War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy Book II: Chapters 1–8

CHAPTER VIII

The last of the infantry hurriedly crossed the bridge, squeezing together as they approached it as if passing through a funnel. At last the baggage wagons had all crossed, the crush was less, and the last battalion came onto the bridge. Only Denisov's squadron of hussars remained on the farther side of the bridge facing the enemy, who could be seen from the hill on the opposite bank but was not yet visible from the bridge, for the horizon as seen from the valley through which the river flowed was formed by the rising ground only half a mile away. At the foot of the hill lay wasteland over which a few groups of our Cossack scouts were moving. Suddenly on the road at the top of the high ground, artillery and troops in blue uniform were seen. These were the French. A group of Cossack scouts retired down the hill at a trot. All the officers and men of Denisov's squadron, though they tried to talk of other things and to look in other directions, thought only of what was there on the hilltop, and kept constantly looking at the patches appearing on the skyline, which they knew to be the enemy's troops. The weather had cleared again since noon and the sun was descending brightly upon the Danube and the dark hills around it. It was calm, and at intervals the bugle calls and the shouts of the enemy could be heard from the hill. There was no one now between the squadron and the enemy except a few scattered skirmishers. An empty space of some seven hundred yards was all that separated them. The enemy ceased firing, and that stern, threatening, inaccessible, and intangible line which separates two hostile armies was all the more clearly felt.

"One step beyond that boundary line which resembles the line dividing the living from the dead lies uncertainty, suffering, and death. And what is there? Who is there? — there beyond that field, that tree, that roof lit up by the sun? No one knows, but one wants to know. You fear and yet long to cross that line, and know that sooner or later it must be crossed and you will have to find out what is there, just as you will inevitably have to learn what lies the other side of death. But you are strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and are surrounded by other such excitedly animated and healthy men." So thinks, or at any rate feels, anyone who comes in sight of the enemy, and that feeling gives a particular glamour and glad keenness of impression to everything that takes place at such moments.

On the high ground where the enemy was, the smoke of a cannon rose, and a ball flew whistling over the heads of the hussar squadron. The officers who had been standing together rode off to their places. The hussars began carefully aligning their horses. Silence fell on the whole squadron. All were looking at the enemy in front and at the squadron commander, awaiting the word of command. A second and a third cannon ball flew past. Evidently they were firing at the hussars, but the balls with rapid rhythmic whistle flew over the heads of the horsemen and fell somewhere beyond them. The hussars did not look round, but at the sound of each shot, as at the word of command, the whole squadron with its rows of faces so alike yet so different, holding its breath while the ball flew past, rose in the stirrups and sank back again. The soldiers without turning their heads glanced at one another, curious to see their comrades' impression. Every face, from Denisov's to that of the bugler, showed one common expression of conflict, irritation, and excitement, around chin and mouth. The quartermaster frowned, looking at the soldiers as if threatening to punish them. Cadet Mironov ducked every time a ball flew past. Rostov on the left flank, mounted on his Rook — a handsome horse despite its game leg — had the happy air of a schoolboy called up before a large audience for an examination in which he feels sure he will distinguish himself. He was glancing at everyone with a clear, bright expression, as if asking them to notice how calmly he sat under fire. But despite himself, on his face too that same indication of something new and stern showed round the mouth.

"Who's that curtseying there? Cadet Miwonov! That's not wight! Look at me," cried Denisov who, unable to keep still on one spot, kept turning his horse in front of the squadron.

The black, hairy, snub-nosed face of Vaska Denisov, and his whole short sturdy figure with the sinewy hairy hand and stumpy fingers in which he held the hilt of his naked saber, looked just as it usually did, especially toward evening when he had emptied his second bottle; he was only redder than usual. With his shaggy head thrown back like birds when they drink, pressing his spurs mercilessly into the sides of his good horse, Bedouin, and sitting as though falling backwards in the saddle, he galloped to the other flank of the squadron and shouted in a hoarse voice to the men to look to their pistols. He rode up to Kirsten. The staff captain on his broad-backed, steady mare came at a walk to meet him. His face with its long mustache was serious as always, only his eyes were brighter than usual.

"Well, what about it?" said he to Denisov."It won't come to a fight. You'll see — we shall retire."

"The devil only knows what they're about!" muttered Denisov."Ah, Wostov," he cried noticing the cadet's bright face,"you've got it at last."

And he smiled approvingly, evidently pleased with the cadet. Rostov felt perfectly happy. Just then the commander appeared on the bridge. Denisov galloped up to him.

"Your excellency! Let us attack them! I'll dwive them off."

"Attack indeed!" said the colonel in a bored voice, puckering up his face as if driving off a troublesome fly."And why are you stopping here? Don't you see the skirmishers are retreating? Lead the squadron back."

The squadron crossed the bridge and drew out of range of fire without having lost a single man. The second squadron that had been in the front line followed them across and the last Cossacks quitted the farther side of the river.

The two Pavlograd squadrons, having crossed the bridge, retired up the hill one after the other. Their colonel, Karl Bogdanich Schubert, came up to Denisov's squadron and rode at a footpace not far from Rostov, without taking any notice of him although they were now meeting for the first time since their encounter concerning Telyanin. Rostov, feeling that he was at the front and in the power of a man toward whom he now admitted that he had been to blame, did not lift his eyes from the colonel's athletic back, his nape covered with light hair, and his red neck. It seemed to Rostov that Bogdanich was only pretending not to notice him, and that his whole aim now was to test the cadet's courage, so he drew himself up and looked around him merrily; then it seemed to him that Bogdanich rode so near in order to show him his courage. Next he thought that his enemy would send the squadron on a desperate attack just to punish him — Rostov. Then he imagined how, after the attack, Bogdanich would come up to him as he lay wounded and would magnanimously extend the hand of reconciliation.

The high-shouldered figure of Zherkov, familiar to the Pavlograds as he had but recently left their regiment, rode up to the colonel. After his dismissal from headquarters Zherkov had not remained in the regiment, saying he was not such a fool as to slave at the front when he could get more rewards by doing nothing on the staff, and had succeeded in attaching himself as an orderly officer to Prince Bagration. He now came to his former chief with an order from the commander of the rear guard.

"Colonel," he said, addressing Rostov's enemy with an air of gloomy gravity and glancing round at his comrades,"there is an order to stop and fire the bridge."

"An order to who?" asked the colonel morosely.

"I don't myself know 'to who,'" replied the cornet in a serious tone,"but the prince told me to 'go and tell the colonel that the hussars must return quickly and fire the bridge.'"

Zherkov was followed by an officer of the suite who rode up to the colonel of hussars with the same order. After him the stout Nesvitski came galloping up on a Cossack horse that could scarcely carry his weight.

"How's this, Colonel?" he shouted as he approached."I told you to fire the bridge, and now someone has gone and blundered; they are all beside themselves over there and one can't make anything out."

The colonel deliberately stopped the regiment and turned to Nesvitski.

"You spoke to me of inflammable material," said he,"but you said nothing about firing it."

"But, my dear sir," said Nesvitski as he drew up, taking off his cap and smoothing his hair wet with perspiration with his plump hand,"wasn't I telling you to fire the bridge, when inflammable material had been put in position?"

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