A Good Word Not Lost

FIELD-MARSHAL ALEXANDER SUVAROFF, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army during the reigns of Catharine II. and Paul I., was especially fond of mixing with the common soldiers, and sharing in their sports and conversations, being always highly delighted when his men failed to discover him; and this happened pretty often, for, thanks to his small stature and ugly face, as well as the extreme plainness of his dress, the great marshal looked as little like a general as any man could do. In this way he got to understand thoroughly the character of his soldiers, and had a greater power over them than any Russian general before or after him. His marvellous power of enduring fatigue, his insensibility to heat, cold, or hunger, and his untiring energy on the field of battle (in all which points he surpassed the hardiest of his grenadiers), made him the idol of  the rough soldiers whom he commanded; and a word of reproof from Father Alexander Vasilievitch, as his men affectionately called him, was more dreaded than the fire of a battery.

Before one of his Italian campaigns, Suvaroff gathered together a number of his best men, and made them one of the short pithy speeches for which he was famous, and some of which are remembered among the peasantry to this day:—

“My children, we are going to fight the French. Remember, whatever you meet, you must go forward. If the enemy resist, kill them; but if they yield, spare them; and always remember that a Russian soldier is not a robber, but a Christian. Now, go and tell your comrades what I have said!”

A few days later a great battle took place, in which the day went against the French, who began to retreat about sunset; and a soldier named Ivan Mitrophanoff, who had distinguished himself by his bravery throughout the whole day, captured, with the help of a comrade who was with him, a French officer and two of his men. Mitrophanoff bound up the officer’s wounded arm, and seeing that the prisoners appeared faint from want of food, shared with them the coarse rye loaf which was to have served him for supper. He had scarcely done so, when up came three or four Russian grenadiers, hot with fighting, and raising furious cries.

“What,” cried they, “three of these French dogs living yet!” and they ran upon the prisoners with levelled bayonets.

“Hold, my lads!” cried Mitrophanoff. “I’ve given them their lives, and no one must touch them now!”

But the soldiers would not listen to him, and were rushing forward, when a stern voice from behind shouted, “Halt!” and a little, pugnosed, dirty-faced man, dressed only in a coarse linen shirt and a pair of tattered gray trousers, stepped into the circle. But, ragged and dirty as he was, the fierce soldiers could not have looked more frightened had he been a giant in full armor.

“The general!” muttered they, slinking off.

“Ay, the general!” roared Suvaroff, “who will have some of you shot presently, if you can’t learn to obey orders better! And you,” he added, turning to Mitrophanoff, “who taught you to be so good?”

“Your highness’ own self taught me,” answered the grenadier. “I haven’t forgotten what you told us last week—that a Russian soldier is not a robber, but a Christian!”

“Right!” exclaimed Suvaroff, with a brightening face. “A good word is never lost, you see. Give me your hand, my lad; you shall be a sergeant to-morrow, and a right good one you’ll make!”

And the next day he made good his word.