The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 12
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Chapter XII: One of Fifty Million
|Chapter XIII: Serf and Boyar→|
ONE OF FIFTY MILLION.
"The might that slumbers in a peasant's arm."
A GREAT battle, and a great victory—this was what Henri de Talmont, in common with the six hundred thousand fighting men who crossed the Niemen under Napoleon, fully expected to see. Young hearts kindled, young blood grew hot at the thought; while the veterans of Lodi, of Austerlitz, of Jena, saw their cherished laurels fade and pale before the lustre of those with which they hoped soon to adorn their victorious brows. And then how royally would the treasures of Moscow and St. Petersburg recompense all their toils!
But there was no great battle. The Russians, under Barclay de Tolly, retreated without fighting, skilfully drawing the enemy after them into the immense and dreary plains of the interior. Then followed a succession of marches, as wearisome and far more monotonous than those by which the recruits had reached the headquarters of their army. The weather was hot and sultry—a curious first experience of the climate of Russia—and both men and horses suffered from the want of water. Other wants, too, were supplied but carelessly, or perhaps not at all. Many a conscript lay down supperless night after night beside the fire of his bivouac, to sleep away his hunger as best he could. It is said that some even died of starvation, while others found unwholesome nutriment in the unripe corn and the raw vegetables that grew along their route. Nor did the knowledge that the general of his division was feasting upon sterlet and champagne make the hard, insufficient fare of the conscript more palatable. "It is the soldier's own fault if he wants anything in an enemy's country," was a maxim often repeated; but what can the soldier do when the people flee at his approach, carrying off or destroying everything they possess, and the country, at best but thinly inhabited, is left a desert around him? Yet it must be owned that the French had themselves to thank for some of their privations, since those peasants who did not flee at their approach were plundered, beaten, ill-treated, perhaps even murdered.
One day Henri accompanied a detachment of his regiment which was sent out on a foraging expedition. They were under the command of Seppel, the corporal who had undertaken to post Henri's letter in Paris; but he was a sergeant now, and rode a good horse, while the others tramped wearily on foot. After a long march through a dreary country they saw, towards evening, a brown village surrounded by promising corn-fields. "Courage, mes enfants," cried Seppel; "here is luck for us at last. No doubt food and water, ay, and brandy too, are to be found yonder."
They marched across the fields, trampling down the standing corn without remorse. Henri and some of his comrades were hungry enough to pluck the unripe ears and to eat them as they passed, like another company strangely opposite to these in their character and their place in the world's history.
As they approached the village, they became aware that its inhabitants had not only seen them, but were prepared for their approach. A crowd of men and boys, armed with axes, pitch-forks, and reaping-hooks, came towards them with loud cries and intentions evidently the most hostile.
Seppel caught hold of a tall, gaunt soldier, whose white uniform gleamed conspicuous amongst the blue tunics of the rest, and pushed him to the front. "Here, Klinki, Schlinki, or whatever your unpronounceable name may be, tell these beggars in their own jargon that we want food for man and horse, and that if they give it, in plenty and at once, we will do them no harm."
The Pole who had been brought with the party to act as interpreter, as he happened to know a little Russian tried to gain a hearing; but in vain. So the Frenchmen drew their swords, and a brisk fight began. Suddenly, however, Seppel observed something which made him call upon his men to stop. He saw a party leaving the village and proceeding towards the adjoining birch-wood, and he rightly conjectured that these were the women and children under the escort of some of the men who had remained behind for the purpose. In fact, this had been from the first the design of the villagers, and the attack had been only a feint made in order to gain time for its execution. Seppel raised his hand, pointing to the retreating group. "Fire, mes enfants!" he cried; "fire yonder—upon them!" They were just within musket-range, and the sharp, ringing sound of the shots was followed by heart-rending cries.
There was no more thought of resistance. The village lads threw down their extemporized weapons, and hurried to the assistance of their friends. Soon the whole party, their movements quickened by terror, had disappeared into the wood, carrying with them their wounded, perhaps their dead. "Was not that well done?" laughed Seppel. "I knew they would go to look after the women at the first cry."
Thus Nicolofsky was taken by the French. The victors were soon busy exploring the deserted cottages in search of food and vodka. Other things too were needed.
"Here, blacksmith," said Seppel to Féron, "look after my horse. He has cast a shoe."
"Yes, sergeant," returned Féron coolly, "if you will find me a hammer and tongs, and a nail or two."
"Is that my business, stupid? Go and look. These fellows have horses, so they must have smith's tackle somewhere about."
"And they call this conquering a country!" grumbled Féron as he walked away. "Well, it may be glorious, but it is not particularly convenient or amusing."
At that moment there was a joyful shout from some of the party. Very few fires were burning in the village on that warm summer evening, but in one of the two largest cottages the great stove had been lighted, and a capacious caldron of tschi was simmering over it. The French soldiers fully appreciated the national dish of the Russians, and found the prospect of an abundant and savoury supper very agreeable.
"Here is one good thing for me," said Féron, glancing at the fire. "Now for hammer and nails. Talmont, you lazy fellow, don't stand there gazing at nothing, but come and help me to find them."
But when they stood outside together, Féron's tone changed. "M. Henri," he said in a quick, eager whisper, "show me your musket."
Henri did so with a smile.
"Ah!" said Feron, looking relieved, "then after all you did fire. I feared you would not, and I was going to give you a word of advice."
"I did fire," answered Henri in a low voice,—"in the air. What else could I do, Féron? they were women and children."
"Well, perhaps I did not shoot very straight either; still we are in an enemy's country. Why did not the Czar do whatever the Emperor wanted him? But take care, M. Henri; that old fox Seppel is no friend of yours."
They entered another cottage in search of what they wanted, and Féron struck his foot against a small bucket full of some liquid. "Ha! what have we here? Vodka, I hope." He stooped down and tasted it, but got up with an air of disgust. "No such luck. Only frog's ratefia" (so the French called the kvass of the Russians). "How could any poor wretches be expected to fight with such stuff as that in their insides?"
"Let me have a pull at it," said Henri. "I am thirsty enough not to despise even frog's ratefia. Do you think Seppel means to stay here all night?"
"He ought not; but if he finds vodka I would not answer for the consequences. And certainly it is growing very late."
Féron at last succeeded in finding the tools with which the villagers performed whatever rude blacksmith's work they needed. Then he rejoined his companions, who were just beginning to help themselves to the supper which had been prepared for very different guests by the priest's wife. The cottage was that of Pope Nikita, and the day happened to be the name-day of Anna Popovna.
A good store of vodka had been found, and with this help the soldiers soon forgot their troubles, past, present, and to come. They ate, drank, and made merry; and the sergeant, far from being any check upon their mirth, drank more deeply and talked more boisterously than any of them. The night closed over them unawares, and of course there was now no question of leaving their comfortable quarters until the morning.
Féron had brought in his hand a small piece of iron, as well as the hammer and tongs he had been using. He had a jesting dispute with one of his comrades, who called in question his capabilities as a blacksmith. "Blacksmith, indeed!" said Féron. "That's nothing. I am quite an artist, messieurs. At Brie I was accounted a connoisseur—an ornamental worker in brass, iron, and the other precious metals."
"A fine story," laughed Henri, who was greatly the better for his comfortable meal. "At Brie your crooked nails were a joke for the whole village."
"Don't talk, but let us see what you can do. Give us a specimen," said a conscript, a timorous little fellow, who was unpopular in the regiment because of his habit of shifting off his work upon his comrades.
"Yes, I will," returned Feron. "I'll make an iron to brand you with when you are caught trying to desert, as you are sure to be one of these days."
A general laugh followed this retort, then silence fell over the group, while Feron hammered away at his task, and most of the others began to doze in their places. When at last he held up triumphantly, in proof of his skill, a finely-formed branding-iron with the letter N upon it, his companions were far too sleepy to give him the applause he expected.
One hour—two hours passed away. All were sleeping now, even the sentinels Seppel had placed outside as a matter of form. The village of Nicolofsky was as still as it was wont to be in the noon of a midsummer night. If a sound of weeping and lamentation came, softened by distance, from the adjacent birch-wood, it failed to disturb the sleepers. But the short summer night was soon over, and the dawn began to creep in, cold and gray. Its first faint light fell upon the figure of a mujik, who traversed, with stealthy, silent footsteps, the deserted street of his native village. As he passed the church he noticed that the door had been forced open though it was again roughly secured on the outside. He removed the fastening and looked in. The spirit of wanton outrage, only too common amongst the French soldiery, had made Seppel choose that sacred place as a stable for his horse, and the animal was eating corn out of a consecrated vessel placed upon the altar. Michael Ivanovitch ground his teeth, and his dark cheek flushed ominously; but he passed on, for his heart was full of a great, deep anguish, before which every other emotion paled and faded.
That which, at the risk of his life, he had come to fetch, was not in the desecrated church. It had to be sought for in the very place where most of the French soldiers had taken up their quarters for the night the cottage of Pope Nikita. The door of the cottage was half open, and he saw that the floor was covered with sleeping forms clad in the blue tunic of the French infantry. What matter to him? Blotting out that sight, he saw the wistful, longing look in the dying eyes of the girl he loved, and, before him, the sacred picture her faltering accents had entreated him to bring to her. Thank God, there it hung yet on the cottage wall, in the right-hand corner. Could he tread amongst those sleepers without awakening them, and reach it?
His step was noiseless as the footfall of the desert panther, and the French were weary with marching, and most of them heavy with vodka. He had grasped his prize he stood with his hand on its frame, and a momentary throb of triumph in his sorrowful heart, when suddenly a head was raised; some one more wakeful than the rest had seen the intruder. In an instant the alarm was given, and the whole group were on their feet; in another, a dozen strong hands were laid at once upon Michael Ivanovitch.
He struggled desperately, but what could one man do against a dozen armed with swords and bayonets? He would have been cut down almost immediately, had not Seppel, very sensibly, called upon his men to spare his life and secure him as a prisoner. "He may serve for a guide, or at least give us some information," he said. Then he summoned the Pole to act as interpreter, taking the precaution to make another man—Féron it happened to be—stand before the prisoner with his loaded musket pointed at his breast. "He looks dangerous," he observed.
There was not much to be read in Michael's stolid, determined face, as the light of the early morning shone upon it. He had placed the sacred picture in the breast of his caftan; but seeing the musket, he took it out and laid it on the table. "They shall not harm that, at all events," he thought.
"Tell him," said Seppel to the Pole, "that if he fails to satisfy us, we will shoot him; but that if he behaves well, we will spare his life."
The Pole interpreted, and Michael answered coolly, "Nitshevo."
"That means," the Pole explained, "'It is no matter. I do not care.'"
"Ask him," pursued Seppel, "what brought him here."
Michael, as soon as he understood the question, pointed to the picture.
Seppel laughed incredulously; and the Pole inquired of his own accord, "Is that the whole truth, Russian?"
"Da," returned the prisoner.
"He says, 'Yes,'" the Pole explained.
"Tell him he is a liar," said Seppel.
A scornful smile was the only answer, and Seppel tried another course. "Ask him," he said, "how far it is from this place to Klopti."
He did so; but Michael answered nothing.
"Tell him he must take us there to-day."
Still no answer.
"Tell him if he chooses to behave in this way he has not two minutes to live."
"Nitshevo," was the only reply.
This went on for some minutes, every inquiry being met by a dogged silence, every threat by "Nitshevo." At last Seppel lost patience, and told Féron to fire upon the prisoner.
But Féron disliked the task, for he rather admired the courage of the Russian. He slowly laid his finger on the trigger of his musket, then withdrew it again. This he did twice, keenly watching the countenance of the prisoner, which showed no perceptible change. All the French soldiers had now crowded around them, and were watching the scene with interested faces.
"Do not kill him, sergeant," pleaded one.
"He is a brave fellow. Try something else first," said another.
Seppel paused, and a new thought occurred to him. "Ah, yes," he said, "these Russian slaves understand nothing except it comes to them through their bodily feelings. They are accustomed, I suppose, to be treated like beasts of the field.—Pole, tell him he is our prisoner; that, at least, we will make him know.—Féron, put down your musket, and bring that branding-iron I saw you make last night; there is enough fire yet in the stove to heat it red-hot."
Féron obeyed without hesitation, even with alacrity; for it seemed to him much better to brand a man on the hand than to shoot him through the heart. So the letter N, fashioned in sport the night before, was used in earnest now. It came down with burning pain, and left its mark, indelible for ever, upon the unresisting hand of Michael.
For a moment his strong frame quivered, but his lips were silent, pressed closely together. Then he turned to the Pole, and, for the first time speaking of his own accord, he asked him, "What does that mean?"
"It means that you belong now, soul and body, to our Emperor, the great Napoleon. That which you bear on your hand is his mark—the first letter of his name."
Michael smiled slightly, and advancing to the table, laid the wounded hand upon it. (Féron not unintentionally had made choice of the left one.) Then with one blow from the axe which he drew from the sash of his caftan, he severed it from his wrist. "Take what belongs to your Emperor," he said, turning proudly to the astonished group. "As for me, I belong altogether to the Czar."
A thrill of involuntary admiration passed through the spectators, and for some moments no one spoke. Meanwhile, in the calm summer sky outside, the sun was rising, and its first red beams flashed through the little window upon the homely features of the serf, which shone with a courage and devotion that were almost sublime.
"Cut him down!" cried a solitary voice, that of the conscript who, the night before, had challenged Féron's skill. But half-a-dozen other voices cried, "Shame!" while Seppel himself seemed to hesitate, and stood with the air of a man perplexed and confounded.
In the meantime Henri de Talmont, who had hitherto taken no part in the scene, walked boldly up to the prisoner. He held in his hand a fine white cambric handkerchief, which he wound carefully about the wounded arm. "As you love your Czar," he said gently, "so we Royalists in France loved our King."
The words, of course, fell meaningless upon the ear of Michael; but the tones in which they were uttered, and the action which accompanied them, were abundantly intelligible. The eyes of the Russian serf and the French gentleman met with a look of comprehension and sympathy.
"Shall we let him go?" Seppel asked at length. "What say you, mes enfants?"
There was now not one dissentient voice, and Seppel turned to the interpreter. "Tell him, Pole, that we Frenchmen know how to respect a brave enemy. He is free."
Michael heard, bowed his head gravely in acknowledgment, took up the sacred picture with his remaining hand, and walked slowly out. He scarcely noticed the ringing cheer which the excitable Frenchmen sent after him. Their applause was nothing to him: it could not bring back the young life of his betrothed, flowing forth so quickly through the wound their guns had made last night. Enough if he might but be in time to see her once again, and to comfort her dying moments with the treasure he had risked so much to procure.
When he was gone, Seppel stretched his limbs once more before the stove, and said half to himself with a meditative air, "After all, I begin to doubt whether we shall succeed so easily in conquering these Russians."
- Alexander would not allow the country to be laid waste before the invaders; but government stores were destroyed or carried away, and private individuals voluntarily did the same, to a great extent, with their own possessions.
- These outrages, and others yet more revolting, were constantly committed by the French in Russia.
- A fact.