THE RAIN was over, but a mist was falling and drops of water dripped from the branches of the trees. Denisov, the esaul, and Petya, in silence, followed the peasant in the pointed cap, who, stepping lightly and noiselessly in his bast shoes over roots and wet leaves, led them to the edge of the wood.
Coming out on the road, the peasant paused, looked about him, and turned toward a thin screen of trees. He stood still at a big oak, still covered with leaves, and beckoned mysteriously to them.
Denisov and Petya rode up to him. From the place where the peasant was standing the French could be seen. Just beyond the wood a field of spring corn ran sharply downhill. On the right, across a steep ravine, could be seen a little village and a manor-house with the roofs broken down. In that village and in the house and all over the high ground in the garden, by the wells and the pond, and all along the road uphill from the bridge to the village, not more than five hundred yards away, crowds of men could be seen in the shifting mist. They could distinctly hear their foreign cries at the horses pulling the baggage uphill and their calls to one another.
“Give me the prisoner here,” said Denisov, in a low voice, never taking his eyes off the French.
A Cossack got off his horse, lifted the boy down, and came with him to Denisov. Denisov, pointing to the French, asked the boy what troops they were. The boy, thrusting his chilled hands into his pockets and raising his eyebrows, looked in dismay at Denisov, and in spite of his unmistakable desire to tell all he knew, he was confused in his answers, and merely repeated Denisov's questions. Denisov, frowning, turned away from him, and addressing the esaul, told him his own views on the matter.
Petya, turning his head rapidly, looked from the drummer to Denisov, and from the esaul to the French in the village and on the road, trying not to miss anything of importance.
“Whether Dolohov comes or not, we must take them.… Eh?” said Denisov, his eyes sparkling merrily.
“It is a convenient spot,” said the esaul.
“We will send the infantry down below, by the marshes,” Denisov went on. “They will creep up to the garden; you dash down with the Cossacks from there”—Denisov pointed to the wood beyond the village—“and I from here with my hussars. And at a shot …”
“It won't do to go by the hollow; it's a bog,” said the esaul. “The horses will sink in, you must skirt round more to the left.…”
While they were talking in undertones, there was the crack of a shot and a puff of white smoke in the hollow below near the pond, and the voices of hundreds of Frenchmen halfway up the hill rose in a ringing shout, as though in merry chorus. At the first minute both Denisov and the esaul darted back. They were so near that they fancied they were the cause of that shot and those shouts. But they had nothing to do with them. A man in something red was running through the marshes below. The French were evidently firing and shouting at him.
“Why, it's our Tihon,” said the esaul.
“It's he! it's he!”
“The rogue,” said Denisov.
“He'll get away!” said the esaul, screwing up his eyes.
The man they called Tihon, running up to the little river, splashed into it, so that the water spurted up round him, and disappearing for an instant, scrambled out on all fours, looking dark from the water, and ran on. The French, who had been pursuing him, stopped.
“Well, he's a smart fellow,” said the esaul.
“The beast,” said Denisov, with the same expression of vexation. “And what has he been about all this time?”
“Who is he?” asked Petya.
“It's our scout. I sent him to catch a ‘tongue' for us.”
“Ah, to be sure,” said Petya, nodding at Denisov's first word, as though he knew all about it, though he did not understand a word.
Tihon Shtcherbatov was one of the most useful men among Denisov's followers. He was a peasant of the village of Pokrovskoe, near Gzhat. Denisov had come to Pokrovskoe early in his operations as a guerilla leader, and sending, as he always did, for the village elder, asked him what he knew about the French.
The village elder had answered, as all village elders always did answer, that he knew nothing about them, and had seen nothing of them. But when Denisov explained to him that his object was to kill the French, and inquired whether no French had strayed into his village, the village elder replied that there had been some miroders certainly, but that the only person who took any heed of such things was Tishka Shtcherbatov. Denisov ordered Tihon to be brought before him, and praising his activity, said in the presence of the elder a few words about the devotion to the Tsar and the Fatherland and the hatred of the French that all sons of the Fatherland must cherish in their hearts.
“We don't do any harm to the French,” said Tihon, evidently scared at Denisov's words. “It's only, you know, just a bit of fun for the lads and me. The miroders now—we have killed a dozen or so of them, but we have done no harm else …”
Next day, when Denisov was leaving Pokrovskoe, having forgotten all about this peasant, he was told that Tihon was with his followers, and asked to be allowed to remain with them. Denisov bade them let him stay.
At first Tihon undertook the rough work of making fires, fetching water, skinning horses, and so on, but he soon showed great zeal and capacity for guerilla warfare. He would go after booty at night, and never failed to bring back French clothes and weapons, and when he was bidden, he would bring back prisoners too. Denisov took Tihon from his menial work, and began to employ him on expeditions, and to reckon him among the Cossacks.
Tihon did not like riding, and always went on foot, yet never lagged behind the cavalry. His weapons were a musket, which he carried rather as a joke, a pike, and an axe, which he used as skilfully as a wolf does its teeth—catching fleas in its coat and crunching thick bones with them equally easily. With equal precision Tihon swinging his axe split logs, or, taking it by the head, cut thin skewers or carved spoons. Among Denisov's followers, Tihon was on a special footing of his own. When anything particularly disagreeable or revolting had to be done—to put one's shoulder to a waggon stuck in the mud, to drag a horse out of a bog by the tail, to flay a horse, to creep into the midst of the French, to walk fifty versts in a day—every one laughed, and looked to Tihon to do it.
“No harm will come to him; the devil; he's a stalwart beast,” they used to say of him.
One day a Frenchman he had captured wounded Tihon with a pistol-shot in the fleshy part of the back. This wound, which Tihon treated only by applications of vodka—internal and external—was the subject of the liveliest jokes through the whole party, and Tihon lent himself readily to their jests.
“Well, old chap, you won't do that again! Are you crook-backed!” laughed the Cossacks; and Tihon, assuming a doleful face, and grimacing to pretend he was angry, would abuse the French with the most comical oaths. The effect of the incident on Tihon was that he rarely afterwards brought prisoners in.
Tihon was the bravest and most useful man of the lot. No one discovered so many opportunities of attack, no one captured or killed so many Frenchmen. And consequently he was the favourite subject of all the gibes of the Cossacks and the hussars, and readily fell in with the position.
Tihon had been sent overnight by Denisov to Shamshevo to capture a “tongue.” But either because he was not satisfied with one French prisoner, or because he had been asleep all night, he had crept by day into the bushes in the very middle of the French, and, as Denisov had seen from the hill, had been discovered by them.