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Chapter 23

THE BATTLE OF ASCHAFFENBURG


During his dinner, Prince Alexander of Hesse had received this dispatch:

"The Prussian vanguard has appeared at the end of the Vogelsburg pass!"

This news very much astonished the commander-in-chief, who was expecting the enemy to come by the pass through the Thuringian Forest. He had, in consequence, immediately sent a telegram to Darmstadt to order a detachment of three thousand men to come by rail to Aschaffenburg and seize the bridge. Then he had immediately sounded the bugle-call and the signal to saddle.

Two steamboats were waiting at Hackenhausen. A hundred railway carriages were waiting at the station, capable of holding a hundred men each.

We have already mentioned the effect produced by the double trumpet call.

There was a moment of confusion: for a moment every one ran to and fro, uniforms were confused, cavalry and infantry were mixed, then as if a clever hand had put each man in his place, at the end of five minutes the cavalry were mounted and the infantry had their proper weapons. Everything was ready for a start.

Again, Frankfort showed its sympathy, not exactly to the Austrians, but to the defenders of Austria. Beer was handed round in half-pints and wine in jugfuls. Gentlemen of the first houses in the town shook hands with the officers. Fashionable ladies spoke cheeringly to the soldiers. A hitherto unknown brotherhood, born of the common danger, reigned over the free town.

People called from windows: "Courage! victory! long live Austria! long live the Allies! long live Prince Alexander of Hesse!"

Marie Louise's son was greeted for his part with cries of "Long live the Count of Monte Nuovo!" But it must be said that, as they came for the most part from ladies, they were due rather to his fine figure and military bearing than to his royal birth.

Karl's Styrian sharpshooters received orders to take their places in the first carriages. It was they who were to attack the Prussians. They went gaily into the station with no other music than the count's two flute players. After them came Count Monte Nuovo's Austrian brigade and lastly the Allies of Hesse and Württemberg. The Italian brigade had left by the steamboats, protesting against what they had to do, and declaring they would never fire on their friends the Prussians for their enemies the Austrians.

The train went off, carrying men, rifles, guns, ammunition, horses, and ambulances. An hour and a half afterwards they were at Aschaffenburg. Night was beginning to fall. They had not seen the Prussians.

Prince Alexander of Hesse sent a party out to reconnoitre. The party came back towards eleven at night, after having fired a few shots at the Prussians at two hours' journey from Aschaffenburg.

A peasant who had crossed the pass at the same time as the Prussians, said that they were nearly five or six thousand strong, and that they had stopped because they were waiting for a body of seven or eight thousand men which was late. The numbers promised to be nearly equal.

It was found necessary to defend the passage of the Main and to protect Frankfort and Darmstadt by gaining the victory. The Styrian sharpshooters were placed on the road. Their mission was to do the greatest amount of damage possible to the enemy and retire, leaving the infantry and cavalry to work in their turn, and to rally at the head of the bridge, the allies only means of retreat, and to defend that bridge to the last.

During the night each man took up his position for the next day, and supped and slept in the open. A reserve of eight hundred men had been lodged in Aschaffenburg to defend the town if it were attacked. The night passed without disturbance and came.

At ten o'clock, Karl, growing impatient, mounted his horse and leaving the command of his men to Benedict galloped off towards the Prussians who at last were beginning to march.

In the course of his gallop Karl went up to Count Monte Nuovo and brought back the guns, which were put in position across the road. Four felled trees made a sort of entrenchment for the artillery. Karl got on to this entrenchment with his two Styrians, who took their flutes from their pockets, as if on parade, and began to play their sweetest and most charming airs. Karl could resist no longer. In a minute he took his pipe from his waistcoat pocket and sent on the wind a last message to his country.

The Prussians were advancing all this time. At half-range the booming of the two Austrian guns interrupted our three musicians, who put their flutes back into their pockets, and took up their rifles. The two volleys were well aimed, they killed or wounded a score of men. Again an explosion was heard, and a second messenger of death swept through the Prussian ranks.

"They are going to try and carry the guns by assault," said Karl to Benedict. "Take fifty men, and I'll take fifty; we will creep through the little wood on each side of the road. We have time for two shots each. We must kill a hundred men and fifty horses. Let ten of your men fire at the horses and the rest at the men."

Benedict took fifty men and crept along the right of the road. Karl did the same and crept along the left. The count was not mistaken; cavalry advanced from the middle on the first rank, and the gleam of the sabres was soon visible in the sunshine. Then was heard the thunder of three hundred horses, galloping forward.

Now began a fusillade, on both sides of the road, which would have seemed a game, if, at the first two shots, the colonel and the lieutenant had not been shot down from their horses, and if at each shot that followed those two a man or a horse had not fallen. Soon the road was strewn with dead men and horses. The first ranks could not advance. The charge stopped a hundred paces from the two guns, which kept up their fire and completed the confusion in the column.

Behind them the Prussians had brought forward the artillery, and had placed in position six guns to silence the two Austrian guns.

But our sharpshooters had advanced to about three hundred paces from the battery, and, when the six artillerymen had raised the match to fire with the regularity of a Prussian manouvre, six shots were fired, three to the right and three to the left of the road, and the six artillerymen fell dead.

Six others took the burning match and fell beside their comrades. Meanwhile the two Austrian guns had fired and demolished one of the Prussian guns.

The Prussians did what they ought to have done at first; that is, they attacked the Styrian sharpshooters. They sent out five hundred Prussian sharpshooters with fixed bayonets.

Then, on both sides of the plain began a terrible fusillade, while along the road the infantry advanced in columns, firing on the battery as they came. The artillerymen harnessed horses to the guns and retreated. The two guns, by retiring, left the Neuberg brigade uncovered.

A hillock a little distance from Aschaffenburg was then crowned by a battery of six guns, the fire of which raked the Prussian masses.

The count himself seeing that in spite of the fire along the whole line, the Prussians were advancing, put himself at the head of a regiment of cuirassiers and charged. Prince Alexander ordered all the Baden army to support him. Unfortunately, he placed the Italian regiment on his left wing and for the second time the Italians told him that they would remain neutral, exposed to the shots of both sides, but would not fire themselves.

Whether by chance, or because they had been warned of this neutrality, the Prussians brought their principal effort to bear upon this left wing, which, by standing still, allowed the enemy to unhorse Count Monte Nuovo.

The Styrian sharpshooters had done marvels. They had lost thirty men, and had killed more than three hundred of the enemy. Then, according to their orders, they had rallied at the head of the Aschaffenburg bridge.

From that spot, Karl and Benedict heard a quick fusillade at the other end of the town. It was the Prussian right wing which had overthrown Prince Alexander's left wing and was attacking the suburbs of the town.

"Listen," said Karl to Benedict, "the day is lost! Fate has overtaken the 'house of Austria.' I am going to kill myself, because it is my duty; but you, who are not tied to our fortune; you, who are fighting as an amateur; you, who are French when all is said and done, it would be folly for you to kill yourself for a cause which is not your own, and not even that with which you agree. Right to the last moment; then, when you know that all resistance is useless, get back to Frankfort, go to Helen; tell her that I am dead, if you have seen me die, or that I am in retreat on Darmstadt or Wurtzburg with the remains of the army. If I live, I will write to her. If I die, I die thinking of her. This is my heart's testament, I confide it to you."

Benedict pressed Karl's hand.

"Now," proceeded Karl, "it seems to me that it is a soldier's duty to give the most service possible, to the last moment; we have a hundred and seventy men left. I am going to take some, I will take half to support the defenders of the town. You stay with the others at the bridge. Do your best here. I will do my best wherever I am. Do you hear the fusillade coming nearer? We have no time to lose. We must say farewell."

The two young men threw themselves into each other's arms. Then Karl hurried into the streets and disappeared in the smoke. Benedict went to a little hill covered with a thicket, where he could defend himself and protect the bridge.

He was scarcely there when he saw a cloud of dust rapidly approaching. It was the Baden cavalry, which had been driven back by the Prussian cuirassiers. The first fugitives crossed the bridge without difficulty; but soon the passage was obstructed with men and horses, and the first ranks were forced to return upon those who followed them.

At that moment, a volley from Benedict and his men felled fifty men and twenty horses. The cuirassiers stopped astonished, and courage returned to the Baden infantry. A second volley followed the first, and the click of the balls on the cuirasses could be heard like the sound of hail on a roof. Thirty men and horses fell. The cuirassiers became disordered, but in retiring they encountered a square broken by the lancers, which fled before them. The square found itself between the spears of the lancers and the sabres of the cuirassiers. Benedict saw them coming mixed pell-mell with the lancers and cuirassiers.

"Aim at the officers," cried Benedict, and he himself picked out a captain of cuirassiers and fired. The captain fell. The others had each chosen officers, but found it more convenient to choose the officers of the lancers. Death thus offered a larger target. Almost all the officers fell, and the horses bounding riderless joined the squadron. Men were still continuing to crowd the bridge.

Suddenly the greater part of the allies' army arrived almost upon the heels of the enemy. At the same time, in the street of the burning town, Karl was retreating with his usual calm. He killed a man at each shot. He was bare-headed. A ball had carried away his Styrian cap. A trickle of blood was running down his cheek.

The two young men greeted each other from afar. Frisk, recognizing Karl, whom he considered an admirable hunter, ran towards him, all delight at seeing him again.

At that moment, a heavy gallop made the earth shake. It was the Prussian cuirassiers returning to the charge. Through the dust of the road and the smoke of the firing could be seen the glitter of their breastplates, helmets, and sword blades. They made a hole in the centre of the Baden and Hessian fugitives, and penetrated a third of the way over the bridge.

With a last glance, Benedict saw his friend fighting against a captain, into whose throat he twice thrust his bayonet. The captain fell, but only to be succeeded by two cuirassiers who attacked Karl, sword in hand. Two shots from Benedict's rifle killed one and wounded the other.

Then he saw Karl carried away among the fugitives crossing the bridge, in spite of his efforts to rally them. Enclosed on all sides, his sole path to hope of safety was the bridge. He threw himself upon it with the sixty or sixty-five men who were left. It was a terrible struggle; the dead were trodden under foot, the cuirassiers, like giants on their great horses, stabbed the fugitives with their shortened swords.

"Fire on them!" cried Benedict.

Those of his men who had their rifles loaded fired; seven or eight cuirassiers fell; the bullets rattled on the breastplates of the rest.

A fresh charge brought the cuirassiers into the midst of the Styrian infantry. Pressed by two horsemen, Benedict killed one with his bayonet, the other tried to crush him with his horse against the parapet of the bridge. He drew his short hunting knife and thrust it up to the hilt in the horse's chest, the horse reared with a scream of dismay. Benedict left his knife with its living sheath, ran between the horse's legs, leapt over the parapet of the bridge and sprang, armed as he was, into the Main. As he fell, he cast a last look at the spot where Karl had disappeared, but his gaze sought his friend in vain.

It was about five o'clock in the evening.

Alexandre Dumas pere