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The Writings of Prosper Mérimée/Volume 3/The Taking of the Redoubt

 

THE TAKING OF THE REDOUBT

L'Enlèvement de la Redoute

 

THE TAKING OF THE REDOUBT

A MILITARY friend of mine, who died of fever in Greece some years ago, related to me one day the story of the first engagement in which he had taken part. His narrative was so striking that I wrote it down from memory as soon as I had an opportunity. It is as follows:—

On the evening of the 4th September I rejoined my regiment. I found the colonel in bivouac. At first he received me rather coolly, but, after having read General B———'s letter of recommendation, his manner changed, and he said a few kind words.

He introduced me to my captain, who had just returned from a reconnoitring expedition. This captain, whose acquaintance I had scarcely the time to make, was a tall, dark man, with a severe and forbidding expression. He had been a common soldier, and had won his commission and the cross on the battlefield. His voice was weak and hoarse, and contrasted strangely with his almost gigantic height, I was told that this strange voice was due to a ball which had pierced him through at the Battle of Jena.

On hearing that I came from the school at Fontainebleau he shrugged his shoulders and said, "My lieutenant died yesterday." I understood that he meant to imply, "You are intended to take his place, and you are not up to it." A cutting reply rose to my lips, but I restrained myself.

Behind Fort Cheverino, which stood about two gunshots off our bivouac, rose the moon. It was large and red as it usually is when rising. But this evening it seemed to me to have an unusual splendour. For an instant the fort stood outlined in black against the shining orb, which looked like the cone of a volcano during eruption. An old soldier, near whom I was standing, remarked on the moon's colour.

"How very red it is!" he said; "it is a sign that it will cost much to take this precious fort."

I was always superstitious, and this omen, above all at such a moment, impressed me greatly. I laid myself down, but could not sleep. I got up and walked about for some time, watching the long lines of fire scattered over the heights beyond the village of Cheverino.

When I thought the fresh, sharp night air had sufficiently quickened my blood, I returned to the fire. I wrapped myself carefully in my cloak and closed my eyes, thinking not to open them before the morning. But sleep obstinately evaded me. Gradually my thoughts took a melancholy hue. I told myself I had not one friend amongst the hundred thousand men who covered that plain. If I were wounded I should go to the hospital, there to be treated without consideration by ignorant surgeons. All I had heard of surgical operations returned to my memory. My heart beat fast, and instinctively I arranged my handkerchief and pocket-book over my breast as a kind of cuirass. I was overcome with weariness, and I became more drowsy each moment, but at each moment some dark thought sprang up with greater force and woke me into a start.

Nevertheless weariness overcame me, and, when the reveille sounded, I was fast asleep. We fell into our ranks; the roll was called; then we piled arms again, and everything suggested that we were going to pass a quiet day.

About three o'clock an aide-de-camp arrived, bearing a despatch, and we were ordered to shoulder arms. Our skirmishers scattered themselves over the plain; we followed them slowly, and in about twenty minutes' time we saw all the outposts of the Russians fall back and re-enter the fort.

One battery of artillery was on our right, another on our left, but both were well in advance of us. They opened a sharp fire on the enemy, who answered briskly; and very soon the fort of Cheverino was hidden under thick clouds of smoke.

Our regiment was almost protected from the Russian fire by a ridge of earth. Since they aimed rather at our artillery than at us, their balls passed over our heads, or at the most cast earth and small stone at us.

The moment the order to advance was given us my captain looked at me so closely that I felt impelled to stroke my budding moustache two or three times with as nonchalant an air as possible. In fact, I had no fear; my only dread was that people might think me afraid. Furthermore, these inoffensive shots contributed to keep me in a calm state of mind. My vanity told me that I was really in danger, being at last under battery fire. I was delighted to find myself so cool, and I dreamed of the pleasure of relating in the drawing-room of Madame B———, Rue de Provence, the story of the taking of the fort of Cheverino.

The colonel rode past our company and said to me, " Well, you are going to get it hot at your first battle."

I smiled with a truly military air, at the same time brushing from my sleeve some dust which a ball thirty paces off had thrown up. It was evident that the Russians had noticed the miscarriage of their balls, for they replaced them by shells which could more easily reach us in the hollow where we were posted. One that burst near by knocked off my cap and killed a man close to me.

"I congratulate you," said the captain to me, as I picked up my cap. "Now you are safe for the day."

I was acquainted with the soldier's superstition that the axiom non bis in idem holds good as much on the battlefield as in the court of justice. I replaced my cap jauntily.

"That's a free and easy kind of greeting," I replied as jovially as possible. This poor joke seemed excellent under the circumstances.

"You are lucky," said the captain; "you need not fear anything more, and you will command a company to-night. I know very well that a bullet for me will find its billet to-day. Each time I have been wounded the officer next to me has been grazed by a spent bullet, and," he added in a lower and half-ashamed tone, "their names always began with a P."

I took courage; most people would have done the same; most people would have been equally struck with such prophetic words. Conscript as I was, I did not think I could confide my feelings to anybody. I thought I ought always to appear cool and brave.

About half an hour after, the fire of the Russians slackened considerably: then we sallied out of our cover to storm the fort.

Our regiment was composed of three bat- talions. The second was ordered to outflank the fort from the side of the gorge; the other two were to make the assault. I was in the third battalion.

Coming out from behind the buttress which had protected us, we were greeted by several rounds of fire, which did but httle harm in our ranks. The whistling of the balls startled me: I kept looking round, thus bringing upon myself joking remarks from my more seasoned com- rades.

" Upon the whole," I said, " a battle is not so very dreadful." We advanced at the double, preceded by our sharpshooters ; suddenly the Russians gave three cheers, three distinct hurrahs, then they stopped firing and became silent. " I do not like that silence," said my cap- tain; " it bodes no good to us."

I thought our men were a little too noisy, and I could not help inwardly contrasting their tumultuous clamour with the impressive silence of the enemy.

We quickly reached the outskirts of the fort, where the palisades had been broken and the earth thrown up by our balls. The soldiers leapt upon this newly broken ground with shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" more loudly than one could have thought possible from men who had already shouted so much.

I raised my eyes, and never shall I forget the spectacle before me. Most of the smoke had risen, and was hanging like a canopy about twenty feet above the fort. Through the blue haze I could see the Russian Grenadiers, with arms fixed, like motionless statues, behind their half -destroyed parapet. I can see now each sol- dier, his left eye fixed on us, his right hidden by his raised gun. In an embrasure a few feet from us a man was holding a lighted fuse to a cannon.

I shuddered, and I thought my last hour had come.

"Now the fun begins," cried my captain. "Here goes!"

These were the last words I heard him speak.

A roll of drums sounded in the fort. I saw all the muskets levelled. I closed my eyes, and heard an appalling uproar, followed by shrieks and groans. I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself still alive. The fort was again wrapped in smoke. I was surrounded with wounded and dying. My captain lay stretched at my feet: his head had been smashed by a ball, and I was covered with his brains and blood. Out of all my company there were only six men and myself left standing.

A moment of stupor followed this carnage. The colonel, putting his hat on the end of his sword, was the first to climb the parapet, shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" He was soon followed by all the survivors. I can not remember clearly what followed. I do not know how we entered the fort. We fought hand to hand in such a dense smoke that we could not see. I suppose I hit, for I found my sabre covered with blood. At last I heard the shout "Victory!" and, the smoke clearing away, I saw the ground of the fort covered with blood and corpses. The guns especially were buried under heaps of dead. Scattered about in disorder stood about two hundred men in French uniform: some were loading their pieces, others wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them.

The colonel was lying covered with blood on a broken ammunition box near the gorge. Several soldiers crowded round him. I joined them.

"Where is the senior captain? " he asked one of the sergeants.

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders in a significant way.

"And the senior lieutenant?"

"Here is the gentleman who came yesterday," said the sergeant in a perfectly calm voice.

The colonel smiled bitterly.

"Well, monsieur, you are commander-in-chief," said he to me. "Have the gorge of the fort fortified at once with these waggons. The enemy is in force, but General C——— is coming to support you."

"Colonel," I said to him, "you are badly wounded."

"A fig for that, my lad. We have taken the redoubt!"