THE PASSAGE OF THE BERESINA
Marechal Victor, when he started, about nine at night, from the heights of Studzianka, which he had defended, as the rear-guard of the retreating army, during the whole day of November 28th, 1812, left a thousand men behind him, with orders to protect to the last possible moment whichever of the two bridges across the Beresina might still exist. This rear-guard had devoted itself to the task of saving a frightful multitude of stragglers overcome by the cold, who obstinately refused to leave the bivouacs of the army. The heroism of this generous troop proved useless. The stragglers who flocked in masses to the banks of the Beresina found there, unhappily, an immense number of carriages, caissons, and articles of all kinds which the army had been forced to abandon when effecting its passage of the river on the 27th and 28th of November. Heirs to such unlooked-for riches, the unfortunate men, stupid with cold, took up their abode in the deserted bivouacs, broke up the material which they found there to build themselves cabins, made fuel of everything that came to hand, cut up the frozen carcasses of the horses for food, tore the cloth and the curtains from the carriages for coverlets, and went to sleep, instead of continuing their way and crossing quietly during the night that cruel Beresina, which an incredible fatality had already made so destructive to the army.
The apathy of these poor soldiers can only be conceived by those who remember to have crossed vast deserts of snow without other perspective than a snow horizon, without other drink than snow, without other bed than snow, without other food than snow or a few frozen beet-roots, a few handfuls of flour, or a little horseflesh. Dying of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and want of sleep, these unfortunates reached a shore where they saw before them wood, provisions, innumerable camp equipages, and carriages,--in short a whole town at their service. The village of Studzianka had been wholly taken to pieces and conveyed from the heights on which it stood to the plain. However forlorn and dangerous that refuge might be, its miseries and its perils only courted men who had lately seen nothing before them but the awful deserts of Russia. It was, in fact, a vast asylum which had an existence of twenty-four hours only.
Utter lassitude, and the sense of unexpected comfort, made that mass of men inaccessible to every thought but that of rest. Though the artillery of the left wing of the Russians kept up a steady fire on this mass,--visible like a stain now black, now flaming, in the midst of the trackless snow,--this shot and shell seemed to the torpid creatures only one inconvenience the more. It was like a thunderstorm, despised by all because the lightning strikes so few; the balls struck only here and there, the dying, the sick, the dead sometimes! Stragglers arrived in groups continually; but once here those perambulating corpses separated; each begged for himself a place near a fire; repulsed repeatedly, they met again, to obtain by force the hospitality already refused to them. Deaf to the voice of some of their officers, who warned them of probable destruction on the morrow, they spent the amount of courage necessary to cross the river in building that asylum of a night, in making one meal that they themselves doomed to be their last. The death that awaited them they considered no evil, provided they could have that one night's sleep. They thought nothing evil but hunger, thirst, and cold. When there was no more wood or food or fire, horrible struggles took place between fresh-comers and the rich who possessed a shelter. The weakest succumbed.
At last there came a moment when a number, pursued by the Russians, found only snow on which to bivouac, and these lay down to rise no more. Insensibly this mass of almost annihilated beings became so compact, so deaf, so torpid, so happy perhaps, that Marechal Victor, who had been their heroic defender by holding twenty thousand Russians under Wittgenstein at bay, was forced to open a passage by main force through this forest of men in order to cross the Beresina with five thousand gallant fellows whom he was taking to the emperor. The unfortunate malingerers allowed themselves to be crushed rather than stir; they perished in silence, smiling at their extinguished fires, without a thought of France.
It was not until ten o'clock that night that Marechal Victor reached the bank of the river. Before crossing the bridge which led to Zembin, he confided the fate of his own rear-guard now left in Studzianka to Eble, the savior of all those who survived the calamities of the Beresina. It was towards midnight when this great general, followed by one brave officer, left the cabin he occupied near the bridge, and studied the spectacle of that improvised camp placed between the bank of the river and Studzianka. The Russian cannon had ceased to thunder. Innumerable fires, which, amid that trackless waste of snow, burned pale and scarcely sent out any gleams, illumined here and there by sudden flashes forms and faces that were barely human. Thirty thousand poor wretches, belonging to all nations, from whom Napoleon had recruited his Russian army, were trifling away their lives with brutish indifference.
"Let us save them!" said General Eble to the officer who accompanied him. "To-morrow morning the Russians will be masters of Studzianka. We must burn the bridge the moment they appear. Therefore, my friend, take your courage in your hand! Go to the heights. Tell General Fournier he has barely time to evacuate his position, force a way through this crowd, and cross the bridge. When you have seen him in motion follow him. Find men you can trust, and the moment Fournier had crossed the bridge, burn, without pity, huts, equipages, caissons, carriages,--EVERYTHING! Drive that mass of men to the bridge. Compel all that has two legs to get to the other side of the river. The burning of everything--EVERYTHING--is now our last resource. If Berthier had let me destroy those damned camp equipages, this river would swallow only my poor pontoniers, those fifty heroes who will save the army, but who themselves will be forgotten."
The general laid his hand on his forehead and was silent. He felt that Poland would be his grave, and that no voice would rise to do justice to those noble men who stood in the water, the icy water of Beresina, to destroy the buttresses of the bridges. One alone of those heroes still lives--or, to speak more correctly, suffers--in a village, totally ignored.
The aide-de-camp started. Hardly had this generous officer gone a hundred yards towards Studzianka than General Eble wakened a number of his weary pontoniers, and began the work,--the charitable work of burning the bivouacs set up about the bridge, and forcing the sleepers, thus dislodged, to cross the river.
Meanwhile the young aide-de-camp reached, not without difficulty, the only wooden house still left standing in Studzianka.
"This barrack seems pretty full, comrade," he said to a man whom he saw by the doorway.
"If you can get in you'll be a clever trooper," replied the officer, without turning his head or ceasing to slice off with his sabre the bark of the logs of which the house was built.
"Is that you, Philippe?" said the aide-de-camp, recognizing a friend by the tones of his voice.
"Yes. Ha, ha! is it you, old fellow?" replied Monsieur de Sucy, looking at the aide-de-camp, who, like himself, was only twenty-three years of age. "I thought you were the other side of that cursed river. What are you here for? Have you brought cakes and wine for our dessert? You'll be welcome," and he went on slicing off the bark, which he gave as a sort of provender to his horse.
"I am looking for your commander to tell him, from General Eble, to make for Zembin. You'll have barely enough time to get through that crowd of men below. I am going presently to set fire to their camp and force them to march."
"You warm me up--almost! That news makes me perspire. I have two friends I MUST save. Ah! without those two to cling to me, I should be dead already. It is for them that I feed my horse and don't eat myself. Have you any food,--a mere crust? It is thirty hours since anything has gone into my stomach, and yet I have fought like a madman --just to keep a little warmth and courage in me."
"Poor Philippe, I have nothing--nothing! But where's your general,--in this house?"
"No, don't go there; the place is full of wounded. Go up the street; you'll find on your left a sort of pig-pen; the general is there. Good-bye, old fellow. If we ever dance a trenis on a Paris floor--"
He did not end his sentence; the north wind blew at that moment with such ferocity that the aide-de-camp hurried on to escape being frozen, and the lips of Major de Sucy stiffened. Silence reigned, broken only by the moans which came from the house, and the dull sound made by the major's horse as it chewed in a fury of hunger the icy bark of the trees with which the house was built. Monsieur de Sucy replaced his sabre in its scabbard, took the bridle of the precious horse he had hitherto been able to preserve, and led it, in spite of the animal's resistance, from the wretched fodder it appeared to think excellent.
"We'll start, Bichette, we'll start! There's none but you, my beauty, who can save Stephanie. Ha! by and bye you and I may be able to rest-- and die," he added.
Philippe, wrapped in a fur pelisse, to which he owed his preservation and his energy, began to run, striking his feet hard upon the frozen snow to keep them warm. Scarcely had he gone a few hundred yards from the village than he saw a blaze in the direction of the place where, since morning, he had left his carriage in charge of his former orderly, an old soldier. Horrible anxiety laid hold of him. Like all others who were controlled during this fatal retreat by some powerful sentiment, he found a strength to save his friends which he could not have put forth to save himself.
Presently he reached a slight declivity at the foot of which, in a spot sheltered from the enemy's balls, he had stationed the carriage, containing a young woman, the companion of his childhood, the being most dear to him on earth. At a few steps distant from the vehicle he now found a company of some thirty stragglers collected around an immense fire, which they were feeding with planks, caisson covers, wheels, and broken carriages. These soldiers were, no doubt, the last comers of that crowd who, from the base of the hill of Studzianka to the fatal river, formed an ocean of heads intermingled with fires and huts,--a living sea, swayed by motions that were almost imperceptible, and giving forth a murmuring sound that rose at times to frightful outbursts. Driven by famine and despair, these poor wretches must have rifled the carriage before de Sucy reached it. The old general and his young wife, whom he had left lying in piles of clothes and wrapped in mantles and pelisses, were now on the snow, crouching before the fire. One door of the carriage was already torn off.
No sooner did the men about the fire hear the tread of the major's horse than a hoarse cry, the cry of famine, arose,--
"A horse! a horse!"
Those voices formed but one voice.
"Back! back! look out for yourself!" cried two or three soldiers, aiming at the mare. Philippe threw himself before his animal, crying out,--
"You villains! I'll throw you into your own fire. There are plenty of dead horses up there. Go and fetch them."
"Isn't he a joker, that officer! One, two--get out of the way," cried a colossal grenadier. "No, you won't, hey! Well, as you please, then."
A woman's cry rose higher than the report of the musket. Philippe fortunately was not touched, but Bichette, mortally wounded, was struggling in the throes of death. Three men darted forward and dispatched her with their bayonets.
"Cannibals!" cried Philippe, "let me at any rate take the horse-cloth and my pistols."
"Pistols, yes," replied the grenadier. "But as for that horse-cloth, no! here's a poor fellow afoot, with nothing in his stomach for two days, and shivering in his rags. It is our general."
Philippe kept silence as he looked at the man, whose boots were worn out, his trousers torn in a dozen places, while nothing but a ragged fatigue-cap covered with ice was on his head. He hastened, however, to take his pistols. Five men dragged the mare to the fire, and cut her up with the dexterity of a Parisian butcher. The pieces were instantly seized and flung upon the embers.
The major went up to the young woman, who had uttered a cry on recognizing him. He found her motionless, seated on a cushion beside the fire. She looked at him silently, without smiling. Philippe then saw the soldier to whom he had confided the carriage; the man was wounded. Overcome by numbers, he had been forced to yield to the malingerers who attacked him; and, like the dog who defended to the last possible moment his master's dinner, he had taken his share of the booty, and was now sitting beside the fire, wrapped in a white sheet by way of cloak, and turning carefully on the embers a slice of the mare. Philippe saw upon his face the joy these preparations gave him. The Comte de Vandieres, who, for the last few days, had fallen into a state of second childhood, was seated on a cushion beside his wife, looking fixedly at the fire, which was beginning to thaw his torpid limbs. He had shown no emotion of any kind, either at Philippe's danger, or at the fight which ended in the pillage of the carriage and their expulsion from it.
At first de Sucy took the hand of the young countess, as if to show her his affection, and the grief he felt at seeing her reduced to such utter misery; then he grew silent; seated beside her on a heap of snow which was turning into a rivulet as it melted, he yielded himself up to the happiness of being warm, forgetting their peril, forgetting all things. His face assumed, in spite of himself, an expression of almost stupid joy, and he waited with impatience until the fragment of the mare given to his orderly was cooked. The smell of the roasting flesh increased his hunger, and his hunger silenced his heart, his courage, and his love. He looked, without anger, at the results of the pillage of his carriage. All the men seated around the fire had shared his blankets, cushions, pelisses, robes, also the clothing of the Comte and Comtesse de Vandieres and his own. Philippe looked about him to see if there was anything left in or near the vehicle that was worth saving. By the light of the flames he saw gold and diamonds and plate scattered everywhere, no one having thought it worth his while to take any.
Each of the individuals collected by chance around this fire maintained a silence that was almost horrible, and did nothing but what he judged necessary for his own welfare. Their misery was even grotesque. Faces, discolored by cold, were covered with a layer of mud, on which tears had made a furrow from the eyes to the beard, showing the thickness of that miry mask. The filth of their long beards made these men still more repulsive. Some were wrapped in the countess's shawls, others wore the trappings of horses and muddy saddlecloths, or masses of rags from which the hoar-frost hung; some had a boot on one leg and a shoe on the other; in fact, there were none whose costume did not present some laughable singularity. But in presence of such amusing sights the men themselves were grave and gloomy. The silence was broken only by the snapping of the wood, the crackling of the flames, the distant murmur of the camps, and the blows of the sabre given to what remained of Bichette in search of her tenderest morsels. A few miserable creatures, perhaps more weary than the rest, were sleeping; when one of their number rolled into the fire no one attempted to help him out. These stern logicians argued that if he were not dead his burns would warn him to find a safer place. If the poor wretch waked in the flames and perished, no one cared. Two or three soldiers looked at each other to justify their own indifference by that of others. Twice this scene had taken place before the eyes of the countess, who said nothing. When the various pieces of Bichette, placed here and there upon the embers, were sufficiently broiled, each man satisfied his hunger with the gluttony that disgusts us when we see it in animals.
"This is the first time I ever saw thirty infantrymen on one horse," cried the grenadier who had shot the mare.
It was the only jest made that night which proved the national character.
Soon the great number of these poor soldiers wrapped themselves in what they could find and lay down on planks, or whatever would keep them from contact with the snow, and slept, heedless of the morrow. When the major was warm, and his hunger appeased, an invincible desire to sleep weighed down his eyelids. During the short moment of his struggle against that desire he looked at the young woman, who had turned her face to the fire and was now asleep, leaving her closed eyes and a portion of her forehead exposed to sight. She was wrapped in a furred pelisse and a heavy dragoon's cloak; her head rested on a pillow stained with blood; an astrakhan hood, kept in place by a handkerchief knotted round her neck, preserved her face from the cold as much as possible. Her feet were wrapped in the cloak. Thus rolled into a bundle, as it were, she looked like nothing at all. Was she the last of the "vivandieres"? Was she a charming woman, the glory of a lover, the queen of Parisian salons? Alas! even the eye of her most devoted friend could trace no sign of anything feminine in that mass of rags and tatters. Love had succumbed to cold in the heart of a woman!
Through the thick veils of irresistible sleep, the major soon saw the husband and wife as mere points or formless objects. The flames of the fire, those outstretched figures, the relentless cold, waiting, not three feet distant from that fugitive heat, became all a dream. One importunate thought terrified Philippe:
"If I sleep, we shall all die; I will not sleep," he said to himself.
And yet he slept.
A terrible clamor and an explosion awoke him an hour later. The sense of his duty, the peril of his friend, fell suddenly on his heart. He uttered a cry that was like a roar. He and his orderly were alone afoot. A sea of fire lay before them in the darkness of the night, licking up the cabins and the bivouacs; cries of despair, howls, and imprecations reached their ears; they saw against the flames thousands of human beings with agonized or furious faces. In the midst of that hell, a column of soldiers was forcing its way to the bridge, between two hedges of dead bodies.
"It is the retreat of the rear-guard!" cried the major. "All hope is gone!"
"I have saved your carriage, Philippe," said a friendly voice.
Turning round, de Sucy recognized the young aide-de-camp in the flaring of the flames.
"Ah! all is lost!" replied the major, "they have eaten my horse; and how can I make this stupid general and his wife walk?"
"Take a brand from the fire and threaten them."
"Threaten the countess!"
"Good-bye," said the aide-de-camp, "I have scarcely time to get across that fatal river--and I MUST; I have a mother in France. What a night! These poor wretches prefer to lie here in the snow; half will allow themselves to perish in those flames rather than rise and move on. It is four o'clock, Philippe! In two hours the Russians will begin to move. I assure you you will again see the Beresina choked with corpses. Philippe! think of yourself! You have no horses, you cannot carry the countess in your arms. Come--come with me!" he said urgently, pulling de Sucy by the arm.
"My friend! abandon Stephanie!"
De Sucy seized the countess, made her stand upright, shook her with the roughness of a despairing man, and compelled her to wake up. She looked at him with fixed, dead eyes.
"You must walk, Stephanie, or we shall all die here."
For all answer the countess tried to drop again upon the snow and sleep. The aide-de-camp seized a brand from the fire and waved it in her face.
"We will save her in spite of herself!" cried Philippe, lifting the countess and placing her in the carriage.
He returned to implore the help of his friend. Together they lifted the old general, without knowing whether he were dead or alive, and put him beside his wife. The major then rolled over the men who were sleeping on his blankets, which he tossed into the carriage, together with some roasted fragments of his mare.
"What do you mean to do?" asked the aide-de-camp.
"You are crazy."
"True," said Philippe, crossing his arms in despair.
Suddenly, he was seized by a last despairing thought.
"To you," he said, grasping the sound arm of his orderly, "I confide her for one hour. Remember that you must die sooner than let any one approach her."
The major then snatched up the countess's diamonds, held them in one hand, drew his sabre with the other, and began to strike with the flat of its blade such of the sleepers as he thought the most intrepid. He succeeded in awaking the colossal grenadier, and two other men whose rank it was impossible to tell.
"We are done for!" he said.
"I know it," said the grenadier, "but I don't care."
"Well, death for death, wouldn't you rather sell your life for a pretty woman, and take your chances of seeing France?"
"I'd rather sleep," said a man, rolling over on the snow, "and if you trouble me again, I'll stick my bayonet into your stomach."
"What is the business, my colonel?" said the grenadier. "That man is drunk; he's a Parisian; he likes his ease."
"That is yours, my brave grenadier," cried the major, offering him a string of diamonds, "if you will follow me and fight like a madman. The Russians are ten minutes' march from here; they have horses; we are going up to their first battery for a pair."
"But the sentinels?"
"One of us three--" he interrupted himself, and turned to the aide-de- camp. "You will come, Hippolyte, won't you?"
"One of us," continued the major, "will take care of the sentinel. Besides, perhaps they are asleep too, those cursed Russians."
"Forward! major, you're a brave one! But you'll give me a lift on your carriage?" said the grenadier.
"Yes, if you don't leave your skin up there-- If I fall, Hippolyte, and you, grenadier, promise me to do your utmost to save the countess."
"Agreed!" cried the grenadier.
They started for the Russian lines, toward one of the batteries which had so decimated the hapless wretches lying on the banks of the river. A few moments later, the gallop of two horses echoed over the snow, and the wakened artillery men poured out a volley which ranged above the heads of the sleeping men. The pace of the horses was so fleet that their steps resounded like the blows of a blacksmith on his anvil. The generous aide-de-camp was killed. The athletic grenadier was safe and sound. Philippe in defending Hippolyte had received a bayonet in his shoulder; but he clung to his horse's mane, and clasped him so tightly with his knees that the animal was held as in a vice.
"God be praised!" cried the major, finding his orderly untouched, and the carriage in its place.
"If you are just, my officer, you will get me the cross for this," said the man. "We've played a fine game of guns and sabres here, I can tell you."
"We have done nothing yet-- Harness the horses. Take these ropes."
"They are not long enough."
"Grenadier, turn over those sleepers, and take their shawls and linen, to eke out."
"Tiens! that's one dead," said the grenadier, stripping the first man he came to. "Bless me! what a joke, they are all dead!"
"Yes, all; seems as if horse-meat must be indigestible if eaten with snow."
The words made Philippe tremble. The cold was increasing.
"My God! to lose the woman I have saved a dozen times!"
The major shook the countess.
The young woman opened her eyes.
"Madame! we are saved."
"Saved!" she repeated, sinking down again.
The horses were harnessed as best they could. The major, holding his sabre in his well hand, with his pistols in his belt, gathered up the reins with the other hand and mounted one horse while the grenadier mounted the other. The orderly, whose feet were frozen, was thrown inside the carriage, across the general and the countess. Excited by pricks from a sabre, the horses drew the carriage rapidly, with a sort of fury, to the plain, where innumerable obstacles awaited it. It was impossible to force a way without danger of crushing the sleeping men, women, and even children, who refused to move when the grenadier awoke them. In vain did Monsieur de Sucy endeavor to find the swathe cut by the rear-guard through the mass of human beings; it was already obliterated, like the wake of a vessel through the sea. They could only creep along, being often stopped by soldiers who threatened to kill their horses.
"Do you want to reach the bridge?" said the grenadier.
"At the cost of my life--at the cost of the whole world!"
"Then forward, march! you can't make omelets without breaking eggs."
And the grenadier of the guard urged the horses over men and bivouacs with bloody wheels and a double line of corpses on either side of them. We must do him the justice to say that he never spared his breath in shouting in stentorian tones,--
"Look out there, carrion!"
"Poor wretches!" cried the major.
"Pooh! that or the cold, that or the cannon," said the grenadier, prodding the horses, and urging them on.
A catastrophe, which might well have happened to them much sooner, put a stop to their advance. The carriage was overturned.
"I expected it," cried the imperturbable grenadier. "Ho! ho! your man is dead."
"Poor Laurent!" said the major.
"Laurent? Was he in the 5th chasseurs?"
"Then he was my cousin. Oh, well, this dog's life isn't happy enough to waste any joy in grieving for him."
The carriage could not be raised; the horses were taken out with serious and, as it proved, irreparable loss of time. The shock of the overturn was so violent that the young countess, roused from her lethargy, threw off her coverings and rose.
"Philippe, where are we?" she cried in a gentle voice, looking about her.
"Only five hundred feet from the bridge. We are now going to cross the Beresina, Stephanie, and once across I will not torment you any more; you shall sleep; we shall be in safety, and can reach Wilna easily.-- God grant that she may never know what her life has cost!" he thought.
"Philippe! you are wounded!"
"That is nothing."
Too late! the fatal hour had come. The Russian cannon sounded the reveille. Masters of Studzianka, they could sweep the plain, and by daylight the major could see two of their columns moving and forming on the heights. A cry of alarm arose from the multitude, who started to their feet in an instant. Every man now understood his danger instinctively, and the whole mass rushed to gain the bridge with the motion of a wave.
The Russians came down with the rapidity of a conflagration. Men, women, children, horses,--all rushed tumultuously to the bridge. Fortunately the major, who was carrying the countess, was still some distance from it. General Eble had just set fire to the supports on the other bank. In spite of the warnings shouted to those who were rushing upon the bridge, not a soul went back. Not only did the bridge go down crowded with human beings, but the impetuosity of that flood of men toward the fatal bank was so furious that a mass of humanity poured itself violently into the river like an avalanche. Not a cry was heard; the only sound was like the dropping of monstrous stones into the water. Then the Beresina was a mass of floating corpses.
The retrograde movement of those who now fell back into the plain to escape the death before them was so violent, and their concussion against those who were advancing from the rear so terrible, that numbers were smothered or trampled to death. The Comte and Comtesse de Vandieres owed their lives to their carriage, behind which Philippe forced them, using it as a breastwork. As for the major and the grenadier, they found their safety in their strength. They killed to escape being killed.
This hurricane of human beings, the flux and reflux of living bodies, had the effect of leaving for a few short moments the whole bank of the Beresina deserted. The multitude were surging to the plain. If a few men rushed to the river, it was less in the hope of reaching the other bank, which to them was France, than to rush from the horrors of Siberia. Despair proved an aegis to some bold hearts. One officer sprang from ice-cake to ice-cake, and reached the opposite shore. A soldier clambered miraculously over mounds of dead bodies and heaps of ice. The multitude finally comprehended that the Russians would not put to death a body of twenty thousand men, without arms, torpid, stupid, unable to defend themselves; and each man awaited his fate with horrible resignation. Then the major and the grenadier, the general and his wife, remained almost alone on the river bank, a few steps from the spot where the bridge had been. They stood there, with dry eyes, silent, surrounded by heaps of dead. A few sound soldiers, a few officers to whom the emergency had restored their natural energy, were near them. This group consisted of some fifty men in all. The major noticed at a distance of some two hundred yards the remains of another bridge intended for carriages and destroyed the day before.
"Let us make a raft!" he cried.
He had hardly uttered the words before the whole group rushed to the ruins, and began to pick up iron bolts, and screws, and pieces of wood and ropes, whatever materials they could find that were suitable for the construction of a raft. A score of soldiers and officers, who were armed, formed a guard, commanded by the major, to protect the workers against the desperate attacks which might be expected from the crowd, if their scheme was discovered. The instinct of freedom, strong in all prisoners, inspiring them to miraculous acts, can only be compared with that which now drove to action these unfortunate Frenchmen.
"The Russians! the Russians are coming!" cried the defenders to the workers; and the work went on, the raft increased in length and breadth and depth. Generals, soldiers, colonel, all put their shoulders to the wheel; it was a true image of the building of Noah's ark. The young countess, seated beside her husband, watched the progress of the work with regret that she could not help it; and yet she did assist in making knots to secure the cordage.
At last the raft was finished. Forty men launched it on the river, a dozen others holding the cords which moored it to the shore. But no sooner had the builders seen their handiwork afloat, than they sprang from the bank with odious selfishness. The major, fearing the fury of this first rush, held back the countess and the general, but too late he saw the whole raft covered, men pressing together like crowds at a theatre.
"Savages!" he cried, "it was I who gave you the idea of that raft. I have saved you, and you deny me a place."
A confused murmur answered him. The men at the edge of the raft, armed with long sticks, pressed with violence against the shore to send off the frail construction with sufficient impetus to force its way through corpses and ice-floes to the other shore.
"Thunder of heaven! I'll sweep you into the water if you don't take the major and his two companions," cried the stalwart grenadier, who swung his sabre, stopped the departure, and forced the men to stand closer in spite of furious outcries.
"I shall fall,"--"I am falling,"--"Push off! push off!--Forward!" resounded on all sides.
The major looked with haggard eyes at Stephanie, who lifted hers to heaven with a feeling of sublime resignation.
"To die with thee!" she said.
There was something even comical in the position of the men in possession of the raft. Though they were uttering awful groans and imprecations, they dared not resist the grenadier, for in truth they were so closely packed together, that a push to one man might send half of them overboard. This danger was so pressing that a cavalry captain endeavored to get rid of the grenadier; but the latter, seeing the hostile movement of the officer, seized him round the waist and flung him into the water, crying out,--
"Ha! ha! my duck, do you want to drink? Well, then, drink!-- Here are two places," he cried. "Come, major, toss me the little woman and follow yourself. Leave that old fossil, who'll be dead by to-morrow."
"Make haste!" cried the voice of all, as one man.
"Come, major, they are grumbling, and they have a right to do so."
The Comte de Vandieres threw off his wrappings and showed himself in his general's uniform.
"Let us save the count," said Philippe.
Stephanie pressed his hand, and throwing herself on his breast, she clasped him tightly.
"Adieu!" she said.
They had understood each other.
The Comte de Vandieres recovered sufficient strength and presence of mind to spring upon the raft, whither Stephanie followed him, after turning a last look to Philippe.
"Major! will you take my place? I don't care a fig for life," cried the grenadier. "I've neither wife nor child nor mother."
"I confide them to your care," said the major, pointing to the count and his wife.
"Then be easy; I'll care for them, as though they were my very eyes."
The raft was now sent off with so much violence toward the opposite side of the river, that as it touched ground, the shock was felt by all. The count, who was at the edge of it, lost his balance and fell into the river; as he fell, a cake of sharp ice caught him, and cut off his head, flinging it to a great distance.
"See there! major!" cried the grenadier.
"Adieu!" said a woman's voice.
Philippe de Sucy fell to the ground, overcome with horror and fatigue.Next