THE RUSSIAN EMPEROR had meanwhile been spending more than a month in Vilna, holding reviews and inspecting manœuvres. Nothing was in readiness for the war, which all were expecting, though it was to prepare for it that the Tsar had come from Petersburg. There was no general plan of action. The vacillation between all the plans that were proposed and the inability to fix on any one of them, was more marked than ever after the Tsar had been for a month at headquarters. There was a separate commander-in-chief at the head of each of the three armies; but there was no commander with authority over all of them, and the Tsar did not undertake the duties of such a commander-in-chief himself.
The longer the Tsar stayed at Vilna, the less ready was the Russian army for the war, which it had grown weary of expecting. Every effort of the men who surrounded the Tsar seemed to be devoted to making their sovereign spend his time pleasantly and forget the impending war.
Many balls and fêtes were given by the Polish magnates, by members of the court, and by the Tsar himself; and in the month of June it occurred to one of the Polish generals attached to the Tsar's staff that all the generals on the staff should give a dinner and a ball to the Tsar. The suggestion was eagerly taken up. The Tsar gave his consent. The generals on the staff subscribed the necessary funds. The lady who was most likely to please the Tsar's taste was selected as hostess for the ball. Count Bennigsen, who had land in the Vilna province, offered his house in the outskirts for this fête, and the 13th of June was the day fixed for a ball, a dinner, with a regatta and fireworks at Zakreta, Count Bennigsen's suburban house.
On the very day on which Napoleon gave the order to cross the Niemen, and the vanguard of his army crossed the Russian frontier, driving back the Cossacks, Alexander was at the ball given by the generals on his staff at Count Bennigsen's house.
It was a brilliant and festive entertainment. Connoisseurs declared that rarely had so many beauties been gathered together at one place. Countess Bezuhov, who had been among the Russian ladies who had followed the Tsar from Petersburg to Vilna, was at that ball, her heavy, Russian style of beauty—as it is called—overshadowing the more refined Polish ladies. She was much noticed, and the Tsar had deigned to bestow a dance upon her.
Boris Drubetskoy, who had left his wife at Moscow, and was living “en garçon,” as he said, at Vilna, was also at that ball; and although he was not a general on the staff, he had subscribed a large sum to the ball. Boris was now a wealthy man who had risen to high honours. He no longer sought patronage, but was on an equal footing with the most distinguished men of his age. At Vilna he met Ellen, whom he had not seen for a long while. As Ellen was enjoying the good graces of a very important personage indeed, and Boris had so recently been married, they made no allusion to the past, but met as good-natured, old friends.
At midnight dancing was still going on. Ellen happening to have no suitable partner had herself proposed a mazurka to Boris. They were the third couple. Boris was looking coldly at Ellen's splendid bare shoulders, which rose out of her dress of dark gauze and gold, and was talking to her of old acquaintances, and yet though others and himself too were unaware of it, he never for a second ceased observing the Tsar who was in the same room. The Tsar was not dancing; he was standing in the doorway, stopping one person after the other with the gracious words he alone knew how to utter.
At the beginning of the mazurka, Boris saw that a general of the staff, Balashov, one of the persons in closest attendance on the Tsar, went up to him, and, regardless of court etiquette, stopped close to him, while he conversed with a Polish lady. After saying a few words to the lady, the Tsar glanced inquiringly at Balashov, and apparently seeing that he was behaving like this only because he had weighty reasons for doing so, he gave the lady a slight nod and turned to Balashov. The Tsar's countenance betrayed amazement, as soon as Balashov had begun to speak. He took Balashov's arm and walked across the room with him, unconsciously clearing a space of three yards on each side of him as people hastily drew back. Boris noticed the excited face of Araktcheev as the Tsar walked up the room with Balashov. Araktcheev, looking from under his brows at the Tsar, and sniffing with his red nose, moved forward out of the crowd as though expecting the Tsar to apply to him. (Boris saw that Araktcheev envied Balashov and was displeased at any important news having reached the Tsar not through him.) But the Tsar and Balashov walked out by the door into the lighted garden, without noticing Araktcheev. Araktcheev, holding his sword and looking wrathfully about him, followed twenty paces behind them.
Boris went on performing the figures of the mazurka, but he was all the while fretted by wondering what the news could be that Balashov had brought, and in what way he could find it out before other people. In the figure in which he had to choose a lady, he whispered to Ellen that he wanted to choose Countess Pototsky, who had, he thought, gone out on to the balcony, and gliding over the parquet, he flew to the door that opened into the garden, and seeing the Tsar and Balashov coming into the verandah, he stood still there. The Tsar and Balashov moved towards the door. Boris, with a show of haste, as though he had not time to move away, squeezed respectfully up to the doorpost and bowed his head. The Tsar in the tone of a man resenting a personal insult was saying:
“To enter Russia with no declaration of war! I will consent to conciliation only when not a single enemy under arms is left in my country,” he said.
It seemed to Boris that the Tsar liked uttering these words: he was pleased with the form in which he had expressed his feelings, but displeased at Boris overhearing them.
“Let nobody know of it!” the Tsar added, frowning.
Boris saw that this was aimed at him, and closing his eyes, inclined his head a little. The Tsar went back to the ballroom, and remained there another half hour.
Boris was the first person to learn the news that the French troops had crossed the Niemen; and, thanks to that fact, was enabled to prove to various persons of great consequence, that much that was hidden from others was commonly known to him, and was thereby enabled to rise even higher than before in the opinion of those persons.
The astounding news of the French having crossed the Niemen seemed particularly unexpected from coming after a month's uninterrupted expectation of it, and arriving at a ball! At the first moment of amazement and resentment on getting the news, Alexander hit on the declaration that has since become famous—a declaration which pleased him and fully expressed his feelings. On returning home after the ball at two o'clock in the night, the Tsar sent for his secretary, Shishkov, and told him to write a decree to the army and a rescript to Field-Marshal Prince Saltykov; and he insisted on the words being inserted that he would never make peace as long as one Frenchman under arms remained in Russia.
The next day the following letter was written to Napoleon:
MONSIEUR MON FRÈRE,—I learnt yesterday that in spite of the loyalty with which I have kept my engagements with your Majesty, your troops have crossed the frontiers of Russia, and I have this moment received from Petersburg the note in which Count Lauriston informs me as cause of this invasion that your majesty considers us to be in hostile relations ever since Prince Kurakin asked for his passport. The causes on which the Duc de Bassano based his refusal to give these passports would never have led me to suppose that the action of my ambassador could serve as a ground for invasion. And, indeed, he received no authorisation from me in his action, as has been made known by him; and as soon as I heard of it I immediately expressed my displeasure to Prince Kurakin, commanding him to perform the duties entrusted to him as before. If your majesty is not inclined to shed the blood of your subjects for such a misunderstanding, and if you consent to withdraw your troops from Russian territory, I will pass over the whole incident unnoticed, and agreement between us will be possible. In the opposite case, I shall be forced to repel an invasion which has been in no way provoked on my side. Your Majesty has it in your power to preserve humanity from the disasters of another war.—I am, etc.,