A shout of satisfaction rose from the group, and Wilmington grasped Frank's hand as he leapt down.
"According to the dates there was little doubt that they must have crossed the main road from Moscow to the frontier at the very time when the French army on its retreat would be moving along. All that we had heard and knew of the terrible distress, both of their army and of our own, showed that at that time the intense suffering of the French and the savage reprisals of our peasantry had reduced them to a state when nothing was respected, and that a pair of valuable horses and a heap of costly furs, to say nothing of the food carried, would be prizes almost beyond value. Deprived of these, a nurse and child would, in a few hours, die of the cold. That some such fate must have befallen them seemed almost certain, for otherwise they must have joined us.
"I was not in a sweet temper then at any rate, Aunt."
"Well; just as you like, Sergeant. If you wanted to take along ten children I could not say no to you. She is a pretty little thing," he added, as he went nearer to her.
Julian with Stephanie were nestled up in the hay at one end of the sledge, the two Russians at the other. On reaching Borizow they stopped at the post-house, and on producing the podorojna were told that the carriage and horses would be ready in half an hour. They had brought a considerable amount of provisions with them, and now laid in a stock of such articles as could not be procured in the villages. When the post-carriage came round, a large proportion of the hay in the sledge was transferred to it, together with the sheep-skins. There was no luggage, and four horses were deemed sufficient. The wheels had, of course, been taken off the vehicle, and it was placed on runners. The driver climbed up to his seat, cracked his whip furiously, and the horses started at a gallop. The motion was swift and pleasant, indeed travelling in Russia is much more agreeable in winter than in summer, for the roads, which in summer are often detestable, are in winter as smooth as glass, over which the sledge glides with a scarce perceptible movement, and the journeys are performed much more rapidly than in summer.
"He said, sir, that I was a disgrace to the bench."
"So he has not come back with you, Frank. It is dreadful. What are they going to do with him?"
"It would be robbing you to go on with you any longer, Mr. Wyatt. When a man can turn round, fire on the instant and hit a penny nine times out of ten at a distance of twelve paces, there is no one can teach him anything more. You have the best eye of any gentleman I ever came across, and in the twenty years that I have been here I have had hundreds of officers at this gallery, many of them considered crack shots. But I should go on practising, if I were you, especially with your left hand. It is not quite so good as the right yet, although very nearly so. I will come down once a week or so and throw up a ball to you or spin a penny in the air; there is nothing like getting to hit a moving object. In the meantime you can go on practising at that plummet swinging from the string. You can do that as well by yourself as if I were with you, for when you once set it going it will keep on for five minutes. It is not so good as throwing up a penny, because it makes a regular curve; but shooting, as you do, with your back to it, and so not able to tell where it will be when you turn round, that don't so much matter."
"Well, Downes," Colonel Chambers said, "it seems to me that these two brothers are born to get into adventures and to get well out of them. However, Frank, although you have acted very creditably, and must certainly be a wonderful shot with a pistol, don't do this sort of thing too often."
"There are no 'buts' in it, Wilmington. You must give me your word of honour that you will go on as you have done. Don't be afraid of anyone thinking you a coward. There is no cowardice in refusing to fight a man who is so much your superior in skill that it would be nothing short of suicide in standing up against him. I have a private reason for believing that it won't last long."