BRAVE HEARTS AND TRUE

Regall is bombarded and taken by assault–The Earl of Meldritch leads
an army of thirty thousand into Wallachia–Fierce fighting and a
retreat through the enemy’s country–The “Master of Stratagem” commands
the vanguard and clears a pass–The Earl’s depleted army makes a last
stand in the fateful valley of Veristhorne–Forty thousand Tartars lay
before them and in their rear thirty thousand Turks–The Christians
make a splendid but hopeless defense–They attempt to cut their way
out and a mere handful escape–John Smith is left on the field covered
with wounds–He is found by the enemy and tended–Sold for a slave at
Axopolis and sent to Constantinople.

Although the defeat of their champions naturally had a depressing
effect upon the garrison, they continued to maintain a strong defence.
The approaches, upon which the besiegers had been at work for weeks
were now, however, completed and their guns brought within close range
of the walls of Regall. For fifteen days a constant fire was kept up by
twenty-six pieces of artillery and at the end of that time two large
breaches afforded ample avenues for assault.

When the Christian army entered the town a terrific conflict ensued,
but after two days of hand to hand fighting through the streets
the citadel fell and with the capture of that inner stronghold
all opposition ceased. Prince Moyses set his men to repair the
fortifications and when that had been accomplished left a garrison in
the place and proceeded to the reduction of a number of neighboring
towns. At the close of these minor operations the Prince’s army was
broken up and Captain John Smith went with the Earl of Meldritch into
Wallachia.

The Earl opened the campaign in Wallachia with a body of thirty
thousand veteran troops, of which his own regiment was the pick.
Opposed from the first to great odds, they performed magnificent
service until finally annihilated in the fatal valley of Veristhorne.
But the army of Meldritch had many a hard fought fight before that
dreadful day. There was one great battle in Wallachia which closed
with twenty-five thousand dead upon the field. They lay so thick that
“there was scarce ground to stand upon,” says Smith, “but upon the dead
carcasses.” Though the Turks were defeated in this affair, the victory
had been purchased at such a heavy cost that the Earl decided to
retreat upon the fortified town of Rothenthrum, and this with as little
delay as possible because fresh bodies of the enemy were moving against
him from every direction.

The march of the retiring army was hampered at every step by the
enemy, who hung upon its rear and flanks and engaged portions of it
in frequent skirmishes. The men were thus wearied and their progress
retarded. The special object of these tactics on the part of the
Turks became apparent when the Christian commander learned that a
strong force had thrown itself across his path. It was posted in a
pass through which Meldritch must necessarily go in order to reach
Rothenthrum. Nor was this all, for the same news-bearer informed the
general that an army of forty thousand Tartars was moving rapidly to
join the Turks in the defile.

The situation was extremely perilous but it allowed the Earl no
alternative from the desperate course of attacking a body twice as
numerous as his own, enjoying the advantage of an ideal position. To
turn back would be certain destruction. To stay where he was would be
to die like a rat in a trap. The only hope–and it was very slim–lay
in cutting a way through the Turks holding the pass and gaining the
town, only a few miles beyond, before the reinforcing Tartars could
arrive. Hesitation was foreign to the character of Meldritch. Putting
a bold face upon the matter, he marched on until within a mile of the
pass and then halted his men to prepare for an attack as soon as night
should fall.

In the meanwhile our hero’s busy brain had been at work, and when the
troops came to a halt he had a simple but well-devised plan to propose
to his commander. He lost no time in repairing to the spot where the
general stood consulting with his leading officers. Although no more
than a major-captain, Smith could always gain the ear of his superiors,
who had long since learned to respect his judgment and shrewd
resourcefulness.

“Way there for my ‘Master of Stratagem,’” cried the Earl banteringly,
as our hero approached. “Now I warrant he hath some bold proposal
to advance that shall give us easement in this difficulty. Thou art
always welcome Captain Smith, for methinks Dame Fortune dances close
attendance on thee.”

Smith revealed his scheme and immediately received the consent of the
commander to its execution.

“By my halidame!” said the pleased general, “this powder-magician
of ours would rout the forces of Pluto and distract his realm
with horrible contrivances. Take what men you need and make what
arrangements your judgment prompts, Captain Smith. Tonight the van is
under your command.”

The leader of the vanguard was decidedly the post of honor in such an
action as was about to begin, and as our captain rode forward in the
dark at the head of three hundred picked horsemen, he felt justly proud
of the position assigned to him. Each of his men carried a spear on
the head of which was fastened a bunch of fireworks, designed to make
as much noise and splutter as possible. When they had arrived within a
few hundred yards of the Turks who lay in waiting at the entrance to
the pass, each man lighted the combustibles at the end of his lance and
charged with it thrust in front of his horse’s head. The effect upon
the enemy was immediate and decisive. Panic seized their ranks. They
turned and fled, falling over one another in their terrified haste to
escape the demons by which they supposed themselves to be beset. The
horses of their cavalry, no less alarmed by the strange sight, plunged
wildly amongst them, increasing the confusion.

Into this disordered mass rode Smith’s horsemen followed by the main
body, slaying as they went. So they cut their way through the pass and
emerged on the other side without losing a score of their number. It
was a great achievement, but Meldritch’s little army was still in very
grave danger. The Tartars were close at hand if not already in the way.
The Earl pushed forward, but he dared not urge his troops to their
utmost speed, in case he should come upon the enemy with his horses
exhausted. Furthermore, the night was unusually dark and the men had to
keep to the road and proceed cautiously for fear of falling or losing
their way.

With the first streaks of dawn, the anxious Earl, riding at the head
of the column, began to gaze forward with straining eyes. They were
entering the valley of Veristhorne and the refuge they sought was
scarce three miles distant. Presently the general, looking across the
valley, dimly discerned the black bulk of Rothenthrum upon the farther
side. But the cry of joy that started from his lips was cut short by
the sight of a huge dark mass stretched across the middle ground. It
was too late. Forty thousand Tartars lay before them and in their rear
thirty thousand Turks were advancing.

The Earl of Meldritch was one of those rare combinations–a dashing
leader and a sound general. His inclination would have prompted him
to charge the horde of barbarians that lay in his path, but such a
course would have been suicidal. Instead, he led his troops to the base
of a mountain where he immediately began dispositions to withstand
an attack. The Tartars commenced to form their ranks at sunrise
but, fortunately for the Christians, did not advance until noon.
This unexpected respite enabled Meldritch, not only to rest his men
and horses after their all-night march, but also to make some rough
defences. The Tartar cavalry were the greater proportion of their army
and that most to be feared. In order to check their charges, the Earl
surrounded his position, except where it rested upon the mountain, with
a cordon of sharpened stakes, driven firmly into the ground.

The sun was high in the heavens when the Tartar horsemen advanced to
the discordant clamor of drums, trumpets and hautboys. In dense ranks
they stretched far beyond each flank of the small Christian army and
looked as though they might envelop and swallow it with ease. Behind
them came a horde of foot-soldiers armed with bows and bills. By this
time detached bodies of Turks began to appear on the surrounding
hills where they complacently sat down to watch the combat in the
arena below, prepared, if necessary, to reinforce the Tartars. These
additional enemies amounted to about fifteen thousand in number, so
that Meldritch’s ten thousand were hopelessly overpowered. The Earl
realized that his little force was doomed but, like a good and brave
commander, he had made the best disposition possible of them and was
determined to fight to the last.

When the Tartar horse had advanced to within a half mile of his
position, Meldritch launched a body of his cavalry under Nederspolt
against them. These veteran troopers made a most brilliant charge and
threw the enemy into confusion, but the numbers of the Christians were
too small to permit them to follow up this advantage and they wisely
retired within their lines. The Tartars now advanced their foot,
whilst their horsemen reformed on either flank. The sky was presently
darkened by flight after flight of countless arrows which, however,
did comparatively little harm. The Christians retaliated with another
charge, breaking the centre of the enemy and checking his advance.
With ten thousand more cavalry Meldritch might have swept the ill
disciplined assailants from the field, but he was too weak to venture
upon aggressive tactics and once again had to retire his men in face of
a success.

In anticipation of a renewal of the attack by the Tartar horsemen,
Meldritch had formed his infantry, under Veltus, just beyond the
palisade of stakes. They were ordered to hold their ground as long
as possible and then to fall back behind the defence. The Tartars,
confident in their superior numbers, as well they might be, charged
repeatedly. Each time they were gallantly repulsed, but at length
Veltus had lost so many men that he was forced to fall back. The enemy,
brandishing their spears and yelling exultantly, followed close upon
the retiring foot-soldiers and came quite unawares upon the rows of
sharpened stakes. In a moment a mass of struggling men and horses lay
at the mercy of Meldritch’s troops who slew two thousand of them.

This splendid success on the part of the pitiful handful of Christians
now reduced to half their original number, dampened the ardor of
the Tartars. There was a momentary cessation in the attack and the
defence might have been maintained until darkness set in, perhaps, but
the bodies of Turks which we have mentioned as surveying the field
in readiness to render assistance if needed, now began to descend
to the valley. The Earl realized that once these auxiliaries joined
forces with the Tartars, all would be lost. He determined to seize
the moment of hesitancy on the part of the latter to make an attempt
to break through them and gain the town of Rothenthrum. Accordingly,
he quickly formed his cavalry in the van and advanced to the attack.
It was a forlorn hope but no better prospect offered. Five thousand
men threw themselves upon thirty thousand with the desperation of
despair. The Earl, upon his great white charger, rode in the lead,
followed by his own regiment in which Captain Smith was now the senior
officer. Straight at the Tartar cavalry they went and cut their way
through the front ranks as though they had been but paper barricades.
But rank after rank confronted them and with each fresh contact they
left numbers of their own men behind. The slaughter was indescribable.
Soon they were the centre of a maelstrom of frenzied human beings with
scarce more chance for escape than has a canoe in the vortex of a
whirlpool. They fought like heroes to the death and made fearful havoc
among their enemies. The gallant Earl and a few hundred followers made
their way as by a miracle through the surrounding mass and swimming the
River Altus, escaped.

The setting sun looked down upon thirty thousand dead and dying
strewn over the Valley of Veristhorne, but lying in gory heaps where
the last desperate flower of that splendid army of thirty thousand
veterans that the Earl of Meldritch had proudly led into Wallachia a
few months before and amongst them almost all his leading officers.
“Give me leave,” says Captain Smith, in his account of the affair, “to
remember the names of my own countrymen in these exploits, that, as
resolutely as the best, in the defense of Christ and his Gospel ended
their days; as Baskerfield, Hardwicke, Thomas Milmer, Robert Molineux,
Thomas Bishop, Francis Compton, George Davison, Nicholas Williams and
one John, a Scot, did what men could do; and when they could do no
more left there their bodies, in testimony of their minds. Only Ensign
Carleton and Sergeant Robinson escaped.”

These men were members of Smith’s company and their captain lay among
them where he had fallen covered with wounds. But he was not quite
dead. The Turks and Tartars going over the field in search of spoils
were attracted to him by the superiority of his armor. This led them to
believe that he was a man of rank, and finding that he still lived they
carried him into their camp with a view to preserving his life for the
sake of ransom. His hurts were tended and he was nursed with care. When
sufficiently recovered to travel, he was sent down to the slave market
at Axopolis. Here Smith was put up to auction together with a number of
other poor wretches who had escaped death on the field of battle to
meet with a worse fate, perhaps, at the hands of cruel masters.

Our hero fetched a good price, as much on account of his vigorous
appearance as because there seemed to be a prospect of profit in the
purchase if he should turn out to be a nobleman as was suspected. He
was bought by the Pasha Bogall and sent by him as a present to his
affianced at Constantinople. Smith tells us that “by twenty and twenty,
chained by the necks, they marched in files to this great city, where
they were delivered to their several masters, and he to the young
Charatza Tragabigzanda.”