THE FIFTH COMPANY was bivouacking close up to the birch copse. An immense camp-fire was blazing brightly in the middle of the snow, lighting up the rime-covered boughs of the trees.
In the middle of the night the soldiers had heard footsteps and the cracking of branches in the copse.
“A bear, lads,” said one soldier.
All raised their heads and listened; and out of the copse there stepped into the bright light of the fire two strangely garbed human figures clinging to one another. These were two Frenchmen, who had been hiding in the wood. Hoarsely articulating something in a tongue incomprehensible to the soldiers, they approached the fire. One, wearing an officer's hat, was rather the taller, and seemed utterly spent. He tried to sit down by the fire, but sank on to the ground. The other, a little, stumpy man, with a kerchief bound round his cheeks, was stronger. He held his companion up, and said something pointing to his mouth. The soldiers surrounded the Frenchmen, laid a coat under the sick man, and brought both of them porridge and vodka. The exhausted French officer was Ramballe; the little man bandaged up in the kerchief was his servant, Morel.
When Morel had drunk some vodka and eaten a bowl of porridge, he suddenly passed into a state of morbid hilarity, and kept up an incessant babble with the soldiers, who could not understand him. Ramballe refused food, and leaning on one elbow by the fire, gazed dumbly with red, vacant eyes at the Russian soldiers. At intervals he uttered a prolonged groan and then was mute again. Morel, pointing to his shoulders, gave the soldiers to understand that this was an officer, and that he needed warmth. A Russian officer, who had come up to the fire, sent to ask the colonel whether he would take a French officer into his warm cottage. When they came back and said that the colonel bade them bring the officer, they told Ramballe to go to him. He got up and tried to walk, but staggered, and would have fallen had not a soldier standing near caught him.
“What? You don't want to, eh?” said a soldier addressing Ramballe with a jocose wink.
“Eh, you fool! It's no time for your fooling. A peasant, a real peasant,” voices were heard on all sides blaming the jocose soldier. The others surrounded Ramballe. Two of them held him up under the arms and carried him to the cottage. Ramballe put his arms round the soldiers' necks, and as they lifted him he began wailing plaintively.
“O you good fellows! O my kind, kind friends. These are men! O my brave, kind friends”; and like a child he put his head down on the soldier's shoulder.
Meanwhile Morel was sitting in the best place surrounded by the soldiers.
Morel, a little, thickset Frenchman, with swollen, streaming eyes, was dressed in a woman's jacket and had a woman's kerchief tied over his forage cap. He was evidently tipsy, and with one arm thrown round the soldier sitting next him, he was singing a French song in a husky, broken voice. The soldiers simply held their sides as they looked at him.
“Now then, now then, teach it me; how does it go? I'll catch it in no time. How was it?” said the soldier Morel was hugging, who was one of the singers and fond of a joke.
“Vive Henri Quatre! Vive ce roi vaillant! …” sang Morel, winking. “Ce diable à quatre …”
“Vi-va-ri-ka! Viff-se-ru-va-ru! Si-dya-blya-ka!…” repeated the soldier, waving his hand and catching the tune correctly.
“Bravo! Ho-ho-ho-ho!” a hoarse guffaw of delight rose on all sides. Morel, wrinkling up his face, laughed too.
“Come, strike up, more, more!”
“Qui eut le triple talent de boire, de battre, et d'être un vert galant.”
“That sounds well too. Now, Zaletaev!…”
“Kyu,” Zaletaev articulated with effort. “Kyu-yu-yu …” he sang, puckering up his lips elaborately; “le-trip-ta-la-de-boo-de-ba-ce-detra-va-ga-la.”
“That's fine! That's a fine Frenchman, to be sure! oy … ho-ho-ho. Well, do you want some more to eat?”
“Give him some porridge; it'll take him some time to satisfy his hunger.”
They gave him more porridge, and Morel, laughing, attacked a third bowlful. There were gleeful smiles on the faces of all the young soldiers watching him. The old soldiers, considering it beneath their dignity to show interest in such trifles, lay on the other side of the fire, but now and then one would raise himself on his elbow and glance with a smile at Morel.
“They are men, too,” said one, rolling himself up in his coat. “Even the wormwood has its roots.”
“O Lord! What lots of stars! It's a sign of frost …” And all sank into silence.
The stars, as though they knew no one would see them now, were twinkling brightly in the black sky. Flaring up and growing dim again, and quivering, they seemed to be busily signalling some joyful mystery to each other.