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RETREAT!

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RETREAT! THE NARRATIVE OF GRENADIER GIRODET AS RELATED BY HIMSELF. Bv ERNEST WILLETT. IT was during the Russian Campaign, Monsieur, in 1812, that the incidents I have promised to recount to you took place. g&We were an army of four hundred thousand strong, and full of life and vigour; high spirits too, for we were told that there was much spoil for us at Moscow. We pushed along by heavy marches, which made some of my young comrades to grumble but I put them soon right when I called them in mock pity my "tired children" and bade them regard me well, wounds and medals and all, and told them that I had marched in the ranks of the Emperor from the battle of Austerlitz to that present campaign, which, as Monsieur will know, covered a period of seven years. I have said we were in high spirits, and this was because of the influence of the Emperor and his Generals upon us; never had I seen Napoleon look more confident-more deter- mined. My faith At that time he had the finest army in the world It is true that Wellington and his bands of English were gaining victories in Spain-but with what conduct ? Monsieur, after the taking of Badajoz, the English soldiers behaved like wild beasts Not so the Grand Army of Napoleon we fought with discipline with dignity, Monsieur. There were not many boys amongst us. It would but weary you, were I to recount the daily routine of our march on Moscow. We passed through many towns and villages, and from these we took such provisions as we could. But the Russian peasants are very poor; poorer, I think, than the poorest of our countrymen here in France, and surely that is saying a good deal. Now, as we passed through one village at night-fallâindeed I forget its name-those Russian names no man can remember-we searched the houses as usual for such bread and meats as could be taken, and I was set at the head of some five comrades to take my share in the work. We found the peasants ready enough with what they had; some indeed were at first inclined to be surly, but a prod from a bayonet awakens much civility. Cottage after cottage we entered, in something of a friendly fashion; asking, receiving, searching, and going out again with small harm done. At length we reached a tiny dwelling, very poor-looking and lonely, Monsieur. A young girl stood in the open door with a little white haired woman by her side. Oh thought I to myself. Mother and daughter. They don't look like Russians either." Then I said aloud By your leave, Madame and M'selle," and took a pace forward with my comrades. The young girl spoke. She gazed appealingly into our rugged faces with her timid blue eyes. We were all surprised that she should address us in good French. Dear Messieurs, you will take nothing from us ? This is my poor mother, blind. My father is dead. I am her sole support. I do work for the villagers. We live, the good God knows how. There are in the house a little flour, and a few poor things. They have been saved by some starving. It has cost hungry tears, Messieurs, this little store for the terrible winter that is coming. To you it would count for nothing. To us it counts as our lives. Take it and we die. But we too are French; and fellowcountrymen, you will let us live ? When I heard this pathetic speech, Monsieur, and felt all it implied, and heard how these two poor women were our sisters in the strange land, my eyes had a sort of mist about them, and I saw France afar off. Then I coughed, and pulled off my shako, and made the best bow I could with legs so stiff after the long march. And I said:â"Take comfort, Madame and M'selle, your little store for the winter shall be safe. The good God bless you, and protect you. Farewell." And I put on my shako and strode away. But I had not gone ten paces when a low whistle from one of my comrades brought me to a halt. Then I looked back, and saw that not one of them had followed me, but all stood as I had left them; and Capitaine Daunou had ridden up. I returned to them, and saluted my officer. He scowled. How is this?" he asked, harshly. You have let these people go free That is in direct violation of your orders." Capitaine," I said, "they are French." "All the more reason, dolt, that they should contribute to the maintenance of la grande armee." Capitaiiie, they are poor. The young girl supports the old mother who is blind. The father is dead. They have but a scanty store laid by, with much care, for the winter. Shall we take the bread of the widow and fatherless ? One of my comrades furtively plucked my sleeve, for I was saying too much. Capitaine Daunou regarded me fiercely. It is, not for you to decide the justice of an order. Your duty is but to obey. You have dis- obeyed you are therefore placed under arrest. Soldiers, attach your prisioner." Capitaine-" "Discipline must be maintained in this army." "I have been with the Emperor since Austerlitz And you have not yet learnt to obey Your example is bad to your battalion. As a warning to your comrades, you will probably be shot at dawn, before the march." When I heard these words, Monsieur, and realised the gravity of my offence, and my position, I felt my span of life was over. I looked at the young girl. There was a bright light in her blue eyes. Courage, kind soldier," she said. These words caused me to brace up my heart and to march off with some show of spirit between the muskets of my sorrowful comrades.- Never, Monsieur, shall I forget hearing the reveille sounded at dawn. Well did I know that the bugles and the drums called me forth either to a fresh day's march or to a shameful death. I wondered which ? Capitaine Daunou came to the spot where my comrades stood guarding me. He looked grim. "Rejoin your battalion," he said. Your punishment is postponed, by the Emperor's orders." I was released, and shortly afterwards the day's march began. Time after time I secretly questioned my comradesâwhy had I been released ? For I felt sure that some influence had been at work in my favour. It was only after much inquiry that I gleaned the outline of a story-fanciful enough, my faith-how that the blue-eyed cottage girl, our countrywoman, had waited some two hours before the dawn to see Napoleon had seen him as he came forth with his Generals; had cried to him to listen to her, and he had listened. She had told him the incident of the night before, and I had found myself released. Between you and me, Monsieur, I counted this as a "soldier's tale"; but I discovered no other reason for my freedom in the ranks. So day succeeded day, and we marched on. There were battlesâMonsieur knows all about them-and there was sometimes sharp fighting in between. Nearer and nearer we pushed to the goal of our desires-to the haven of our hopes-to the city of our waking dreams- Moscow We knew Napoleon intended to take up his winter quarters there, and our hearts were great within us at the thought of our coming victory and our coming rest. We fought and beat the enemy, driving him on before us; and we sang and smoked en bivouac round our bright wood fires. Never was a more sanguine army than that of our great Emperor in 1812. Alas, Monsieur Well, not to weary you, we entered Moscow on September the 12th, I think, and on October the 6th we were in full retreat from it, the burning city flaming and blazing behind us, as a sword of fire to drive us on our road Oh, never in the history of the world, surely, was a more terrible retreat, or a more terrible road. The winter had arisen, and, Monsieur, the land was all one dreadful snow-drift. Fire behind us and snow before us, and a march of some hundreds of miles, with scant provisions, Mon- sieur, and sentries dying in the lone night, frozen at their posts. Retreat! Retreat! The Emperor rode with us, his head sunk on his breast, one hand gripped the reins, the other lay concealed within his coat. In this way he would ride, Monsieur, for a whole day, his Generals following at some distance, and watch- ing him, for none dared speak to him in the first flush of his moody anger. Monsieur, Napoleon entered Russia with 400,000 souls he left behind him in the battle, fire, and snow a stark- dead army of 300,000 men-nay, more, for we who struggled on with famine-stricken faces numbered but some 20,000âall that were left, Monsieur, of la grand armee !â20,000 gaunt skeletons in fluttering rags flapping in the moan- ing winds of the trackless ice-fields Night by night we crouched silent around the camp fires that gave no heat to us, though they scorched our rags into tinder. We lost the sense of feeling and taste through the cold and the privation, and we well-nigh lost our sight through the dazzling whiteness of the snow. Each day, when the feeble drums called us to the march, we left round our dying camp-fires those comrades who would never rise to the sound of the reveille again. Sometimes, on the march, we would fall,to fighting amongst ourselves, not as men fight, Monsieur, but as dogs fight, with limbs and teeth. Indeed, we grew like dogs in every way. We snarled on one another words died on our lips we sniffed the cutting air; our ears were keen for every sound. Many of us went mad and babbled in the snow. Some we left behind us playing like little children, and tossing the white powder about upon their hair and beards, and crowing to each other; they clapped their hands as we left them in the rear, with the pattering drums before us. Monsieur, it was horrible, horrible. In the wake of the dwindling army lay dead men all along the land. Often we tramped for days, in silence, in the face of a mournful leaden sky. Ever and anon the clear air would become dense in the whirling shroud of a sudden snow-fall; the fluttering white flakes would come ever down and down, until we lost each other in the haze of the driving storm. Many a time during that terrible retreat we must have looked like an army of white ghosts, silently pacing to the beat of phantom drums. Soon we began to pass once more through the desolate villages. The peasants barricaded their doors against us. We broke them open, and fought man to man for the miserable fragments of the precious food. Nowhere was it yielded to us without bloodshed, save in one instance. I will come to that, Monsieur, in its place. It happened that, as we struggled onwards, we came to that village where dwelt the blue-eyed girl, the sole support of the little blind mother;