Book Twelve: 1812 - Chapter III
Nine days after the abandonment of Moscow, a messenger from Kutuzov reached Petersburg with the official announcement of that event. This messenger was Michaud, a Frenchman who did not know Russian, but who was quoique etranger, russe de coeur et d'ame,* as he said of himself.
*Though a foreigner, Russian in heart and soul.
The Emperor at once received this messenger in his study at the palace on Stone Island. Michaud, who had never seen Moscow before the campaign and who did not know Russian, yet felt deeply moved (as he wrote) when he appeared before notre tres gracieux souverain* with the news of the burning of Moscow, dont les flammes eclairaient sa route.*
*Our most gracious sovereign.
* Whose flames illumined his route.
Though the source of M. Michaud's chagrin must have been different from that which caused Russians to grieve, he had such a sad face when shown into the Emperor's study that the latter at once asked:
"Have you brought me sad news, Colonel?"
"Very sad, sire," replied Michaud, lowering his eyes with a sigh. "The abandonment of Moscow."
"Have they surrendered my ancient capital without a battle?" asked the Emperor quickly, his face suddenly flushing.
Michaud respectfully delivered the message Kutuzov had entrusted to him, which was that it had been impossible to fight before Moscow, and that as the only remaining choice was between losing the army as well as Moscow, or losing Moscow alone, the field marshal had to choose the latter.
The Emperor listened in silence, not looking at Michaud.
"Has the enemy entered the city?" he asked.
"Yes, sire, and Moscow is now in ashes. I left it all in flames," replied Michaud in a decided tone, but glancing at the Emperor he was frightened by what he had done.
The Emperor began to breathe heavily and rapidly, his lower lip trembled, and tears instantly appeared in his fine blue eyes.
But this lasted only a moment. He suddenly frowned, as if blaming himself for his weakness, and raising his head addressed Michaud in a firm voice:
"I see, Colonel, from all that is happening, that Providence requires great sacrifices of us... I am ready to submit myself in all things to His will; but tell me, Michaud, how did you leave the army when it saw my ancient capital abandoned without a battle? Did you not notice discouragement?..."
Seeing that his most gracious ruler was calm once more, Michaud also grew calm, but was not immediately ready to reply to the Emperor's direct and relevant question which required a direct answer.
"Sire, will you allow me to speak frankly as befits a loyal soldier?" he asked to gain time.
"Colonel, I always require it," replied the Emperor. "Conceal nothing from me, I wish to know absolutely how things are."
"Sire!" said Michaud with a subtle, scarcely perceptible smile on his lips, having now prepared a well-phrased reply, "sire, I left the whole army, from its chiefs to the lowest soldier, without exception in desperate and agonized terror..."
"How is that?" the Emperor interrupted him, frowning sternly. "Would misfortune make my Russians lose heart?... Never!"
Michaud had only waited for this to bring out the phrase he had prepared.
"Sire," he said, with respectful playfulness, "they are only afraid lest Your Majesty, in the goodness of your heart, should allow yourself to be persuaded to make peace. They are burning for the combat," declared this representative of the Russian nation, "and to prove to Your Majesty by the sacrifice of their lives how devoted they are...."
"Ah!" said the Emperor reassured, and with a kindly gleam in his eyes, he patted Michaud on the shoulder. "You set me at ease, Colonel."
He bent his head and was silent for some time.
"Well, then, go back to the army," he said, drawing himself up to his full height and addressing Michaud with a gracious and majestic gesture, "and tell our brave men and all my good subjects wherever you go that when I have not a soldier left I shall put myself at the head of my beloved nobility and my good peasants and so use the last resources of my empire. It still offers me more than my enemies suppose," said the Emperor growing more and more animated; "but should it ever be ordained by Divine Providence," he continued, raising to heaven his fine eyes shining with emotion, "that my dynasty should cease to reign on the throne of my ancestors, then after exhausting all the means at my command, I shall let my beard grow to here" (he pointed halfway down his chest) "and go and eat potatoes with the meanest of my peasants, rather than sign the disgrace of my country and of my beloved people whose sacrifices I know how to appreciate."
Having uttered these words in an agitated voice the Emperor suddenly turned away as if to hide from Michaud the tears that rose to his eyes, and went to the further end of his study. Having stood there a few moments, he strode back to Michaud and pressed his arm below the elbow with a vigorous movement. The Emperor's mild and handsome face was flushed and his eyes gleamed with resolution and anger.
"Colonel Michaud, do not forget what I say to you here, perhaps we may recall it with pleasure someday... Napoleon or I," said the Emperor, touching his breast. "We can no longer both reign together. I have learned to know him, and he will not deceive me any more...."
And the Emperor paused, with a frown.
When he heard these words and saw the expression of firm resolution in the Emperor's eyes, Michaud--quoique etranger, russe de coeur et d'ame--at that solemn moment felt himself enraptured by all that he had heard (as he used afterwards to say), and gave expression to his own feelings and those of the Russian people whose representative he considered himself to be, in the following words:
"Sire!" said he, "Your Majesty is at this moment signing the glory of the nation and the salvation of Europe!"
With an inclination of the head the Emperor dismissed him.