FROM SMOLENSK the troops continued to retreat. The enemy followed them. On the 10th of August the regiment of which Prince Andrey was in command was marching along the high-road past the avenue that led to Bleak Hills. The heat and drought had lasted more than three weeks. Every day curly clouds passed over the sky, rarely covering the sun; but towards evening the sky cleared again and the sun set in a glowing, red mist. But a heavy dew refreshed the earth at night. The wheat left in the fields was burnt up and dropping out of the ear. The marshes were dry. The cattle lowed from hunger, finding nothing to graze on in the sunbaked meadows. Only at night in the woods, as long as the dew lasted, it was cool. But on the road, on the high-road along which the troops marched, there was no coolness even at night, not even where the road passed through the woods. The dew was imperceptible on the sandy dust of the road, more than a foot deep. As soon as it was daylight, the soldiers began to move. The transports and artillery moved noiselessly, buried up to their axles, and the infantry sank to their ankles in the soft, stifling, burning dust, that never got cool even at night. The sandy dust clung to their legs and to the wheels, rose in a cloud over their heads, and got into the eyes and hair and nostrils and lungs of the men and beasts that moved along the road. The higher the sun rose, the higher rose the cloud of dust, and through the fine, burning dust the sun in the cloudless sky looked like a purple ball, at which one could gaze with undazzled eyes. There was no wind, and the men gasped for breath in the stagnant atmosphere. They marched with handkerchiefs tied over their mouths and noses. When they reached the villages, there was a rush for the wells. They fought over the water and drank it down to the mud.
Prince Andrey was in command of a regiment; and the management of the regiment, the welfare of his men, the necessity of receiving and giving orders occupied his mind. The burning and abandonment of Smolensk made an epoch in Prince Andrey's life. A new feeling of intense hatred of the enemy made him forget his own sorrow. He was devoted heart and soul to the interests of his regiment; he was careful of the welfare of his men and his officers, and cordial in his manner with them. They called him in the regiment “our prince,” were proud of him, and loved him. But he was kind and gentle only with his own men, with Timohin, and others like him, people quite new to him, belonging to a different world, people who could have no notion of his past. As soon as he was brought into contact with any of his old acquaintances, any of the staff officers, he bristled up again at once, and was vindictive, ironical, and contemptuous. Everything associated by memories with the past was repulsive to him, and so, in his relations with that old world, he confined himself to trying to do his duty, and not to be unfair.
Prince Andrey, in fact, saw everything in the darkest, gloomiest light, especially after Smolensk, which he considered could and should have been defended, had been abandoned, on the 6th of August, and his invalid father had been forced, as he supposed, to flee to Moscow, leaving Bleak Hills, the house that he had so loved, that he had designed and settled with his peasants, to be plundered. But in spite of that, thanks to his position, Prince Andrey had another subject to think of, quite apart from all general questions, his regiment. On the 10th of August, the column of which his regiment formed part reached the turning leading off to Bleak Hills. Two days before Prince Andrey had received the news that his father, his son, and his sister had gone away to Moscow. Though there was nothing for Prince Andrey to do at Bleak Hills, he decided, with characteristic desire to aggravate his own sufferings, that he must ride over there.
He ordered his horse to be saddled, and turned off from the main line of march towards his father's house, where he had been born and had spent his childhood. As he rode by the pond, where there always used to be dozens of peasant women gossiping, rinsing their linen, or beating it with washing bats, Prince Andrey noticed that there was no one by the pond, and that the platform where they used to stand had been torn away, and was floating sideways in the middle of the pond, half under water. Prince Andrey rode up to the keeper's lodge. There was no one to be seen at the stone gates and the door was open. The paths of the garden were already overgrown with weeds, and cattle and horses were straying about the English park. Prince Andrey rode up to the conservatory: the panes were smashed, and some of the trees in tubs were broken, others quite dried up. He called Taras, the gardener. No one answered. Going round the conservatory on the terrace, he saw that the paling-fence was all broken down, and branches of the plum-trees had been pulled off with the fruit. An old peasant, whom Prince Andrey used to see in his childhood at the gate, was sitting on the green garden seat plaiting bast shoes.
He was deaf, and did not hear Prince Andrey's approach. He was sitting on the seat on which the old prince liked to sit, and near him the bast was hanging on the branches of a broken and dried-up magnolia.
Prince Andrey rode up to the house. Several lime-trees in the old garden had been cut down; a piebald mare and a colt were among the rose-trees just before the house. The shutters were all up in the house, except on one open window downstairs. A servant lad caught sight of Prince Andrey and ran into the house.
Alpatitch had sent his family away, and was staying on alone at Bleak Hills. He was sitting indoors, reading the Lives of the Saints. On hearing that Prince Andrey had come, he ran out, spectacles on nose, buttoning himself up, hurried up to the prince, and without uttering a word, burst into tears, kissing his knee.
Then he turned away in anger at his own weakness, and began giving him an account of the position of affairs. Everything precious and valuable had been moved to Bogutcharovo. Corn to the amount of a hundred measures had been carried away, but the hay, and the wheat—an extraordinary crop that season, so Alpatitch said—had been cut green and carried off by the troops. The peasants were ruined: some of them, too, had gone to Bogutcharovo; a small number remained. Prince Andrey, not heeding his words, asked, “When did my father and sister go?” meaning when had they set off for Moscow. Alpatitch, assuming he was asking about the removal to Bogutcharovo, answered that they had set off on the 7th, and began going off again into details about the crops, asking for instructions.
“Is it your honour's orders that I let the oats go on getting a receipt from the officers?” asked Alpatitch. “We have still six hundred measures left.”
“What am I to say to him?” Prince Andrey wondered, looking at the old man's bald head shining in the sun, and reading in his face the consciousness that he knew himself the untimeliness of those questions, and asked them only to stifle his own grief.
“Yes, let it go,” he said.
“If your excellency noticed any disorder in the garden,” said Alpatitch, “it could not be prevented; three regiments have been here and spent the night. The dragoons were the worst; I noted down the name and rank of the commanding officer to lodge a complaint.”
“Well, and what are you going to do? Shall you stay, if the enemy occupies the place?” Prince Andrey asked him.
Alpatitch turned his face towards Prince Andrey and looked at him; then all at once, with a solemn gesture, he lifted his hand upwards: “He is my protector, and His will be done!” he said. A group of peasants and house-serfs were coming across the meadow, uncovering their heads as they drew near Prince Andrey.
“Well, good-bye!” said Prince Andrey, bending over to Alpatitch. “Go away yourself; take what you can; and tell the peasants to set off for the Ryazan estate or the property near Moscow.”
Alpatitch hugged his leg and broke into sobs. Prince Andrey gently moved him away, and spurring his horse galloped down the garden walk.
On the terrace the old man was still sitting as before, as uninterested as a fly on some beloved dead face, knocking on the sole of the bast shoe. And two little girls came running from the plum-trees in the conservatories with their skirts full of plums. They ran almost against Prince Andrey, and seeing their young master, the elder one clutched her younger companion by the hand, with a panic-stricken face, and hid with her behind a birch-tree not stopping to pick up the green plums they had dropped.
Prince Andrey turned away from them in nervous haste, afraid of letting them notice that he had seen them. He was sorry to have frightened the pretty child. He was afraid to glance at her, but yet he felt an irresistible inclination to do so. A new soothing and consolatory feeling came upon him, as gazing at the little girls, he became aware of the existence of other human interests, utterly remote from him, and as legitimate as his own. Those little girls were evidently possessed by one passionate desire to carry off and devour those green plums without being caught, and Prince Andrey wished them success in their enterprise. He could not resist glancing at them once more. Fancying themselves already secure, they had darted out of their hiding-place, and piping something in their shrill, little voices, and holding up their skirts, they ran gaily and swiftly through the grass with their bare, sunburnt little feet.
Prince Andrey was somewhat refreshed by his ride outside the region of the dust of the high-road along which the troops were marching. But he rode back into the road not far from Bleak Hills, and overtook his regiment at the halting-place near the dike of a small pond. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon. The sun, a red ball through the dust, baked and scorched his back intolerably in his black coat. The dust stood as immovable as ever over the buzzing, halting troops. There was not a breath of wind. As he rode towards the dike, Prince Andrey smelled the fresh, muddy smell of the pond. He longed to be in the water, however muddy it might be. He looked round at the pond, from which he heard shrieks and laughter. The small pond, thickly covered with green slime, was visibly half a yard higher and overflowing the dam, because it was full of white, naked human bodies, with brick-red hands and heads and necks, all plunging about in it. All that bare white human flesh was splashing about with shrieks and laughter, in the muddy pool, like carp floundering in a net. There was a ring of merriment in that splashing, and that was what made it peculiarly sad.
One fair-haired young soldier—Prince Andrey knew him—of the third company, with a strap round the calf of his leg, stepped back, crossing himself, to get a good run, and plunge into the water. Another swarthy and very towzle-headed sergeant up to his waist in the water, bending his fine, muscular figure, was snorting with enjoyment, as he poured the water over his head with his blackened hands. There was a sound of them slapping each other, and shrieks and cries.
On the banks, on the dike, in the pond, everywhere there was white, healthy, muscular flesh. Timohin, the officer with the red nose, was rubbing himself with a towel on the dike, and was abashed at seeing Prince Andrey, but made up his mind to address him.
“It's pleasant, really, your excellency; you should try it!” he said.
“It's dirty,” said Prince Andrey, grimacing.
“We will clear it out for you in a minute.” And undressed as he was, Timohin ran to clear the men out. “The prince wants to come.”
“What prince? Our prince?” cried voices, and all of them were in such haste to make way for him that Prince Andrey hardly had time to check them. He thought it would be better for him to have a bath in a barn. “Flesh, meat, chair à canon,” he thought, looking too at his own naked body and shuddering, not so much from cold as from the repulsion and horror, mysterious to himself, that he had felt at the sight of that immense multitude of naked bodies floundering in the muddy water.
On the 7th of August, Prince Bagration, at his halting-place at Mihalovka on the Smolensk road, had written a letter to Araktcheev. Though the letter was addressed to Araktcheev, he knew it would be read to the Tsar, and therefore he weighed every word, so far as he was capable of doing so.
“DEAR COUNT ALEXEY ANDREIVITCH,—I presume that the minister has already reported the abandonment of Smolensk to the enemy. It is sad, it is pitiable, and the whole army is in despair at the most important place having been wantonly abandoned. I for my part begged him personally in the most urgent manner, and finally wrote to him; but nothing would persuade him. I swear to you on my honour that Napoleon was in a greater fix than he has ever been, and he might have lost half his army, but could not have taken Smolensk. Our troops have fought and are fighting as never before. With fifteen thousand men I have held the enemy in check for thirty-five hours and beaten them, but he wouldn't hold his ground for fourteen hours. It is a shame and a stain on our army, and as for himself, I consider he ought not to be alive. If he reports that our losses were great, it is false; perhaps about four thousand, not that, but that is nothing: if it had been ten thousand, what of it, that's war. But on the other hand the enemy's losses were immense.
“What would it have cost him to hold his ground for a couple of days? In any case they must have retired of their own accord; for they had no water for their men or their horses. He gave me his word he would not retreat, but all of a sudden sent an announcement that he was withdrawing in the night. We cannot fight in this way, and we may soon bring the enemy on to Moscow.…
“There is a rumour afloat that you are thinking of peace. To make peace, God preserve us! After all the sacrifices that have been made and after such mad retreats—to make peace, you will set all Russia against you, and every one of us will feel it a disgrace to wear the uniform. If it has come to that, we ought to fight as long as Russia can, and as long as there are men able to stand.…
“There must be one man in command, not two. Your minister, may be, is very well in the ministry; but as a general, he's not simply useless, but contemptible, and the fate of all our fatherland has been put in his hands…I am frantic, truly, with rage; forgive me for writing abusively. It is plain that the man does not love his sovereign, and desires the ruin of us all, who advises peace to be concluded and the minister to be put in command of the army. And so I write to you plainly: get the militia ready. For the minister is leading our visitors to the capital in the most skilful manner. The object of chief suspicion to the whole army is the aide-de-camp Woltzogen. They say he's more for Napoleon than for us, and everything the minister does is by his advice. I am not merely civil to him, but obey him like a corporal, though I am his senior. It is hard: but loving my sovereign and benefactor, I obey. And I grieve for the Tsar that he intrusts his gallant army to such a man. Consider that on our retreat we have lost more than fifteen thousand men from fatigue, or left sick in the hospitals; if we had attacked, that would not have been so. Tell me for God's sake what will Russia—our mother—say at our displaying such cowardice, and why are we abandoning our good and gallant country to the rabble and rousing the hatred and shame of every Russian? Why are we in a panic? what are we afraid of? It is not my fault that the minister is vacillating, cowardly, unreasonable, dilatory, and has every vice. All the army is bewailing it and loading him with abuse.…”