PRINCE ANDREY'S REGIMENT was in the reserves, which were until two o'clock stationed behind Semyonovskoye in complete inaction, under a hot artillery fire. Before two o'clock the regiment, which had already lost over two hundred men, was moved forward into the trampled oat-field, in that space between Semyonovskoye and the battery redoubt, on which thousands of men were killed that day, and on which, about two o'clock, there was directed the concentrated fire of several hundreds of the enemy's cannons.
Not leaving that spot, nor discharging a single round of ammunition, the regiment lost here another third of its men. In front, and especially on the right side, the cannons kept booming in the smoke that never lifted, and from the mysterious region of the smoke that hid all the country in front, there came flying swiftly hissing cannon balls and slowly whizzing grenades. Sometimes, as though to give them a breathing space, for a whole quarter of an hour all the cannon balls and grenades flew over them, but at other times, in the course of a single minute, several men out of the regiment would be swept off, and they were busy the whole time dragging away the dead and carrying off the wounded.
With every fresh stroke the chances of life grew less and less for those who were not yet killed. The regiment was divided into battalions three hundred paces apart; but in spite of that, all the regiment was under the influence of the same mood. All the men of the regiment were alike gloomy and silent. At rare intervals there was the sound of talk in the ranks, but that sound was hushed every time the falling thud and the cry of “stretchers!” was heard. For the greater part of the time, by command of the officers, the men sat on the ground. One, taking off his shako, carefully loosened and then drew up the folds of it; another, crumbling the dry clay in his hands, rubbed up his bayonet with it; another shifted and fastened the buckle of his shoulder straps; while another carefully undid, and did up again, his leg bandages, and changed his boots. Some built little houses of clods of the ploughed field, or plaited straws of stubble. All of them appeared entirely engrossed in these pursuits. When men were killed or wounded, when the stretchers trailed by, when our troops retreated, when immense masses of the enemy came into view through the smoke, no one took any notice of these circumstances. When our artillery or cavalry advanced, when our infantry could be seen moving, approving observations could be heard on all sides. But quite extraneous incidents that had nothing to do with the battle were what attracted most notice; as though the attention of these morally overstrained men found a rest in the commonplace incidents of everyday life. Some batteries of artillery passed in front of their line. In one of the ammunition carriages a horse had put its legs through the traces.
“Hey! look at the trace-horse!… Take her leg out! She'll fall!… Hey! they don't see!…” Shouts rose from the ranks all through the regiment.
Another time the attention of all was attracted by a little brown dog, with its tail in the air, who had come no one knew from where, and was running about fussily in front of the ranks. All at once a cannon ball fell near it, and it squealed and dashed away with its tail between its legs! Roars and shrieks of laughter rang out from the whole regiment. But distractions of this kind did not last more than a minute, and the men had been eight hours without food or occupation, with the terror of death never relaxing for an instant, and their pale and haggard faces grew paler and more haggard.
Prince Andrey, pale and haggard like every one else in the regiment, walked to and fro in the meadow next to the oat-field from one boundary-line to the other, with his hands clasped behind his back, and his eyes fixed on the ground. There was no need for him to give orders, and nothing for him to do. Everything was done of itself. The killed were dragged behind the line; the wounded were removed, and the ranks closed up. If any soldiers ran away, they made haste to return at once. At first Prince Andrey, thinking it his duty to keep up the spirits of the men, and set them an example, had walked about among the ranks. But soon he felt that there was nothing he could teach them. All his energies, like those of every soldier, were unconsciously directed to restraining himself from contemplating the horror of his position. He walked about the meadow, dragging one leg after the other, making the grass rustle, and watching the dust, which covered his boots. Then he strode along, trying to step on the traces of the footsteps of the mowers on the meadow; or counting his steps, calculated how many times he would have to walk from one boundary rut to another to make a verst; or cut off the flowers of wormwood growing in the rut, and crushing them in his hands, sniffed at the bitter-sweet, pungent odour. Of all the thoughts of the previous day not a trace remained. He thought of nothing at all. He listened wearily to the sounds that were ever the same, the whiz of the shells above the booming of the cannon, looked at the faces of the men of the first battalion, which he had gazed at to weariness already, and waited. “Here it comes … this one's for us again!” he thought, listening to the whiz of something flying out of the region of smoke. “One, another! More! Fallen” … He stopped short and looked towards the ranks. “No; it has flown over. But that one has fallen!” And he fell to pacing up and down again, trying to reach the next boundary in sixteen steps.
A whiz and a thud! Five paces from him the dry soil was thrown up, as a cannon ball sank into the earth. A chill ran down his back. He looked at the ranks. Probably a number had been struck: the men had gathered in a crowd in the second battalion.
“M. l'aide-de-camp,” he shouted, “tell the men not to crowd together.”
The adjutant, having obeyed this instruction, was approaching Prince Andrey. From the other side the major in command of the battalion came riding up.
“Look out!” rang out a frightened cry from a soldier, and like a bird, with swift, whirring wings alighting on the earth, a grenade dropped with a dull thud a couple of paces from Prince Andrey, near the major's horse. The horse, with no question of whether it were right or wrong to show fear, snorted, reared, almost throwing the major, and galloped away. The horse's terror infected the men.
“Lie down!” shouted the adjutant, throwing himself on the ground. Prince Andrey stood in uncertainty. The shell was smoking and rotating like a top between him and the recumbent adjutant, near a bush of wormwood in the rut between the meadow and the field.
“Can this be death?” Prince Andrey wondered, with an utterly new, wistful feeling, looking at the grass, at the wormwood and at the thread of smoke coiling from the rotating top. “I can't die, I don't want to die, I love life, I love this grass and earth and air …”
He thought this, and yet at the same time he did not forget that people were looking at him.
“For shame, M. l'aide-de-camp!” he said to the adjutant; “what sort of …” He did not finish. Simultaneously there was a tearing, crashing sound, like the smash of broken crockery, a puff of stifling fumes, and Prince Andrey was sent spinning over, and flinging up one arm, fell on his face.
Several officers ran up to him. A great stain of blood was spreading over the grass from the right side of his stomach.
The militiamen stood with the stretchers behind the officers. Prince Andrey lay on his chest, with his face sunk in the grass; he was still breathing in hard, hoarse gasps.
“Well, why are you waiting, come along!”
The peasants went up and took him by the shoulders and legs, but he moaned piteously, and they looked at one another, and laid him down again.
“Pick him up, lay him on, it's all the same!” shouted some one. They lifted him by the shoulders again and laid him on the stretcher.
“Ah, my God! my God! what is it?…The stomach! It's all over then! Ah, my God!” could be heard among the officers. “It almost grazed my ear,” the adjutant was saying. The peasants, with the stretcher across their shoulders, hurried along the path they had trodden to the ambulance station.
“Keep step!…Aie!…these peasants!” cried an officer, seizing them by the shoulders, as they jogged along, jolting the stretcher.
“Drop into it, Fyodor, eh?” said the foremost peasant.
“That's it, first-rate,” said the hindmost, falling into step.
“Your excellency? Eh, prince?” said the trembling voice of Timohin, as he ran up and peeped over the stretcher.
Prince Andrey opened his eyes, and looked at the speaker from the stretcher, through which his head had dropped, and closed his eyelids again.
The militiamen carried Prince Andrey to the copse, where there were vans and an ambulance station. The ambulance station consisted of three tents, pitched at the edge of a birch copse. In the wood stood the ambulance waggons and horses. The horses in nose-bags were munching oats, and the sparrows flew up to them and picked up the grains they dropped. Some crows, scenting blood, flitted to and fro among the birches, cawing impatiently. For more than five acres round the tents there were sitting or lying men stained with blood, and variously attired. They were surrounded by crowds of dejected-looking and intently observant soldiers, who had come with stretchers. Officers, trying to keep order, kept driving them away from the place; but it was of no use. The soldiers, heedless of the officers, stood leaning against the stretchers, gazing intently at what was passing before their eyes, as though trying to solve some difficult problem in this spectacle. From the tents came the sound of loud, angry wailing, and piteous moans. At intervals a doctor's assistant ran out for water, or to point out those who were to be taken in next. The wounded, awaiting their turn at the tent, uttered hoarse groans and moans, wept, shouted, swore, or begged for vodka. Several were raving in delirium. Prince Andrey, as a colonel, was carried through the crowd of wounded not yet treated, and brought close up to one of the tents, where his bearers halted awaiting instructions. Prince Andrey opened his eyes, and for a long while could not understand what was passing around him. The meadow, the wormwood, the black, whirling ball, and his passionate rush of love for life came back to his mind. A couple of paces from him stood a tall, handsome, dark-haired sergeant, with a bandaged head, leaning against a branch. He had been wounded in the head and in the leg, and was talking loudly, attracting general attention. A crowd of wounded men and stretcher-bearers had gathered round him, greedily listening to his words.
“We regularly hammered him out, so he threw up everything; we took the king himself,” the soldier was shouting, looking about him with feverishly glittering black eyes. “If only the reserves had come up in the nick of time, my dear fellow, there wouldn't have been a sign of him left, for I can tell you …”
Prince Andrey, like all the men standing round the speaker, gazed at him with bright eyes, and felt a sense of comfort. “But isn't it all the same now?” he thought. “What will be there, and what has been here? why was I so sorry to part with life? There was something in this life that I didn't understand, and don't understand.”