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The Story Of Catherine
by [?]

Everything went against Peter on this march. The weather was very dry. Swarms of locusts were in the country, eating every green thing. There was no food for the horses, and many of them starved to death. It was hard for the Russians to go forward or to go backward, and harder still to stay where they were.

At last the soldiers in front reported that the Turks were coming, and Peter soon saw a great army of two hundred thousand fierce Moslems in front of his little force, which counted up only thirty-eight thousand men. Seeing the odds against him he gave the order to retreat, and the army began its backward march. As it neared the river Pruth a new danger showed itself. The advance-guard brought word that a great force of savage Crim Tartars held the other bank of the river, completely cutting off Peter’s retreat.

The state of things seemed hopeless. With two hundred thousand Turks on one side, and a strong force of Crim Tartars holding a river on the other, Peter’s little army was completely hemmed in. There was no water in the camp, and when the soldiers went to the river for it, the Tartars on the other shore kept up a fierce fight with them. A great horde of Turkish cavalry tried hard to cut off the supply entirely by pushing themselves between Peter’s camp and the river, but the Russians managed to keep them back by hard fighting, and to keep a road open to the river.

Peter knew now that unless help should come to him in some shape, and that very quickly, he must lose not only his army, but his empire also, for if the Turks should take him prisoner, it was certain that his many enemies would soon conquer Russia, and divide the country among themselves. He saw no chance of help coming, but he made up his mind to fight as long as he could. He formed his men in a hollow square, with the women in the middle, and faced his enemies.

The Turks flung themselves in great masses upon his lines, trying to crush the little force of Russians by mere numbers. But Peter’s brave men remembered that Catherine was inside their hollow square, and they stood firmly at their posts, driving back the Turks with frightful slaughter. Again and again and again they fell upon his lines in heavy masses, and again and again and again they were driven back, leaving the field black with their dead.

This could not go on forever, of course, and both sides saw what the end must be. As the Turks had many times more men than Peter, it was plain that they would, at last, win by destroying all the Russians.

For three days and nights the terrible slaughter went on. Peter’s men beat back the Turks at every charge, but every hour their line grew thinner. At the end of the third day sixteen thousand of their brave comrades lay dead upon the field, and only twenty-two thousand remained to face the enemy.

Towards night on the third day a terrible rumor spread through their camp. A whisper ran along the line that the ammunition was giving out. A few more shots from each soldier’s gun, and there would be nothing left to fight with.

Then Peter fell into the sulks. As long as he could fight he had kept up his spirits, but now that all was lost, and his great career seemed near its end, he grew angry, and went to his tent to have one of his savage fits. He gave orders that nobody should come near him, and there was no officer or soldier in all the army who would have dared enter the tent where he lay, in his dangerous mood.

But if Peter had given up in despair, Catherine had not. In spite of Peter’s order and his anger, she boldly went into his tent, and asked him to give her leave to put an end to the war by making a treaty of peace with the Turks, if she could. It seemed absurd to talk of such a thing, or to expect the Turks to make peace on any terms when they had so good a chance to conquer Peter, once for all, and to make him their prisoner. Nobody but Catherine, perhaps, would have thought of such a thing; but Catherine was a woman born for great affairs, and she had no thought of giving up any chance there might be to save Peter and the empire.