"How do you know that, Strelinski?"
They found that the servant who had preceded them with the baggage had already made all the arrangements for their crossing the gulf. The extreme cold had everywhere so completely frozen the sea that there was no difficulty in crossing, which, they learned, was not often the case. Three sledges had been engaged for their transport. The distance was about 120 miles; but it was broken by the islands of the Aland Archipelago, and upon one or other of these they could take refuge in the event of any sudden change of weather. They were to start at midnight, and would reach Bomarsund, on the main island of Aland, on the following evening, wait there for twenty-four hours to rest the animals, and would reach the mainland the next day.
"I don't know that I have anything to say to it, Colonel," Frank replied, "except that it is a great nuisance that such a thing should be talked about. I suppose I have a good eye and a steady hand. I have practised steadily every day since I joined, and have got to shoot pretty straight. The man was a notorious bully, and if the young fellow he had insulted had gone out with him, it would have been nothing short of murder; and yet if he had not gone out with him I believe he would have shot himself, rather than suffer the disgrace of putting up with an insult. So as I felt pretty certain that I could disable Marshall without having to do him any serious injury, I took it up and hit him in the hand as I intended to."
"It must be great fun," he said one day. "I must say I should like to take part in running a cargo, for once."
"You can, of course, show this letter to whom you like, but I don't expect anyone except you and Aunt to believe it. I have hopes of being cleared some day, for Markham has promised me to write out a full confession of his shooting Faulkner, and to swear to it before a French magistrate. He is going to write it in duplicate, and carry one copy about with him, directed to Colonel Chambers, or the senior magistrate at Weymouth, and to send the other copy to someone at home, who will produce it in case of his death in France, or by drowning at sea. I do not think that, if I get away, I shall return to England until I hear of his death. I am awfully sorry for you, old fellow, and for Aunt. But with this frightful accusation hanging over me, I don't think your position would be better if I were to come back and be hung for murder; and I see myself that the case is so strong against me that it would almost certainly come to that if they laid hands on me. I am specially sorry that this trouble should come upon you now, just as you were going to try to get a commission, for of course they could hardly give one to a fellow whose brother is accused of murder, and if they did, your position in the army would be intolerable. Now, good-bye, dear old Frank; give my fond love to Aunt, who has always been too good to me. If I get an opportunity I will write again, but I hardly fancy that I shall get a chance to do so, as, even if I were free to write I don't see how letters can be sent from France except through smugglers. God bless you, old fellow.
"I only know that Sir Robert Wilson, who was a great friend of my father's, and who obtained my commission for me, is going to have a command somewhere, and has asked for me as one of his aides-de-camp on the ground of his friendship for my father, and his former connection with our regiment."
"On purpose. The servants heard a gun fired close by, and a minute later his horse galloped up to the door. Two men ran along the drive, and, not a hundred yards from the house, found him lying shot through the body. Three of the doctors went off at once. Thompson came back ten minutes ago, for some instruments, I believe. He stopped his gig for a moment to speak to the Rector, and I hear he told him that it might be as well for him to go up at once, as there was very little probability of Faulkner's living through the night."
On the 6th of November a bitter frost set in, and the soldiers awoke chilled to the bone, and with gloomy anticipations of what would happen when the full rigour of a Russian winter was upon them. In some respects the frost was an advantage, for it hardened the roads, that were before often almost impassable from the amount of heavy traffic that had passed over them. But, upon the other hand, floating masses of ice speedily covered the rivers, rendering the work of fording them painful and difficult in the extreme. A Russian division had, on the 3rd, pressed hotly on the retreating column just as they reached the Wiazma river. A sanguinary conflict took place, the corps of the Viceroy passed through the town on its banks, and crossed the river in fair order, but that of Davoust broke and crossed in great confusion, covered by Ney's division, which retreated steadily, facing about from time to time, and repulsing the infantry attacks, but suffering heavily from the artillery. Ney set the town on fire to cover his retreat, crossed the bridges, and there stemmed the further advance of the Russians.
"Not at all," the Pole replied. "We are able to talk freely now, and it is very seldom that you are at a loss for a word. I can say conscientiously that you are now able to converse rapidly and well in it. I could not say that your writing leaves nothing to be desired. Having acquired it so much by ear and conversation, you are not perfect in your grammar or construction when you write it; but that is of little consequence. Sir Robert Wilson will naturally write in his own language, and is not likely to have despatches to send in Russian. You are quite fit to act as an interpreter to deliver messages, and to carry on any ordinary conversation. There is a report that there has been a duel this morning, and that an officer was carried through the town on a stretcher."