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A friend of mine, a soldier, who died in Greece of fever some years since, described to me one day his first engagement. His story so impressed me that I wrote it down from memory. It was as follows:

I joined my regiment on September 4th. It was evening. I found the colonel in the camp. He received me rather bruskly, but having read the general’s introductory letter he changed his manner and addressed me courteously.

By him I was presented to my captain, who had just come in from reconnoitring. This captain, whose acquaintance I had scarcely time to make, was a tall, dark man, of harsh, repelling aspect. He had been a private soldier, and had won his cross and epaulettes upon the field of battle. His voice, which was hoarse and feeble, contrasted strangely with his gigantic stature. This voice of his he owed, as I was told, to a bullet which had passed completely through his body at the battle of Jena.

On learning that I had just come from college at Fontainebleau, he remarked, with a wry face: “My lieutenant died last night.”

I understood what he implied, “It is for you to take his place, and you are good for nothing.”

A sharp retort was on my tongue, but I restrained it.

The moon was rising behind the redoubt of Cheverino, which stood two cannon-shots from our encampment. The moon was large and red, as is common at her rising; but that night she seemed to me of extraordinary size. For an instant the redoubt stood out coal-black against the glittering disk. It resembled the cone of a volcano at the moment of eruption.

An old soldier, at whose side I found myself, observed the color of the moon.

“She is very red,” he said. “It is a sign that it will cost us dear to win this wonderful redoubt.”

I was always superstitious, and this piece of augury, coming at that moment, troubled me. I sought my couch, but could not sleep. I rose, and walked about a while, watching the long line of fires upon the heights beyond the village of Cheverino.

When the sharp night air had thoroughly refreshed my blood I went back to the fire. I rolled my mantle round me, and I shut my eyes, trusting not to open them till daybreak. But sleep refused to visit me. Insensibly my thoughts grew doleful. I told myself that I had not a friend among the hundred thousand men who filled that plain. If I were wounded, I should be placed in hospital, in the hands of ignorant and careless surgeons. I called to mind what I had heard of operations. My heart beat violently, and I mechanically arranged, as a kind of rude cuirass, my handkerchief and pocketbook upon my breast. Then, overpowered with weariness, my eyes closed drowsily, only to open the next instant with a start at some new thought of horror.

Fatigue, however, at last gained the day. When the drums beat at daybreak I was fast asleep. We were drawn up in ranks. The roll was called, then we stacked our arms, and everything announced that we should pass another uneventful day.

But about three o’clock an aide-de-camp arrived with orders. We were commanded to take arms.

Our sharpshooters marched into the plain, We followed slowly, and in twenty minutes we saw the outposts of the Russians falling back and entering the redoubt. We had a battery of artillery on our right, another on our left, but both some distance in advance of us. They opened a sharp fire upon the enemy, who returned it briskly, and the redoubt of Cheverino was soon concealed by volumes of thick smoke. Our regiment was almost covered from the Russians’ fire by a piece of rising ground. Their bullets (which besides were rarely aimed at us, for they preferred to fire upon our cannoneers) whistled over us, or at worst knocked up a shower of earth and stones.

Just as the order to advance was given, the captain looked at me intently. I stroked my sprouting mustache with an air of unconcern; in truth, I was not frightened, and only dreaded lest I might be thought so. These passing bullets aided my heroic coolness, while my self-respect assured me that the danger was a real one, since I was veritably under fire. I was delighted at my self-possession, and already looked forward to the pleasure of describing in Parisian drawing-rooms the capture of the redoubt of Cheverino.

The colonel passed before our company. “Well,” he said to me, “you are going to see warm work in your first action.”

I gave a martial smile, and brushed my cuff, on which a bullet, which had struck the earth at thirty paces distant, had cast a little dust.

It appeared that the Russians had discovered that their bullets did no harm, for they replaced them by a fire of shells, which began to reach us in the hollows where we lay. One of these, in its explosion, knocked off my shako and killed a man beside me.

“I congratulate you,” said the captain, as I picked up my shako. “You are safe now for the day.”

I knew the military superstition which believes that the axiom “non bis in idem” is as applicable to the battlefield as to the courts of justice, I replaced my shako with a swagger.

“That’s a rude way to make one raise one’s hat,” I said, as lightly as I could. And this wretched piece of wit was, in the circumstances, received as excellent.

“I compliment you,” said the captain. “You will command a company to-night; for I shall not survive the day. Every time I have been wounded the officer below me has been touched by some spent ball; and,” he added, in a lower tone, “all the names began with P.”

I laughed skeptically; most people would have done the same; but most would also have been struck, as I was, by these prophetic words. But, conscript though I was, I felt that I could trust my thoughts to no one, and that it was my duty to seem always calm and bold.

At the end of half an hour the Russian fire had sensibly diminished. We left our cover to advance on the redoubt.

Our regiment was composed of three battalions. The second had to take the enemy in flank; the two others formed a storming party. I was in the third.

On issuing from behind the cover, we were received by several volleys, which did but little harm.

The whistling of the balls amazed me. “But after all,” I thought, “a battle is less terrible than I expected.”

We advanced at a smart run, our musketeers in front.

All at once the Russians uttered three hurrahs—three distinct hurrahs—and then stood silent, without firing.

“I don’t like that silence,” said the captain. “It bodes no good.”

I began to think our people were too eager. I could not help comparing, mentally, their shouts and clamor with the striking silence of the enemy.

We quickly reached the foot of the redoubt. The palisades were broken and the earthworks shattered by our balls. With a roar of “Vive l’Empereur,” our soldiers rushed across the ruins.

I raised my eyes. Never shall I forget the sight which met my view. The smoke had mostly lifted, and remained suspended, like a canopy, at twenty feet above the redoubt. Through a bluish mist could be perceived, behind the shattered parapet, the Russian Grenadiers, with rifles lifted, as motionless as statues. I can see them still,—the left eye of every soldier glaring at us, the right hidden by his lifted gun. In an embrasure at a few feet distant, a man with a fuse stood by a cannon.

I shuddered. I believed that my last hour had come.

“Now for the dance to open,” cried the captain. These were the last words I heard him speak.

There came from the redoubts a roll of drums. I saw the muzzles lowered. I shut my eyes; I heard a most appalling crash of sound, to which succeeded groans and cries. Then I looked up, amazed to find myself still living. The redoubt was once more wrapped in smoke. I was surrounded by the dead and wounded. The captain was extended at my feet; a ball had carried off his head, and I was covered with his blood. Of all the company, only six men, except myself, remained erect.

This carnage was succeeded by a kind of stupor. The next instant the colonel, with his hat on his sword’s point, had scaled the parapet with a cry of “Vive l’Empereur.” The survivors followed him. All that succeeded is to me a kind of dream. We rushed into the redoubt, I know not how, we fought hand to hand in the midst of smoke so thick that no man could perceive his enemy. I found my sabre dripping blood; I heard a shout of “Victory”; and, in the clearing smoke, I saw the earthworks piled with dead and dying. The cannons were covered with a heap of corpses. About two hundred men in the French uniform were standing, without order, loading their muskets or wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them. The colonel was lying, bathed in blood, upon a broken cannon. A group of soldiers crowded round him. I approached them.

“Who is the oldest captain?” he was asking of a sergeant.

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders most expressively.

“Who is the oldest lieutenant?”

“This gentleman, who came last night,” replied the sergeant calmly.

The colonel smiled bitterly.

“Come, sir,” he said to me, “you are now in chief command. Fortify the gorge of the redoubt at once with wagons, for the enemy is out in force. But General C——— is coming to support you.”

“Colonel,” I asked him, “are you badly wounded?”

“Pish, my dear fellow. The redoubt is taken.”

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II. The first thing to be noted in describing Nikias is the saying of
Aristotle, that there had been in Athens three citizens of great
ability and patriotism, namely, Nikias, the son of Nikeratus,
Thucydides, the son of Melesias, and Theramenes, the son of Hagnon;
though the latter was not equal to the two former, but was reproached
with being a foreigner from the island of Keos; and, also, because he
was not a stable politician but always inclined to change sides, he
was nicknamed Kothornos, which means a large boot which will fit
either leg. Of these three statesmen the eldest was Thucydides, who
was the leader of the conservative opposition to Perikles; while
Nikias, who was a younger man, rose to a certain eminence during the
life of Perikles, as he acted as his colleague in the command of a
military force, and also filled the office of archon. On the death of
Perikles, Nikias at once became the foremost man in Athens, chiefly by
the favour of the rich and noble, who wished to make use of him to
check the plebeian insolence of Kleon; yet Nikias had the good-will
of the common people, and they were eager to further his interests,
Kleon, indeed, became very powerful by caressing the people and giving
them opportunities for earning money from the State, but in spite of
this, many of the lower classes whose favour he especially strove to
obtain, became disgusted with, his greed and insolence, and preferred
to attach themselves to Nikias. Indeed, there was nothing harsh or
overbearing in the pride of Nikias, which arose chiefly from his fear
of being thought to be currying favour with the people. By nature he
was downhearted and prone to despair, but in war these qualities were
concealed by his invariable success in whatever enterprise he
undertook; while in political life his retiring manner and his dread
of the vulgar demagogues, by whom he was easily put out of
countenance, added to his popularity;…

III. Perikles, indeed, used to govern Athens by sheer force of
character and eloquence, and required no tricks of manner or plausible
speeches to gain him credit with the populace; but Nikias had no
natural gifts of this sort, and owed his position merely to his
wealth. As he could not vie with Kleon in the versatile and humorous
power of speech by which the latter swayed the Athenian masses, he
endeavoured to gain the favour of the people by supplying choruses for
the public dramatic performances and instituting athletic sports on a
scale of lavish expenditure which never before had been equalled by
any citizen….

It is said that once during the performance of a play at his expense,
a slave of his appeared upon the stage habited as Dionysus; a tall and
handsome youth, and still beardless. The Athenians were charmed with
his appearance, and applauded for a long time, at the end of which
Nikias rose and said that he did not think it right that one whose
body was thus consecrated to a god should be a slave; and consequently
he gave him his freedom. Tradition also tells us how magnificently and
decorously he arranged the procession at Delos….

IV. These acts of Nikias may have been prompted by ambition and desire
for display, but when viewed in connection with his superstitious
character they seem more probably to have been the outcome of his
devotional feelings; for we are told by Thucydides that he was one who
stood greatly in awe of the gods, and was wholly devoted to religion.
In one of the dialogues of Pasiphon, we read that he offered sacrifice
daily, and that he kept a soothsayer in his house, whom he pretended
to consult upon affairs of state, but really sought his advice about
his own private concerns, especially about his silver mines. He had
extensive mines at Laurium, the working of which afforded him very
large profits, but yet was attended with great risks. He maintained a
large body of slaves at the works; and most of his property consisted
of the silver produced by them. For this reason he was surrounded by
hangers-on, and persons who endeavoured to obtain a share of his
wealth, and he gave money to all alike, both to those who might do him
harm, and to those who really deserved his liberality, for he gave to
bad men through fear, and to good men through good nature. We may find
proof of this in the writings of the comic poets. Telekleides,
speaking of some informer, says:

“Charikles a mina gave him, fearing he might say
Charikles himself was born in a suspicious way;
And Nikias five minas gave. Now, what his reasons were
I know full well, but will not tell, for he’s a trusty fere.”

Eupolis, too, in his comedy of Marikas has a scene where an informer
meets with a poor man who is no politician, and says:

“A. Say where you last with Nikias did meet.
B. Never. Save once I saw him in the street.
A. He owns he saw him. Wherefore should he say
He saw him, if he meant not to betray
His crimes?
C. My friends, you all perceive the fact,
That Nikias is taken in the act.
B. Think you, O fools, that such a man as he
In any wicked act would taken be.”

Just so does Kleon threaten him in Aristophanes’s play:

“The orators I’ll silence, and make Nikias afraid.”

Phrynichus, too, sneers at his cowardice and fear of the popular
demagogues, when he says:

“An honest citizen indeed he was,
And not a coward like to Nikias.”

V. Nikias feared so much to give the mob orators grounds for
accusation against him, that he dared not so much as dine with his
follow citizens, and pass his time in their society. Nor did he have
any leisure at all for such amusements, but when general, he used to
spend the whole day in the War office, and when the Senate met he
would be the first to come to the house and the last to leave it. When
there was no public business to be transacted, he was hard to meet
with, as he shut himself up in his house and seldom stirred abroad.
His friends used to tell those who came to his door that they must
pardon him for not receiving them, as he was not at leisure, being
engaged on public business of great importance. One Hieron, whom he
had brought up in his house and educated, assisted him greatly in
throwing this air of mystery and haughty exclusiveness over his life.
This man gave out that he was the son of Dionysius, called Chalkus,
whose poems are still extant, and who was the leader of the expedition
to Italy to found the city of Thurii. Hiero used to keep Nikias
supplied with prophetic responses from the soothsayers, and gave out
to the Athenians that Nikias was toiling night and day on their
behalf, saying that when he was in his bath or at his dinner he was
constantly being interrupted by some important public business or
other, so that, said he, “His night’s rest is broken by his labours,
and his private affairs are neglected through his devotion to those of
the public. He has injured his health, and besides losing his fortune,
has been deserted by many of his friends on account of his not being
able to entertain them and make himself agreeable to them; while other
men find in politics a means of obtaining both friends and fortune, at
the expense of the state.” In very truth the life of Nikias was such
that he might well apply to himself the words of Agamemnon.

“In outward show and stately pomp all others I exceed,
And yet the people’s underling I am in very deed.”
(Ack:The Project Gutenberg EBook of Plutarch’s Lives Volume III., by Plutarch)

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