AMONG THE INNUMERABLE CATEGORIES into which it is possible to classify the phenomena of life, one may classify them all into such as are dominated by matter and such as are dominated by form. To the latter class one may refer the life of Petersburg, especially in its drawing-rooms, as distinguished from the life of the country, of the district, of the province, or even of Moscow. That life of the drawing-rooms is unchanging.
Between the years 1805 and 1812 we had made peace with Bonaparte and quarrelled with him again; we had made new constitutions and unmade them again, but the salons of Anna Pavlovna and of Ellen were precisely as they had been—the former seven, the latter five years—before. Anna Pavlovna's circle were still speaking with incredulous wonder of Bonaparte's successes; and saw in his successes, and in the submissive attitude of the sovereigns of Europe, a malicious conspiracy, the sole aim of which was to give annoyance and anxiety to the court circle of which Anna Pavlovna was the representative. The set that gathered about Ellen, whom no less a person than Rumyantsev condescended to visit, and looked on as a remarkably intelligent woman, talked in 1812 with the same enthusiasm as in 1808, of the “great nation,” and the “great man,” and regretted the breach with France, which must, they believed, shortly end in peace.
Of late after the Tsar's return from the army, some increase of excitement was perceptible in these antagonistic salons, and they made something like demonstrations of hostility to one another, but the bias of each circle remained unaffected. Anna Pavlovna's set refused to admit any French people but the most unimpeachable legitimists; and in her drawing-room the patriotic view found expression that the French theatre ought not to be patronised, and that the maintenance of the French company there cost as much as the maintenance of a whole army corps. The progress of the war was eagerly followed, and rumours greatly to the advantage of our army were circulated. In the circle of Ellen, of Rumyantsev, the French circle, the reports of the enemy's cruelty and barbarous methods of warfare were discredited; and all sorts of conciliatory efforts on the part of Napoleon were discussed. This set discountenanced the premature counsels of those who advised preparations for the removal to Kazan of the court and the girls' schools, that were under the protection of the empress mother. The whole war was in fact regarded in Ellen's salon as a series of merely formal demonstrations, very shortly to be terminated by peace; and the view prevailed, expressed by Bilibin, who was now in Petersburg and constantly seen at Ellen's, as every man of wit was sure to be, that the war would be ended not by gunpowder but by those who had invented it. The patriotic fervour of Moscow, of which tidings reached Petersburg with the Tsar, was in Ellen's salon a subject of ironical, and very witty, though circumspect, raillery.
In Anna Pavlovna's circle, on the contrary, these patriotic demonstrations roused the greatest enthusiasm, and were spoken of as Plutarch speaks of his ancient Romans. Prince Vassily, who still filled the same important positions, constituted the connecting link between the two circles. He used to visit “my good friend Anna Pavlovna,” and was also seen in the “diplomatic salon of my daughter”; and often was led into blunders from his frequent transitions from one to the other, and said in one drawing-room what should have been reserved for the other.
Soon after the Tsar's arrival, Prince Vassily, in conversation about the progress of the war at Anna Pavlovna's, severely criticised Barclay de Tolly, and expressed himself unable to decide who should be appointed commander-in-chief. One of the guests, usually spoken of as a “man of great abilities,” described how he had that day seen the newly elected commander of the Petersburg militia, Kutuzov, presiding over the enrolment of militiamen in the Court of Exchequer, and ventured discreetly to suggest that Kutuzov would be the man who might satisfy all requirements.
Anna Pavlovna smiled mournfully, and observed that Kutuzov had done nothing but cause the Tsar annoyance.
“I have said so over and over again in the assembly of nobility,” interposed Prince Vassily, “but they wouldn't listen to me. I said that his election to the command of the militia would not be pleasing to his majesty. They wouldn't listen to me. It's all this mania for being in the opposition,” he went on. “And to what public are they playing, I should like to know. It's all because we are trying to ape the silly enthusiasm of Moscow,” said Prince Vassily, forgetting for a moment that it was at Ellen's that that enthusiasm was jeered at, while at Anna Pavlovna's it was as well to admire it. But he hastened to retrieve his mistake. “Is it suitable for Kutuzov, the oldest general in Russia, to be presiding in the Court? Et il en restera pour sa peine! Did any one hear of such a thing as appointing a man commander-in-chief who cannot sit a horse, who drops asleep at a council—a man, too, of the lowest morals! A pretty reputation he gained for himself in Bucharest! To say nothing of his qualities as a general, can we appoint, at such a moment, a man decrepit and blind—yes, simply blind! A fine idea—a blind general! He sees nothing. Playing blind-man's buff—that's all he's fit for!”
No one opposed that view.
On the 24th of July it was accepted as perfectly correct. But on the 29th Kutuzov received the title of prince. The bestowal of this title might be taken to indicate a desire to shelve him, and therefore Prince Vassily's dictum still remained correct, though he was in no such hurry now to express it. But on the 8th of August a committee, consisting of General Field-Marshal Saltykov, Araktcheev, Vyazmitinov, Lopuhin, and Kotchubey was held to consider the progress of the war. This committee decided that the disasters were due to divided authority; and although the members of the committee were aware of the Tsar's dislike of Kutuzov, after a deliberation they advised the appointment of Kutuzov as commander-in-chief. And that same day Kutuzov was appointed commander-in-chief of the army, and intrusted with unlimited authority over the whole region occupied by the troops.
On the 9th of August Prince Vassily once more met the “man of great abilities” at Anna Pavlovna's. The latter gentleman was assiduous in his attendance at Anna Pavlovna's, in the hope of receiving, through her influence, an appointment on one of the institutions of female education. Prince Vassily strode into the room with the air of a victorious general, of a man who has succeeded in attaining the object of his desires.
“Well, you know the great news! Prince Kutuzov is marshal! All differences of opinion are at an end. I am so glad, so delighted!” said Prince Vassily. “At last here is a man!” he declared, looking sternly and significantly at all the company. In spite of his desire to secure the post he coveted, the “man of great abilities” could not refrain from reminding Prince Vassily of the view he had expressed shortly before. (This was a breach of civility to Prince Vassily in Anna Pavlovna's drawing-room, and also to Anna Pavlovna, who had received the tidings with equal enthusiasm; but he could not refrain.)
“But they say he is blind, prince,” he said to recall to Prince Vassily his own words.
“Allez donc, il y voit assez,” said Prince Vassily, with the rapid bass voice and the cough with which he always disposed of all difficulties. “He sees quite enough,” he repeated. “And what I'm particularly glad of,” he went on, “is that the Emperor has given him unlimited authority over all the troops, over the whole region, an authority no commander-in-chief has ever had before. It's another autocrat,” he concluded, with a victorious smile.
“God grant it may be,” said Anna Pavlovna.
The “man of great abilities,” a novice in court society, was anxious to flatter Anna Pavlovna by maintaining her former opinion against this new view of the position. He said: “They say the Emperor was unwilling to give Kutuzov such authority. They say he blushed like a young lady to whom Joconde is read, saying to him, ‘The sovereign and the country decree you this honour.' ”
“Perhaps the heart was not of the party,” said Anna Pavlovna.
“Oh no, no,” Prince Vassily maintained warmly. Now he would not put Kutuzov second to any one. To hear Prince Vassily now Kutuzov was not simply a good man in himself, but idolised by every one. “No, that's impossible, for the sovereign has always known how to appreciate him,” he added.
“God only grant that Prince Kutuzov may take the control of things into his own hands,” said Anna Pavlovna, “and not permit any one to put a spoke in his wheel.”
Prince Vassily knew at once who was meant. He whispered, “I know for a fact that Kutuzov made it an express condition that the Tsarevitch should not be with the army. Vous savez ce qu'il a dit à l'Empereur.” And Prince Vassily repeated the words said to have been spoken by Kutuzov to the Tsar: “ ‘I can neither punish him if he does wrong, nor reward him if he does well.' Oh! he's a shrewd fellow, Prince Kutuzov. I have known him a long while.”
“They do say,” observed the “man of great abilities,” who had not acquired a courtier's tact, “that his excellency even made it an express condition that the Emperor himself should not be with the army.”
He had hardly uttered the words when Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vassily simultaneously turned their backs on him, and looked mournfully at one another, with a sigh at his naïveté.