Book Fifteen: 1812 --13 - Chapter VII
When the troops reached their night's halting place on the eighth of November, the last day of the Krasnoe battles, it was already growing dusk. All day it had been calm and frosty with occasional lightly falling snow and toward evening it began to clear. Through the falling snow a purple-black and starry sky showed itself and the frost grew keener.
An infantry regiment which had left Tarutino three thousand strong but now numbered only nine hundred was one of the first to arrive that night at its halting place--a village on the highroad. The quartermasters who met the regiment announced that all the huts were full of sick and dead Frenchmen, cavalrymen, and members of the staff. There was only one hut available for the regimental commander.
The commander rode up to his hut. The regiment passed through the village and stacked its arms in front of the last huts.
Like some huge many-limbed animal, the regiment began to prepare its lair and its food. One part of it dispersed and waded knee-deep through the snow into a birch forest to the right of the village, and immediately the sound of axes and swords, the crashing of branches, and merry voices could be heard from there. Another section amid the regimental wagons and horses which were standing in a group was busy getting out caldrons and rye biscuit, and feeding the horses. A third section scattered through the village arranging quarters for the staff officers, carrying out the French corpses that were in the huts, and dragging away boards, dry wood, and thatch from the roofs, for the campfires, or wattle fences to serve for shelter.
Some fifteen men with merry shouts were shaking down the high wattle wall of a shed, the roof of which had already been removed.
"Now then, all together--shove!" cried the voices, and the huge surface of the wall, sprinkled with snow and creaking with frost, was seen swaying in the gloom of the night. The lower stakes cracked more and more and at last the wall fell, and with it the men who had been pushing it. Loud, coarse laughter and joyous shouts ensued.
"Now then, catch hold in twos! Hand up the lever! That's it... Where are you shoving to?"
"Now, all together! But wait a moment, boys... With a song!"
All stood silent, and a soft, pleasant velvety voice began to sing. At the end of the third verse as the last note died away, twenty voices roared out at once: "Oo-oo-oo-oo! That's it. All together! Heave away, boys!..." but despite their united efforts the wattle hardly moved, and in the silence that followed the heavy breathing of the men was audible.
"Here, you of the Sixth Company! Devils that you are! Lend a hand... will you? You may want us one of these days."
Some twenty men of the Sixth Company who were on their way into the village joined the haulers, and the wattle wall, which was about thirty-five feet long and seven feet high, moved forward along the village street, swaying, pressing upon and cutting the shoulders of the gasping men.
"Get along... Falling? What are you stopping for? There now..."
Merry senseless words of abuse flowed freely.
"What are you up to?" suddenly came the authoritative voice of a sergeant major who came upon the men who were hauling their burden. "There are gentry here; the general himself is in that hut, and you foul-mouthed devils, you brutes, I'll give it to you!" shouted he, hitting the first man who came in his way a swinging blow on the back. "Can't you make less noise?"
The men became silent. The soldier who had been struck groaned and wiped his face, which had been scratched till it bled by his falling against the wattle.
"There, how that devil hits out! He's made my face all bloody," said he in a frightened whisper when the sergeant major had passed on.
"Don't you like it?" said a laughing voice, and moderating their tones the men moved forward.
When they were out of the village they began talking again as loud as before, interlarding their talk with the same aimless expletives.
In the hut which the men had passed, the chief officers had gathered and were in animated talk over their tea about the events of the day and the maneuvers suggested for tomorrow. It was proposed to make a flank march to the left, cut off the Vice-King (Murat) and capture him.
By the time the soldiers had dragged the wattle fence to its place the campfires were blazing on all sides ready for cooking, the wood crackled, the snow was melting, and black shadows of soldiers flitted to and fro all over the occupied space where the snow had been trodden down.
Axes and choppers were plied all around. Everything was done without any orders being given. Stores of wood were brought for the night, shelters were rigged up for the officers, caldrons were being boiled, and muskets and accouterments put in order.
The wattle wall the men had brought was set up in a semicircle by the Eighth Company as a shelter from the north, propped up by musket rests, and a campfire was built before it. They beat the tattoo, called the roll, had supper, and settled down round the fires for the night--some repairing their footgear, some smoking pipes, and some stripping themselves naked to steam the lice out of their shirts.