Flight from the eagle, p.1

Flight From the Eagle, page 1

 

Flight From the Eagle
 


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Flight From the Eagle


  The road to Kaluga

  (Flight from the Eagle)

  By Dinah Dean

  Summary: as the grand army of Napoleon pushed the Russians back towards Moscow, Major Orlov, a handsome aristocratic Staff Officer, knew that the wounded would be abandoned in Smolensk to certain captivity and even death. Although injured himself, Orlov’s sense of duty impels him to lead a company of wounded Russian soldiers away from the battle-scarred city under cover of the night.

  They leave Smolensk burning in the distance and start their perilous journey to Kaluga and safety. They have not gone far when they come on a deserted inn – deserted except for a young woman, the countess Irina Barova. She accepts Orlov’s offer of help and soon, Orlov finds that he has involved himself in something which will change the entire course of his life.

  CHAPTER ONE

  During the last few days of July, 1812, the Russian First West Army under Barclay de Tolly, and the Second West Army under Bagration, continued to retreat in the face of the advancing might of Bonaparte's Grande Armée, falling back on a converging course which brought them together before Smolensk. After several days of skirmishing in the area, Barclay's army took position on the north bank of the Dnieper, with Raevsky's and Dokhturov's brigades inside the massive walls of the old city. The French entered the western suburbs on the 4th of August and began a heavy bombardment of the crumbling walls early the next morning.

  By late afternoon the gunners, sweating in the sultry heat, were ncaring exhaustion and the walls had not collapsed despite the heavy cannonade. Marshal Davout ordered up his howitzers to lob explosive shells into the huddled wooden buildings of the old town in the hope of burning out the defenders.

  The concussion of the first salvo of shells jerked Major Lev Orlov out of an uneasy sleep. He tried to sit up, but an appalling spasm of pain in his left arm made him cry out and lie down again. He felt bewildered and uncertain of his whereabouts and lay still for a few minutes to take stock of his surroundings.

  He was lying on a narrow table, hardly long enough for his near six feet of height, and could see other similar tables lined up against the wall on either side of him, each occupied by a recumbent figure. The long room had a high vaulted roof but it was not easy to see it clearly as the only daylight came from a small window at the far end.

  There were also a few flickering candles stuck at intervals on the shelves which covered the whole of the opposite wall. Hundreds of rolls and bundles of paper or parchment filled most of the shelves but some had been pushed out onto the floor to make room for the candles. There was a smell of sweat, blood and acrid smoke, and a hideous sound of moaning punctuated by sharper cries, the earsplitting explosion of bursting shells, the rumble of cannon, distant sounds of shouting and a fierce crackling of fire.

  The pain in Orlov's arm slowly died down to a throbbing ache. He cautiously eased himself up to lean on his right elbow and looked at his left arm with a sudden sensation of sick fear in his guts. The arm was still there. It appeared to be swathed in bandages from shoulder to elbow, the shirt-sleeve slit to accommodate them. The sleeve and the skin of the forearm were heavily stained with blood. He moved his hand experimentally. It hurt, but the fingers worked without difficulty.

  He took his left wrist in his right hand, eased the injured arm into a bent position across his chest, and then sat up very carefully, swinging his legs over the edge of the table. A wave of dizziness swept over him in a chilly sweat. His right arm-was still in the sleeve of his uniform coat and he pulled the rest of it round him, arranging it carefully and doing up some of the buttons to try and support his injured arm. The left sleeve and side of the white Chevalier Guard coat were caked with half-dried blood—his own he supposed.

  Judging from his feeling of weakness he thought he had probably lost a lot of blood and he sat still for a time, waiting for the long room to stop reeling round him. He recalled being sent by General Barclay, on whose Staff he served, with orders for a company of infantry. He remembered finding them resting in the market square of a village and taking out the papers to give to their captain, then a shout and a sudden whirling confusion as a squadron of French cuirassiers came thundering out of a lane between the wooden cottages.

  He closed his eyes and saw again the sun shining on their helmets and breastplates, the flash of a heavy sabre swinging across at his head and his own light sword going out to meet it. Presumably he had somehow deflected the blow but he could only recollect a feeling of sharp agony in his arm and the sensation of falling from his horse.

  Approaching footsteps made him open his eyes and he saw that it was the same lanky infantry captain—what was his name? Kolniev. He had a bandage round his head and looked a great deal less neat and confident than he had appeared in the bright sunshine of the market place, with his smartly uniformed men. His green coat was torn and stained and there were two or three buttons missing. He stopped level with Orlov and peered at him. 'Oh, there you are, Major,' he said. 'It's difficult to see in here. How are you?'

  'Pretty well,' Orlov lied. 'What happened?'

  'We were attacked by French cuirassiers,' Kolniev said wearily. 'Hundreds of them, all pouring into the square out of nowhere. I saw you countercharge the biggest of them all by yourself, as if you had a regiment of cavalry behind you. I didn't think a Staff officer could show that sort of courage.' His own naive remark seemed to embarrass him and he plunged on, 'I mean—I'm sorry, but you know how it is—we Line fellows never think much of the Staff. We think they gallop about in their nice fancy uniforms, getting all the food and the women, and leaving us the blood and the muck.'

  Orlov smiled faintly. 'You're probably right,' he said. 'Where are we now? I don't remember anything after falling off my horse.'

  'You didn't fall, you were cut down by that hulking great cuirassier,' Kolniev told him. 'He gashed your arm with his sabre and damned near beheaded your horse. We had a hell of a job to stop you bleeding to death. Luckily they just rode over us and went on somewhere else, so we picked up the wounded and scuttled for Smolensk like a lot of beetles. You're in the Archive building in Smolensk—they've turned it into a sort of hospital. Most of our army is across the river and that racket you can hear is the French banging on the door. I doubt if they'll be kept waiting long—the walls are crumbling and half the town's on fire already.'

  A series of shattering explosions interrupted him, followed by the rumbling sound of a collapsing building. 'They're judging the length of their fuses very nicely,' Kolniev observed with commendable calm. 'They make my head ache shockingly.'

  'Is General Barclay in the town?' Orlov asked.

  'Yes, they're all here, all the gold braid and the white uniforms. Oh, Lord, there I go again—I'm sorry—I just can't think of you as a Staff officer. I'll wager you won that St George the hard way, too!'

  Orlov touched the medal pinned to the neck of his coat. 'Austerlitz,' he replied briefly. He transferred his weight to his feet and stood up cautiously. The world swung round in circles for a few seconds and then settled down and he found that he could stand without falling over.

  'I'd better go and report,' he said, looking round to see if his crested helmet and his sword were anywhere about. They were lying on the floor under the table. Kolniev picked them up for him and helped him fasten the sword to his belt, also making his sash into a sling for the injured arm. Orlov put the helmet over his unruly black curls and braced himself, looking along the room for the door.

  'Are you sure you can manage?' Kolniev looked at him doubtfully. 'You'd do better to stay here and rest. I'll keep the leeches off you if you like.'

  'No. I want to get out of here,' Orlov replied grimly. 'I don't care for the smell of the place.' He walked slowly down the
long room with its row of wounded men, and through the door at the end. Kolniev followed and gave him a steadying hand as they started down the stairs which descended from the landing outside. Halfway down, they met a surgeon, his uniform coat draped from his shoulders over a shirt stained with blood.

  'Here, where are you going?' he asked sharply. He was a wiry man of average height, with reddish hair, and a foxy face to match his sharp voice.

  'Back on duty.' Orlov's voice was clipped and curt, his eyes bleakly grey, and his mouth set in a determined line. His level black brows had a sudden upward turn at the inner ends which made him look either annoyed or puzzled—at the moment he looked angry and impatient.

  The surgeon regarded him for a moment, then moved aside to let him pass. 'I shouldn't let you go,' he said. 'You've lost a great deal of blood. At least be careful, and don't go prancing about opening up that wound. It's a nasty gash and you could bleed to death.'

  Orlov thanked him politely but rather absently, and forced himself to go down the rest of the stairs without holding onto the handrail. He had a strong suspicion that he was being foolish in trying to report back for duty, but the thought of lying in that dim room with the stink and sounds of fear and pain, listening to the French bombardment, filled him with revulsion. Better to go out and die on his feet if he must than to lie still and wait for it.

  The entrance hall of the building was crowded with wounded men and the medical orderlies were trying to bring some sort of order to the mass of groaning, bleeding humanity. Orlov picked his way carefully between the stretchers and the bodies of exhausted, perhaps dying men, fighting his feeling of nausea. Kolniev followed close on his heels.

  Out in the street, Orlov was surprised to see that the sun was already declining behind the buildings. The noise and confusion were terrible, the street a jumble of wreckage, bodies, abandoned carts, furniture, military equipment. A field gun lay overturned with the gunners attempting to right it, hampered by the frantic kicking of the horses which were still harnessed to the limber. Even as Orlov looked, a shell landed on the group and reduced it to a smashed pulp of lagged flesh, splintered wood and jagged metal. He gulped and turned away from the sight.

  'Which way?' he shouted to Kolniev. The Captain mouthed something, but his words were lost in the general crescendo of noise as another salvo of shells exploded, and he pointed towards a building at the end of the street. Several times in the few yards he had to walk to it, Orlov was glad of Kolniev's steadying hand on his good arm. The road was so littered with indescribable wreckage and slippery pools of blood that he had trouble keeping upright. All the time the noise of explosions, screams, shouts, the rumble of falling masonry, the crackle of flames and the thunder of the guns dinned and beat on him until he was dazed.

  It was a relief to enter General Barclay's temporary head-quarters in a commandeered house, and let the double doors swinging to behind him shut out the worst of the din. Inside, there was the usual bustle of self-important officers, adjutants with lists and files, purposeful messengers striding about on the army's business. Orlov noticed with a kind of wry amusement that most of the white uniforms were showing signs of the dust and stains of a month of retreating over the sandy roads of Poland and Western Russia in overpowering heat.

  He made his way steadily towards the centre of activity with the ease of long practice, barely pausing to exchange a word of greeting with his acquaintances. He was surprised to find that several of his brother officers seemed very pleased to see him still alive.

  When he reached the inner office occupied by General Barclay's aides, a fellow major called Danilov came forward to greet him. 'Lev Petrovitch, I'm very glad to see you! We thought the French had you when you didn't return.'

  'How long have I been gone?' Orlov was still not very clear about the passage of time.

  'Two days, nearly three.' Danilov's eyes ran over the colourless face, the set lips, the bloodstained coat. 'You're not fit for duty. Why aren't you in one of the hospitals?'

  Orlov made an impatient gesture. The pain which shot through his arm made him regret it and also made his reply more curt than he intended. 'I'm all right. "It's only a cut. What's going on?'

  'There's a Council of War.' Danilov gestured towards the door of the General's office. 'They're all in there, arguing and bawling at each other like a village council. Mikhail Bogdanovitch wants to evacuate the town and continue to fall back—he says the French are outflanking us across the river. He's had another—er—disagreement with Bagration, and sent him off with his whole corps along the Moscow road. Raevsky and Dokhturov are in there now, trying to persuade him to let them hold the town with their men and guns while the main army falls back.'

  'The place is untenable,' Orlov said. 'Three-quarters of the town is built of wood and most of it's on fire already. The walls haven't been repaired for years. What's the point of holding it anyway? The defenders would be trapped here and killed off piecemeal by a couple of batteries while the main French force just bypasses the town and presses on into Russia.'

  Captain Kolniev, who had followed Orlov like a shadow, listened to this with great interest. 'Very true,' he said, nodding his head. 'But to abandon the city! After all, it is Smolensk, not Vilna!'

  Danilov gave him a curious look, partly as if he wondered what a Line officer was doing among the General Staff, and partly as if he didn't see any difference between Polish Vilna and Russian Smolensk.

  'There don't seem to be many men in the city,' Orlov continued, ignoring Kolniev.

  'No. As I said, Bagration's men went this morning to hold the way open, and Barclay's own force is north of the river. Only Raevsky's and Dokhturov's corps are in the city. And the wounded of course.' Danilov frowned. 'Are you sure you're all right? You look dreadful.'

  Orlov sat down gingerly on a nearby chair, trying not to jar his arm. He felt curiously light-headed and unsteady. 'I think I'm hungry,' he said. 'Is there anything to eat?'

  Danilov crossed to a side door, opened it and shouted some orders. In a few moments an orderly brought in a tray loaded with plates of bread and cold meat and a couple of bottles of wine, which he set out on a table. Orlov didn't really feel hungry but he moved up to the table, determined to get something inside him in the hope that it might make him feel stronger. He gestured to Kolniev. 'Here, pitch in,' he said. 'I expect you're hungry too.'

  Kolniev sat down opposite and fell to with a good will. Orlov looked at him thoughtfully. He was a lanky young man with a shock of brown curly hair inside the bandage circling his head. He had a red, healthy-looking face and seemed rather young to be a captain.

  'How old are you?' Orlov asked.

  'Twenty-five.' Kolniev grinned amiably. 'How old are you?' Both his answer and the question were said without any sign of offence and Orlov answered 'Thirty-two' absent-mindedly, already thinking of something else.

  'How many of your men are in the Archive building?'

  'About sixty.' Kolniev sobered suddenly. 'We were pretty badly cut up by those cuirassiers. There were only about a dozen men unhurt—the rest were killed.'

  'All?' Orlov was startled.

  'Yes.' Kolniev looked so sick that Orlov hastily continued: 'Of the sixty in hospital, how many could travel?' Kolniev shrugged. 'Nearly all if they have to. I doubt if most of them could march, but in waggons they'd be all right. Why?'

  Orlov made no reply. No point in worrying the lad but he had a strong suspicion that if Barclay did order a withdrawal from Smolensk, it would not include the wounded—there were too many and they would slow up the army and block the roads too much. 'Wait and see,' he told himself, and concentrated on the food. There were no knives and forks, which perhaps was just as well as it was easier to eat one-handed with his fingers. Kolniev poured out some wine for him and he drank it slowly and cautiously in case it fuddled him in his weakened state. It certainly made him feel less bloodless.

  Danilov and his two assistants were kept busy with the air of jugglers with a dozen ball
s in the air at once, writing copies of orders, receiving messages and passing out sheaves of papers to the messengers constantly entering and leaving the room. Kolniev watched them with a kind of fascination, and after a time remarked in a quiet voice: 'I don't know how they manage to keep everything straight. What happens if they give out the wrong paper?'

  Orlov's rather grim expression relaxed into a near-smile. 'Someone gets a chit for a waggon-load of canister shot instead of orders to attack,' he said. 'It doesn't make much difference really. Nine-tenths of the orders issued can't be carried out.'

  Kolniev looked blankly at him, his mouth half-open in a ludicrous expression of shock. Orlov's smile became a little broader. 'Either the order never arrives because the messenger gets lost or killed, or the situation has changed, or the General didn't know what it was to begin with, or perhaps the man who receives it misunderstands—a hundred things can go wrong. Haven't you ever received an order you couldn't carry out?'

  'Yes,' replied Kolniev. 'The one you brought, for example. That attack came before you handed it to me. It was still in your hand when we picked you up afterwards but soaked with your blood so I couldn't read it, and anyway there was no one left in a sufficiently healthy state to do anything but crawl to the surgeons.'

  Orlov frowned, accentuating the sharp upward turn of his eyebrows. He was trying to remember what the orders had contained, but he was distracted by Danilov suddenly standing to attention as the door of the inner room opened and a trio of generals emerged from Barclay de Tolly's office.

  Kolniev also stood up and Orlov, without thinking, tried to follow suit, caught his left arm on the edge of the table, and had to lean forward across the table, the world spinning round him, desperately trying to prevent himself crying out or fainting. Kolniev darted round the table to his side. The generals arrested their progress and stood watching as Kolniev helped him to sit down again and gave him a little more wine.

  'What is he doing here?' General Raevsky asked sharply. 'It's Count Orlov, isn't it? If that's his own blood on his coat, he ought to be in hospital.'

 
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