A FRONTIER INCIDENT
I WAS finishing my second term at Woolwich and the Christmas holidays were close at hand.
I had, during the term, been closely following the fortunes of Don Carlos and his army in the northern provinces of Spain. Year after year he had been getting a stronger and stronger hold, and the weakness of the Republican Governments in Madrid had assisted him very materially. There was no one--had been no one--for some years to lead the then so-called Government troops to any military advantage in the field against him.
General Prim, the Warwick of Spain, had been assassinated in Madrid. The Italian Prince, Asmodeus, to whom he had offered the Crown and who for just over a year had reigned as King of Spain, was glad to make himself scarce by quietly disappearing over the borders to Portugal. A further period of Republican Government was imposed upon the country, equally as inefficient as it had been before. The star of the Carlist Cause seemed to be in the ascendant. Never-up to that date-had Don Carlos's army been so numerous or better equipped. The Carlist factories were turning out their own guns and munitions. They held excellent positions from which to strike southwards towards Madrid, and on which to fall back for protection if necessary.
Everything pointed to a successful issue of their enterprise, backed up as it was by the Church of Rome, and tired and worn out as the country was by successive revolutions, mutinies of troops, unstable Governments and hopeless bankruptcy. So I thought my chance had come see some fighting of real ding-dong nature by paying Don Carlos a personal visit. Not that I thought my military qualifications, attained by a few months' residence at the "Shop" as a cadet, in any way qualified me to be of any real military value to Don Carlos, but rather because I thought that Don Carlos's experience, after several years of the waging of war, would be of some considerable value to myself. Thus it came about that I decided to spend the forthcoming Christmas holidays attached to his army, Being satisfied that I should be welcome, for I had a first cousin and two other relations who had been A.D.C.'s to Don Carlos from the beginning of the campaign.
I duly made application to our Governor at the "Shop," General Sir Lintorn Simmons, R.E., for permission to proceed to Spain during the holidays and be accredited as an English officer. This, of course, was refused, as I was not an officer, only a cadet, and fairly young at that. But I was told that if 1 chose to proceed to Spain on my own responsibility I was at liberty to do so, provided I returned to Woolwich on the date at which the new term began.
I have my doubts whether any young fellow of eighteen ever felt so elated, so important, so contented as I did on my journey from London to Bayonne. As I had my British passport I did not feel in the least concerned as to not being allowed to cross the frontier, which happened to be at the time in the hands of the Government troops, into Spain. The railways in the north of Spain had practically ceased to exist. The journey was made along the old roads in every kind of coach that had been on the road previous to the construction of the railways across the Pyrenees. One particular coach I travelled in was practically a box on four wheels, with a very narrow seat running on each side, and very low in the roof. Going downhill the horses-such as they were-went as fast as they could, and every time we struck a hole in the road down went the box, up we banged our heads against the roof, and then we collapsed quietly on to the floor, beautifully mixed up.
This little affair happened often, and it was made especially interesting by the fact that we had two apparently youthful lady travellers. They had started with us from Bayonne. They were very quietly dressed, and-so far as we could see, through the extremely thick veils which they wore about their heads, and from occasional ringlets of hair peeping out here and there-they were quite the type of the dark Spanish beauties. They had chosen the two innermost seats inside the coach, and I happened to occupy the seat on one side next to one of them. In those days cigarette-smoking by ladies was quite uncommon, much less was the smell of ,? strong cigar acceptable to them. However, the journey from Bayonne to the border was somewhat long. I wanted a smoke. I had a cigar. I politely asked the ladies whether they objected to my lighting up. They did not speak, but they-as it seemed to me-gracefully nodded "Yes." So I lit up, and presently I began to notice that the one next to me, towards whose face the smoke sometimes drifted, seemed to like it very much, and, I would almost have said that she was trying to sniff some of it herself. A little later on, when we came to an unusually big rut in the road, we all went up as usual against the roof, and all came down again, missing the narrow seat. Extracting ourselves from our awkward positions, I came across a foot which certainly seemed to me not to belong to a lady, but, as it happened, it was a foot belonging to one of the ladies. I began to think but said nothing, and I also began to watch and look. Their hands had woollen gloves on, very thick, so that it was difficult to say what the hand was like inside. I may say that the three other passengers were Frenchmen, two of whom were very young and apparently unable to speak Spanish. As we were nearing the frontier I spoke to the ladies on some trivial matter, and mentioned the fact that I was going into Spain and that I hoped to see something of the fighting; that I was an Englishman, but that I had been born in Spain and that I knew personally Don Carlos and several of his officers, as well as many officers belonging to the Government troops. I noticed them interchanging looks as I told them my story, and presently we pulled up by the roadside at a little inn on the French side of the frontier. We were to wait there for some little time while the horses were changed, and we were glad to get out and stretch our limbs after our bumping experiences.
I watched them getting out of the coach, and it was quite evident to me that, considering they were ladies, they were blessed, each of them, with a very useful, handsome pair of understandings. I went inside the little inn, which boasted only, as far as I could see, one little room besides the big kitchen, and was having some tea when one of the ladies came into the room and, to my surprise, closed the door, put her back against it and said, "Will you promise not to give us away if we confide in you?" I said, "Certainly. I am not old enough yet to have given any ladies away, and I am not going to begin just now; so tell me anything you like. If I can help you I will."
For an answer her woollen gloves were whipped off, her hands, which were a very healthy brown colour, went up to her face, and-quite in a very awkward manner for a lady-she battled with her veil. Up it went, finally. A very, very clean-shaved face, but showing that very dark complexion which many black-bearded men have, no matter how very, very cleanly they shave, was looking right at me. There was no need for much further explanation. He told me that she and her companion were two Carlist officers who were hoping to join their regiments but had to cross the belt of the Government troops to do so, and had decided to disguise themselves as women and take the risk. I suggested that the other lady should be asked to come in and hold a council of war. I told them that I myself was going to Don Carlos's headquarters as soon as I got the opportunity, and that the only trouble I foresaw was in dealing with the sentries and the guard at the frontier. Once past that it would be easy enough for them to get away unmolested. My next question was "How much money have you ladies got? We all know the Spanish sentries, and I think their hands are always ready to receive some little douceur. There is but little luggage to be examined by them. If you two ladies remain inside the coach and be careful to cover your feet up, I'll keep them employed as far as possible in over-hauling the luggage. I'll square, as far as I can, the driver not to leave his box, but to be ready to start as quick as I tell him to, and, by generous application of douceurs, I'11 try to so interest the guards that they will have but little time to make any inquiries as regards your two selves." All went well. We got to the frontier, the commandant of the guard and the sentries were so taken up in counting the tips I gave them and dividing them equitably amongst themselves that they neither examined the luggage nor did they even look inside the coach. I hustled the three Frenchmen into the coach, after telling them that it was very, very important that we should proceed at once, shouted to the driver, "Anda, amigo-corre!" with the result that the horses jumped off at a bound, and I just managed to throw myself into the inside of the coach, very nearly reaching the ample laps of my two delicate lady friends.
The next day we arrived without incident at a small village, somewhat north of Elisondo, which village was then in the hands of the Carlists. Here my two lady friends changed their sex, and we passed a very pleasant evening with the Mayor of the town, who had been able, for some months previously, to be a Republican of the most determined character while the town was occupied by the Government troops, and to be a Carlist, second to none in his enthusiasm for the Carlist cause, as soon as the Carlist troops took possession of it again.