A friend of mine, a soldier, who died in Greece of fever some years since, described to me one day his first engagement. His story so impressed me that I wrote it down from memory. It was as follows:
I joined my regiment on September 4th. It was evening. I found the colonel in the camp. He received me rather bruskly, but having read the general’s introductory letter he changed his manner and addressed me courteously.
By him I was presented to my captain, who had just come in from reconnoitring. This captain, whose acquaintance I had scarcely time to make, was a tall, dark man, of harsh, repelling aspect. He had been a private soldier, and had won his cross and epaulettes upon the field of battle. His voice, which was hoarse and feeble, contrasted strangely with his gigantic stature. This voice of his he owed, as I was told, to a bullet which had passed completely through his body at the battle of Jena.
On learning that I had just come from college at Fontainebleau, he remarked, with a wry face: “My lieutenant died last night.”
I understood what he implied, “It is for you to take his place, and you are good for nothing.”
A sharp retort was on my tongue, but I restrained it.
The moon was rising behind the redoubt of Cheverino, which stood two cannon-shots from our encampment. The moon was large and red, as is common at her rising; but that night she seemed to me of extraordinary size. For an instant the redoubt stood out coal-black against the glittering disk. It resembled the cone of a volcano at the moment of eruption.
An old soldier, at whose side I found myself, observed the color of the moon.
“She is very red,” he said. “It is a sign that it will cost us dear to win this wonderful redoubt.”
I was always superstitious, and this piece of augury, coming at that moment, troubled me. I sought my couch, but could not sleep. I rose, and walked about a while, watching the long line of fires upon the heights beyond the village of Cheverino.
When the sharp night air had thoroughly refreshed my blood I went back to the fire. I rolled my mantle round me, and I shut my eyes, trusting not to open them till daybreak. But sleep refused to visit me. Insensibly my thoughts grew doleful. I told myself that I had not a friend among the hundred thousand men who filled that plain. If I were wounded, I should be placed in hospital, in the hands of ignorant and careless surgeons. I called to mind what I had heard of operations. My heart beat violently, and I mechanically arranged, as a kind of rude cuirass, my handkerchief and pocketbook upon my breast. Then, overpowered with weariness, my eyes closed drowsily, only to open the next instant with a start at some new thought of horror.
Fatigue, however, at last gained the day. When the drums beat at daybreak I was fast asleep. We were drawn up in ranks. The roll was called, then we stacked our arms, and everything announced that we should pass another uneventful day.
But about three o’clock an aide-de-camp arrived with orders. We were commanded to take arms.
Our sharpshooters marched into the plain, We followed slowly, and in twenty minutes we saw the outposts of the Russians falling back and entering the redoubt. We had a battery of artillery on our right, another on our left, but both some distance in advance of us. They opened a sharp fire upon the enemy, who returned it briskly, and the redoubt of Cheverino was soon concealed by volumes of thick smoke. Our regiment was almost covered from the Russians’ fire by a piece of rising ground. Their bullets (which besides were rarely aimed at us, for they preferred to fire upon our cannoneers) whistled over us, or at worst knocked up a shower of earth and stones.
Just as the order to advance was given, the captain looked at me intently. I stroked my sprouting mustache with an air of unconcern; in truth, I was not frightened, and only dreaded lest I might be thought so. These passing bullets aided my heroic coolness, while my self-respect assured me that the danger was a real one, since I was veritably under fire. I was delighted at my self-possession, and already looked forward to the pleasure of describing in Parisian drawing-rooms the capture of the redoubt of Cheverino.
The colonel passed before our company. “Well,” he said to me, “you are going to see warm work in your first action.”
I gave a martial smile, and brushed my cuff, on which a bullet, which had struck the earth at thirty paces distant, had cast a little dust.
It appeared that the Russians had discovered that their bullets did no harm, for they replaced them by a fire of shells, which began to reach us in the hollows where we lay. One of these, in its explosion, knocked off my shako and killed a man beside me.
“I congratulate you,” said the captain, as I picked up my shako. “You are safe now for the day.”
I knew the military superstition which believes that the axiom “_non bis in idem_” is as applicable to the battlefield as to the courts of justice, I replaced my shako with a swagger.
“That’s a rude way to make one raise one’s hat,” I said, as lightly as I could. And this wretched piece of wit was, in the circumstances, received as excellent.
“I compliment you,” said the captain. “You will command a company to-night; for I shall not survive the day. Every time I have been wounded the officer below me has been touched by some spent ball; and,” he added, in a lower tone, “all the names began with P.”
I laughed skeptically; most people would have done the same; but most would also have been struck, as I was, by these prophetic words. But, conscript though I was, I felt that I could trust my thoughts to no one, and that it was my duty to seem always calm and bold.
At the end of half an hour the Russian fire had sensibly diminished. We left our cover to advance on the redoubt.
Our regiment was composed of three battalions. The second had to take the enemy in flank; the two others formed a storming party. I was in the third.
On issuing from behind the cover, we were received by several volleys, which did but little harm.
The whistling of the balls amazed me. “But after all,” I thought, “a battle is less terrible than I expected.”
We advanced at a smart run, our musketeers in front.
All at once the Russians uttered three hurrahs–three distinct hurrahs–and then stood silent, without firing.
“I don’t like that silence,” said the captain. “It bodes no good.”
I began to think our people were too eager. I could not help comparing, mentally, their shouts and clamor with the striking silence of the enemy.
We quickly reached the foot of the redoubt. The palisades were broken and the earthworks shattered by our balls. With a roar of “Vive l’Empereur,” our soldiers rushed across the ruins.
I raised my eyes. Never shall I forget the sight which met my view. The smoke had mostly lifted, and remained suspended, like a canopy, at twenty feet above the redoubt. Through a bluish mist could be perceived, behind the shattered parapet, the Russian Grenadiers, with rifles lifted, as motionless as statues. I can see them still,–the left eye of every soldier glaring at us, the right hidden by his lifted gun. In an embrasure at a few feet distant, a man with a fuse stood by a cannon.
I shuddered. I believed that my last hour had come.
“Now for the dance to open,” cried the captain. These were the last words I heard him speak.
There came from the redoubts a roll of drums. I saw the muzzles lowered. I shut my eyes; I heard a most appalling crash of sound, to which succeeded groans and cries. Then I looked up, amazed to find myself still living. The redoubt was once more wrapped in smoke. I was surrounded by the dead and wounded. The captain was extended at my feet; a ball had carried off his head, and I was covered with his blood. Of all the company, only six men, except myself, remained erect.
This carnage was succeeded by a kind of stupor. The next instant the colonel, with his hat on his sword’s point, had scaled the parapet with a cry of “Vive l’Empereur.” The survivors followed him. All that succeeded is to me a kind of dream. We rushed into the redoubt, I know not how, we fought hand to hand in the midst of smoke so thick that no man could perceive his enemy. I found my sabre dripping blood; I heard a shout of “Victory”; and, in the clearing smoke, I saw the earthworks piled with dead and dying. The cannons were covered with a heap of corpses. About two hundred men in the French uniform were standing, without order, loading their muskets or wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them. The colonel was lying, bathed in blood, upon a broken cannon. A group of soldiers crowded round him. I approached them.
“Who is the oldest captain?” he was asking of a sergeant.
The sergeant shrugged his shoulders most expressively.
“Who is the oldest lieutenant?”
“This gentleman, who came last night,” replied the sergeant calmly.
The colonel smiled bitterly.
“Come, sir,” he said to me, “you are now in chief command. Fortify the gorge of the redoubt at once with wagons, for the enemy is out in force. But General C—— is coming to support you.”
“Colonel,” I asked him, “are you badly wounded?”
“Pish, my dear fellow. The redoubt is taken.”