At last there came a moment when a number, pursued by the Russians, found only snow on which to bivouac, and these lay down to rise no more. Insensibly this mass of almost annihilated beings became so compact, so deaf, so torpid, so happy perhaps, that Marechal Victor, who had been their heroic defender by holding twenty thousand Russians under Wittgenstein at bay, was forced to open a passage by main force through this forest of men in order to cross the Beresina with five thousand gallant fellows whom he was taking to the emperor. The unfortunate malingerers allowed themselves to be crushed rather than stir; they perished in silence, smiling at their extinguished fires, without a thought of France.
It was not until ten o’clock that night that Marechal Victor reached the bank of the river. Before crossing the bridge which led to Zembin, he confided the fate of his own rear-guard now left in Studzianka to Eble, the savior of all those who survived the calamities of the Beresina. It was towards midnight when this great general, followed by one brave officer, left the cabin he occupied near the bridge, and studied the spectacle of that improvised camp placed between the bank of the river and Studzianka. The Russian cannon had ceased to thunder. Innumerable fires, which, amid that trackless waste of snow, burned pale and scarcely sent out any gleams, illumined here and there by sudden flashes forms and faces that were barely human. Thirty thousand poor wretches, belonging to all nations, from whom Napoleon had recruited his Russian army, were trifling away their lives with brutish indifference.
“Let us save them!” said General Eble to the officer who accompanied him. “To-morrow morning the Russians will be masters of Studzianka. We must burn the bridge the moment they appear. Therefore, my friend, take your courage in your hand! Go to the heights. Tell General Fournier he has barely time to evacuate his position, force a way through this crowd, and cross the bridge. When you have seen him in motion follow him. Find men you can trust, and the moment Fournier had crossed the bridge, burn, without pity, huts, equipages, caissons,