Verse > Anthologies > James and Mary Ford, eds. > Every Day in the Year
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James and Mary Ford, eds.  Every Day in the Year.  1902.
 
December 10
The Retreat from Moscow
By George Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)
 
          As it appeared to a certain Abbé, at Warsaw, Dec. 10, 1812.

THE YELLOW snow-fog curdled thick,
  Dark, brooding, dull, and brown,
About the ramparts, hiding all
  The steeples of the town;
The icicles, as thick as beams,        5
  Hung down from every roof,
When all at once we heard a sound
  As of a muffled hoof.
 
’Twas nothing but a soldier’s horse,
  All riderless and torn        10
With bullets; scarce his bleeding legs
  Could reach the gate. A morn
Of horror broke upon us then;
  We listened, but no drum—
Only a sullen, distant roar,        15
  Telling us that they come.
 
Next, slowly staggering through the fog,
  A grenadier reeled past,
A bloody turban round his head,
  His pallid face aghast.        20
Behind him, with an arm bound up
  With half a Russian flag,
Came one—then three—the last one sopped
  His breast with crimson rag.
 
All day the frozen, bleeding men        25
  Came pouring through the place;
Drums broken, colours torn to shreds,
  Foul wounds on every face.
Black powder-wagons, scorched and split,
  Broad wheels caked thick with snow,        30
Red bayonets bent, and swords that still
  Were reeking from the blow.
 
The ground was strewn with epaulettes,
  Letters, and cards, and songs;
The barrels, leaking drops of gold,        35
  Were trampled by the throngs.
A brutal, selfish, goring mob,
  Yet here and there a trace
Of the divine shone out, and lit
  A gashed and suffering face.        40
 
Here came a youth, who on his back,
  His dying father bore;
With bandaged feet the brave youth limped,
  Slow, shuddering, dripping gore.
And even ’mid the trampling crowd,        45
  Maimed, crippled by the frost,
I found that every spark of good
  Was not extinct and lost.
 
Deep in the ranks of savage men
  I saw two grenadiers        50
Leading their corporal, his breast
  Stabbed by the Cossack spears.
He saved that boy, whose tearful eyes
  Were fixed upon the three—
Although too weak to beat his drum        55
  Still for his company.
 
Half-stripped, or wrapped in furs and gowns,
  The broken ranks went on;
They ran if any one called out
  “The Cossacks of the Don!”        60
The whispered rumour, like a fire,
  Spreads fast from street to street,
With boding look and shaking head
  The staring gossips meet.
 
“Ten thousand horses every night        65
  Were smitten by the frost;
Full thirty thousand rank and file
  In Beresina lost.
The Cossacks fill their caps with gold
  The Frenchmen fling away.        70
Napoleon was shot the first,
  And only lived a day—
 
“They say that Caulaincourt is lost—
  The guns are left behind;
God’s curse has fallen on these thieves—        75
  He sent the snow and wind.”
Tired of the clatter and the noise,
  I sought an inner room,
Where twenty wax-lights, starry clear,
  Drove off the fog and gloom.        80
 
I took my wanton Ovid down,
  And soon forgot the scene,
As through my dreams I saw arise
  The rosy-bosomed queen.
My wine stood mantling in the glass        85
  (The goblet of Voltaire),
I sipped and dozed, and dozed and sipped,
  Slow rocking in my chair,
When open flew the bursting door,
  And Coulaincourt stalked in—        90
Tall, gaunt, and wrapped in frozen fun
  Hard frozen to his skin.
 
The wretched hag of the low inn
  Puffed at the sullen fire
Of spitting wood, that hissed and smoked;        95
  There stood the Jove whose ire
But lately set the world aflame,
  Wrapped in a green pelisse,
Fur-lined, and stiff with half-burnt lace,
  Trying to seem at ease.        100
 
“Bah! Du sublime au ridicule
  Il n’y a qu’un pas,”
He said. “The rascals think they’ve made
  A comet of my star.
The army broken?—dangers?—pish!        105
  I did not bring the frost.
Levy ten thousand Poles, Duroc—
  Who tells me we have lost?
 
“I beat them everywhere, Murat—
  It is a costly game;        110
But nothing venture, nothing win—
  I’m sorry now we came.
That burning Moscow was a deed
  Worthy of ancient Rome—
Mind that I gild the Invalides        115
  To match the Kremlin dome.
 
“Well? well as Beelzebub himself!”
  He leaped into the sleigh
Sent for to bear the Cæsar off
  Upon his ruthless way.        120
A flash of fire!—the court-yard stones
  Snapped out—the landlord cheered—
In a hell-gulf of pitchy dark
  The carriage disappeared.
 
 
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