Two of the enemy’s shots had already flown across the bridge, where there was a crush. Halfway across stood Prince Nesvítski, who had alighted from his horse and whose big body was jammed against the railings. He looked back laughing to the Cossack who stood a few steps behind him holding two horses by their bridles. Each time Prince Nesvítski tried to move on, soldiers and carts pushed him back again and pressed him against the railings, and all he could do was to smile.
“What a fine fellow you are, friend!” said the Cossack to a convoy soldier with a wagon, who was pressing onto the infantrymen who were crowded together close to his wheels and his horses. “What a fellow! You can’t wait a moment! Don’t you see the general wants to pass?”
But the convoyman took no notice of the word “general” and shouted at the soldiers who were blocking his way. “Hi there, boys! Keep to the left! Wait a bit.” But the soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvítski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying round the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions, and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Sometimes through the monotonous waves of men, like a fleck of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer, in a cloak and with a type of face different from that of the men, squeezed his way along; sometimes like a chip of wood whirling in the river, an hussar on foot, an orderly, or a townsman was carried through the waves of infantry; and sometimes like a log floating down the river, an officers’ or company’s baggage wagon, piled high, leather covered, and hemmed in on all sides, moved across the bridge.
“It’s as if a dam had burst,” said the Cossack hopelessly. “Are there many more of you to come?”
“A million all but one!” replied a waggish soldier in a torn coat, with a wink, and passed on followed by another, an old man.
“If he” (he meant the enemy) “begins popping at the bridge now,” said the old soldier dismally to a comrade, “you’ll forget to scratch yourself.”
That soldier passed on, and after him came another sitting on a cart.
“Where the devil have the leg bands been shoved to?” said an orderly, running behind the cart and fumbling in the back of it.
And he also passed on with the wagon. Then came some merry soldiers who had evidently been drinking.
“And then, old fellow, he gives him one in the teeth with the butt end of his gun...” a soldier whose greatcoat was well tucked up said gaily, with a wide swing of his arm.
“Yes, the ham was just delicious...” answered another with a loud laugh. And they, too, passed on, so that Nesvítski did not learn who had been struck on the teeth, or what the ham had to do with it.
“Bah! How they scurry. He just sends a ball and they think they’ll all be killed,” a sergeant was saying angrily and reproachfully.
“As it flies past me, Daddy, the ball I mean,” said a young soldier with an enormous mouth, hardly refraining from laughing, “I felt like dying of fright. I did, ‘pon my word, I got that frightened!” said he, as if bragging of having been frightened.
That one also passed. Then followed a cart unlike any that had gone before. It was a German cart with a pair of horses led by a German, and seemed loaded with a whole houseful of effects. A fine brindled cow with a large udder was attached to the cart behind. A woman with an unweaned baby, an old woman, and a healthy German girl with bright red cheeks were sitting on some feather beds. Evidently these fugitives were allowed to pass by special permission. The eyes of all the soldiers turned toward the women, and while the vehicle was passing at foot pace all the soldiers’ remarks related to the two young ones. Every face bore almost the same smile, expressing unseemly thoughts about the women.
“Just see, the German sausage is making tracks, too!”
“Sell me the missus,” said another soldier, addressing the German, who, angry and frightened, strode energetically along with downcast eyes.
“See how smart she’s made herself! Oh, the devils!”
“There, Fedótov, you should be quartered on them!”
“I have seen as much before now, mate!”
“Where are you going?” asked an infantry officer who was eating an apple, also half smiling as he looked at the handsome girl.
The German closed his eyes, signifying that he did not understand.
“Take it if you like,” said the officer, giving the girl an apple.
The girl smiled and took it. Nesvítski like the rest of the men on the bridge did not take his eyes off the women till they had passed. When they had gone by, the same stream of soldiers followed, with the same kind of talk, and at last all stopped. As often happens, the horses of a convoy wagon became restive at the end of the bridge, and the whole crowd had to wait.
“And why are they stopping? There’s no proper order!” said the soldiers. “Where are you shoving to? Devil take you! Can’t you wait? It’ll be worse if he fires the bridge. See, here’s an officer jammed in too”—different voices were saying in the crowd, as the men looked at one another, and all pressed toward the exit from the bridge.
Looking down at the waters of the Enns under the bridge, Nesvítski suddenly heard a sound new to him, of something swiftly approaching... something big, that splashed into the water.
“Just see where it carries to!” a soldier nearby said sternly, looking round at the sound.
“Encouraging us to get along quicker,” said another uneasily.
The crowd moved on again. Nesvítski realized that it was a cannon ball.
“Hey, Cossack, my horse!” he said. “Now, then, you there! get out of the way! Make way!”
With great difficulty he managed to get to his horse, and shouting continually he moved on. The soldiers squeezed themselves to make way for him, but again pressed on him so that they jammed his leg, and those nearest him were not to blame for they were themselves pressed still harder from behind.
“Nesvítski, Nesvítski! you numskull!” came a hoarse voice from behind him.
Nesvítski looked round and saw, some fifteen paces away but separated by the living mass of moving infantry, Váska Denísov, red and shaggy, with his cap on the back of his black head and a cloak hanging jauntily over his shoulder.
“Tell these devils, these fiends, to let me pass!” shouted Denísov evidently in a fit of rage, his coal-black eyes with their bloodshot whites glittering and rolling as he waved his sheathed saber in a small bare hand as red as his face.
“Ah, Váska!” joyfully replied Nesvítski. “What’s up with you?”
“The squadwon can’t pass,” shouted Váska Denísov, showing his white teeth fiercely and spurring his black thoroughbred Arab, which twitched its ears as the bayonets touched it, and snorted, spurting white foam from his bit, tramping the planks of the bridge with his hoofs, and apparently ready to jump over the railings had his rider let him. “What is this? They’re like sheep! Just like sheep! Out of the way!... Let us pass!... Stop there, you devil with the cart! I’ll hack you with my saber!” he shouted, actually drawing his saber from its scabbard and flourishing it.
The soldiers crowded against one another with terrified faces, and Denísov joined Nesvítski.
“How’s it you’re not drunk today?” said Nesvítski when the other had ridden up to him.
“They don’t even give one time to dwink!” answered Váska Denísov. “They keep dwagging the wegiment to and fwo all day. If they mean to fight, let’s fight. But the devil knows what this is.”
“What a dandy you are today!” said Nesvítski, looking at Denísov’s new cloak and saddlecloth.
Denísov smiled, took out of his sabretache a handkerchief that diffused a smell of perfume, and put it to Nesvítski’s nose.
“Of course. I’m going into action! I’ve shaved, bwushed my teeth, and scented myself.”
The imposing figure of Nesvítski followed by his Cossack, and the determination of Denísov who flourished his sword and shouted frantically, had such an effect that they managed to squeeze through to the farther side of the bridge and stopped the infantry. Beside the bridge Nesvítski found the colonel to whom he had to deliver the order, and having done this he rode back.
Having cleared the way Denísov stopped at the end of the bridge. Carelessly holding in his stallion that was neighing and pawing the ground, eager to rejoin its fellows, he watched his squadron draw nearer. Then the clang of hoofs, as of several horses galloping, resounded on the planks of the bridge, and the squadron, officers in front and men four abreast, spread across the bridge and began to emerge on his side of it.
The infantry who had been stopped crowded near the bridge in the trampled mud and gazed with that particular feeling of ill-will, estrangement, and ridicule with which troops of different arms usually encounter one another at the clean, smart hussars who moved past them in regular order.
“Smart lads! Only fit for a fair!” said one.
“What good are they? They’re led about just for show!” remarked another.
“Don’t kick up the dust, you infantry!” jested an hussar whose prancing horse had splashed mud over some foot soldiers.
“I’d like to put you on a two days’ march with a knapsack! Your fine cords would soon get a bit rubbed,” said an infantryman, wiping the mud off his face with his sleeve. “Perched up there, you’re more like a bird than a man.”
“There now, Zíkin, they ought to put you on a horse. You’d look fine,” said a corporal, chaffing a thin little soldier who bent under the weight of his knapsack.
“Take a stick between your legs, that’ll suit you for a horse!” the hussar shouted back.