AT THE TIME when this was taking place in Petersburg, the French had passed through Smolensk, and were moving closer and closer to Moscow. Napoleon's historian, Thiers, like others of Napoleon's historians, tries to justify his hero by maintaining that he was drawn on to the walls of Moscow against his will. He is as right as any historians who seek the explanation of historic events in the will of a man; he is as right as the Russian historians, who assert that Napoleon was lured to Moscow by the skilful strategy of the Russian generals. In this case, apart from the law of “retrospectiveness,” which makes all the past appear a preparation for the subsequent facts, the element of mutual interaction, too, comes in, confusing the whole subject. A good chess-player, who has lost a game, is genuinely convinced that his failure is due to his blunders, and he seeks the blunder at the commencement of the game, forgetting that at every move during the whole game there were similar errors, that not one piece has been played as perfectly as possible. The blunder on which he concentrates his attention attracts his notice simply because his opponent took advantage of it. How much more complex is the game of war, which must be played within certain limits of time, in which there is not one will controlling lifeless toys, in which the whole is the resultant of the innumerable collisions of diverse individual wills!
After Smolensk, Napoleon tried to force on a battle beyond Dorogobuzh, at Vyazma, and then at Tsarevo-Zaimishtche. But the Russians could not give battle, owing to innumerable combinations of circumstances, till Borodino, one hundred and twelve versts from Moscow. From Vyazma Napoleon gave instructions for an advance straight upon Moscow.
“Moscow, the Asiatic capital of this great empire, the holy city of the peoples of Alexander, Moscow, with its innumerable churches in the form of Chinese pagodas!”
This Moscow would not let Napoleon's imagination rest. On the march from Vyazma to Tsarevo-Zaimishtche Napoleon was riding on his cream-coloured English horse, accompanied by his guards, and sentinels, and pages, and adjutants. The commander of the staff, Berthier, had dropped behind to put questions to a Russian prisoner taken by the cavalry. Accompanied by the interpreter, Lelorme d'Ideville, he galloped after Napoleon, and pulled his horse up with an amused expression.
“Well?” said Napoleon.
“A Cossack of Platov's detachment says Platov is effecting a junction with the main army, and that Kutuzov has been appointed commander-in-chief. He is very shrewd and talkative.”
Napoleon smiled, and bade them give the Cossack a horse and bring him before him. He wished to talk to him himself. Several adjutants galloped off, and within an hour Denisov's serf Lavrushka, whom his master had left with Rostov, rode up to Napoleon, sitting on a French cavalry saddle, wearing an orderly's short jacket, and looking sly, tipsy, and mirthful. Napoleon bade him ride at his side and began questioning him.
“Are you a Cossack?”
“Yes; a Cossack, your honour.”
“The Cossack, ignorant in whose company he was, since Napoleon's plain appearance had nothing to suggest to the Oriental imagination the presence of a monarch, talked with extraordinary familiarity of the incidents of the war,” says Thiers, relating this episode. In reality Lavrushka, who had been drunk the previous evening, and had left his master without dinner, had been thrashed for it, and sent to the village in quest of fowls, where he was tempted on by plunder till he got caught by the French. Lavrushka was one of those coarse, impudent lackeys who have seen a good deal of life, look on it as a duty to do nothing without cunning and trickery, are ready to do any kind of service for their masters, and are particularly keen in scenting out the baser impulses of their superiors, especially on the side of vanity and pettiness. On coming into the presence of Napoleon, whom he easily and confidently recognised, Lavrushka was not in the least taken aback, and only did his utmost to win the favour of his new master.
He was very well aware that this was Napoleon, and Napoleon's presence impressed him no more than Rostov's or the quartermaster's with the rod in his hand, because he had nothing of which either the quartermaster or Napoleon could not deprive him.
He had repeated all the gossip that was talked among the officers' servants. Much of it was true. But when Napoleon asked him whether the Russians expected to conquer Bonaparte or not, Lavrushka screwed up his eyes and thought a bit.
He saw in the question a sharp piece of cunning, as cunning fellows, like Lavrushka, always do in everything. He frowned and paused a minute.
“Well, if it does come to a battle,” he said thoughtfully, “and pretty soon, then yours will win. That's sure thing. But if now, three days and there's a battle after that, well then, I say, that same battle will be a long job.” This was translated to Napoleon. “If a battle is fought within three days the French will win it, but if later, God knows what will come of it,” Lelorme d'Ideville put it, smiling. Napoleon did not smile, though he was evidently in high good humour, and told him to repeat the words.
Lavrushka noticed that, and to entertain him further, said, pretending not to know who he was:
“We know, you have got your Bonaparte; he has conquered every one in the world, ay, but with us it will be a different story …” himself hardly aware how and why this bit of bragging patriotism slipped out. The interpreter translated these words without the conclusion; and Bonaparte smiled. “The young Cossack brought a smile on to the lips of his august companion,” says Thiers. After a few paces in silence, Napoleon turned to Berthier, and said he should like to try the effect “sur cet enfant du Don” of learning that the man with whom he was speaking was the Emperor himself, the very Emperor who had carved his immortally victorious name on the Pyramids. The fact was communicated. Lavrushka—discerning that this was done to test him, and that Napoleon expected him to be panic-stricken—tried to gratify his new masters by promptly affecting to be astounded, struck dumb; he opened round eyes, and made the sort of face usual with him when he was being led off to be thrashed. “Hardly,” says Thiers, “had Napoleon's interpreter spoken, than the Cossack was struck dumb with amazement; he did not utter another word, and walked with his eyes constantly fixed on the great conqueror, whose fame had reached him across the steppes of the East. All his loquacity suddenly vanished, and was replaced by a naïve and silent awe. Napoleon made the Cossack a present, and ordered him to be set at liberty like un oiseau qu'on rend aux champs qui l'ont vu naître.”
Napoleon rode on, dreaming of that Moscow that filled his imagination, while the bird returning to the fields that had seen him born, galloped back to the outposts, inventing the tale he would tell his comrades. What had really happened he did not care to relate, simply because it seemed to him not worth telling. He rode back to the Cossacks, inquired where was his regiment, now forming part of Platov's detachment; and towards evening found his master, Nikolay Rostov, encamped at Yankovo. Rostov was just mounting his horse to ride through the villages near with Ilyin. He gave Lavrushka another horse and took him with them.