AFTER ALL NAPOLEON had said to him, after those outbursts of wrath, and after the last frigidly uttered words, “I will not detain you, general; you shall receive my letter,” Balashov felt certain that Napoleon would not care to see him again, would avoid indeed seeing again the envoy who had been treated by him with contumely, and had been the eyewitness of his undignified outburst of fury. But to his surprise Balashov received through Duroc an invitation to dine that day at the Emperor's table.
There were present at dinner, Bessières, Caulaincourt, and Berthier.
Napoleon met Balashov with a good-humoured and friendly air. He had not the slightest appearance of embarrassment or regret for his outbreak in the morning. On the contrary he seemed trying to encourage Balashov. It was evident that it had long been Napoleon's conviction that no possibility existed of his making mistakes. To his mind all he did was good, not because it was in harmony with any preconceived notion of good or bad, but simply because it was he who did it.
The Emperor was in excellent spirits after his ride about Vilna, greeted and followed with acclamations by crowds of the inhabitants. From every window in the streets through which he had passed draperies and flags with his monogram had been hanging, and Polish ladies had been waving handkerchiefs to welcome him.
At dinner he sat Balashov beside him, and addressed him affably. He addressed him indeed as though he regarded Balashov as one of his own courtiers, as one of the people, who would sympathise with his plans and be sure to rejoice at his successes. He talked, among other things, of Moscow, and began asking Balashov questions about the ancient Russian capital, not simply as a traveller of inquiring mind asks about a new place he intends to visit, but apparently with the conviction that Balashov as a Russian must be flattered at his interest in it.
“How many inhabitants are there in Moscow, how many horses? Is it true that Moscow is called the holy city? How many churches are there in Moscow?” he asked.
And when he was told there were over two hundred churches, he said: “Why is there such a great number of churches?”
“The Russians are very religious,” replied Balashov.
“A great number, however, of monasteries and churches is always a sign of the backwardness of a people,” said Napoleon, looking at Caulaincourt for appreciation of this remark.
Balashov ventured respectfully to differ from the opinion of the French Emperor.
“Every country has its customs,” he observed.
“But there's nothing like that anywhere else in Europe,” said Napoleon.
“I beg your majesty's pardon,” said Balashov; “besides Russia, there is Spain, where there is also a great number of churches and monasteries.”
This reply of Balashov's, which suggested a covert allusion to the recent discomfiture of the French in Spain, was highly appreciated when Balashov repeated it at the court of the Emperor Alexander, though at the time at Napoleon's dinner-table it was very little appreciated and passed indeed unnoticed.
From the indifferent and perplexed faces of the marshals present it was obvious that they were puzzled to discover wherein lay the point of the retort, suggested by Balashov's intonation. “If there were a point, we fail to catch it, or the remark was perhaps really pointless,” their expression seemed to say. So little effect had this retort that Napoleon indeed certainly saw nothing in it; and he naïvely asked Balashov through what towns the direct road from Vilna to Moscow passed. Balashov, who had been all dinner-time on his guard, replied that as, according to the proverb, every road leads to Rome, every road leads to Moscow; that there were very many roads, and among them was the road to Poltava, the one selected by Charles XII. Balashov could not help flushing with delight at the felicity of this reply. Balashov had hardly uttered the last word “Poltava” when Caulaincourt began talking of the badness of the road from Petersburg to Moscow and his own Petersburg reminiscences.
After dinner they went to drink coffee in Napoleon's study, which had four days before been the study of the Emperor Alexander. Napoleon sat down, stirring his coffee in a Sèvres cup, and motioned Balashov to a seat beside him.
There is a well-known after-dinner mood which is more potent than any rational consideration in making a man satisfied with himself and disposed to regard every one as a friend. Napoleon was under the influence of this mood. He fancied himself surrounded by persons who adored him. He felt no doubt that Balashov too after his dinner was his friend and his worshipper. Napoleon addressed him with an amicable and rather ironical smile.
“This is the very room, I am told, in which the Emperor Alexander used to sit. Strange, isn't it, general?” he said, obviously without the slightest misgiving that this remark could be other than agreeable to the Russian, since it afforded a proof of his, Napoleon's, superiority over Alexander.
Balashov could make no reply to this, and he bowed in silence.
“Yes, four days ago, Wintzengerode and Stein were deliberating in this very room,” Napoleon continued, with the same confident and ironical smile. “What I can't understand,” he said, “is the Emperor Alexander's gathering round him all my personal enemies. That I do not understand. Didn't he consider that I might do the same?” he asked Balashov; and obviously the question brought him back to a reminiscence of the morning's anger, which was still fresh in him. “And let him know that I will do so,” Napoleon said, getting up and pushing away his cup. “I'll drive all his kith and kin out of Germany—the Würtembergs and Badens and Weimars…Yes, I'll drive them out. Let him get a refuge ready for them in Russia.”
Balashov bowed his head, with an air that indicated that he would be glad to withdraw, and was simply listening because he had no alternative but to listen to what was said to him. Napoleon did not notice this expression. He was addressing Balashov now, not as the envoy of his enemy, but as a man now quite devoted to him and certain to rejoice at the humiliation of his former master.
“And why has the Emperor Alexander taken the command of his troops? What's that for? War is my profession, but his work is to reign and not to command armies. What has induced him to take such a responsibility on himself?”
Napoleon again took his snuff-box, walked several times in silence up and down the room, and all at once surprised Balashov by coming close up to him. And with a faint smile, as confidently, rapidly, and swiftly, as though he were doing something that Balashov could not but regard as an honour and a pleasure, he put his hand up to the face of the Russian general of forty, and gave him a little pinch on the ear with a smile on his lips.
To have the ear pulled by the Emperor was regarded as the greatest honour and mark of favour at the French court.
“Well, you say nothing, admirer and courtier of the Emperor Alexander,” he said, as though it were comic that there should be in his presence a courtier and worshipper of any man other than him, Napoleon. “Are the horses ready for the general?” he added, with a slight nod in acknowledgment of Balashov's bow. “Give him mine; he has a long way to go.…”
The letter taken back by Balashov was Napoleon's last letter to Alexander. Every detail of the conversation was transmitted to the Russian Emperor, and the war began.