changed front slightly to the right and got in motion at a walk to take that dark line in the distance in flank. It might have been half-past two in the afternoon then.

‘You must know that in all this campaign, my regiment had not been on the main line of Napoleon’s advance. All these months the army we belonged to had been wrestling with Oudinot* in the north. We had come only lately, driving him before us down to the Beresina.*

‘It was on this occasion then that I and my comrades came for the first time near to Napoleon’s Grand Army. It was an amazing and terrible sight. I had heard of it from others. I had seen the stragglers from it, some small bands of marauders, parties of prisoners in the distance. But this was the very column itself! A mere starving, half-demented mob. It issued from the forest two miles away and its head was lost in the murk of the fields. We rode into it at a trot, which was the most we could get out of our horses, and we stuck in that human mass as if in a bog. There was no resistance. I heard only a few shots, half a dozen perhaps. Their very senses seemed frozen within them. I had time to have a good look while riding at the head of my squadron. Well, I assure you, there were men walking on the outer edges so lost to everything but their own misery that they never looked our way. Soldiers!

‘My horse pushed over one of them with his chest. He had a dragoon’s* blue cloak all torn and scorched and he didn’t even put his hand to snatch at my bridle to save himself. Perhaps his hands had been frostbitten. He just went down. Our troopers were pointing and slashing; well, and of course, I myself … What will you have! An enemy is an enemy. Yet a sort of awe crept into my heart. There was no noise—only a low deep murmur dwelt over them interspersed with louder cries and groans, while that mob kept on pushing and surging past us as if sightless and without feeling. A smell of scorched rags hung in the cold air. My horse staggered in the eddies of swaying men. But it was like cutting down galvanised corpses that did not care. Invaders! Yes. God was already dealing with them.

‘I touched my horse with the spurs to get clear. There was a sudden rush and an angry growl, when our second squadron got into them on our right. My horse plunged and snorted and somebody got hold of my leg. As I had no mind to get pulled out of the saddle I gave a back-handed slash without looking. I heard a cry and my leg was let go suddenly.

‘Just then I caught sight of the subaltern* of my troop, at some little distance from me. His name was Tomassov. That multitude of resurrected bodies with glassy eyes was seething round his horse blindly, with stifled growls and crazy curses. I saw him sitting erect in his saddle, not looking down at them, and sheathing his sword deliberately.

‘This Tomassov, well, he had a beard. Of course we all had beards then. Circumstances, lack of leisure, want of razors too. No, seriously, we were a wild-looking lot in those unforgotten days which so many, so very many of us did not survive. You know our losses were awful too. Yes, we looked wild. Des Russes sauvages*—what?

‘So he had a beard—this Tomassov I mean; but he did not look sauvage. He was the youngest of us all. And that meant real youth. At a distance he passed muster fairly well, what with the grime and the general stamp of that campaign. But directly you were near enough to have a good look into his eyes, that was where his lack of age showed, though he was not a boy.

‘Those same eyes were blue, something like the blue of our autumn skies, dreamy and gay too—credulous eyes. A topknot of fair hair decorated his brow like a diadem, in what you may call normal times.

‘You may think I am talking of him as though he were the hero of a novel. Why, that’s nothing to what the adjutant* of the regiment discovered about him. He discovered that he had a “lover’s lips”—whatever that may be. If the adjutant meant a nice mouth, why it was nice enough. But I think it was meant for a sneer. That adjutant of ours was not a very delicate fellow. “Look at those lover’s lips,” he would remark in a loudish undertone while Tomassov was talking.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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