AT TWO O'CLOCK in the night of the 13th of June, the Tsar sent for Balashov, and, reading him his letter to Napoleon, commanded him to go in person and give the letter to the French Emperor. As he dismissed Balashov, he repeated to him his declaration that he would never make peace as long as a single enemy under arms remained on Russian soil, and told him to be sure to repeat those words to Napoleon. The Tsar had not inserted them in his letter to Napoleon, because, with his characteristic tact, he felt those words would be inappropriate at the moment when the last efforts were being made for conciliation; but he expressly charged Balashov to repeat that message by word of mouth to Napoleon.
Balashov rode out on the night between the 13th and the 14th, accompanied by a trumpeter and two Cossacks; and at dawn he reached the French outposts at the village of Rykonty on the Russian side of the Niemen. He was stopped by the sentinels of the French cavalry.
A French subaltern of hussars, in a crimson uniform and a fur cap, shouted to Balashov to stop. Balashov did not immediately obey, but went on advancing along the road at a walking pace.
The subaltern, with scowls and muttered abuse, swooped down upon Balashov, drew his sword, and shouted rudely to the Russian general: “Was he deaf that he did not hear when he was spoken to?” Balashov gave him his name. The subaltern sent a soldier to his superior officer.
Paying no further attention to Balashov, the subaltern began talking with his comrades about regimental matters, without looking at the Russian general. It was an exceedingly strange sensation for Balashov, who was used at all times to the dignities of his position, was always in contact with the highest power and authority, and only three hours before had been conversing with the Tsar, to be brought here on Russian soil into collision with this hostile, and still more, disrespectful display of brute force.
The sun was only beginning to rise behind storm-clouds, the air was fresh and dewy. A herd of cattle was being driven along the road from the village. Larks sprang up trilling one after another in the fields, like bubbles rising to the surface of water.
Balashov looked about him, awaiting the arrival of the officer from the village. The Russian Cossacks and trumpeter and the French hussars looked at one another now and then in silence.
A French colonel of hussars, evidently only just out of bed, came riding out of the village on a handsome, sleek, grey horse, accompanied by two hussars. The officers, the soldiers, and the horses all looked smart and well satisfied.
In this early stage of the campaign the troops were well in a state of good discipline, in good, almost parade, order, and engaged in peaceful pursuits, with a shade of martial swagger in their dress, and a shade of gaiety and spirit of adventure in their temper that always accompanies the commencement of a war.
The French colonel had much ado to suppress his yawns, but was courteous in his manner, and evidently understood all the importance of Balashov's position. He led him past the line of outposts, and informed him that his desire to be presented to the Emperor would in all probability immediately be satisfied, as the Emperor's quarters were, he believed, not far off.
They rode through the village of Rykonty, past French picket ropes, sentinels, and soldiers, who saluted their colonel and stared with curiosity at the Russian uniform. They came out on the other side of the village, and the colonel told Balashov that they were only two kilometres from the commander of the division, who would receive him and conduct him to his destination.
The sun had by now fully risen and was shining cheerfully on the bright green fields.
They had just passed an inn and were riding uphill when a party of horsemen came riding downhill towards them. The foremost figure was a tall man, in a hat with plumes, mounted on a raven horse, with trappings glittering in the sun. He had a scarlet cloak, and curly black hair, that floated on his shoulders, and he rode in the French fashion, with his long legs thrust out in front. This personage galloped towards Balashov, with his jewels and gold lace and feathers all fluttering and glittering in the bright June sun.
Balashov was some ten yards from this majestically theatrical figure in bracelets, feathers, necklaces, and gold, when Julner, the French colonel, whispered to him reverentially, “The King of Naples!” It was in fact Murat, who was now styled the “King of Naples.” Though it was utterly incomprehensible that he should be the King of Naples, he was addressed by that title, and was himself persuaded of his royal position, and consequently behaved with an air of greater solemnity and dignity than heretofore. So firmly did he believe that he really was the King of Naples, that when, just before leaving Naples, he was greeted by some Italians with shouts of “Long live the King!” when walking in the streets with his wife, he turned to her with a pensive smile and said, “Poor fellows, they don't know I am quitting them to-morrow.”
But though he believed so implicitly that he was King of Naples, and sympathised with his subjects' grief at losing him, after he had been commanded to return to the service, and especially after his interview with Napoleon at Danzig, when his most august brother-in-law had said, “I have made you king that you may rule in my way, and not in your own,” he had cheerfully resumed his familiar duties; and, like a well-fed, but not over-fed stallion feeling himself in harness, prancing in the shafts, and decked out in all possible motley magnificence, he went galloping along the roads of Poland, with no notion where or why he was going.
On seeing the Russian general he made a royal, majestic motion of his head with his floating curls, and looked inquiringly at the French colonel. The colonel deferentially informed his majesty of the mission of Balashov, whose name he could not pronounce. “De Bal-macheve!” said the King, resolutely attacking and vanquishing the colonel's difficulty. “Charmed to make your acquaintance, general,” he added, with a gesture of royal condescension. As soon as the King spoke loudly and rapidly, all his royal dignity instantly deserted him, and, without himself being aware of it, he passed into the tone of good-humoured familiarity natural to him. He laid his hand on the forelock of Balashov's horse. “Well, general, everything looks like war,” he said, as it were regretting a circumstance on which he could not offer an opinion. “Your majesty,” answered Balashov, “the Emperor, my master, does not desire war, and as your majesty sees.” Balashov declined “your majesty” in all its cases, using the title with an affectation inevitable in addressing a personage for whom such a title was a novelty.
Murat's face beamed with foolish satisfaction as he listened to “Monsieur de Balacheff.” But royalty has its obligations. He felt it incumbent on him to converse with Alexander's envoy on affairs of state as a king and an ally. He dismounted, and taking Balashov's arm, and moving a little away from the suite, who remained respectfully waiting, he began walking up and down with him, trying to speak with grave significance. He mentioned that the Emperor Napoleon had been offended at the demand that his troops should evacuate Prussia, especially because that demand had been made public, and was so derogatory to the dignity of France. Balashov said that there was nothing derogatory in that demand, seeing that…Murat interrupted him.
“So you consider that the Emperor Alexander is not responsible for the commencement of hostilities?” he said suddenly, with a foolish and good-humoured smile.
Balashov began to explain why he did consider that Napoleon was responsible for the war.
“Ah, my dear general,” Murat interrupted him again, “with all my heart I wish that the Emperors would settle the matter between themselves; and that the war, which has been begun by no desire of mine, may be concluded as quickly as possible,” he said in the tone in which servants speak who are anxious to remain on friendly terms though their masters have quarrelled. And he changed the subject; inquiring after the health of the Grand Duke, and recalling the agreeable time he had spent with him in Naples. Then suddenly, as though recollecting his royal dignity, Murat drew himself up majestically, threw himself into the pose in which he had stood at his coronation, and waving his right arm, said: “I will detain you no longer, general; I wish you success in your mission.” And, with a flutter of his scarlet cloak and his feathers, and a flash of his precious stones, he rejoined the suite, who were respectfully awaiting him.
Balashov rode on further, expecting from Murat's words that he would be very shortly brought before Napoleon himself. But at the next village he was detained by the sentinels of Davoust's infantry corps, just as he had been at the outposts. An adjutant of the commander of that corps was sent for to conduct him to the village to see Marshal Davoust.