Nothing could awaken him, neither the muskets fired close to the cart nor the trot of the horse which the cantinière was flogging with all her might. The regiment, attacked unexpectedly by swarms of Prussian cavalry, after imagining all day that they were winning the battle, was beating a retreat or rather fleeing in the direction of France.
The colonel, a handsome young man, well turned out, who had succeeded Macon, was sabred; the battalion commander who took his place, an old man with white hair, ordered the regiment to halt. “Damn you,” he cried to his men, “in the days of the Republic we waited till we were forced by the enemy before running away. Defend every inch of ground, and get yourselves killed!” he shouted, and swore at them. “It is the soil of the Fatherland that these Prussians want to invade now!”
The little cart halted; Fabrizio awoke with a start. The sun had set some time back; he was quite astonished to see that it was almost night. The troops were running in all directions in a confusion which greatly surprised our hero; they looked shame-faced, he thought.
“What is happening?” he asked the cantinière.
“Nothing at all. Only that we’re in the soup, my boy; it’s the Prussian cavalry mowing us down, that’s all. The idiot of a general thought at first they were our men. Come, quick, help me to mend Cocotte’s trace; it’s broken.”
Several shots were fired ten yards off. Our hero, cool and composed, said to himself: “But really, I haven’t fought at all, the whole day; I have only escorted a general. — I must go and fight,” he said to the cantinière.
“Keep calm, you shall fight, and more than you want! We’re done for.”
“Aubry, my lad,” she called out to a passing corporal, “keep an eye on the little cart now and then.”
“Are you going to fight?” Fabrizio asked Aubry.
“Oh, no, I’m putting my pumps on to go to a dance!”
“I shall follow you.”
“I tell you, he’s all right, the little hussar,” cried the cantinière. “The young gentleman has a stout heart.” Corporal Aubry marched on without saying a word. Eight or nine soldiers ran up and joined him; he led them behind a big oak surrounded by brambles. On reaching it he posted them along the edge of the wood, still without uttering a word, on a widely extended front, each man being at least ten paces from the next.
“Now then, you men,” said the corporal, opening his mouth for the first time, “don’t fire till I give the order: remember you’ve only got three rounds each.”
“Why, what is happening?” Fabrizio wondered. At length, when he found himself alone with the corporal, he said to him: “I have no musket.”
“Will you hold your tongue? Go forward there: fifty paces in front of the wood you’ll find one of the poor fellows of the Regiment who’ve been sabred; you will take his cartridge-pouch and his musket. Don’t strip a wounded man, though; take the pouch and musket from one who’s properly dead, and hurry up or you’ll be shot in the back by our fellows.” Fabrizio set off at a run and returned the next minute with a musket and a pouch.
“Load your musket and stick yourself behind this tree, and whatever you do don’t fire till you get the order from me. . . . Great God in heaven!” the corporal broke off, “he doesn’t even know how to load!” He helped Fabrizio to do this while going on with his instructions. “If one of the enemy’s cavalry gallops at you to cut you down, dodge round your tree and don’t fire till he’s within three paces: wait till your bayonet’s practically touching his uniform.
“Throw that great sabre away,” cried the corporal. “Good God, do you want it to trip you up? Fine sort of soldiers they’re sending us these days!” As he spoke he himself took hold of the sabre which he flung angrily away.
“You there, wipe the flint of your musket with your handkerchief. Have you never fired a musket?”
“I am a hunter.”
“Thank God for that!” went on the corporal with a loud sigh. “Whatever you do, don’t fire till I give the order.” And he moved away.
Fabrizio was supremely happy. “Now I’m going to do some real fighting,” he said to himself, “and kill one of the enemy. This morning they were sending cannonballs over, and I did nothing but expose myself and risk getting killed; that’s a fool’s game.” He gazed all round him with extreme curiosity. Presently he heard seven or eight shots fired quite close at hand. But receiving no order to fire he stood quietly behind his tree. It was almost night; he felt he was in a look-out, bear-shooting, on the mountain of Tramezzina, above Grianta. A hunter’s idea came to him: he took a cartridge from his pouch and removed the ball. “If I see him,” he said, “it won’t do to miss him,” and he slipped this second ball into the barrel of his musket. He heard shots fired close to his tree; at the same moment he saw a horseman in blue pass in front of him at a gallop, going from right to left. “It is more than three paces,” he said to himself, “but at that range I am certain of my mark.” He kept the trooper carefully sighted with his musket and finally pressed the trigger: the trooper fell with his horse. Our hero imagined he was stalking game: he ran joyfully out to collect his bag. He was actually touching the man, who appeared to him to be dying, when, with incredible speed, two Prussian troopers charged down on him to sabre him. Fabrizio dashed back as fast as he could go to the wood; to gain speed he flung his musket away. The Prussian troopers were not more than three paces from him when he reached another plantation of young oaks, as thick as his arm and quite upright, which fringed the wood. These little oaks delayed the horsemen for a moment, but they passed them and continued their pursuit of Fabrizio along a clearing. Once again they were just overtaking him when he slipped in among seven or eight big trees. At that moment his face was almost scorched by the flame of five or six musket shots fired from in front of him. He ducked his head; when he raised it again he found himself face to face with the corporal.
“Did you kill your man?” Corporal Aubry asked him.
“Yes; but I’ve lost my musket.”
“It’s not muskets we’re short of. You’re not a bad b ———; though you do look as green as a cabbage you’ve won the day all right, and these men here have just missed the two who were chasing you and coming straight at them. I didn’t see them myself. What we’ve got to do now is to get away at the double; the Regiment must be half a mile off, and there’s a bit of a field to cross, too, where we may find ourselves surrounded.”
As he spoke, the corporal marched off at a brisk pace at the head of his ten men. Two hundred yards farther on, as they entered the little field he had mentioned, they came upon a wounded general who was being carried by his aide-decamp and an orderly.
“Give me four of your men,” he said to the corporal in a faint voice, “I’ve got to be carried to the ambulance; my leg is shattered.”
“Go and f —— yourself!” replied the corporal, “you and all your generals. You’ve all of you betrayed the Emperor today.”
“What,” said the general, furious, “you dispute my orders. Do you know that I am General Comte B— — commanding your Division,” and so on. He waxed rhetorical. The aide-decamp flung himself on the men. The corporal gave him a thrust in the arm with his bayonet, then made off with his party at the double. “I wish they were all in your boat,” he repeated with an oath; “I’d shatter their arms and legs for them. A pack of puppies! All of them bought by the Bourbons, to betray the Emperor!” Fabrizio listened with a thrill of horror to this frightful accusation.
About ten o’clock that night the little party overtook their regiment on the outskirts of a large village which divided the road into several very narrow streets; but Fabrizio noticed that Corporal Aubry avoided speaking to any of the officers. “We can’t get on,” he called to his men. All these streets were blocked with infantry, cavalry, and, worst of all, by the limbers and wagons of the artillery. The corporal tried three of these streets in turn; after advancing twenty yards he was obliged to halt. Everyone was swearing and losing his temper.
“Some traitor in command here, too!” cried the corporal: “if the enemy has the sense to surround the village, we shall all be caught like rats in a trap. Follow me, you.” Fabrizio looked round; there were only six men left with the corporal. Through a big gate which stood open they came into a huge courtyard; from this courtyard they passed into a stable, the back door of which let them into a garden. They lost their way for a moment and wandered blindly about. But finally, going through a hedge, they found themselves in a huge field of buckwheat. In less than half an hour, guided by the shouts and confused noises, they had regained the high road on the other side of the village. The ditches on either side of this road were filled with muskets that had been thrown away; Fabrizio selected one: but the road, although very broad, was so blocked with stragglers and transport that in the next half-hour the corporal and Fabrizio had not advanced more than five hundred yards at the most; they were told that this road led to Charleroi. As the village clock struck eleven:
“Let us cut across the fields again,” said the corporal. The little party was reduced now to three men, the corporal and Fabrizio. When they had gone a quarter of a league from the high road: “I’m done,” said one of the soldiers.
“Me, too!” said another.
“That’s good news! We’re all in the same boat,” said the corporal; “but do what I tell you and you’ll get through all right.” His eye fell on five or six trees marking the line of a little ditch in the middle of an immense cornfield. “Make for the trees!” he told his men; “lie down,” he added when they had reached the trees, “and not a sound, remember. But before you go to sleep, who’s got any bread?”
“I have,” said one of the men.
“Give it here,” said the corporal in a tone of authority. He divided the bread into five pieces and took the smallest himself.
“A quarter of an hour before dawn,” he said as he ate it, “you’ll have the enemy’s cavalry on your backs. You’ve got to see you’re not sabred. A man by himself is done for with cavalry after him on these big plains, but five can get away; keep in close touch with me, don’t fire till they’re at close range, and tomorrow evening I’ll undertake to get you to Charleroi.” The corporal roused his men an hour before daybreak and made them recharge their muskets. The noise on the high road still continued; it had gone on all night: it was like the sound of a torrent heard from a long way off.
“They’re like a flock of sheep running away,” said Fabrizio with a guileless air to the corporal.
“Will you shut your mouth, you young fool!” said the corporal, greatly indignant. And the three soldiers who with Fabrizio composed his whole force scowled angrily at our hero as though he had uttered blasphemy. He had insulted the nation.
“That is where their strength lies!” thought our hero. “I noticed it before with the Viceroy at Milan; they are not running away, oh, no! With these Frenchmen you must never speak the truth if it shocks their vanity. But as for their savage scowls, they don’t trouble me, and I must let them understand as much.” They kept on their way, always at an interval of five hundred yards from the torrent of fugitives that covered the high road. A league farther on, the corporal and his party crossed a road running into the high road in which a number of soldiers were lying. Fabrizio purchased a fairly good horse which cost him forty francs, and among all the sabres that had been thrown down everywhere made a careful choice of one that was long and straight. “Since I’m told I’ve got to stick them,” he thought, “this is the best.” Thus equipped, he put his horse into a gallop and soon overtook the corporal who had gone on ahead. He sat up in his stirrups, took hold with his left hand of the scabbard of his straight sabre, and said to the four Frenchmen:
“Those people going along the high road look like a flock of sheep . . . they are running like frightened sheep. . . . ”
In spite of his dwelling upon the word sheep, his companions had completely forgotten that it had annoyed them an hour earlier. Here we see one of the contrasts between the Italian character and the French; the Frenchman is no doubt the happier of the two; he glides lightly over the events of life and bears no malice afterwards.
We shall not attempt to conceal the fact that Fabrizio was highly pleased with himself after using the word sheep. They marched on, talking about nothing in particular. After covering two leagues more, the corporal, still greatly astonished to see no sign of the enemy’s cavalry, said to Fabrizio:
“You are our cavalry; gallop over to that farm on the little hill; ask the farmer if he will sell us breakfast: mind you tell him there are only five of us. If he hesitates, put down five francs of your money in advance; but don’t be frightened, we’ll take the dollar back from him after we’ve eaten.”
Fabrizio looked at the corporal; he saw in his face an imperturbable gravity and really an air of moral superiority; he obeyed. Everything fell out as the commander in chief had anticipated; only, Fabrizio insisted on their not taking back by force the five francs he had given to the farmer.
“The money is mine,” he said to his friends; “I’m not paying for you, I’m paying for the oats he’s given my horse.”
Fabrizio’s French accent was so bad that his companions thought they detected in his words a note of superiority; they were keenly annoyed, and from that moment a duel began to take shape in their minds for the end of the day. They found him very different from themselves, which shocked them; Fabrizio, on the contrary, was beginning to feel a warm friendship towards them.
They had marched without saying a word for a couple of hours when the corporal, looking across at the high road, exclaimed in a transport of joy: “There’s the Regiment!” They were soon on the road; but, alas, round the eagle were mustered not more than two hundred men. Fabrizio’s eye soon caught sight of the vivandière: she was going on foot, her eyes were red and every now and again she burst into tears. Fabrizio looked in vain for the little cart and Cocotte.
“Stripped, ruined, robbed!” cried the vivandière, in answer to our hero’s inquiring glance. He, without a word, got down from his horse, took hold of the bridle and said to the vivandière: “Mount!” She did not have to be told twice.
“Shorten the stirrups for me,” was her only remark.
As soon as she was comfortably in the saddle she began to tell Fabrizio all the disasters of the night. After a narrative of endless length but eagerly drunk in by our hero who, to tell the truth, understood nothing at all of what she said but had a tender feeling for the vivandière, she went on:
“And to think that they were Frenchmen who robbed me, beat me, destroyed me. . . . ”
“What! It wasn’t the enemy?” said Fabrizio with an air of innocence which made his grave, pale face look charming.
“What a fool you are, you poor boy!” said the vivandière, smiling through her tears; “but you’re very nice, for all that.”
“And such as he is, he brought down his Prussian properly,” said Corporal Aubry, who, in the general confusion round them, happened to be on the other side of the horse on which the cantinière was sitting. “But he’s proud,” the corporal went on. . . . Fabrizio made an impulsive movement. “And what’s your name?” asked the corporal; “for if there’s a report going in I should like to mention you.”
“I’m called Vasi,” replied Fabrizio, with a curious expression on his face. “Boulot, I mean,” he added, quickly correcting himself.
Boulot was the name of the late possessor of the marching orders which the gaoler’s wife at B—— had given him; on his way from B—— he had studied them carefully, for he was beginning to think a little and was no longer so easily surprised. In addition to the marching orders of Trooper Boulot, he had stowed away in a safe place the precious Italian passport according to which he was entitled to the noble appellation of Vasi, dealer in barometers. When the corporal had charged him with being proud, it had been on the tip of his tongue to retort: “I proud! I, Fabrizio Volterra, Marchesino del Dongo, who consent to go by the name of a Vasi, dealer in barometers!”
While he was making these reflexions and saying to himself: “I must not forget that I am called B’oulot, or look out for the prison fate threatens me with,” the corporal and the cantinière had been exchanging a few words with regard to him.
“Don’t say I’m inquisitive,” said the cantinière, ceasing to address him in the second person singular, “it’s for your good I ask you these questions. Who are you, now, really?”
Fabrizio did not reply at first. He was considering that never again would he find more devoted friends to ask for advice, and he was in urgent need of advice from someone. “We are coming into a fortified place, the governor will want to know who I am, and ware prison if I let him see by my answers that I know nobody in the 4th Hussar Regiment, whose uniform I am wearing!” In his capacity as an Austrian subject, Fabrizio knew all about the importance to be attached to a passport. Various members of his family, although noble and devout, although supporters of the winning side, had been in trouble a score of times over their passports; he was therefore not in the least put out by the question which the cantinière had addressed to him. But as, before answering, he had to think of the French words which would express his meaning most clearly, the cantinière, pricked by a keen curiosity, added, to induce him to speak: “Corporal Aubry and I are going to give you some good advice.”
“I have no doubt you are,” replied Fabrizio. “My name is Vasi and I come from Genoa; my sister, who is famous for her beauty, is married to a captain. As I am only seventeen, she made me come to her to let me see something of France, and form my character a little; not finding her in Paris, and knowing that she was with this army, I came on here. I’ve searched for her everywhere and haven’t found her. The soldiers, who were puzzled by my accent, had me arrested. I had money then, I gave some to the gendarme, who let me have some marching orders and a uniform, and said to me: ‘Get away with you, and swear you’ll never mention my name.’ ”
“What was he called?” asked the cantinière.
“I’ve given my word,” said Fabrizio.
“He’s right,” put in the corporal, “the gendarme is a sweep, but our friend ought not to give his name. And what is the other one called, this captain, your sister’s husband? If we knew his name, we could try to find him.”
“Teulier, Captain in the 4th Hussars,” replied our hero.
“And, so,” said the corporal, with a certain subtlety, “from your foreign accent the soldiers took you for a spy?”
“That’s the abominable word!” cried Fabrizio, his eyes blazing. “I who love the Emperor so and the French people! And it was that insult that annoyed me more than anything.”
“There’s no insult about it; that’s where you’re wrong; the soldiers’ mistake was quite natural,” replied Corporal Aubry gravely.
And he went on to explain in the most pedantic manner that in the army one must belong to some corps and wear a uniform, failing which it was quite simple that people should take one for a spy. “The enemy sends us any number of them; everybody’s a traitor in this war.” The scales fell from Fabrizio’s eyes; he realised for the first time that he had been in the wrong in everything that had happened to him during the last two months.
“But make the boy tell us the whole story,” said the cantinière, her curiosity more and more excited. Fabrizio obeyed. When he had finished:
“It comes to this,” said the cantinière, speaking in a serious tone to the corporal, “this child is not a soldier at all; we’re going to have a bloody war now that we’ve been beaten and betrayed. Why should he go and get his bones broken free, gratis and for nothing?”
“Especially,” put in the corporal, “as he doesn’t even know how to load his musket, neither by numbers, nor in his own time. It was I put in the shot that brought down the Prussian.”
“Besides, he lets everyone see the colour of his money,” added the cantinière; “he will be robbed of all he has as soon as he hasn’t got us to look after him.”
“The first cavalry non-com he comes across,” said the corporal, “will take it from him to pay for his drink, and perhaps they’ll enlist him for the enemy; they’re all traitors. The first man he meets will order him to follow, and he’ll follow him; he would do better to join our Regiment.”
“No, please, if you don’t mind, Corporal!” Fabrizio exclaimed with animation; “I am more comfortable on a horse. And, besides, I don’t know how to load a musket, and you have seen that I can manage a horse.”
Fabrizio was extremely proud of this little speech. We need not report the long discussion that followed between the corporal and the cantinière as to his future destiny. Fabrizio noticed that in discussing him these people repeated three or four times all the circumstances of his story: the soldiers’ suspicions, the gendarme selling him marching orders and a uniform, the accident by which, the day before, he had found himself forming part of the Marshal’s escort, the glimpse of the Emperor as he galloped past, the horse that had been scoffed from him, and so on indefinitely.
With feminine curiosity the cantinière kept harking back incessantly to the way in which he had been dispossessed of the good horse which she had made him buy.
“You felt yourself seized by the feet, they lifted you gently over your horse’s tail, and sat you down on the ground!” “Why repeat so often,” Fabrizio said to himself, “what all three of us know perfectly well?” He had not yet discovered that this is how, in France, the lower orders proceed in quest of ideas.
“How much money have you?” the cantinière asked him suddenly. Fabrizio had no hesitation in answering. He was sure of the nobility of the woman’s nature; that is the fine side of France.
“Altogether, I may have got left thirty napoleons in gold, and eight or nine five-franc pieces.”
“In that case, you have a clear field!” exclaimed the cantinière. “Get right away from this rout of an army; clear out, take the first road with ruts on it that you come to on the right; keep your horse moving and your back to the army. At the first opportunity, buy some civilian clothes. When you’ve gone nine or ten leagues and there are no more soldiers in sight, take the mail-coach, and go and rest for a week and eat beefsteaks in some nice town. Never let anyone know that you’ve been in the army, or the police will take you up as a deserter; and, nice as you are, my boy, you’re not quite clever enough yet to stand up to the police. As soon as you’ve got civilian clothes on your back, tear up your marching orders into a thousand pieces and go back to your real name: say that you’re Vasi. And where ought he to say he comes from?” she asked the corporal.
“From Cambrai on the Scheldt: it’s a good town and quite small, if you know what I mean. There’s a cathedral there, and Fénelon.”
“That’s right,” said the cantinière. “Never let on to anyone that you’ve been in battle, don’t breathe a word about B—— — or the gendarme who sold you the marching orders. When you’re ready to go back to Paris, make first for Versailles, and pass the Paris barrier from that side in a leisurely way, on foot, as if you were taking a stroll. Sew up your napoleons inside your breeches, and remember, when you have to pay for anything, shew only the exact sum that you want to spend. What makes me sad is that they’ll take you and rob you and strip you of everything you have. And whatever will you do without money, you that don’t know how to look after yourself . . . ” and so on.
The good woman went on talking for some time still; the corporal indicated his support by nodding his head, not being able to get a word in himself. Suddenly the crowd that was packing the road first of all doubled its pace, then, in the twinkling of an eye, crossed the little ditch that bounded the road on the left and fled helter-skelter across country. Cries of “The Cossacks! The Cossacks!” rose from every side.
“Take back your horse!” the cantinière shouted.
“God forbid!” said Fabrizio. “Gallop! Away with you! I give him to you. Do you want something to buy another cart with? Half of what I have is yours.”
‘Take back your horse, I tell you!” cried the cantinière angrily; and she prepared to dismount. Fabrizio drew his sabre. “Hold on tight!” she shouted to her, and gave two or three strokes with the flat of his sabre to the horse, which broke into a gallop and followed the fugitives.
Our hero stood looking at the road; a moment ago, two or three thousand people had been jostling along it, packed together like peasants at the tail of a procession. After the shout of: “Cossacks!” he saw not a soul on it; the fugitives had cast away shakoes, muskets, sabres, everything. Fabrizio, quite bewildered, climbed up into a field on the right of the road and twenty or thirty feet above it; he scanned the line of the road in both directions, and the plain, but saw no trace of the Cossacks. “Funny people, these French!” he said to himself. “Since I have got to go to the right,” he thought, “I may as well start off at once; it is possible that these people have a reason for running away that I don’t know.” He picked up a musket, saw that it was charged, shook up the powder in the priming, cleaned the flint, then chose a cartridge-pouch that was well filled and looked round him again in all directions; he was absolutely alone in the middle of this plain which just now had been so crowded with people. In the far distance he could see the fugitives, who were beginning to disappear behind the trees, and were still running. “That’s a very odd thing,” he said to himself, and remembering the tactics employed by the corporal the night before, he went and sat down in the middle of a field of corn. He did not go farther because he was anxious to see again his good friends the cantinière and Corporal Aubry.
In this cornfield, he made the discovery that he had no more than eighteen napoleons, instead of thirty as he had supposed; but he still had some small diamonds which he had stowed away in the lining of the hussar’s boots, before dawn, in the gaoler’s wife’s room at B——. He concealed his napoleons as best he could, pondering deeply the while on the sudden disappearance of the others. “Is that a bad omen for me?” he asked himself. What distressed him most was that he had not asked Corporal Aubry the question: “Have I really taken part in a battle?” It seemed to him that he had, and his happiness would have known no bounds could he have been certain of this.
“But even if I have,” he said to himself, “I took part in it bearing the name of a prisoner, I had a prisoner’s marching orders in my pocket, and, worse still, his coat on my back! That is the fatal threat to my future: what would the Priore Blanès say to it? And that wretched Boulot died in prison. It is all of the most sinister augury; fate will lead me to prison.” Fabrizio would have given anything in the world to know whether Trooper Boulot had really been guilty; when he searched his memory, he seemed to recollect that the gaoler’s wife had told him that the hussar had been taken up not only for the theft of silver plate but also for stealing a cow from a peasant and nearly beating the peasant to death: Fabrizio had no doubt that he himself would be sent to prison some day for a crime which would bear some relation to that of Trooper Boulot. He thought of his friend the parroco Blanès: what would he not have given for an opportunity of consulting him! Then he remembered that he had not written to his aunt since leaving Paris. “Poor Gina!” he said to himself. And tears stood in his eyes, when suddenly he heard a slight sound quite close to him: a soldier was feeding three horses on the standing corn; he had taken the bits out of their mouths and they seemed half dead with hunger; he was holding them by the snaffle. Fabrizio got up like a partridge; the soldier seemed frightened. Our hero noticed this, and yielded to the pleasure of playing the hussar for a moment.
“One of those horses belongs to me, f —— you, but I don’t mind giving you five francs for the trouble you’ve taken in bringing it here.”
“What are you playing at?” said the soldier. Fabrizio took aim at him from a distance of six paces.
“Let go the horse, or I’ll blow your head off.”
The soldier had his musket slung on his back; he reached over his shoulder to seize it.
“If you move an inch, you’re a dead man!” cried Fabrizio, rushing upon him.
“All right, give me the five francs and take one of the horses,” said the embarrassed soldier, after casting a rueful glance at the high road, on which there was absolutely no one to be seen. Fabrizio, keeping his musket raised in his left hand, with the right flung him three five-franc pieces.
“Dismount, or you’re a dead man. Bridle the black, and go farther off with the other two. . . . If you move, I fire.”
The soldier looked savage but obeyed. Fabrizio went up to the horse and passed the rein over his left arm, without losing sight of the soldier, who was moving slowly away; when our hero saw that he had gone fifty paces, he jumped nimbly on to the horse. He had barely mounted and was feeling with his foot for the off stirrup when he heard a bullet whistle past close to his head: it was the soldier who had fired at him. Fabrizio; beside himself with rage, started galloping after the soldier who ran off as fast as his legs could carry him, and presently Fabrizio saw him mount one of his two horses and gallop away. “Good, he’s out of range now,” he said to himself. The horse he had just bought was a magnificent animal, but seemed half starved. Fabrizio returned to the high road, where there was still not a living soul; he crossed it and put his horse into a trot to reach a little fold in the ground on the left, where he hoped to find the cantinière; but when he was at the top of the little rise he could see nothing save, more than a league away, a few scattered troops. “It is written that I shall not see her again,” he said to himself with a sigh, “the good, brave woman!” He came to a farm which he had seen in the distance on the right of the road. Without dismounting, and after paying for it in advance, he made the farmer produce some oats for his poor horse, which was so famished that it began to gnaw the manger. An hour later, Fabrizio was trotting along the high road, still in the hope of meeting the cantinière, or at any rate Corporal Aubry. Moving all the time and keeping a look-out all round him, he came to a marshy river crossed by a fairly narrow wooden bridge. Between him and the bridge, on the right of the road, was a solitary house bearing the sign of the White Horse. “There I shall get some dinner,” thought Fabrizio. A cavalry officer with his arm in a sling was guarding the approach to the bridge; he was on horseback and looked very melancholy; ten paces away from him, three dismounted troopers were filling their pipes.
“There are some people,” Fabrizio said to himself, “who look to me very much as though they would like to buy my horse for even less than he cost me.” The wounded officer and the three men on foot watched him approach and seemed to be waiting for him. “It would be better not to cross by this bridge, but to follow the river bank to the right; that was the way the cantinière advised me to take to get clear of difficulties. . . . Yes,” thought our hero, “but if I take to my heels now, tomorrow I shall be thoroughly ashamed of myself; besides, my horse has good legs, the officer’s is probably tired; if he tries to make me dismount I shall gallop.” Reasoning thus with himself, Fabrizio pulled up his horse and moved forward at the slowest possible pace.
“Advance, you, hussar!” the officer called to him with an air of authority.
Fabrizio went on a few paces and then halted.
“Do you want to take my horse?” he shouted.
“Not in the least; advance.”
Fabrizio examined the officer; he had a white moustache, and looked the best fellow in the world; the handkerchief that held up his left arm was drenched with blood, and his right hand also was bound up in a piece of bloodstained linen. “It is the men on foot who are going to snatch my bridle,” thought Fabrizio; but, on looking at them from nearer, he saw that they too were wounded.
“On your honour as a soldier,” said the officer, who wore the epaulettes of a colonel, “stay here on picket, and tell all the dragoons, chasseurs and hussars that you see that Colonel Le Baron is in the inn over there, and that I order them to come and report to me.” The old colonel had the air of a man broken by suffering; with his first words he had made a conquest of our hero, who replied with great good sense:
“I am very young, sir, to make them listen to me; I ought to have a written order from you.”
“He is right,” said the colonel, studying him closely; “make out the order, La Rose, you’ve got the use of your right hand.”
Without saying a word, La Rose took from his pocket a little parchment book, wrote a few lines, and, tearing out a leaf, handed it to Fabrizio; the colonel repeated the order to him, adding that after two hours on duty he would be relieved, as was right and proper, by one of the three wounded troopers he had with him. So saying he went into the inn with his men. Fabrizio watched them go and sat without moving at the end of his wooden bridge, so deeply impressed had he been by the sombre, silent grief of these three persons. “One would think they were under a spell,” he said to himself. At length he unfolded the paper and read the order, which ran as follows:
“Colonel Le Baron, 6th Dragoons, Commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division of the XIV Corps, orders all cavalrymen, dragoons, chasseurs and hussars, on no account to cross the bridge, and to report to him at the White Horse Inn, by the bridge, which is his headquarters.
“Headquarters, by the bridge of La Sainte, June 19, 1815. “For Colonel Le Baron, wounded in the right arm, and by his orders,
“LA ROSE, Serjeant.”
Fabrizio had been on guard at the bridge for barely half an hour when he saw six chasseurs approaching him mounted, and three on foot; he communicated the colonel’s order to them. “We’re coming back,” said four of the mounted men, and crossed the bridge at a fast trot. Fabrizio then spoke to the other two. During the discussion, which grew heated, the three men on foot crossed the bridge. Finally, one of the two mounted troopers who had stayed behind asked to see the order again, and carried it off, with:
“I am taking it to the others, who will come back without fail; wait for them here.” And off he went at a gallop; his companion followed him. All this had happened in the twinkling of an eye.
Fabrizio was furious, and called to one of the wounded soldiers, who appeared at a window of the White Horse.
This soldier, on whose arm Fabrizio saw the stripes of a cavalry serjeant, came down and shouted to him: “Draw your sabre, man, you’re on picket.” Fabrizio obeyed, then said: “They’ve carried off. the order.”
“They’re out of hand after yesterday’s affair,” replied the other in a melancholy tone. “I’ll let you have one of my pistols; if they force past you again, fire it in the air; I shall come, or the colonel himself will appear.”
Fabrizio had not failed to observe the serjeant’s start of surprise on hearing of the theft of the order. He realised that it was a personal insult to himself, and promised himself that he would not allow such a trick to be played on him again.
Armed with the sergeant’s horse-pistol, Fabrizio had proudly resumed his guard when he saw coming towards him seven hussars, mounted. He had taken up a position that barred the bridge; he read them the colonel’s order, which seemed greatly to annoy them; the most venturesome of them tried to pass. Fabrizio, following the wise counsel of his friend the vivandière, who, the morning before, had told him that he must thrust and not slash, lowered the point of his long, straight sabre and made as though to stab with it the man who was trying to pass him.
“Oh, so he wants to kill us, the baby!” cried the hussars, “as if we hadn’t been killed quite enough yesterday!” They all drew their sabres at once and fell on Fabrizio: he gave himself up for dead; but he thought of the serjeant’s surprise, and was not anxious to earn his contempt again. Drawing back on to his bridge, he tried to reach them with his sabre-point. He looked so absurd when he tried to wield this huge, straight heavy-dragoon sabre, a great deal too heavy for him, that the hussars soon saw with what sort of soldier they had to deal; they then endeavoured not to wound him but to slash his clothing. In this way Fabrizio received three or four slight sabre-cuts on his arms. For his own part, still faithful to the cantinière’s precept, he kept thrusting the point of his sabre at them with all his might. As ill luck would have it, one of these thrusts wounded a hussar in the hand: highly indignant at being touched by so raw a recruit, he replied with a downward thrust which caught Fabrizio in the upper part of the thigh. What made this blow effective was that our hero’s horse, so far from avoiding the fray, seemed to take pleasure in it and to be flinging himself on the assailants. These, seeing Fabrizio’s blood streaming along his right arm, were afraid that they might have carried the game too far, and, pushing him against the left-hand parapet of the bridge, crossed at a gallop. As soon as Fabrizio had a moment to himself he fired his pistol in the air to warn the colonel.
Four mounted hussars and two on foot, of the same regiment as the others, were coming towards the bridge and were still two hundred yards away from it when the pistol went off. They had been paying close attention to what was happening on the bridge, and, imagining that Fabrizio had fired at their comrades, the four mounted men galloped upon him with raised sabres: it was a regular cavalry charge. Colonel Le Baron, summoned by the pistol-shot, opened the door of the inn and rushed on to the bridge just as the galloping hussars reached it, and himself gave them the order to halt.
‘There’s no colonel here now!” cried one of them, and pressed on his horse. The colonel in exasperation broke off the reprimand he was giving them, and with his wounded right hand seized the rein of this horse on the off side.
“Halt! You bad soldier,” he said to the hussar; “I know you, you’re in Captain Henriot’s squadron.”
“Very well, then! The captain can give me the order himself! Captain Henriot was killed yesterday,” he added with a snigger, “and you can go and f —— yourself!”
So saying, he tried to force a passage, and pushed the old colonel, who fell in a sitting position on the roadway of the bridge. Fabrizio, who was a couple of yards farther along upon the bridge, but facing the inn, pressed his horse, and, while the breast-piece of the assailant’s harness threw down the old colonel, who never let go the off rein, Fabrizio, indignant, bore down upon the hussar with a driving thrust. Fortunately the hussar’s horse, feeling itself pulled towards the ground by the rein which the colonel still held, made a movement sideways, with the result that the long blade of Fabrizio’s heavy-cavalry sabre slid along the hussar’s jacket, and the whole length of it passed beneath his eyes. Furious, the hussar turned round and, using all his strength, dealt Fabrizio a blow which cut his sleeve and went deep into his arm: our hero fell.
One of the dismounted hussars, seeing the two defenders of the bridge on the ground, seized the opportunity, jumped on to Fabrizio’s horse and tried to make off with it by starting at a gallop across the bridge.
The serjeant, as he hurried from the inn, had seen his colonel fall, and supposed him to be seriously wounded. He ran after Fabrizio’s horse and plunged the point of his sabre into the thief’s entrails; he fell. The hussars, seeing no one now on the bridge but the serjeant, who was on foot, crossed at a gallop and rapidly disappeared. The one on foot bolted into the fields.
The serjeant came up to the wounded men. Fabrizio was already on his feet; he was not in great pain, but was bleeding profusely. The colonel got up more slowly; he was quite stunned by his fall, but had received no injury. “I feel nothing,” he said to the serjeant, “except the old wound in my hand.”
The hussar whom the serjeant had wounded was dying.
“The devil take him!” exclaimed the colonel. “But,” he said to the serjeant and the two troopers who came running out, “look after this young man whose life I have risked, most improperly. I shall stay on the bridge myself and try to stop these madmen. Take the young man to the inn and tie up his arm. Use one of my shirts.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00