IT was past two o'clock, no one was yet asleep, when the quartermaster appeared, bringing a command to advance upon a little place called Ostrovna. Still with the same chatter and laughter the officers began hurriedly getting ready; again the samovar was filled up with dirty water. But Rostov, without waiting for tea, went off to his squadron. It was already light; the rain had ceased, and the clouds were parting. It was chill and damp, especially in their still wet clothes. As they came out of the inn, in the twilight of the dawn, Rostov and Ilyin both glanced at the leather cover of the doctor's cart, still glistening from the rain. The doctor's feet were sticking out from under the cover, and in the middle of the cart they caught a glimpse of his wife's nightcap, and heard sleepy breathing.
“She's really very charming,” said Rostov to Ilyin.
“An exquisite woman!” responded Ilyin, with all the gravity of a boy of sixteen.
Half an hour later the squadron stood drawn up on the road. The word of command was heard, “Mount!” and the soldiers crossed themselves and got on their horses. Rostov, riding ahead of them, gave the word: “Forward!” and drawing out four abreast, the hussars started with a sound of subdued talk, splashing hoofs, and jingling sabres. They trotted along the broad high-road, with birch-trees on each side of it, following the infantry and artillery, who had gone on before.
The broken, purplish-blue clouds, flushed red by the sunrise, were scudding before the wind. It grew lighter and lighter. They could see distinctly, still glistening from the rain, the feathery grass which always grows beside by-roads. The drooping branches of the birch-trees swayed in the wind, and dripped bright drops aslant across the road. The faces of the soldiers showed more and more distinctly. Rostov, with Ilyin, who would not drop behind, rode on one side of the road between the two rows of birch-trees.
On active service Rostov allowed himself the indulgence of riding a Cossack horse instead of the regimental horse, broken in for parade. He was a connoisseur and lover of horses, and had lately obtained a big sorrel horse with white tail and mane, a fine spirited beast of the Don breed, on whom he could out-gallop every one. It was an enjoyment to Rostov to ride this horse. He rode on, thinking of the horse, of the morning, of the doctor's wife, and never once giving a thought to the danger awaiting him.
In former days Rostov had felt fear when he was going into an engagement; now he had not the slightest feeling of fear. He had not lost his fears from growing used to being under fire (one can never get accustomed to danger) but from gaining control of his feelings in face of danger. He had schooled himself when going into action to think of anything except what one would have supposed to be more interesting than anything else—the danger in store for him. Earnestly as he strove to do this, and bitterly as he reproached himself for cowardice, he could not at first succeed in this. But with years it had come of itself. He rode now beside Ilyin, between the birch-trees, stripping leaves off the twigs that met his hand, sometimes touching his horse's side with his foot, handing the pipe he had finished to an hussar behind, without turning his head, all with as calm and careless an air as though he were out for a ride. He felt sorry to see the excited face of Ilyin, who talked a great deal nervously. He knew by experience the agonising state of anticipation of terror and of death, in which the cornet was plunged, and he knew that nothing but time could help him out of it.
As soon as the sun appeared in the clear strip of sky under the storm-clouds, the wind sank, as though not daring to spoil the beauty of the summer morning after the storm; the trees still dripped, but the drops fell vertically now—and all was hushed. The sun rose completely above the horizon, and vanished in a long, narrow cloud that hung over it. A few minutes later the sun showed even more brightly on the upper side of the cloud, tearing its edge. Everything grew bright and shining. And with the bright light, as though in response to it, rang out shots in front of them.
Rostov had not time to collect his thoughts and decide how far off these shots were, when an adjutant of Count Osterman-Tolstoy galloped up from Vitebsk, bringing the order to advance at full speed along the road.
The squadron overtook and passed the infantry and the battery, who were also quickening their pace. Then the hussars raced downhill, passed through an empty and deserted village, and trotted uphill again. The horses were beginning to get in a lather and the men looked flushed.
“Halt! in line!” said the officer in command of the division. “Left about face, walking pace!” sounded the command in advance.
And the hussars passed along the lines of the other troops to the left flank of the position, and halted behind our Uhlans, who formed the front line. On the right was a dense column of our infantry—they formed the reserves; on the hill above them, in the pure, clear air, in the brilliant, slanting, morning sunshine, could be seen our cannons on the very horizon line. In front, beyond a hollow dale, could be seen the enemy's columns and cannons. In the dale could be heard our advance pickets, already keeping up a lively interchange of shots with the enemy.
Rostov felt his spirits rise at those sounds, so long unheard, as though they had been the liveliest music. Trap-ta-ta-tap! rang out several shots, first together, then in rapid succession. All sank into silence again, and again there was a sound as of popping squibs.
The hussars remained for about an hour in the same spot. The cannons began firing. Count Osterman, with his suite behind the squadron, rode up; he stopped to say a word to the colonel of the regiment, and rode off to the cannons on the hill.
After Osterman had ridden away, the command rang out among the Uhlans, “Form in column; make ready to charge!” The infantry in front parted in two to let the cavalry pass through. The Uhlans galloped off, the streamers on their lances waving, and trotted downhill towards the French cavalry, who came into sight below on the left.
As soon as the Uhlans had started downhill, the hussars received the order to ride off uphill to cover the battery. Just as the hussars were moving into the place of the Uhlans, there came flying from the out-posts some cannon-balls, hissing and whistling out of the distance, and hitting nothing.
This sound, which he had not heard for so long, had an even more inspiriting and cheering effect on Rostov than the report of the muskets. Drawing himself up, he surveyed the field of battle, as it opened out before him riding uphill, and his whole heart went with the movements of the Uhlans. They were swooping down close upon the French dragoons; there was some confusion yonder in the smoke, and five minutes later the Uhlans were dashing back, not towards the spot where they had been posted, but more to the left. Between the ranks of Uhlans on the chestnut horses, and in a great mass behind them, could be seen blue French dragoons on grey horses.