« AnkstesnisTęsti »
the river, and its overflowing stream, more than sixty yards in width, was full of floating ice.
THE HORRORS OF THE BERESINA.
THE situation was desperate. Yet, with a relentless foe behind, on each side, and now in front protected by the rampart of the swollen river, Napoleon seemed preternaturally calm. The army was apparently doomed; but he determined to sacrifice everything to his personal safety, on which depended the fate of his Empire. Oudinot was summoned, with his eight thousand men, to drive out Tchitchagoff, and orders were sent to Victor, commanding him at any hazard to cut off Wittgenstein from the Beresina. Schwarzenberg had been temporarily checked by a division of Russians under Sacken, and was no longer a factor in the problem. Oudinot accomplished his task, but the Russians fired the bridge as they fled. Napoleon was scarcely consoled by news that his cavalry had found a ford at Studjenka. Early on the 23d the French bridge-builders, with all available assistants and material, were upon the way thither. Unfortunately, Victor had not received his orders in time, and Wittgenstein was marching direct to the same spot. His advance was, however, slow; Tchitchagoff was completely deceived by a feint of Oudinot's, and he marched a whole day down the stream to guard against an imaginary danger. The French therefore worked without disturbance, and, as the frost set in once more, the swampy shores were hardened enough to make easy the approach to their works. By the 26th two bridges were completed, a light one for infantry early in the morning, and late in the afternoon another considered strong enough for artillery and wagons. At one Oudinot's foot-soldiers began to cross, and a body of cavalry successfully swam their horses over; a few hours later artillery followed, and the opposite shore was cleared of the enemy sufficiently to open the bridgehead entirely, and control the direct road to Vilna, which leaves Minsk to the south. This great success was due partly to unparalleled good fortune, but chiefly to the gallant fellows who worked for hours without a murmur in the freezing water amid cakes of grinding ice.
With two short interruptions from the breaking of the heavier bridge, the crossing went forward irregularly, at times almost intermitting, until the morning of the 28th. About noon on the 27th the Emperor passed, and kept on his way to Zarniski. Victor's
van reached Borrissoff in advance of Wittgenstein the same afternoon, although the latter attacked his rear on the same evening, and captured two thousand men. Tchitchagoff, having finally learned the truth, appeared that night opposite Borrissoff; communication with the opposite shore was quickly established, and after a conference the two belated Russian generals agreed to march up-stream, on the right and left banks respectively. At eight next morning Tchitchagoff attacked Oudinot and Ney, 26,000 men against 17,000; two hours later Wittgenstein, with 25,000 fell upon Victor, who had about 7000. Yet the French kept the bridges. Throughout the day a bloody fight went on; it was rendered uncertain and disorderly by the thousands of stragglers present, and by the intensity of the steadily increasing cold. Behind these two heroic combats scenes were occurring which beggar description. Incredible numbers of the stragglers cumbered the roadways and approaches; the vast mob of campfollowers held stubbornly to their possessions, and, with loud imprecations, lashed their tired horses while they put their own shoulders to the wagon wheels. Hundreds were trampled under foot; families were torn asunder amid wails and shrieks that filled the air; the weak were pushed from the bridges into the dark flood now thickening under the fierce cold. Toward midday a cutting wind rose, and by three it was a hurricane. At that instant the heavier bridge gave way, and all upon it were engulfed. An onlooker declared that a yell of mortal agony rose above storm and battle which rang in his ears for weeks.
The mob on the river bank was momentarily sobered, and for a time there was order in crossing the remaining bridge; but as dusk fell both wind and battle raged more fiercely, and groups began to surge out on right and left to pass those in front. Many dashed headlong into the angry river; others, finding no opening, seated themselves in dumb despair to wait the event. At nine the remnant of Victor's ranks began to cross, and the Russians commenced cannonading the bridge. Soon the beams were covered with corpses, laid like the transverse logs on a corduroy road; but the frightful transit went on until all the soldiers had passed. The heavy bridge was temporarily repaired, but at last neither was safe; little knots gathered from the rabble at intervals, and rushed recklessly over the toppling structures, until at eight next morning the French, not daring to wait longer, set fire to both, leaving seven thousand of their followers in Studjenka.
They burned also the wooden track they had constructed through the swamps. The Russian accounts of what was seen in the morning light portray scenes unparalleled in history: a thousand or more charred corpses were frozen fast on the surface of the river, many of the ghastly heads being those of women and children; the huts of the town were packed with the dead. Twenty-four thousand bodies were burned in one holocaust, and it is solemnly stated that in the spring thaws twelve thousand more were brought to light. Ten years afterward there were still islets in the shallows of the stream covered with forget-me-nots, which decked the moldering bones of those who had perished during that awful night of November 28, 1812.
Next day the Emperor wrote to Maret confessing the truth, and adding, "I may regard my presence in Paris as essential for France, for the Empire-yes, even for the army. He also composed on the same day a bulletin, since famous, which was dated December 3. It speciously declared that until November 6 the Emperor had been every where successful; thereafter the elements had done their fell work. The only complete truth it contained was the closing sentence: «The health of his Majesty was never better.» As the sorry remnants of the grand army moved toward Vilna, they grew scantier and scantier. Many were delirious from hunger and cold, many were in the agonies of typhus fever. On December 3 there were still 9000 in the ranks; on the 5th the marshals were assembled to hear Napoleon explain his determination to leave at once for Paris, and the grand army was no more; on the 8th the thermometer marked twenty-five degrees below zero, and a few unarmed wretches, perhaps five hundred in all, trailed after Murat into Vilna. Their ears and throats, their legs and feet, were swathed in rags; their bodies were wrapped in the threadbare garments of their dead comrades, or in such cast-off woman's apparel as they had been able to secure by the way. They were followed by Ney with four hundred, Wrede with two thousand, and finally by two or three thousand stragglers. This was the closing scene of Napoleon's great drama of invasion. His men and horses had succumbed to summer heats as rapidly and extensively as to wintry frosts; he had brought ruin to his enterprise by miscalculating the proportions of inanimate nature and human strategy, and by fatal indecision at critical moments when the statesman's delay was the soldiers' ruin. Russia, like Spain, had the
strength of low organisms; her vigor was not centralized into one member, the destruction of which would be the destruction of the whole; Moscow was not the Russian empire as Berlin was the Prussian kingdom.
The abandonment of the grand army at Smorgoni was not a desertion like the secret flight from Egypt; for now Napoleon was chief and not subordinate, his own judgment was the court of final appeal. Traveling incognito, he passed through Vilna, Warsaw, and Dresden. Maret was left in charge of matters in Lithuania, De Pradt was carefully instructed how to treat the Poles, and on December 14, at Dresden, despatches were written to both Francis and Frederick William in order to assure their continued adhesion. The King of Saxony was firmly bound in the fetters of a personal fascination never entirely dispelled. Twice on the long, swift journey efforts were made by disenchanted German officers to assassinate Napoleon, but he escaped by the secrecy of his flight. Such conspiracies were the presage of what was soon to happen in Germany. They seemed trivial to him, however, when compared with the state of public opinion in Paris as disclosed by the Malet conspiracy, a revelation which appalled a ruler whose struggles to found a dynasty had, he vainly hoped, been successful. Malet was a fiery nobleman who, having run the gamut between royalist and radical, had turned conspirator, having, in 1800, plotted to seize the First Consul, and again in 1807 having been imprisoned in the penitentiary of La Force for attempting to overthrow the Empire. Feigning madness, he succeeded in being transferred to an asylum, where he successfully reknit his conspiracies, and finally escaped. On October 23, 1812, he presented himself to the commander of the Paris guard, announcing Napoleon's death on the 7th; by the use of a forged decree of the senate purporting to establish a provisional republican government, and by the display of an amazing effrontery, he secured the adhesion of both men and officers. Marching at their head, he liberated his accomplices, Lahorie and Guidal, from La Force, seized both Savary and Pasquier, minister and prefect of police respectively, and wounded Hulin, commandant of the city, in a similar attempt. But Doucet, Hulin's assistant, seized and overpowered the daring conspirator, Savary and Pasquier were at once released, and almost before the facts were known throughout the city the accomplices of the plot were all arrested. Malet and twelve of his associates were tri and executed.
The Paris wits declared that the police had made a great «tour de force,» and as far as the city was concerned the affair appeared to have ended in a laugh. But Napoleon was dismayed, for he saw deeper. «It is a massacre,» he exclaimed, on hearing of the number shot.
If the Russian campaign had been successful, it would have put the capstone on imperial splendor. But already its failure was known among the French masses, and ghastly rumors were rife; the Emperor himself was so far distant that he was becoming to them a mythical personage; the Empress was not beloved; the little heir was scarcely a personage; the imperial administration was much criticized; the «system » was raising prices, depressing industry, and increasing the privations of every household. Pius VII was now living in comfort at Fontainebleau, but he was a prisoner, and earnest Catholics were troubled; perhaps heaven was visiting France with retribution. Worst of all, the French youth had perished under the imperial eagles in appalling numbers, and throughout the districts once royalist there was a rising tide of bitter vindictiveness.
What had occurred in Spain did not allay the general uneasiness. Marmont, having outmaneuvered Wellington until July 22, had on that fatal day extended his left too far at Salamanca, and had suffered overwhelming defeat; southern Spain was lost to France. Suchet, having taken and held Tarragona, concentrated to the eastward, so that by his holding Aragon and Catalonia for Napoleon, Joseph could set up a government temporarily at Valencia. Wellington, hampered by the distracted condition of English politics, had felt bound, in spite of victory, to withdraw to the Portugal frontier.
THE PRODIGAL'S RETURN.
By stringently enforcing the orders in council Canning had seriously injured Great Britain. Early in May, 1812, Perceval, the Tory premier, was assassinated by Bellingham, and in the consequent reconstruction of the cabinet Castlereagh had succeeded the Marquis of Wellesley. On May 13 the orders were repealed, but the United States had already declared war. By land the Americans failed dismally at the outset; but at sea they were five times victorious in as many different engagements, two English frigates striking their flag to equal force. This was an appalling novelty to the British, who unwillingly realized that the sons were not unworthy of their sires. The anxiety of Wellington and
the maritime successes of the Americans were not unwelcome lights in the otherwise dark picture of European affairs upon which Napoleon was forced to look after his return from Moscow.
The prodigal Emperor was undismayed; as he had recuperated his physical powers under incredible hardships, so he sharpened those of his mind amid the greatest difficulties. To a deputation of the servile senate he roundly denounced all faint-hearted civil officials as menacing the authority of law; to the council of state he scored all such as attributed to the people a sovereignty which it was incapable of exercising, who derived authority, not from the principles of justice or the nature of things or civil rights, but from the caprice of persons who understood neither legislation nor administration. The meaning of such language was clear, and the words of the master sufficed to bring the entire machine into perfect order. Deputations began to arrive, not only from all parts of France, but from the great cities of the Empire, from Rome and Milan, from Hamburg and Amsterdam, and their expressions of devotion were limited only by the possibilities of language. Some of the wits recalled the famous scene from Molière, in which the infatuated Orgon displays indifference to his faithful wife and shows interest only in Tartufe.
But in spite of the trenchant joke, the Napoleonic government stood firm in France, and there was not a little infectious enthusiasm, which grew in proportion as the Emperor deployed with every day and hour his marvelous faculties of administration. duced as the appropriations were, the public works in Paris went on; the naval station of Brest was completed; the ostentatious devotion of family life was renewed, to the great edification of the plain people; the veterans received their Emperor's minutest care; the destitute families of soldiers who had perished for France were relieved: the imperial pair were everywhere in evidence when a good work was to be done. Finally, when a plan of regency for Marie Louise was divulged, the praiseworthy, genuine sentiment which underlay such activities was found to have reinforced their dramatic effect enough to make the scheme acceptable. This plan, while giving to the Empress all the splendors of imperial sovereignty throughout both the Empire and the vassal states, was carefully constructed with wholesome checks. In the hands of an able, devoted wife it might have been a tower of strength to an absent husband battling for the existence of his Em