NEXT DAY the troops were massed in their appointed places by the evening, and were moving forward in the night. It was an autumn night with a sky overcast by purplish-black clouds, but free from rain. The earth was damp, but not muddy, and the troops advanced noiselessly, except for a hardly audible jingling now and then from the artillery. They were forbidden to talk aloud, to smoke or to strike a light; the horses were kept from neighing. The secrecy of the enterprise increased its attractiveness. The men marched on gaily. Several columns halted, stacked their guns in piles, and lay down on the chilly ground, supposing they had reached their destination. Other columns (the majority) marched all night long, and arrived somewhere, unmistakably not where they were meant to be.
Count Orlov-Denisov with his Cossacks (the detachment of least importance of the lot) was the only one that reached the right place at the right time. This detachment halted at the extreme edge of a forest, on a path from the village of Stromilovo to Dmitrovskoe.
Before dawn Count Orlov, who had fallen asleep, was waked up. A deserter from the French camp was brought to him. It was a Polish under-officer of Poniatovsky's corps. This under-officer explained in Polish that he had deserted because he had been insulted in the service; because he ought long ago to have been an officer, and was braver than any of them, and so he had thrown them up and wanted to punish them. He said that Murat was camping for the night a verst from them, and that if they would give him a convoy of a hundred men he would take him alive. Count Orlov-Denisov took council with his comrades. The proposition was too alluring to be refused. Every one clamoured to go, everyone advised making the attempt. After many disputes and confabulations, it was settled that Major-General Grekov, with two regiments of Cossacks, should go with the Polish deserter.
“Now, remember,” said Count Orlov-Denisov to the Polish deserter, as he dismissed him, “if you have been lying, I will have you shot like a dog, but if it's true, a hundred crowns.”
The deserter made no reply to these words, and with a resolute air mounted his horse and rode off with Grekov's men, who were hurriedly gathered together. They disappeared into the wood. Count Orlov, shivering from the freshness of the dawning morning, and excited by the enterprise he had undertaken on his own responsibility, came out of the wood, accompanying Grekov, and began scrutinising the enemy's camp, faintly visible now in the deceptive light of the approaching dawn and the smouldering camp-fires. On the open copse on Count Orlov-Denisov's right our columns ought to have been visible. Count Orlov-Denisov looked in that direction; but although they could have been seen even if a long distance away, these columns were not in sight. Count Orlov-Denisov fancied, and his adjutant, who was extremely long-sighted; confirmed the idea, that they were beginning to move in the French camp.
“Oh, of course it's too late,” said Count Orlov, staring at the camp. As so often happens when the man in whom we are putting faith is no longer before our eyes, it all seemed at once perfectly clear and obvious to him that the deserter had been playing them false, that he had been telling them lies, and was only spoiling the whole attack by removing these two regiments, which he was leading away—God only knew where! As if it were possible to capture the general out of such a mass of troops.
“No doubt he was lying, the scoundrel,” said the Count.
“We can turn them back,” said one of the suite, who was feeling just the same mistrust in the undertaking as he gazed at the camp.
“Ah! Yes … what do you think, or shall we leave them? Or not?”
“Do you command them to return?”
“To return, yes, to return!” Count Orlov said, with sudden decision, looking at his watch; “it will be too late; it's quite light.”
And an adjutant galloped into the wood after Grekov. When Grekov came back, Count Orlov-Denisov, excited by giving up this enterprise, and by vainly waiting for the infantry columns, which still did not appear, and by the enemy's being so near (every man in his detachment was feeling the same), resolved to attack.
In a whisper he gave the command: “Mount!”
The men got into their places, crossed themselves … “In God's name, off!”
“Hurrah!” rang out in the wood, and the Cossacks, with spears lowered, flew gaily, one hundred after another, across the stream into the camp, as though they were being shot out of a sack.
One desperate, frightened scream from the first Frenchman who caught sight of the Cossacks, and every creature in the camp, undressed and half-asleep, was running away, abandoning cannons, muskets, and horses.
If the Cossacks had pursued the French without regard to what they left all around and behind them, they could have captured Murat and all there was there. Their commanding officers tried to make them do so. But there was no making the Cossacks budge when they had got booty and prisoners. No one heeded the word of command. They had taken fifteen hundred prisoners, thirty-eight cannons, flags, and, what was of most consequence in the eyes of the Cossacks, horses, saddles, coverings and various other objects. All of this they wanted to see after, to secure the prisoners and the cannons, to divide the booty, to shout at and even fight with one another over the spoils; and all this absorbed the Cossacks' attention. The Frenchmen, finding themselves not pursued further, began to rally; they formed into companies and began firing. Orlov-Denisov still expected the other columns to arrive, and did not advance further.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the disposition—“die erste Colonne marschirt,” and so on—the infantry regiments of the belated columns, under the command of Bennigsen and the direction of Toll, had started off in due course, and had, in the usual way, arrived somewhere, but not where they were intended to arrive. In the usual way too, the soldiers who had set off gaily, began to halt; there were murmurs of dissatisfaction and a sense of muddle, and they were marched back to some point. Adjutants and generals galloped to and fro, shouting angrily, quarrelling, declaring they had come utterly wrong and were too late, upbraiding some one, and so on; and finally, all washed their hands of the business in despair, and marched on simply in order to get somewhere. “We must arrive somewhere sooner or later!” And so they did, in fact, arrive somewhere, but not where they were wanted. And some did even reach their destination, but reached it so late that their doing so was of no use at all, and only resulted in their being fired at for nothing. Toll, who in this battle played the part of Weierother in the battle of Austerlitz, galloped with unflagging energy from one part of the field to another, and found everything at sixes and sevens everywhere. So, for instance, he found Bagovut's corps in the wood, when it was broad daylight, though the corps ought to have been there long before, and to have gone to support Orlov-Denisov. Disappointed and excited at the failure, and supposing some one must be to blame for it, Toll galloped up to the general in command of the corps, and began sternly reprimanding him, declaring that he deserved to be shot. Bagovut, a sturdy old general of placid disposition, had been worried too by all the delays, the muddles, and the contradictory orders, and, to the amazement of everybody, he flew into a violent rage, quite out of keeping with his character, and said some very nasty things to Toll.
“I am not going to be taught my duty by anybody, but I can face death with my men as well as any one,” he said, and he marched forward with one division. The valiant Bagovut, not considering in his excitement whether his advance into action now with a single division was likely to be of use or not, marched his men straight forward into the enemy's fire. Danger, shells, and bullets were just what he wanted in his fury. One of the first bullets killed him, the other bullets killed many of his men. And his division remained for some time under fire for no object whatever.