Book 12 Chapter 11

FROM PRINCE SHTCHERBATOV'S HOUSE the prisoners were taken straight downhill across the Virgin's Meadow to the left of the monastery of the Virgin, and led to a kitchen garden, in which there stood a post. A big pit had been dug out near the post, and the freshly turned-up earth was heaped up by it. A great crowd of people formed a semicircle about the pit and the post. The crowd consisted of a small number of Russians and a great number of Napoleon's soldiers not on duty: there were Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen in various uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French soldiers, in blue uniforms, with red epaulettes, in Hessians and shako. The prisoners were stood in a certain order, in accordance with a written list (Pierre was sixth) and led up to the post. Several drums suddenly began beating on both sides of them, and Pierre felt as though a part of his soul was being torn away from him by that sound. He lost all power of thought and reflection. He could only see and hear. And there was only one desire left in him, the desire that the terrible thing that was to be done should be done more quickly. Pierre looked round at his companions and scrutinised them.

The two men at the end were shaven convicts; one tall and thin, the other a swarthy, hirsute, muscular fellow with a flattened nose. The third was a house-serf, a man of five-and-forty, with grey hair and a plump, well-fed figure. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome fellow with a full, flaxen beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow lad of eighteen, in a dressing-gown.

Pierre heard the Frenchmen deliberating how they were to be shot, singly, or two at a time. “Two at a time,” a senior officer answered coldly. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers, and it was evident that every one was in haste and not making haste, not as people do when they are getting through some job every one can understand, but as men hasten to get something done that is inevitable, but is disagreeable and incomprehensible.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right side of the file of prisoners, and read aloud the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two couples of French soldiers came up to the prisoners by the instruction of an officer, and took the two convicts who stood at the head. The convicts went up to the post, stopped there, and while the sacks were being brought, they looked dumbly about them, as a wild beast at bay looks at the approaching hunter. One of them kept on crossing himself, the other scratched his back and worked his lips into the semblance of a smile. The soldiers with hurrying fingers bandaged their eyes, put the sacks over their heads and bound them to the post.

A dozen sharpshooters, with muskets, stepped out of the ranks with a fine, regular tread, and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away not to see what was coming. There was a sudden bang and rattle that seemed to Pierre louder than the most terrific clap of thunder, and he looked round. There was a cloud of smoke, and the French soldiers, with trembling hands and pale faces, were doing something in it by the pit. The next two were led up. Those two, too, looked at every one in the same way, with the same eyes, dumbly, and in vain, with their eyes only begging for protection, and plainly unable to understand or believe in what was coming. They could not believe in it, because they only knew what their life was to them, and so could not understand, and could not believe, that it could be taken from them.

Pierre tried not to look, and again turned away; but again a sort of awful crash smote his hearing, and with the sound he saw smoke, blood, and the pale and frightened faces of the Frenchmen, again doing something at the post, and balking each other with their trembling hands. Pierre, breathing hard, looked about him as though asking, “What does it mean?” The same question was written in all the eyes that met Pierre's eyes. On all the faces of the Russians, on the faces of the French soldiers and officers, all without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict as he felt in his own heart. “But who is it doing it there really? They are all suffering as I am! Who is it? who?” flashed for one second through Pierre's mind. “Sharpshooters of the eighty-sixth, forward!” some one shouted. The fifth prisoner standing beside Pierre was led forward—alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved; that he and all the rest had been brought here simply to be present at the execution. With growing horror, with no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was being done. The fifth was the factory lad in the loose gown. As soon as they touched him, he darted away in terror and clutched at Pierre (Pierre shuddered and tore himself away from him). The factory lad could not walk. He was held up under the arms and dragged along, and he screamed something all the while. When they had brought him to the post he was suddenly quiet. He seemed suddenly to have grasped something. Whether he grasped that it was no use to scream, or that it was impossible for men to kill him, he stood at the post, waiting to be bound like the others, and like a wild beast under fire looked about him with glittering eyes.

Pierre could not make himself turn away and close his eyes. The curiosity and emotion he felt, and all the crowd with him, at this fifth murder reached its highest pitch. Like the rest, this fifth man seemed calm. He wrapped his dressing-gown round him, and scratched one bare foot with the other.

When they bound up his eyes, of himself he straightened the knot, which hurt the back of his head; then, when they propped him against the blood-stained post, he staggered back, and as he was uncomfortable in that position, he shifted his attitude, and leaned back quietly, with his feet put down symmetrically. Pierre never took his eyes off him, and did not miss the slightest movement he made.

The word of command must have sounded, and after it the shots of the eight muskets. But Pierre, however earnestly he tried to recollect it afterwards, had not heard the slightest sound from the shots. He only saw the factory lad suddenly fall back on the cords, saw blood oozing in two places, and saw the cords themselves work loose from the weight of the hanging body, and the factory lad sit down, his head falling unnaturally, and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Men with pale and frightened faces were doing something round the factory lad. There was one old whiskered Frenchman, whose lower jaw twitched all the while as he untied the cords. The body sank down. The soldiers, with clumsy haste, dragged it from the post and shoved it into the pit.

All of them clearly knew, beyond all doubt, that they were criminals, who must make haste to hide the traces of their crime.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying there with his knees up close to his head, and one shoulder higher than the other. And that shoulder was convulsively, rhythmically rising and falling. But spadefuls of earth were already falling all over the body. One of the soldiers, in a voice of rage, exasperation, and pain, shouted to Pierre to stand aside. But Pierre did not understand him, and still stood at the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit was quite filled up, the word of command was heard, Pierre was taken back to his place, and the French troops, standing in ranks on both sides of the post, faced about, and began marching with a measured step past the post. The twenty-four sharpshooters, standing in the middle of the circle, with uncharged muskets, ran back to their places as their companies marched by them.

Pierre stared now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters, who were running two together out of the circle. All of them had joined their companies except one. A young soldier, with a face of deathly pallor, still stood facing the pit on the spot upon which he had shot, his shako falling backwards off his head, and his fuse dropping on to the ground. He staggered like a drunken man, taking a few steps forward, and then a few back, to keep himself from falling. An old under-officer ran out of the ranks, and, seizing the young soldier by the shoulder, dragged him to his company. The crowd of Frenchmen and Russians began to disperse. All walked in silence, with downcast eyes.

“That will teach them to set fire to the places,” said some one among the French. Pierre looked round at the speaker, and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to console himself somehow for what had been done, but could not. Without finishing his sentence, he waved his hand and went on.