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- Farewell - 6/10 -
"All right, major; you are a good sort! But will you take me in your carriage?" asked the grenadier.
"Yes, if you don't leave your bones up yonder.-- If I come to grief, promise me, you two, that you will do everything in your power to save the Countess."
"All right," said the grenadier.
They set out for the Russian lines, taking the direction of the batteries that had so cruelly raked the mass of miserable creatures huddled together by the river bank. A few minutes later the hoofs of two galloping horses rang on the frozen snow, and the awakened battery fired a volley that passed over the heads of the sleepers; the hoof-beats rattled so fast on the iron ground that they sounded like the hammering in a smithy. The generous aide-de-camp had fallen; the stalwart grenadier had come off safe and sound; and Philip himself received a bayonet thrust in the shoulder while defending his friend. Notwithstanding his wound, he clung to his horse's mane, and gripped him with his knees so tightly that the animal was held as in a vise.
"God be praised!" cried the major, when he saw his soldier still on the spot, and the carriage standing where he had left it.
"If you do the right thing by me, sir, you will get me the cross for this. We have treated them to a sword dance to a pretty tune from the rifle, eh?"
"We have done nothing yet! Let us put the horses in. Take hold of these cords."
"They are not long enough."
"All right, grenadier, just go and overhaul those fellows sleeping there; take their shawls, sheets, anything--"
"I say! the rascal is dead," cried the grenadier, as he plundered the first man who came to hand. "Why, they are all dead! how queer!"
"All of them?"
"Yes, every one. It looks as though the horseflesh /a la neige/ was indigestible."
Philip shuddered at the words. The night had grown twice as cold as before.
"Great heaven! to lose her when I have saved her life a score of times already."
He shook the Countess, "Stephanie! Stephanie!" he cried.
She opened her eyes.
"We are saved, madame!"
"Saved!" she echoed, and fell back again.
The horses were harnessed after a fashion at last. The major held his sabre in his unwounded hand, took the reins in the other, saw to his pistols, and sprang on one of the horses, while the grenadier mounted the other. The old sentinel had been pushed into the carriage, and lay across the knees of the general and the Countess; his feet were frozen. Urged on by blows from the flat of the sabre, the horses dragged the carriage at a mad gallop down to the plain, where endless difficulties awaited them. Before long it became almost impossible to advance without crushing sleeping men, women, and even children at every step, all of whom declined to stir when the grenadier awakened them. In vain M. de Sucy looked for the track that the rearguard had cut through this dense crowd of human beings; there was no more sign of their passage than the wake of a ship in the sea. The horses could only move at a foot-pace, and were stopped most frequently by soldiers, who threatened to kill them.
"Do you mean to get there?" asked the grenadier.
"Yes, if it costs every drop of blood in my body! if it costs the whole world!" the major answered.
"Forward, then! . . . You can't have the omelette without breaking eggs." And the grenadier of the Garde urged on the horses over the prostrate bodies, and upset the bivouacs; the blood-stained wheels ploughing that field of faces left a double furrow of dead. But in justice it should be said that he never ceased to thunder out his warning cry, "Carrion! look out!"
"Poor wretches!" exclaimed the major.
"Bah! That way, or the cold, or the cannon!" said the grenadier, goading on the horses with the point of his sword.
Then came the catastrophe, which must have happened sooner but for miraculous good fortune; the carriage was overturned, and all further progress was stopped at once.
"I expected as much!" exclaimed the imperturbable grenadier. "Oho! he is dead!" he added, looking at his comrade.
"Poor Laurent!" said the major.
"Laurent! Wasn't he in the Fifth Chasseurs?"
"My own cousin.-- Pshaw! this beastly life is not so pleasant that one need be sorry for him as things go."
But all this time the carriage lay overturned, and the horses were only released after great and irreparable loss of time. The shock had been so violent that the Countess had been awakened by it, and the subsequent commotion aroused her from her stupor. She shook off the rugs and rose.
"Where are we, Philip?" she asked in musical tones, as she looked about her.
"About five hundred paces from the bridge. We are just about to cross the Beresina. When we are on the other side, Stephanie, I will not tease you any more; I will let you go to sleep; we shall be in safety, we can go on to Wilna in peace. God grant that you may never know what your life has cost!"
"You are wounded!"
"A mere trifle."
The hour of doom had come. The Russian cannon announced the day. The Russians were in possession of Studzianka, and thence were raking the plain with grapeshot; and by the first dim light of the dawn the major saw two columns moving and forming above the heights. Then a cry of horror went up from the crowd, and in a moment every one sprang to his feet. Each instinctively felt his danger, and all made a rush for the bridge, surging towards it like a wave.
Then the Russians came down upon them, swift as a conflagration. Men, women, children, and horses all crowded towards the river. Luckily for the major and the Countess, they were still at some distance from the bank. General Eble had just set fire to the bridge on the other side; but in spite of all the warnings given to those who rushed towards the chance of salvation, not one among them could or would draw back. The overladen bridge gave way, and not only so, the impetus of the frantic living wave towards that fatal bank was such that a dense crowd of human beings was thrust into the water as if by an avalanche. The sound of a single human cry could not be distinguished; there was a dull crash as if an enormous stone had fallen into the water--and the Beresina was covered with corpses.
The violent recoil of those in front, striving to escape this death, brought them into hideous collision with those behind then, who were pressing towards the bank, and many were suffocated and crushed. The Comte and Comtesse de Vandieres owed their lives to the carriage. The horses that had trampled and crushed so many dying men were crushed and trampled to death in their turn by the human maelstrom which eddied from the bank. Sheer physical strength saved the major and the grenadier. They killed others in self-defence. That wild sea of human faces and living bodies, surging to and fro as by one impulse, left the bank of the Beresina clear for a few moments. The multitude had hurled themselves back on the plain. Some few men sprang down from the banks of the river, not so much with any hope of reaching the opposite shore, which for them meant France, as from dread of the wastes of Siberia. For some bold spirits despair became a panoply. An officer leaped from hummock to hummock of ice, and reached the other shore; one of the soldiers scrambled over miraculously on the piles of dead bodies and drift ice. But the immense multitude left behind saw at last that the Russians would not slaughter twenty thousand unarmed men, too numb with the cold to attempt to resist them, and each awaited his fate with dreadful apathy. By this time the major and his grenadier, the old general and his wife, were left to themselves not very far from the place where the bridge had been. All four stood dry- eyed and silent among the heaps of dead. A few able-bodied men and one or two officers, who had recovered all their energy at this crisis, gathered about them. The group was sufficiently large; there were about fifty men all told. A couple of hundred paces from them stood the wreck of the artillery bridge, which had broken down the day before; the major saw this, and "Let us make a raft!" he cried.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before the whole group hurried to the ruins of the bridge. A crowd of men began to pick up iron clamps and to hunt for planks and ropes--for all the materials for a raft, in short. A score of armed men and officers, under command of the major, stood on guard to protect the workers from any desperate attempt on the part of the multitude if they should guess their design. The longing for freedom, which inspires prisoners to accomplish impossibilities, cannot be compared with the hope which lent energy at that moment to these forlorn Frenchmen.
"The Russians are upon us! Here are the Russians!" the guard shouted to the workers.
The timbers creaked, the raft grew larger, stronger, and more substantial. Generals, colonels, and common soldiers all alike bent beneath the weight of wagon-wheels, chains, coils of rope, and planks of timber; it was a modern realization of the building of Noah's ark. The young Countess, sitting by her husband's side, looked on, regretful that she could do nothing to aide the workers, though she helped to knot the lengths of rope together.
At last the raft was finished. Forty men launched it out into the river, while ten of the soldiers held the ropes that must keep it
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