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A Wide Awake Russian Sentry by David Ker


Eighty or ninety years ago, when the Russians had a good many wars upon their hands, their best general was Marshal Alexander Suvoroff, whose name is still famous in Russia. Any old soldier you meet there will tell you plenty of stories about him, and strange enough stories too, for he was a very curious kind of man. In the coldest weather, when even the hardiest soldiers were wrapping themselves up, he would go about in his shirt sleeves just as if it were summer; and very often he would be up before any one else in the camp was astir, and startle the first officer whom he saw coming out of his tent by crowing like a rooster as loud as he could, just as if to say, "You ought to have been out before." Then, too, Count and General though he was, dining with the Empress herself almost every week, and going about the palace as he pleased, he dressed as plainly as any peasant, and slept on straw like a common soldier. Once or twice the palace servants, seeing this untidy little fellow coming up to the grand entrance, took him for a tramp, and wanted to drive him away; but they soon found out that that would not do.

Another of his queer ways was to try and puzzle any one he met by asking him all sorts of strange questions, such as how many stars there were in the sky, how many drops of water in the sea, and so forth. He did puzzle a good many people in this way, but once or twice he got an answer quite as smart as his questions, and that was just what he liked.

One day a soldier came to him with a dispatch, and Suvoroff, seeing that he was quite a young, simple-looking fellow, thought it would be good fun to try his hand upon him.

"How many fish are there in the sea?" he asked.

"Just exactly as many as haven't been caught yet," answered the lad at once.

The General was rather taken aback, but he went on, nevertheless:

"If you were in a besieged town, without food, how would you supply yourself?"

"From the enemy."

"How far is it from here to the moon?"

"Two of your Excellency's forced marches."

Suvoroff smiled and looked pleased, for he was very proud of being able to move his men so quickly, and had won many a victory by it.

"Which of your officers do you like best?" was the next question.

"Captain Masloff."

Now this Captain Masloff happened to be a very handsome young fellow, while Suvoroff himself was frightfully ugly, so he thought he would catch the soldier in a trap by asking him, "What's the difference between your captain and myself?"

"Why," said the soldier, looking slyly at him, "my captain can't make me a corporal, but your Excellency has only to say the word."

The General burst into a loud laugh, and clapping him on the shoulder, said, "Well, then, I do say the word: you're a corporal from this day forth, and a right good one you'll make. If I can find another man as smart as you, I'll make him a sergeant."

Two or three months after this adventure, Suvoroff and his army were down on the Lower Danube, keeping watch over the Turks, in the middle of the hardest winter that had been known in that country for many a year. But of course, being Russians, they didn't mind that much, and Suvoroff went about in the snow and the frost as if he didn't know what cold was.

Well, one bitter night in the beginning of January, the old General was making the round of the camp, as usual, to see that his sentinels were all keeping good watch at the outposts, when suddenly he came upon a sentry who seemed to have got the coldest place of all, for he was right down upon the bank of the river, with the cold wind blowing through him as if it would cut him in two.

"Good-evening, brother," said the General, speaking as if he were only a common soldier too.

"Good-evening," answered the sentinel, pretending not to know him, although he had recognized the General's voice in a moment.

"Plenty of stars out to-night," went on Suvoroff, looking up at the frosty sky. "Can you tell me how many of them there are altogether?"

"Just wait a bit, and I'll count," said the soldier, quite coolly. And forthwith he began: "One, two, three, four, five, six," and so on, as if he were never going to leave off.

At first Suvoroff was rather amused at his smartness; but he soon found the game getting much too cold to be pleasant, for he was in his usual light dress, while the sentry at least had on a good thick frieze coat. Keener and keener blew the bitter night wind, till the poor old General felt as if he should never be warm again. For a while he bore up manfully, hoping the soldier would get tired and leave off; but when the man got up to a thousand, and was still counting away as if he meant to keep it up all night, Suvoroff could stand it no longer.

"What's your name, my fine fellow?" asked he, as well as his chattering teeth would let him.

"Vasili [Basil] Pushkin," answered the soldier, "private in the Seventh Foot."

"Very good," said the Marshal; "I won't forget you. Good-night."

The next morning Pushkin was sent for to the General's quarters; and Suvoroff, turning to his staff officers, said:

"Gentlemen, here's a man whom I tried to fool last night, but I met my match, and something more. I said I'd make any man a sergeant who was smart enough for that, and I must keep my word."

And he did so that very day.