One would have thought that under the almost incredibly wretched conditions the Russian soldiers were in at that time—lacking warm boots and sheepskin coats, without a roof over their heads, in the snow with eighteen degrees of frost, and without even full rations (the commissariat did not always keep up with the troops)—they would have presented a very sad and depressing spectacle.
On the contrary, the army had never under the best material conditions presented a more cheerful and animated aspect. This was because all who began to grow depressed or who lost strength were sifted out of the army day by day. All the physically or morally weak had long since been left behind and only the flower of the army—physically and mentally—remained.
More men collected behind the wattle fence of the Eighth Company than anywhere else. Two sergeants major were sitting with them and their campfire blazed brighter than others. For leave to sit by their wattle they demanded contributions of fuel.
"Eh, Makeev! What has become of you, you son of a bitch? Are you lost or have the wolves eaten you? Fetch some more wood!" shouted a red-haired and red-faced man, screwing up his eyes and blinking because of the smoke but not moving back from the fire. "And you, Jackdaw, go and fetch some wood!" said he to another soldier.
This red-haired man was neither a sergeant nor a corporal, but being robust he ordered about those weaker than himself. The soldier they called "Jackdaw," a thin little fellow with a sharp nose, rose obediently and was about to go but at that instant there came into the light of the fire the slender, handsome figure of a young soldier carrying a load of wood.
"Bring it here—that's fine!"
They split up the wood, pressed it down on the fire, blew at it with their mouths, and fanned it with the skirts of their greatcoats, making the flames hiss and crackle. The men drew nearer and lit their pipes. The handsome young soldier who had brought the wood, setting his arms akimbo, began stamping his cold feet rapidly and deftly on the spot where he stood.
"Mother! The dew is cold but clear.... It's well that I'm a musketeer..." he sang, pretending to hiccough after each syllable.
"Look out, your soles will fly off!" shouted the red-haired man, noticing that the sole of the dancer's boot was hanging loose. "What a fellow you are for dancing!"
The dancer stopped, pulled off the loose piece of leather, and threw it on the fire.
"Right enough, friend," said he, and, having sat down, took out of his knapsack a scrap of blue French cloth, and wrapped it round his foot. "It's the steam that spoils them," he added, stretching out his feet toward the fire.
"They'll soon be issuing us new ones. They say that when we've finished hammering them, we're to receive double kits!"
"And that son of a bitch Petrov has lagged behind after all, it seems," said one sergeant major.
"I've had an eye on him this long while," said the other.
"Well, he's a poor sort of soldier..."
"But in the Third Company they say nine men were missing yesterday."
"Yes, it's all very well, but when a man's feet are frozen how can he walk?"
"Eh? Don't talk nonsense!" said a sergeant major.
"Do you want to be doing the same?" said an old soldier, turning reproachfully to the man who had spoken of frozen feet.
"Well, you know," said the sharp-nosed man they called Jackdaw in a squeaky and unsteady voice, raising himself at the other side of the fire, "a plump man gets thin, but for a thin one it's death. Take me, now! I've got no strength left," he added, with sudden resolution turning to the sergeant major. "Tell them to send me to hospital; I'm aching all over; anyway I shan't be able to keep up."
"That'll do, that'll do!" replied the sergeant major quietly.
The soldier said no more and the talk went on.
"What a lot of those Frenchies were taken today, and the fact is that not one of them had what you might call real boots on," said a soldier, starting a new theme. "They were no more than make-believes."
"The Cossacks have taken their boots. They were clearing the hut for the colonel and carried them out. It was pitiful to see them, boys," put in the dancer. "As they turned them over one seemed still alive and, would you believe it, he jabbered something in their lingo."
"But they're a clean folk, lads," the first man went on; "he was white—as white as birchbark—and some of them are such fine fellows, you might think they were nobles."
"Well, what do you think? They make soldiers of all classes there."
"But they don't understand our talk at all," said the dancer with a puzzled smile. "I asked him whose subject he was, and he jabbered in his own way. A queer lot!"
"But it's strange, friends," continued the man who had wondered at their whiteness, "the peasants at Mozhaysk were saying that when they began burying the dead—where the battle was you know—well, those dead had been lying there for nearly a month, and says the peasant, 'they lie as white as paper, clean, and not as much smell as a puff of powder smoke.'"
"Was it from the cold?" asked someone.
"You're a clever fellow! From the cold indeed! Why, it was hot. If it had been from the cold, ours would not have rotted either. 'But,' he says, 'go up to ours and they are all rotten and maggoty. So,' he says, 'we tie our faces up with kerchiefs and turn our heads away as we drag them off: we can hardly do it. But theirs,' he says, 'are white as paper and not so much smell as a whiff of gunpowder.'"
All were silent.
"It must be from their food," said the sergeant major. "They used to gobble the same food as the gentry."
No one contradicted him.
"That peasant near Mozhaysk where the battle was said the men were all called up from ten villages around and they carted for twenty days and still didn't finish carting the dead away. And as for the wolves, he says..."
"That was a real battle," said an old soldier. "It's the only one worth remembering; but since that... it's only been tormenting folk."
"And do you know, Daddy, the day before yesterday we ran at them and, my word, they didn't let us get near before they just threw down their muskets and went on their knees. 'Pardon!' they say. That's only one case. They say Platov took 'Poleon himself twice. But he didn't know the right charm. He catches him and catches him—no good! He turns into a bird in his hands and flies away. And there's no way of killing him either."
"You're a first-class liar, Kiselev, when I come to look at you!"
"Liar, indeed! It's the real truth."
"If he fell into my hands, when I'd caught him I'd bury him in the ground with an aspen stake to fix him down. What a lot of men he's ruined!"
"Well, anyhow we're going to end it. He won't come here again," remarked the old soldier, yawning.
The conversation flagged, and the soldiers began settling down to sleep.
"Look at the stars. It's wonderful how they shine! You would think the women had spread out their linen," said one of the men, gazing with admiration at the Milky Way.
"That's a sign of a good harvest next year."
"We shall want some more wood."
"You warm your back and your belly gets frozen. That's queer."
"What are you pushing for? Is the fire only for you? Look how he's sprawling!"
In the silence that ensued, the snoring of those who had fallen asleep could be heard. Others turned over and warmed themselves, now and again exchanging a few words. From a campfire a hundred paces off came a sound of general, merry laughter.
"Hark at them roaring there in the Fifth Company!" said one of the soldiers, "and what a lot of them there are!"
One of the men got up and went over to the Fifth Company.
"They're having such fun," said he, coming back. "Two Frenchies have turned up. One's quite frozen and the other's an awful swaggerer. He's singing songs...."
"Oh, I'll go across and have a look...."
And several of the men went over to the Fifth Company.