THE REST of the infantry pressed together into a funnel shape at the entrance of the bridge, and hastily marched across it. At last all the baggage-waggons had passed over; the crush was less, and the last battalion were stepping on to the bridge. Only the hussars of Denisov's squadron were left on the further side of the river facing the enemy. The enemy, visible in the distance from the opposite mountain, could not yet be seen from the bridge below, as, from the valley, through which the river flowed, the horizon was bounded by rising ground not more than half a mile away. In front lay a waste plain dotted here and there with handfuls of our scouting Cossacks. Suddenly on the road, where it ran up the rising ground opposite, troops came into sight wearing blue tunics and accompanied by artillery. They were the French. A scouting party of Cossacks trotted away down the hillside. Though the officers and the men of Denisov's squadron tried to talk of other things, and to look in other directions, they all thought continually of nothing else but what was there on the hillside, and kept constantly glancing towards the dark patches they saw coming into sight on the sky-line, and recognised as the enemy's forces. The weather had cleared again after midday, and the sun shone brilliantly as it began to go down over the Danube and the dark mountains that encircle it. The air was still, and from the hillside there floated across from time to time the sound of bugles and of the shouts of the enemy. Between the squadron and the enemy there was no one now but a few scouting parties. An empty plain, about six hundred yards across, separated them from the hostile troops. The enemy had ceased firing, and that made even more keenly felt the stern menace of that inaccessible, unassailable borderland that was the dividing-line between the two hostile armies.
“One step across that line, that suggests the line dividing the living from the dead, and unknown sufferings and death. And what is there? and who is there? there, beyond that field and that tree and the roofs with the sunlight on them? No one knows, and one longs to know and dreads crossing that line, and longs to cross it, and one knows that sooner or later one will have to cross it and find out what there is on the other side of the line, just as one must inevitably find out what is on the other side of death. Yet one is strong and well and cheerful and nervously excited, and surrounded by men as strong in the same irritable excitement.” That is how every man, even if he does not think, feels in the sight of the enemy, and that feeling gives a peculiar brilliance and delightful keenness to one's impressions of all that takes place at such moments.
On the rising ground occupied by the enemy, there rose the smoke of a shot, and a cannon ball flew whizzing over the heads of the squadron of hussars. The officers, who had been standing together, scattered in different directions. The hussars began carefully getting their horses back into line. The whole squadron subsided into silence. All the men were looking at the enemy in front and at the commander of the squadron, expecting an order to be given. Another cannon ball flew by them, and a third. There was no doubt that they were firing at the hussars. But the cannon balls, whizzing regularly and rapidly, flew over the heads of the hussars and struck the ground beyond them. The hussars did not look round, but at each sound of a flying ball, as though at the word of command, the whole squadron, with their faces so alike, through all their dissimilarity, rose in the stirrups, holding their breath, as the ball whizzed by, then sank again. The soldiers did not turn their heads, but glanced out of the corners of their eyes at one another, curious to see the effect on their comrades. Every face from Denisov down to the bugler showed about the lips and chin the same lines of conflict and nervous irritability and excitement. The sergeant frowned, looking the soldiers up and down, as though threatening them with punishment. Ensign Mironov ducked at the passing of each cannon ball. On the left flank, Rostov on his Rook—a handsome beast, in spite of his unsound legs—had the happy air of a schoolboy called up before a large audience for an examination in which he is confident that he will distinguish himself. He looked serenely and brightly at every one, as though calling upon them all to notice how unconcerned he was under fire. But into his face too there crept, against his will, that line about the mouth that betrayed some new and strenuous feeling.
“Who's bobbing up and down there? Ensign Mironov! Not the thing! look at me!” roared Denisov, who could not keep still in one place, but galloped to and fro before the squadron.
The snub-nosed, black, hairy face of Vaska Denisov, and his little, battered figure, and the sinewy, short-fingered hand in which he held the hilt of his naked sword—his whole figure was just as it always was, especially in the evening after he had drunk a couple of bottles. He was only rather redder in the face than usual, and tossing back his shaggy head, as birds do when they drink, his little legs mercilessly driving the spurs into his good horse Bedouin, he galloped to the other flank of the squadron, looking as though he were falling backwards in the saddle, and shouted in a husky voice to the men to look to their pistols. He rode up to Kirsten. The staff-captain on his stout, steady charger rode at a walking pace to meet him. The staff-captain's face with its long whiskers was serious, as always, but his eyes looked brighter than usual.
“Well,” he said to Denisov, “it won't come to a fight. You'll see, we shall retreat again.”
“Devil knows what they're about!” growled Denisov. “Ah, Rostov!” he called to the ensign, noticing his beaming face. “Well, you've not had long to wait.” And he smiled approvingly, unmistakably pleased at the sight of the ensign. Rostov felt perfectly blissful. At that moment the colonel appeared at the bridge. Denisov galloped up to him.
“Your excellency, let us attack! we'll settle them.”
“Attack, indeed!” said the colonel in a bored voice, puckering his face up as though at a teasing fly. “And what are you stopping here for? You see the flanks are retreating. Lead the squadron back.”
The squadron crossed the bridge and passed out of range of the enemy's guns without losing a single man. It was followed by the second squadron, and the Cossacks last of all crossed, leaving the further side of the river clear.
The two squadrons of the Pavlograd regiment, after crossing the bridge, rode one after the other up the hill. Their colonel, Karl Bogdanitch Schubert, had joined Denisov's squadron, and was riding at a walking pace not far from Rostov, taking no notice of him, though this was the first time they had met since the incident in connection with Telyanin. Rostov, feeling himself at the front in the power of the man towards whom be now admitted that he had been to blame, never took his eyes off the athletic back, and flaxen head and red neck of the colonel. It seemed to Rostov at one time that Bogdanitch was only feigning inattention, and that his whole aim was now to test the ensign's pluck; and he drew himself up and looked about him gaily. Then he fancied that Bogdanitch was riding close by him on purpose to show off his own valour. Then the thought struck him that his enemy was now sending the squadron to a hopeless attack on purpose to punish him, Rostov. Then he dreamed of how after the attack he would go up to him as he lay wounded, and magnanimously hold out his hand in reconciliation. The high-shouldered figure of Zherkov, who was known to the Pavlograd hussars, as he had not long before left their regiment, rode up to the colonel. After Zherkov had been dismissed from the staff of the commander-in-chief, he had not remained in the regiment, saying that he was not such a fool as to go to hard labour at the front when he could get more pay for doing nothing on the staff, and he had succeeded in getting appointed an orderly on the staff of Prince Bagration. He rode up to his old colonel with an order from the commander of the rear guard.
“Colonel,” he said, with his gloomy seriousness, addressing Rostov's enemy, and looking round at his comrades, “there's an order to go back and burn the bridge.”
“An order, who to?” asked the colonel grimly.
“Well, I don't know, colonel, who to,” answered the cornet, seriously, “only the prince commanded me: ‘Ride and tell the colonel the hussars are to make haste back and burn the bridge.' ”
Zherkov was followed by an officer of the suite, who rode up to the colonel with the same command. After the officer of the suite the stout figure of Nesvitsky was seen riding up on a Cossack's horse, which had some trouble to gallop with him.
“Why, colonel,” he shouted, while still galloping towards him, “I told you to burn the bridge, and now some one's got it wrong; they're all frantic over there, there's no making out anything.”
The colonel in a leisurely way stopped the regiment and turned to Nesvitsky.
“You told me about burning materials,” he said; “but about burning it, you never said a word.”
“Why, my good man,” said Nesvitsky, as he halted, taking off his forage-cap and passing his plump hand over his hair, which was drenched with sweat, “what need to say the bridge was to be burnt when you put burning materials to it?”
“I'm not your ‘good man,' M. le staff-officer, and you never told me to set fire to the bridge! I know my duty, and it's my habit to carry out my orders strictly. You said the bridge will be burnt, but who was going to burn it I couldn't tell.”
“Well, that's always the way,” said Nesvitsky, with a wave of his arm. “How do you come here?” he added, addressing Zherkov.
“Why, about the same order. You're sopping though, you want to be rubbed down.”
“You said, M. le staff-officer …” pursued the colonel in an aggrieved tone.
“Colonel,” interposed the officer of the suite, “there is need of haste, or the enemy will have moved up their grape-shot guns.”
The colonel looked dumbly at the officer of the suite, at the stout staff-officer, at Zherkov, and scowled.
“I will burn the bridge,” he said in a solemn tone, as though he would express that in spite of everything they might do to annoy him, he would still do what he ought.
Beating his long muscular legs against his horse, as though he were to blame for it all, the colonel moved forward and commanded the second squadron, the one under Denisov's command, in which Rostov was serving, to turn back to the bridge.
“Yes, it really is so,” thought Rostov, “he wants to test me!” His heart throbbed and the blood rushed to his face. “Let him see whether I'm a coward!” he thought.
Again all the light-hearted faces of the men of the squadron wore that grave line, which had come upon them when they were under fire. Rostov looked steadily at his enemy, the colonel, trying to find confirmation of his suppositions on his face. But the colonel never once glanced at Rostov, and looked, as he always did at the front, stern and solemn. The word of command was given.
“Look sharp! look sharp!” several voices repeated around him.
Their swords catching in the reins and their spurs jingling, the hussars dismounted in haste, not knowing themselves what they were to do. The soldiers crossed themselves. Rostov did not look at the colonel now; he had no time. He dreaded, with a sinking heart he dreaded, being left behind by the hussars. His hand trembled as he gave his horse to an orderly, and he felt that the blood was rushing to his heart with a thud. Denisov, rolling backwards, and shouting something, rode by him. Rostov saw nothing but the hussars running around him, clinking spurs and jingling swords.
“Stretchers!” shouted a voice behind him. Rostov did not think of the meaning of the need of stretchers. He ran along, trying only to be ahead of all. But just at the bridge, not looking at his feet, he got into the slippery, trodden mud, and stumbling fell on his hands. The others out-stripped him.
“On both sides, captain,” he heard shouted by the colonel, who, riding on ahead, had pulled his horse up near the bridge, with a triumphant and cheerful face.
Rostov, rubbing his muddy hands on his riding-breeches, looked round at his enemy, and would have run on further, imagining that the forwarder he went the better it would be. But though Bogdanitch was not looking, and did not recognise Rostov, he shouted to him.
“Who will go along the middle of the bridge? On the right side? Ensign, back!” he shouted angrily, and he turned to Denisov, who with swaggering bravado rode on horseback on to the planks of the bridge.
“Why run risks, captain? You should dismount,” said the colonel.
“Eh! it'll strike the guilty one,” said Vaska Denisov, turning in his saddle.
Meanwhile Nesvitsky, Zherkov, and the officer of the suite were standing together out of range of the enemy, watching the little group of men in yellow shakoes, dark-green jackets, embroidered with frogs, and blue riding-breeches, swarming about the bridge, and on the other side of the river the blue tunics and the groups with horses, that might so easily be taken for guns, approaching in the distance.
“Will they burn the bridge or not? Who'll get there first? Will they run there and burn it, or the French train their grape-shot on them and kill them?” These were the questions that, with a sinking of the heart, each man was asking himself in the great mass of troops overlooking the bridge. In the brilliant evening sunshine they gazed at the bridge and the hussars and at the blue tunics, with bayonets and guns, moving up on the other side.
“Ugh! The hussars will be caught,” said Nesvitsky. “They're not out of range of grape-shot now.”
“He did wrong to take so many men,” said the officer of the suite.
“Yes, indeed,” said Nesvitsky. “If he'd sent two bold fellows it would have done as well.”
“Ah, your excellency,” put in Zherkov, his eyes fixed on the hussars, though he still spoke with his naïve manner, from which one could not guess whether he were speaking seriously or not. “Ah, your excellency. How you look at things. Send two men, but who would give us the Vladimir and ribbon then? But as it is, even if they do pepper them, one can represent the squadron and receive the ribbon oneself. Our good friend Bogdanitch knows the way to do things.”
“I say,” said the officer of the suite, “that's grape-shot.”
He pointed to the French guns, which had been taken out of the gun-carriages, and were hurriedly moving away.
On the French side, smoke rose among the groups that had cannons. One puff, a second and a third almost at the same instant; and at the very moment when they heard the sound of the first shot, there rose the smoke of a fourth; two booms came one after another, then a third.
“Oh, oh!” moaned Nesvitsky, clutching at the hand of the officer of the suite, as though in intense pain. “Look, a man has fallen, fallen, fallen!”
“Two, I think.”
“If I were Tsar, I'd never go to war,” said Nesvitsky, turning away.
The French cannons were speedily loaded again. The infantry in their blue tunics were running towards the bridge. Again the puffs of smoke rose at different intervals, and the grape-shot rattled and cracked on the bridge. But this time Nesvitsky could not see what was happening at the bridge. A thick cloud of smoke had risen from it. The hussars had succeeded in setting fire to the bridge, and the French batteries were firing at them now, not to hinder them, but because their guns had been brought up and they had some one to fire at.
The French had time to fire three volleys of grape-shot before the hussars got back to their horses. Two were badly aimed, and the shot flew over them, but the last volley fell in the middle of the group of hussars and knocked down three men.
Rostov, absorbed by his relations with Bogdanitch, stepped on the bridge, not knowing what he had to do. There was no one to slash at with his sword (that was how he always pictured a battle to himself), and he could be of no use in burning the bridge, because he had not brought with him any wisps of straw, like the other soldiers. He stood and looked about him, when suddenly there was a rattle on the bridge, like a lot of nuts being scattered, and one of the hussars, the one standing nearest him, fell with a groan on the railing. Rostov ran up to him with the others. Again some one shouted. “Stretchers!” Four men took hold of the hussar and began lifting him up. “Oooo! … Let me be, for Christ's sake!” shrieked the wounded man, but still they lifted him up and laid him on a stretcher. Nikolay Rostov turned away, and began staring into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, at the sun, as though he were searching for something. How fair that sky seemed, how blue and calm and deep. How brilliant and triumphant seemed the setting sun. With what an enticing glimmer shone the water of the faraway Danube. And fairer still were the far-away mountains that showed blue beyond the Danube, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, the pine forests, filled with mist to the tree-tops … there all was peace and happiness.… “There is nothing, nothing I could wish for, if only I were there,” thought Rostov. “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness, while here … groans, agonies, and this uncertainty, this hurry.… Here they are shouting something again and again, all of them are running back somewhere, and I'm running with them, and here is it, it, death hanging over me, all round me.… One instant, and I shall never see that sunshine, that water, that mountain gorge again.…” At that moment the sun went behind the clouds; more stretchers came into view ahead of Rostov. And the terror of death and of the stretchers, and the loss of the sunshine and life, all blended into one sensation of sickening fear.
“Good God, Thou who art in that sky, save and forgive, and protect me,” Rostov whispered to himself.
The hussars ran back to their horses; their voices grew louder and more assured; the stretchers disappeared from sight.
“Well, lad, so you've had a sniff of powder!” Vaska Denisov shouted in his ear.
“It's all over, but I am a coward, yes, I am a coward,” thought Rostov, and with a heavy sigh he took his Rook, who had begun to go lame of one leg, from the man who held him and began mounting.
“What was that—grape-shot?” he asked of Denisov.
“Yes, and something like it too,” cried Denisov; “they worked their guns in fine style. But it's a nasty business. A cavalry attack's a pleasant thing—slash away at the dogs; but this is for all the devil like aiming at a target.”
And Denisov rode away to a group standing not far from Rostov, consisting of the colonel, Nesvitsky, Zherkov, and the officer of the suite.
“It seems as if no one noticed it, though,” Rostov thought to himself. And indeed no one had noticed it at all, for every one was familiar with the feeling that the ensign, never before under fire, was experiencing for the first time.
“Now you'll have something to talk about,” said Zherkov; “they'll be promoting me a sub-lieutenant before I know where I am, eh?”
“Inform the prince that I have burnt the bridge,” said the colonel, in a cheerful and triumphant tone.
“And if he inquires with what losses?”
“Not worth mentioning,” boomed the colonel; “two hussars wounded and one stark dead on the spot,” he said, with undisguised cheerfulness. The German was unable to repress a smile of satisfaction as he sonorously enunciated the idiomatic Russian colloquialism of the last phrase.