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Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

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he survived all the horrors of the retreat.'

On the 25th of November, the whole army, reduced now to about
twenty-eight thousand fighting men and forty thousand stragglers,


still encumbered with a quantity of baggage, were assembled on the
banks of the Beresina, which they had to cross. The passage of
this river was one of the most disastrous points in the retreat. The
bridge at Borissov had been destroyed ; a Russian army under
Tchitchakoff occupied the opposite bank of the river, and the
passage appeared impracticable. So desperate seemed the state of
affairs, that Murat advised Napoleon to leave the army to its fate,
and make his own way to Paris. Napoleon, however, refused to
listen to such a proposal, and occupied himself for two days in
making such preparations as should enable him to cross the river,
and at the same time deceive the enemy as to the exact spot at
which he intended to cross it. 'What a frightful picture,' says
Labaume, ' did such a multitude of men present ! Our soldiers, pale,
emaciated, dying with hunger and cold, having nothing to defend
them from the inclemency of the season but tattered pelisses, and
sheep-skins half-burnt, and muttering the most mournful lamenta-
tions, crowded the banks of this fatal river. Germans, Poles,
Italians, Spaniards, Croats, Portuguese, and French were all
mingled together, disputing and quarrelling with each other in their
different languages ; finally, the officers, and even the generals,
wrapped in pelisses covered with dirt and filth, mingling with the
soldiers, and abusing those who pressed upon them or braved their
authority, formed a scene of strange confusion, of which no painter
could trace the faintest resemblance.' The passage of the river
commenced on the 27th, two wooden bridges having been by that
time hastily constructed. A considerable part of the army crossed
safely during the forenoon and afternoon of that day ; among the
rest Napoleon, with a division of about six thousand men, whom he
marched immediately to Zembin, leaving the remainder to follow.
Unfortunately, many of the stragglers preferred remaining on the
left bank till the morning of the 28th, loath to quit the fires which
they had kindled. The delay proved calamitous. The Russian
armies in pursuit had come up before daylight ; and, in order to
afford time for the stragglers and baggage to cross, the soldiers who
remained on the left side had to interpose themselves between them
and the Russians. A terrible carnage ensued : one whole division
of the French was obliged to surrender, and the rest were exposed
to an incessant fire. Meanwhile the crowd was crushing along both
bridges in the wildest confusion men, women, children, horses,
baggage all struggling to be first. A heavy snow was falling ; the
weather was bitterly cold ; large pieces of ice were floating down
the river, and dashing against the frail woodwork ; and the Russian
bullets and cannon-balls were sweeping overhead. The scene became
every moment more horrible. Here might be seen strong men,
brutal in their selfishness, driving carriages through the crowd,
crushing to death those who stood in their way; there, poor weak
wretches, sitting composedly on the bank, gazing at the water;



and farther on, persons who had been thrown off the bridge into the
water, trying to climb up again, or grasping, in their agony, floating
fragments of ice. One of the bridges at length broke down. The
crowd still pushing on from behind, scores were thrown into the
water, and carried down by the stream. The rest rushed, pell-mell,
to the other bridge. Nothing now was to be heard but groans,
curses, and screams from victims trampled to death under the feet
of their companions. So it continued during the whole night of the
28th, the Russian artillery never slacking their murderous fire.
When morning dawned, many thousands still remained waiting to
cross. Before this time, however, the Russians had approached so
near that, to save those who had crossed, it became necessary to
burn the bridge. This was accordingly done at about half-past
eight o'clock ; and all who had not passed were abandoned to the
Russians. The fatal passage of the Beresina cost the army an
immense number of its men ; about twenty thousand armed men
and thirty thousand stragglers alone escaping to the other side.

The miseries of the fugitives, however, were not yet over. The
dreadful winter, the want of food, the goading attacks of the Cossacks,
who hovered on the skirt of the army, continued to thin the ranks of
the wretched caravan, and to strew its route with corpses. On the
5th of December the army reached Smorgoni, on the banks of the
Vilno. Here Napoleon left it in a private manner, taking with him
a small body-guard, and travelling as fast as possible, by means of
sledges, in the direction of Poland and France. At his departure,
the retreating army was left in the command of Murat, who was to
conduct it homeward. No sooner, however, was it known that
Napoleon had left the army to its fate, than there arose universal
disorganisation and anarchy. Generals, inferior officers, and common
soldiers were all seized with the instinct of self-preservation, and
refused to obey orders. What little remains there were of generous
or soldierly feeling in the army, were now entirely lost : hunger, cold,
and despair had reduced the heroes of the Grand Army to a horde
of savages.

From Smorgoni to Vilno, a distance of three days' march, was
the next stage of the retreat : arrived at Vilno, a large and wealthy
city, it was hoped that all their sufferings would be at an end. But,
as if the Russian winter had resolved to drag back and detain its
victims, these three days' march were through an atmosphere of icy
frost. We shall let Segur describe these last days and nights of the
retreat. ' On the 6th of December,' he says, ' the very day after
Napoleon's departure, the sky exhibited a dreadful appearance.
You might see icy particles floating in the air ; the birds fell from it
quite stiff and frozen. We flitted along in this empire of death like
unhappy spirits. The dull and monotonous sound of our steps, the
cracking of the snow, and the feeble groans of the dying, were the
only interruptions to the vast and doleful silence. Such of our


soldiers as had hitherto been the most persevering, here lost heart
entirely. Whenever they stopped for a moment from exhaustion,
the winter, laying his heavy and icy hand upon them, was ready to
seize upon his prey. In vain did these poor unfortunates, feeling
themselves benumbed, raise themselves, and, already deprived of
the power of speech, and plunged in a stupor, proceed a few steps
like automatons ; their blood freezing in their veins like water in
the current of rivulets, congealed their heart, and then flew back to
their head : these dying men then staggered as if they had been
intoxicated. From their eyes, which were reddened and inflamed
by the continual aspect of the snow, by the want of sleep, and the
smoke of the bivouac, there flowed real tears of blood ; their bosom
heaved with heavy sighs ; they looked at heaven, at us, and at the
earth, with an eye dismayed, fixed, and wild ; it expressed their
farewell, and perhaps their reproaches, to the barbarous nature
which had tortured them. They were not long before they fell upon
their knees, and then upon their hands ; their heads still wavered
for a few minutes alternately to the right and left, and from their
open mouth some agonising sounds escaped ; at last it fell, in its
turn, upon the snow, which it reddened immediately with livid
blood, and their sufferings were at an end. Their comrades passed
by them without moving a step out of their way, for fear of pro-
longing their journey, or even turning their head ; for their beards
and their hair were stiffened with the ice, and every movement was
a pain.

' Such were the last days of the Grand Army. Its last nights were
still more dreadful : those whom they surprised marching together,
far from every habitation, halted on the borders of the woods ; there
they lighted their fires, before which they remained during the whole
night, erect and motionless, like spectres. They seemed as if they
could never have enough of the heat; they kept so close to it as
to burn their clothes, as well as the frozen parts of their bodies,
which the fire decomposed. The most dreadful pain then compelled
them to stretch themselves, and the next day they attempted in
vain to rise. In the meantime, such as the winter had almost wholly
spared, and who still retained some portion of courage, prepared
their melancholy meal. It consisted, ever since they had left
Smolensk, of some slices of horse-flesh broiled, and some rye-meal
diluted into a bouillie with snow-water, or kneaded into muffins,
which they seasoned, for want of salt, with the powder of their
cartridges. The sight of these fires was constantly attracting
fresh spectres, who were driven back by the first comers. They then
laid themselves down among the snow behind their more fortunate
comrades, and there expired.'

On the Qth of December the fugitives reached Vilno. After
crossing the Beresina, they had been joined by about twenty-five
thousand recruits, so that at Smorgoni their numbers amounted



in all to about seventy-five thousand men. Of these, about one-half
perished during the three days' march ; only forty thousand reaching
Vilno. Here no arrangements had been made for receiving or
accommodating them ; and a universal pillage ensued, many dying
in the streets before food could be procured. From Vilno, the wreck
of the army pushed on in broken bands to Kovno, the last town on
the Russian frontier. The greater number of them arrived here
on the 1 2th of December, and crossed the Niemen next day. Out
of four hundred thousand men, in the prime of health and strength,
who had crossed the Niemen on their advance into Russia, not more
than twenty-five thousand now recrossed it on their return ; and
these were covered with rags, with hollow eyes and hunger-bitten
faces. Plunging into the forests of Russian Poland, these poor
wretches made their way to their several homes as well as they could,
pursued for miles by the remorseless Cossacks. Many perished by
the sword and by famine ; and finally, only a mere handful reached
France. Prince Eugene, after making every research to gather together
the remains of his division, could muster only about eight hundred
wounded, the miserable wreck of forty-eight thousand warriors.

Thus the Grand Army, which was to have subdued Russia, was
annihilated, and its boastful chief a fugitive towards France. On
the evening of the loth of December, the sledges which bore
Napoleon and a few attendants from the scene of danger reached
Warsaw ; and hence, wrapped in furs, after a brief stay, they pursued
their way as secretly as possible through Germany and France to
Paris. His sudden and unexpected appearance in Paris on the
I Qth of December caused general surprise; and it was only by
concealing for a time the result of the campaign, and issuing false
intelligence respecting the movements and state of the army, that
he was able to prevent the discontent which was likely to arise.
Ultimately, all became known; but while Europe was filled with
horror for so much suffering, France was distracted and amused
with the prospect of new campaigns and victories which would efface
the recollection of its losses.

From the most careful calculations that can be made, it would
appear that upwards of 650,000 men, French and Russians, invaders
and defenders, perished in this most disastrous campaign. All
estimates of the loss of life and also of property must, however, fall
short of the truth. Many thousands of Russians perished obscurely,
murdered in defence of their homes ; thousands died of fatigue,
hunger, and other privations. Innumerable villages, towns, and
cities were sacked, burnt, and destroyed ; and many years of dire
suffering elapsed before the general distress was allayed, or the
marks of disaster obliterated.




,T is an ancient Mariner, An ancient Mariner

And he Stoppeth One OI three ; meeteth three gallants

' By thy long gray beard and glittering Bidden to a wedding-

J J o o J & f east and detameth

eye, one.

Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?

' The bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin ;
The guests are met, the feast is set :
Mayst hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand ;
' There was a ship,' quoth he.
' Hold off ! unhand me, graybeard loon ! '
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye
The wedding-guest stood still,
And listens like a three-years child :
The Mariner hath his wilL

The wedding-guest is

man, and constrained
to hear his tale -


The wedding-guest sat on a stone :
He cannot choose but hear ;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the light-house top.

The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he ;
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

The Mariner tells how
the ship sailed south-
ward with a good wind
and fair weather, till
it reached the line.

Higher and higher every day,

Till over the mast at noon

The wedding-guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she :
Nodding their heads, before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.

The wedding-guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear !
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

And now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong ;
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

With sloping masts, and dipping prow,

As who pursued with yell and blow

Still treads the shadow of his foe,

And forward bends his head j

The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,

And southward aye we fled.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold ;
And ice mast-high came floating by,
As green as emerald.

The wedding - guest
heareth the bridal
music; but the Mari-
ner continuethhis tale.

The ship driven by
a storm towards the
South Pole.


And through the drifts, the snowy clifts T^ 6 knd of Jce an(1 ot

Did send a dismal sheen : ML^S*

Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken be seen.
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around ;

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound.

At length did cross an albatross, Till a great sea-bird,

Thorough the fog it came; ^ ^ugh'Te

As it it had been a Christian soul, snow -fog, and was

We hailed it in God's name. received with great

joy and hospitality.

It ate the food it ne'er had ate,
And round and round it flew,
The ice did split with a thunder-fit ;
The helmsman steered us through !

And a good south wind sprung up behind ; And > lo ' the albatross
The albatross did follow, ZSf2fu&Si
And every day, for food or play, the ship as it return-
Came to the mariners' hollo ! * d northward through

fog and floating ice.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud

It perched for vespers nine ;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white moonshine.

' God save thee, ancient Mariner, The ancient Mariner

From the fiends that plague thee thus ! gg

Why lookst thou so?' With my cross-bow omen.
I shot the albatross.


The sun now rose upon the right ;
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.

And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo !


And I had done a hellish thing, His shipmates cry out

And it would work 'em woe : a ? ai ? st ll l e a , n . cient

T-. 11 j T i j i MI j ii 1-1 .Manner for killing

For all averred I had killed the bird the bird of good-luck

That made the breeze to blow.

'Ah, wretch!' said they, 'the bird to slay

That made the breeze to blow ! '

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head, But when the fog

The glorious sun uprist ; i eare t d , off - the y J us :

_. i T i i i -11 i i * l *y * ne same, and

Then all averred I had killed the bird thus make themselves

That brought the fog and mist. accomplices in the

"Twas right,' said they, 'such birds to slay
That bring the fog and mist.'

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The fair breeze con-
The furrow followed free ; t^ 5 : ' he ship enters

We were the first that ever burst KtBSftS

IntO that silent Sea. till it reaches the line.

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, The ship hath been
^Twas sad as sad could be ; suddenly becalmed.

And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea !

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water everywhere, A"f * a ! batr 5 be '

A j 11 .L-L. t- j j j i- i & ws f o DC avenged.

And all the boards did shrink :
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot : alas !
That ever this should be ;
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout,
The death-fires danced at night ;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.

4 '


And some in dreams assured were A s P' rit had followed

Of the spirit that plagued us so ; ^ ^habitant's %

Nine fathom deep he had followed us this planet, neither

From the land of mist and snow. departed souls nor

angels ; concerning
whom the learned

And every tongue through utter drought, &fcftftSJ

Was withered at the root : tinopolitan, Michael

We could not speak, no more than if Psellus, may be con-

We had been choked with soot. toSKKZ

no climate or element

Ah, well-a-day ! what evil looks without one or more '

Had I from old and young ! The shipmates, in

, f , A. 8. their sore distress,

Instead of the cross the albatross would fain throw the

About my neck was hung. whole guilt on the

ancient Mariner ; in
sign whereof they
hang the dead sea-bird
PART III. around his neck.

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time ! a weary time !
How glazed each weary eye !

When looking westward I beheld The ancient Mariner

A something in the sky. ^$*\&5s*

At first it seemed a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist ;
It moved, and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist !
And still it neared and neared :
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged, and tacked, and veered.

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked, At the nearer ap-
We could nor laugh nor wail j IT tcVa ship^nd

Through Utter drought all dumb we Stood ; at a dear ransom he

I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, f f. ee ' h h ' s s P e !-? h from

A , / , ,'. ., , ., , , the bonds of thirst.

And cried : ' A sail ! a sail ! '

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,

Agape they heard me call ;

Gramercy ! they for joy did grin, A flash of joy.

And all at once their breath drew in,

As they were drinking all.


' See ! see ! ' I cried, ' she tacks no more !
Hither to work us weal,
Without a breeze, without a tide.
She steadies with upright keel ! '

The western wave was all aflame,

The day was well-nigh done,

Almost upon the western wave

Rested the broad bright sun ;

When that strange shape drove suddenly

Betwixt us and the sun.

And straight the sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's mother send us grace !)
As if through a dungeon grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas ! thought I, and my heart beat loud,
How fast she nears and nears !
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres ?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate ?
And is that woman all her crew ?
Is that a Death ? and are there two ?
Is Death that woman's mate ?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold ;
Her skin was as white as leprosy ;
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks men's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,

And the twain were casting dice ;

' The game is done ! I Ve won, I Ve won !'

Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The sun's rim dips, the stars rush out,
At one stride comes the dark ;
" With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listened and looked sideways up ;
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip.


And horror follows :
for can it be a ship
that comes onward
without wind or tide ?

It seemeth him but
the skeleton of a ship.

And its ribs are seen
as bars on the face of
the setting sun the
spectre woman and
her death-mate, and
no other, on board the
skeleton ship.

Like vessel, like crew.

Death, and Life-in-
Death, have diced for
the ship's crew ; she,
the latter, winneth the
ancient Mariner.

No twilight within the
courts of the sun.


The stars were dim, and thick the night,

The steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white,

From the sails the dew did drip

Till clomb above the eastern bar

The horned moon, with one bright star At the rising of the

Within the nether tip. moon

One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan),
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly
They fled to bliss or woe !
And every soul it passed me by
Like the whizz of my cross-bow !

One after another,

His shipmates drop
down dead ;

But Life-in-Death be-
gins her work on the
ancient Mariner.


' I fear thee, ancient Mariner,

I fear thy skinny hand !

And thou art long, and lank, and brown,*

As is the ribbed sea-sand !

The wedding-guest
feareth that a spirit
is talking to him.

* I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.'
Fear not, fear not, thou wedding-guest,
This body dropped not down.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea !
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men so beautiful !

And they all dead did lie ;

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on : and so did I.

But the ancient Ma-
riner assureth him of
his bodily life, and
prcceedeth to relate
his horrible penance.

He despiseth the crea-
tures of the calm,

* For the last two lines of this stanza I am indebted to Mr Wordsworth. It was on a
delightful wa_lk from Nether Stowey to Dulverton with him and his sister, in the autumn of
1797, that this poem was planned, and in part composed. Author.



I looked upon the rotting sea,

And drew my eyes away :

I looked upon the rotting deck,

And there the dead men lay. And envieth that they

should live, and so
T11 ,,, . . . , many lie dead.

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray ;
But or ever a prayer had gushed,
A wicked whisper came and made
My heart as dry as dust.

I closed my lids, and kept them close,

And the balls like pulses beat ;

For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,

Lay like a load on my weary eye,

And the dead were at my feet. '

The cold sweat melted from their limibs,

Nor rot nor reek did they ;

The look with which they looked on me *}& in cu t r e ' ! ; et h f

Had never passed away. the dead men.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell

A spirit from on high ;

But oh ! more horrible than that

Is a curse in a dead man's eye !

Seven days, seven nights. I saw that curse, * n his lonelin e s s and

And yet I could not die. T t h h e e $g

ing moon, and the

The moving moon went up the sky, jMftJa

And nowhere did abide ; and everywhere the

Softly she was going up, b ' ue skv belongs to

And a star or two beside. %K ^'thTr

native country, and

Her beams bemocked the sultry main, , ^ ich nat t U hey

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 27 of 58)