One of the soldiers brought a large truss of straw, and another a bundle of firewood. The blanket at the end of the tent sheltered from the wind, was drawn aside, and a great fire speedily blazed up at the entrance. The straw was shaken out to form a soft seat, just inside the tent. All three produced their pipes and lit them, while the doctor’s servant prepared over the fire a sort of soup with the rations. This turned out to be by no means bad, and when after it the boys produced one of their bottles of brandy and three cigars, the Russian doctor patted them on the back, and evidently told them that they were first-rate fellows.
For half-an-hour he smoked his cigar and sipped his tin of brandy and water, then, explaining by signs that he must go and look after his wounded, left them.
The boys chatted for another half-hour, and then stowing their brandy carefully away, they shook up the straw into a big bed, and, wrapping themselves in their sheepskins, were soon soundly asleep; but it was long after midnight before the doctor returned from his heavy work of dressing wounds and administering medicine, and stretched himself on the straw beside them.
PRISONERS ON PAROLE
Day after day the convoy made its way northward without any incident of importance happening. The midshipmen were glad to find that, thanks to their sheepskin cloaks and pointed hoods, they passed through the towns without attracting any attention whatever.
The convoy lessened in length as it proceeded. The animals broke down in great numbers and died by the road, under the task of dragging the heavy wagons through the deep snow.
At a town of some size, where they halted for two days, relief was afforded by the wheels being taken off the wagons, and rough runners affixed, the wheels being placed on the carts, as that they could be put on again in case of a thaw.
Famine, however, did more that fatigue in destroying the animals; for although good exertions had been made to form depots of forage along the roads, these were exhausted faster than they could be collected by the enormous trains, which, laden with provisions and warlike stores, were making their way to Sebastopol from the interior of Russia. There was no lack of food for the men, for ample stores of black bread were carried, and a supply of meat was always obtainable at the end of the day’s journey by the carcase of some bullock which had fallen and then been shot during the day’s march.
But though the train diminished in length, its occupants diminished even more rapidly. Every morning, before starting, a burying party were busy interring the bodies of those who had died during the previous day’s march or in the night.
When the halt was made at a village, the papa or priest of the place performed a funeral mass; when, as was more common, they encamped in the open, the grave was filled in, a rough cross was erected over it, and the convoy proceeded on its march.