Book Ten: 1812 - Chapter XXIX
On returning from a second inspection of the lines, Napoleon remarked:
"The chessmen are set up, the game will begin tomorrow!"
Having ordered punch and summoned de Beausset, he began to talk to him about Paris and about some changes he meant to make the Empress' household, surprising the prefect by his memory of minute details relating to the court.
He showed an interest in trifles, joked about de Beausset's love of travel, and chatted carelessly, as a famous, self-confident surgeon who knows his job does when turning up his sleeves and putting on his apron while a patient is being strapped to the operating table. "The matter is in my hands and is clear and definite in my head. When the times comes to set to work I shall do it as no one else could, but now I can jest, and the more I jest and the calmer I am the more tranquil and confident you ought to be, and the more amazed at my genius."
Having finished his second glass of punch, Napoleon went to rest before the serious business which, he considered, awaited him next day. He was so much interested in that task that he was unable to sleep, and in spite of his cold which had grown worse from the dampness of the evening, he went into the large division of the tent at three o'clock in the morning, loudly blowing his nose. He asked whether the Russians had not withdrawn, and was told that the enemy's fires were still in the same places. He nodded approval.
The adjutant in attendance came into the tent.
"Well, Rapp, do you think we shall do good business today?" Napoleon asked him.
"Without doubt, sire," replied Rapp.
Napoleon looked at him.
"Do you remember, sire, what you did me the honor to say at Smolensk?" continued Rapp. "The wine is drawn and must be drunk."
Napoleon frowned and sat silent for a long time leaning his head on his hand.
"This poor army!" he suddenly remarked. "It has diminished greatly since Smolensk. Fortune is frankly a courtesan, Rapp. I have always said so and I am beginning to experience it. But the Guards, Rapp, the Guards are intact?" he remarked interrogatively.
"Yes, sire," replied Rapp.
Napoleon took a lozenge, put it in his mouth, and glanced at his watch. He was not sleepy and it was still not nearly morning. It was impossible to give further orders for the sake of killing time, for the orders had all been given and were now being executed.
"Have the biscuits and rice been served out to the regiments of the Guards?" asked Napoleon sternly.
"The rice too?"
Rapp replied that he had given the Emperor's order about the rice, but Napoleon shook his head in dissatisfaction as if not believing that his order had been executed. An attendant came in with punch. Napoleon ordered another glass to be brought for Rapp, and silently sipped his own.
"I have neither taste nor smell," he remarked, sniffing at his glass. "This cold is tiresome. They talk about medicine--what is the good of medicine when it can't cure a cold! Corvisart gave me these lozenges but they don't help at all. What can doctors cure? One can't cure anything. Our body is a machine for living. It is organized for that, it is its nature. Let life go on in it unhindered and let it defend itself, it will do more than if you paralyze it by encumbering it with remedies. Our body is like a perfect watch that should go for a certain time; watchmaker cannot open it, he can only adjust it by fumbling, and that blindfold.... Yes, our body is just a machine for living, that is all."
And having entered on the path of definition, of which he was fond, Napoleon suddenly and unexpectedly gave a new one.
"Do you know, Rapp, what military art is?" asked he. "It is the art of being stronger than the enemy at a given moment. That's all."
Rapp made no reply.
"Tomorrow we shall have to deal with Kutuzov!" said Napoleon. "We shall see! Do you remember at Braunau he commanded an army for three weeks and did not once mount a horse to inspect his entrenchments.... We shall see!"
He looked at his watch. It was still only four o'clock. He did not feel sleepy. The punch was finished and there was still nothing to do. He rose, walked to and fro, put on a warm overcoat and a hat, and went out of the tent. The night was dark and damp, a scarcely perceptible moisture was descending from above. Near by, the campfires were dimly burning among the French Guards, and in the distance those of the Russian line shone through the smoke. The weather was calm, and the rustle and tramp of the French troops already beginning to move to take up their positions were clearly audible.
Napoleon walked about in front of his tent, looked at the fires and listened to these sounds, and as he was passing a tall guardsman in a shaggy cap, who was standing sentinel before his tent and had drawn himself up like a black pillar at sight of the Emperor, Napoleon stopped in front of him.
"What year did you enter the service?" he asked with that affectation of military bluntness and geniality with which he always addressed the soldiers.
The man answered the question.
"Ah! One of the old ones! Has your regiment had its rice?"
"It has, Your Majesty."
Napoleon nodded and walked away.
At half-past five Napoleon rode to the village of Shevardino.
It was growing light, the sky was clearing, only a single cloud lay in the east. The abandoned campfires were burning themselves out in the faint morning light.
On the right a single deep report of a cannon resounded and died away in the prevailing silence. Some minutes passed. A second and a third report shook the air, then a fourth and a fifth boomed solemnly near by on the right.
The first shots had not yet ceased to reverberate before others rang out and yet more were heard mingling with and overtaking one another.
Napoleon with his suite rode up to the Shevardino Redoubt where he dismounted. The game had begun.