenty-five miles from Lisbon we found that we were betrayed, for what had this Englishman done but build an enormous line of works and forts at a place called Torres Vedras, so that even we were unable to get through them! They lay across the whole Peninsula, and our army was so far from home that we did not dare to risk a reverse, and we had already learned at Busaco that it was no child’s play to fight against these people. What could we do, then, but sit down in front of these lines and blockade them to the best of our power? There we remained for six months, amid such anxieties that Massena said afterwards that he had not one hair which was not white upon his body. For my own part, I did not worry much about our situation, but I looked after our horses, who were in great need of rest and green fodder. For the rest, we drank the wine of the country and passed the time as best we might. There was a lady at Santarem–but my lips are sealed. It is the part of a gallant man to say nothing, though he may indicate that he could say a great deal.
One day Massena sent for me, and I found him in his tent with a great plan pinned upon the table. He looked at me in silence with that single piercing eye of his, and I felt by his expression that the matter was serious. He was nervous and ill at ease, but my bearing seemed to reassure him. It is good to be in contact with brave men.
“Colonel Etienne Gerard,” said he, “I have always heard that you are a very gallant and enterprising officer.”
It was not for me to confirm such a report, and yet it would be folly to deny it, so I clinked my spurs together and saluted.
“You are also an excellent rider.”
I admitted it.
“And the best swordsman in the six brigades of light cavalry.”
Massena was famous for the accuracy of his information.
“Now,” said he, “if you will look at this plan you will have no difficulty in understanding what it is that I wish you to do. These are the lines of Torres Vedras. You will perceive that they cover a vast space, and you will realize that the English can only hold a position here and there. Once through the lines you have twenty-five miles of open country which lie between them and Lisbon. It is very important to me to learn how Wellington’s troops are distributed throughout that space, and it is my wish that you should go and ascertain.”
His words turned me cold.
“Sir,” said I, “it is impossible that a colonel of light cavalry should condescend to act as a spy.”
He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.
“You would not be a Hussar if you were not a hothead,” said he. “If you will listen you will understand that I have not asked you to act as a spy. What do you think of that horse?”