Here! Follow my voice! Over here, I say! For God’s sake, man, come over to the fire. What in heaven’s name are you doing, out in such a storm? Come and warm yourself before you freeze where you stand. There, it is only a whistling nook amidst the snow and the cruel wind, but it affords us some small respite and the luxury of civilised conversation. Here we will wait for a break in the weather. I would share with you a morsel, but I have none. Rest and talk must serve as our sustenance. I note that you are hardly dressed for being so deep in the mountains. A light jacket? Such flimsy trousers? I know I must look a fright, unkempt and unshaven, but I am something of an exception. Those who linger in these hills generally know the value of good boots and a winter coat.
Be easy, traveller, for our plight is not so grim. Throw another log on the fire, would you? There are none? Then draw closer to the flames, for rumour has it that worse than snow once walked these lands. Once, soldiers’ boots moved this grass as regularly as the chill wind now does. These cloud-wreathed skies have seen worse folly than your having taken a false path on your evening walk! You have only your own safety resting on your weary shoulders. Others’ mistakes have cost the lives of countless men, women, and children.
Pull your jacket around your shoulders, friend. Stretch your tired legs out towards the fire. These were luxuries not afforded to those who walked where you sit, bleary-eyed, two-hundred years ago. You think yourself tired, listening to me ramble over the swirling din. True exhaustion has not found you, though, not as it did the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as they retreated from Moscow over this very ground. No winter clothing, already weak from fever and dysentery, and having dragged five hundred cannon through mud and ice and misery…close your eyes, just for a moment, and imagine their plight.
Rub your hands together if you are cold. Keep moving, keep talking. Simple, yes? Those soldiers were forced to go to much greater measures to keep warm. Things were not too bad at the beginning of November, even when the horses started to die. There are tales of Frenchmen sleeping inside the bellies of eviscerated horses when the weather first started to turn, of officers leaving their men to secretly eat food which they had hidden on their persons. People thought, as you do now, that they could get no colder. Then the weather really turned.
They expose people, the ice and snow. It wasn’t just ears and noses that rotted away either, blackened in the icy wind. It was soldiers’ morals, their dignity. Some simply wandered away from their duties, looking for a quiet place to collapse in the snow. Shameful? Perhaps, but their actions were as nothing compared to those that chose to trade their souls for their lives. Artillery was spiked and then abandoned, and then just abandoned. Imperial eagles that men had sacrificed their lives to protect were burned for firewood. Clothes were taken from fallen comrades before they had breathed their last. Move closer to the fire, if you are suffering. I would give you an item of clothing to ease your discomfort, but as you see even I have been caught unaware by this sudden squall. It is best we keep talking, friend. I think I see a lightening of the sky over yonder.
I see you hugging yourself, secure in the knowledge that you would never stoop to such brutality. Don’t be too sure. Frost and immorality creep up on a people overnight, slow and imperceptible. One can wake to find one’s lips stuck together, if one wakes at all. So it is with the soul. Soldiers who had written letters to their families not a month before walked past wailing mothers clasping long-dead infants to their breasts without a glance. To stop was to risk much; to sleep was to die. So many were lulled into closing their eyes by a smouldering fire. Just for a minute, they would promise themselves. Only until I have recovered my strength, they would mutter. Such drowsiness is irresistible, even as the fire begins to die before one’s very eyes.
Such is it with our humble fire, my companion. Just a few glowing knots of wood remain, but they should be sufficient to light the remainder of our tale. Perhaps it is best this way, for such were the deeds on the return from Moscow that never should they be brought fully into the light. I see that you watch me from beneath heavy eyelids now. Can you imagine what it was to look at what used to be a friend across such a fire? To see his yellow skin stretched taut across his skull, his eyes sunken into darkened pits, only sparkling when you cry out in one of many agonies? To watch as he measures what life remains in you, and as he considers what unspeakable act he can force himself to perform should you yield to temptation?
I didn’t think so. Why would you? Why would anyone care to consider what those miserable wretches suffered? The only thing that remains of those horrors are the simple stories that local farmers and woodsmen tell. They are tales to scare children, that is all, tales that tell that although the soldiers themselves died, the hunger that consumed them remains. Those who are easily led claim that they can hear drums in the hills, here in the winter. They tell fanciful tales of a ragged Frenchman in a threadbare blue coat who lures travellers to their doom. Never mind their stories – people cling stubbornly to fairy tales much as those soldiers clung to their battered shakoes and hole-ridden boots.
Close your eyes if you wish, friend. You are safe here. I will keep the watch.