Authors: Josef Holub
A giddy weakness lames me. The fire and the men are swirling this way and that. Which way is up? My belly spasms and growls piteously. My legs won’t do what I tell them anymore. Quickly, I drop behind a little birch sapling. Only now do I realize how bad I feel. It’s got hold of me as well. Not just the lieutenant. Oh my God!
We need a miracle, a big miracle.
After some time, I come around.
One of the transport soldiers is leaving the bonfire. He moves off into the half-dark. No danger for me, he’s going the other way. After a time, he comes back, bringing blankets, in which the four men roll themselves up. So they’re going to go to sleep.
Where did the man get the blankets from? They must have been somewhere nearby. My imagination starts to run away with me. I picture a large baggage cart standing by and imagine what things I might find there. Maybe — no, certainly — salvation for my lieutenant and me. I become wide awake. The wildest notions start stacking up in my mind.
Krauter is issuing energetic instructions. Rosters for the night. He and two of the others lie down by the fire. One of them remains sitting. He must be the sentry.
I am very tired, too. But my thirst for whatever is in the barrel and my worry over my lieutenant keep me alert and restless. Is he even still alive? I hope the wolves haven’t found him. If they set upon him, he won’t stand a chance.
I know what I have to do. Never mind what happens. Somewhere, on the other side of the fire, there must be supplies. I have to find them and help myself to what we need.
I wait a while longer. Krauter and the two soldiers by
the fire are still. They seem to be very tired and are surely fast asleep. The sentry tosses a couple of branches into the fire. The flames get brighter and a little higher.
It’s time. I set off on my quest. The baggage cart must be some little way on the other side of the fire. If I haven’t made it up. Certainly well hidden and with the horses I heard whinnying earlier next to it. They can’t be that far from the fire. On account of the wolves.
The sentry seems pretty relaxed. He can’t see me, because he’s prodding the fire. That must make him blind to anything else. I make a large detour around the campsite. From time to time, I stop and listen. I need to be careful around the horses, in case I scare them and they start to whinny.
It doesn’t take me long to find the cart. And right beside it are the horses, made fast to birches. I count half a dozen of them. Low-set Cossack ponies. Stolen, of course. They turn a little restless, and they whinny happily. Probably they don’t much mind who comes out to visit them, so long as it’s someone.
The wagon is under a large tarpaulin. I take one more look back at the fire. The sentry is still gazing into the embers. Perhaps he’s dropped off too. I can see him wriggling to get comfortable.
Next, things happen very quickly. I climb onto the wagon, get under the canvas, reach here, reach there,
touch something round, biggish. Aha! A little barrel. I don’t care what’s in it. I
it up onto my shoulders and drag it the long way around the fire and into the forest beyond.
Where’s my lieutenant with the horses? I ought to be somewhere near our own campsite. As long as I haven’t lost my way. I hope not. Softly, I call out to my horse a couple of times. He answers me with delight. All’s well. The lieutenant’s still alive. More, he’s even capable of speech. The roast snake has done him a power of good. He hasn’t been attacked by a wolf, and he hasn’t drunk any puddle water, either. His voice is cracked with thirst, but he’s feeling better.
He suddenly seems all devoted. He says he was worried about me. And he tells me some of the peculiar things that were going through his mind. He honestly thought I might have run off somewhere without him. Like one of his previous servants.
Stuff and nonsense.
But what luck! The barrel contains wine. It seems it must be quite good wine, at that. At any rate, the lieutenant is gulping it down. I turn the tap off. I want to get some for myself, after all. “It’s nectar!” gasps the lieutenant. “I feel completely better. My stomach is cured!”
That’s as it may be, but I remain firm. “That’s enough now,” I decree. “Your Highness doesn’t need to celebrate by drinking himself to death.”
I’m very happy. My lieutenant really seems to be a whole lot better.
Then I set off back to the campsite again. I have to remember not to sing, I feel so joyful. The sentry has gone to sleep. The fire has died back, because no one has fed it fresh fuel.
The baggage cart is half full of things in sacks and bags. I test a few. I lick my finger, poke around in the bags, and then taste. It’s much too dark to see anything. Biscuits and sugar and flour. Miracle after miracle. And oats for the horses. I take some of everything, but not too much, because I still need to be able to carry it, and I don’t want its absence noticed right away. I also find a blanket, which I use to carry the things in.
There’s activity by the fire. The sergeant has woken up. He’s cursing and raging and beating the sentry.
It’s time I was gone. Before any of the men goes to check up on their provisions.
The morning sky is already pressing forward after the short night.
Once again, I lug my bounty the long way around the fire. This time, I don’t need to look and call. My sense of direction is spot on, and the lieutenant’s waiting for me too. He’s an intelligent man, and his head is working again. Perfectly rightly, he reasons that after this bold theft we need to disappear as a matter of urgency. Get away, far away. It doesn’t bear thinking about, what
Krauter would do to us if he saw us with his goods. I pack the supplies and help the lieutenant onto his horse.
We ride out into a glorious morning. Into a new life. Which way to go? We don’t know. Into the sun. East. But clear away from Krauter. The forest looks the same everywhere, sparse and alien-looking. From time to time, we cock an ear behind us in the birches. We make one brief stop, get down off our horses, eat some biscuits, drink some wine. The lieutenant seems to be improving all the time. The way I can really tell how much better he’s feeling is the return of his sense of shame. He’s noticed himself now that he smells utterly disgusting. And then he laughs so heartily about it that it makes me feel good in my heart. I’m sure that it’s not just the return of life and health, but also the cheery, beneficial effect of what’s in the little stolen barrel.
“That’s enough now, Your Honor!” I say to my almost tipsy lieutenant. “We must try and conserve our wine, and conserve a clear head, what’s more. Not least on account of the Cossacks, and Sergeant Krauter.”
“Hoo, pardon me!” burps the lieutenant. “None of that Your Honor stuff. I want you to call me Konrad Klara. Because you’re almost a brother to me now.”
I remember the gypsy girl.
“What does Your Honor want me to call you?”
“But I can’t do that, Your Honor.”
“I command it!”
“Very well, Your Honor, Konrad Klara.”
“And your name is Georg?”
“No, I’m Adam.”
“Adam? Why Adam?”
“It’s just my name isn’t Georg, it’s Adam.”
“Just Adam? Nothing else?”
“All right. Then I’m going to call you Adam Neve. So that you have a girl’s name as well.”
“Why a girl’s name?”
“Because that’s how it has to be! All the boys in our family have always been given their mothers’ Christian names after their own.”
And then we both laugh. I laugh about Klara, and the lieutenant laughs about Eve.
We don’t run into Krauter that week.
We emerge from the forest early one morning. As far as we can see, only pastures and the ruins of wooden huts, their straw roofs cropped by the army horses. Most of the beams were torched on the spot. In the distance is a long, dirty cloud over the endless Russian plain. Dust in commotion. The cloud stretches across the whole horizon, from end to end. As far as the eye can see.
It’s the army route, still full of soldiers and all the important and unimportant baggage that the
lugs along after it.
The lieutenant is well. Better and better! Already he can get on his horse unaided.
“No! I don’t want to go to the hospital in Vilnius, I don’t need to,” he declares. “Why would I, anyway? I’m healthy. Besides, hospitals are bad for your health.”
I am skeptical. I mutter to myself, “If the Wellborn Konrad Klara is of the opinion that he’s healthy, then I’m sure he’s right. And if he says hospitals are bad for your health, then by all means, he doesn’t have to go to the hospital. He doesn’t have to die now, of course. Now that he’s able to mount his horse all by himself.”
We ride up to the army road and join the mucky rear guard. Once more our horses have to wade up to their fetlocks in dried dung, and we gulp the thick dust that is stirred up by marching columns, riders, and carriages.
Already by early afternoon, the light seems to be failing. The sun disappears. Even a fresh wind is incapable of dislodging the dust cloud from over the road. It just pushes more smoke and fire reek our way.
“Hey, Adam Neve!” cries the lieutenant. “It stinks abominably. Is the world on fire?”
“Possible! Your Wellborn Konrad Klara.”
“Drop the Wellborn, Adam Neve.”
“All right, not-Wellborn Konrad Klara.”
We hear the rumble of artillery. Somewhere ahead of us. Either side of the road, houses are ablaze, sometimes whole villages. Women and children sit next to the smoking ruins. The lieutenant looks away. He doesn’t want to confront such misery.
“Why has God so punished them?” I ask.
“It’s not God, it’s Napoleon who has punished them. It’s part of his great strategy. He pushes hundreds of
thousands of soldiers back and forth in divisions and regiments, and leaves scorched earth, dead and wounded, starving women and children. All that is part of his plan.”
“I suppose there’s no such thing as a decent war.”
On the side of the road lie rotting horses and unburied corpses of soldiers. Beside them is an encampment of wounded. Probably on their way back to Vilnius to the hospital. They’ve built a fire of charred beams, and are just skinning a cat.
On the right is a large birch forest.
We want to stop for a while, and so we take our horses by the bridle and slip in among the trees. Everywhere, there are sick, dying, and dead soldiers. I wish I could have given the sick ones something to eat and a mouthful of wine. But that’s impossible — it would be suicide. As soon as we showed anything of our supplies, we would be beaten to death and robbed.
We have to go farther into the forest, then. At last, things get quieter. We don’t encounter any Cossacks. They’re somewhere else, I’m sure. I don’t expect they want to have anything to do with the sick and decrepit. There’s no need to go to the trouble of killing them. Only healthy enemies need to be destroyed.
Finally, we’re on our own.
I make a little fire of twigs. We don’t want to create needless smoke or smell. We knead little cakes and dumplings of flour and wine, and bake them in the embers.
The results are wonderfully crispy. “We really must economize on our wine,” I worry. “It’s dwindling fast.”
Then we return to the army road.
The smell of burning becomes oppressive. There’s not a single atom of fresh air in the whirling dirt. The evening haze keeps it off.
All of a sudden, Cossacks come galloping out of the murk, swinging their sabers, and disappear again. The injured soldiers scream in panic for their lives.
Farm carts full of wounded pass us, going back. The wounded have either not been treated at all, or only barely, and their uniforms are soaked with blood.
“What’s going on up ahead? Where have you come from?”
“Smolensk. There’s been a big battle. The devil of a battle! Three days it raged. We won, we almost won, but too many of the
are dead or wounded and unable to carry on. Another victory like that will wipe us out.”
My lieutenant is becoming restless. No sooner can he crawl like an infant than he wants to be where the action is.
He curses and moans, “Oh, now we’ve missed the first big battle. Napoleon’s gone and won without our help.”
I am seized by a great rage. I feel like grabbing Konrad Klara by the shoulders and giving him a good
shaking and a talking-to. “Hey, you silly fool!” I want to yell in his face. “You only just managed to give Death the slip, and now you want to chase along after Him!”
But I don’t. It would be unpardonable, and I would never be able to set things right again.
Instead, I look sadly at Konrad Klara’s glazed eyes. “Don’t get all excited, Lieutenant,” I comfort him. “There are a lot of battles ahead of us yet, far too many, in fact. So what if we’ve missed one? Anyway, what would it matter if we missed all of them? Your Wellborn!”
“Don’t keep saying Your Wellborn to me.”
The evening is bright. The whole country is ablaze. Fires all around. Some are from burning towns and villages, others are where the shattered victors and defeated are warming their bones.
We ride on along the army road to Smolensk, overtaking stragglers, unhorsed cavalrymen, and ragged foot soldiers. We try to overlook the sights of misery by the side of the road, and the wailing and cries for help. A large building is on fire. There are nuns kneeling in front of it, weeping.
“What’s the matter with those sisters?”
“Soldiers have raped them.”
“Is that war?”
Suddenly, Konrad Klara sobs aloud. How can he still want to fight and be a hero?
“Bloody bloody war!” I curse.
Night brings no rest. The smell of fire bites our nostrils and burns from our throats down to the tips of our lungs. We’re freezing in our light cavalry uniforms. I’m going to have to find some warm coats. No one would willingly surrender anything like that, so I’m going to have to steal them. The nights are bitter cold again.
In the morning, we move on. The lieutenant is desperate to rejoin his regiment. He doesn’t need to squat down by the side of the road anymore. The rebellion in his belly is over, his innards are nicely dried out.