It was the end of January when Sir Robert Wilson and Frank reached St. Petersburg, and, putting up in apartments assigned to them in the palace, rested for a few days.
Frank Wyatts's work throughout the campaign had been arduous in the extreme. It is true that it was done on horseback instead of on foot, that he had not hunger to contend against, and that for the most part his nights were passed in a shelter of some kind. But from daybreak until sunset, and frequently till midnight, he was incessantly occupied, from the moment when Napoleon turned his back on Moscow, until the last remnant of his army crossed the frontier. Until after the battle at Malo-Jaroslavets on the 24th of October, when the French army owed its safety solely to Kutusow's refusal to hurl all his forces against it, he had remained at headquarters, where he was assisted in his work by the Earl of Tyrconnel, who was now also acting as aide-de-camp to Sir Robert Wilson. He was a delightful companion and a most gallant young officer, and a fast friendship became established between him and Frank, during the time the Russian army was remaining inactive, while Napoleon was wasting the precious time at Moscow, unable to bring himself to acknowledge the absolute failure of his plans caused by the refusal of the Russians to treat with him, after his occupation of their ancient capital. But after Kutusow had allowed the French to slip past they saw but little of each other, for one or other of them was always with the troops pressing hard on the French rear, it being their duty to keep Sir Robert, who was necessarily obliged to stay at headquarters, thoroughly informed of all that was going on in front, and of the movements both of the French and Russian divisions.
When Frank arrived at Canterbury he found things in confusion, and received the news that two troops had orders to march the next morning for Portsmouth, where they were to embark for Spain.
"I must protest against this language, Marshall," Lieutenant Rankin said indignantly. "I am bound to bear testimony that your opponent has acted extremely well, and that his conduct has been that of an honourable gentleman."
"I had a letter," Colonel Wilson went on, "from Colonel Chambers, who was a captain in the 15th when I joined. He spoke in very high terms of you, and sent a copy of the proceedings and reports connected with the murder of that magistrate, and said that it was almost entirely due to your sharpness that your brother was cleared of the suspicion that had not unreasonably fallen upon him, and the saddle put upon the right horse. There is a sort of idea that any dashing young fellow will do for the cavalry, and no doubt dash is one of the prime requisites for cavalry officers, but if he is really to distinguish himself and be something more than a brave swordsman, more especially if he is likely to have the opportunity of obtaining a staff appointment, he needs other qualities, for on a reconnaissance a man who has a quick eye, good powers of observation and thoughtfulness, may send in a report of a most valuable kind, while that of the average young officer might be absolutely useless.
"I am told that you are desirous of giving lessons in languages."
"You have found it hard work. I can quite understand that, Mr. Strelinski. It is terribly hard for any foreigner, even with good introductions, to earn a living here, and to one unprovided with such recommendations well-nigh impossible. Please to sit here for a moment. Frank, come into the next room with me."
On the evening of the 25th of November Napoleon arrived there with Oudinot's corps. The engineers immediately commenced the construction of two bridges, and the cavalry and light infantry crossed the river to reconnoitre the enemy, and some batteries were established to cover the work. Materials were very scarce, and it was not until noon on the following day that the bridges were reported practicable. Oudinot's corps crossed at once, but the rest of the troops passed over in great confusion, which was increased by the frequent breaking down of the bridges. Victor took up a position to cover the rear, but one of his divisions was cut off by Wittgenstein, and eight thousand men forced to surrender. The main body of the French army, completely panic-stricken by the thunder of guns in their rear, crowded down in a confused mass. The passage was frequently arrested by fresh breakages in the bridges; hundreds were pushed off into the river by the pressure from behind; others attempted to swim across, but few of these succeeded in gaining the opposite bank, the rest being overpowered by the cold or overwhelmed by the floating masses of ice. Thousands perished by drowning. By the 28th the greater part of the French army had crossed, Victor's corps covering the passage and repulsing the efforts of Wittgenstein up to that time; then being unable to hold the Russians at bay any longer he marched down to the bridge, forcing a way through the helpless crowd that still blocked the approaches.