“Let us make a raft!” he cried.
He had hardly uttered the words before the whole group rushed to the ruins, and began to pick up iron bolts, and screws, and pieces of wood and ropes, whatever materials they could find that were suitable for the construction of a raft. A score of soldiers and officers, who were armed, formed a guard, commanded by the major, to protect the workers against the desperate attacks which might be expected from the crowd, if their scheme was discovered. The instinct of freedom, strong in all prisoners, inspiring them to miraculous acts, can only be compared with that which now drove to action these unfortunate Frenchmen.
“The Russians! the Russians are coming!” cried the defenders to the workers; and the work went on, the raft increased in length and breadth and depth. Generals, soldiers, colonel, all put their shoulders to the wheel; it was a true image of the building of Noah’s ark. The young countess, seated beside her husband, watched the progress of the work with regret that she could not help it; and yet she did assist in making knots to secure the cordage.
At last the raft was finished. Forty men launched it on the river, a dozen others holding the cords which moored it to the shore. But no sooner had the builders seen their handiwork afloat, than they sprang from the bank with odious selfishness. The major, fearing the fury of this first rush, held back the countess and the general, but too late he saw the whole raft covered, men pressing together like crowds at a theatre.
“Savages!” he cried, “it was I who gave you the idea of that raft. I have saved you, and you deny me a place.”
A confused murmur answered him. The men at the edge of the raft, armed with long sticks, pressed with violence against the shore to send off the frail construction with sufficient impetus to force its way through corpses and ice-floes to the other shore.
“Thunder of heaven! I’ll sweep you into the water if you don’t take the major and his two companions,” cried the stalwart grenadier, who swung his sabre, stopped the departure, and forced the men to stand closer in spite of furious outcries.
“I shall fall,”—“I am falling,”—“Push off! push off!—Forward!” resounded on all sides.
The major looked with haggard eyes at Stephanie, who lifted hers to heaven with a feeling of sublime resignation.
“To die with thee!” she said.