IN THE LARGE BEST ROOM of the peasant Andrey Savostyanov's cottage, at two o'clock, a council met. The men and women and children of the peasant's big family all crowded together in the room on the other side of the passage. Only Andrey's little grandchild, Malasha, a child of six, whom his highness had petted, giving her sugar while he drank his tea, stayed behind by the big stove in the best room. Malasha peeped out from on the stove with shy delight at the faces, the uniforms, and the crosses of the generals, who kept coming into the room one after another, and sitting in a row on the broad benches in the best corner under the holy images. “Granddad” himself, as Malasha in her own mind called Kutuzov, was sitting apart from the rest in the dark corner behind the stove. He sat sunk all of a heap in a folding armchair, and was continually clearing his throat and straightening the collar of his coat, which, though it was unbuttoned, still seemed to gall his neck. The generals, as they came in one after another, walked up to the commander-in-chief: he shook hands with some, to others he merely nodded.
The adjutant, Kaisarov, would have drawn back a curtain from the window facing Kutuzov, but the latter shook his hand angrily at him, and Kaisarov saw that his highness did not care for them to see his face.
Round the peasant's deal table, on which lay maps, plans, pencils, and papers, there was such a crowd that the orderlies brought in another bench, and set it near the table. Yermolov, Kaisarov, and Toll seated themselves on this bench. In the foremost place, under the holy images, sat Barclay de Tolly, with his Order of St. George on his neck, with his pale, sickly face and high forehead that met his bald head. He had been in the throes of fever for the last two days, and was shivering and shaking now. Beside him sat Uvarov, speaking to him with rapid gesticulations in the same low voice in which everybody spoke. Little chubby Dohturov was listening attentively with his eyebrows raised and his hands clasped over his stomach. On the other side, resting his broad head on his hand, sat Count Osterman-Tolstoy, with his bold features and brilliant eyes, apparently plunged in his own thoughts. Raevsky sat twisting his black curls on his temples, as he always did, and looking with impatience from Kutuzov to the door. Konovnitsyn's firm, handsome, good-humoured face was bright with a sly and kindly smile. He caught Malasha's eye, and made signs to her with his eyes, that set the little girl smiling.
They were all waiting for Bennigsen, who, on the pretext of a fresh inspection of the position, was engaged in finishing his luxurious dinner. They waited for him from four to six o'clock, and all that time did not enter on their deliberations, but talked of extraneous matters in subdued tones.
Only when Bennigsen had entered the hut, Kutuzov moved out of his corner and came up to the table, but sat there so that his face did not come within the light of the candles on it.
Bennigsen opened the council by the question: Whether to abandon the holy and ancient capital of Russia, or to defend it?
A prolonged silence followed. Every face was knitted, and in the stillness Kutuzov could be heard angrily coughing and clearing his throat. All eyes were fixed on him. Malasha too gazed at “Granddad.”
She was nearest of all to him, and saw that his face was working; he seemed to be going to cry. But that did not last long.
“The holy and ancient capital of Russia!” he cried suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen's words, and thereby underlining the false note in them. “Allow me to tell your excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.” (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.) “Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question. The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: The safety of Russia lies in her army. Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle? That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.” He lurched back into his low chair again.
A debate began. Bennigsen did not yet consider that the game was lost. Overruled by the opinion of Barclay and others in admitting the impossibility of maintaining a defensive position at Fili, he proceeded to prove his Russian patriotism and devotion to Moscow by proposing to move the army during the night from the right to the left flank of the position, and to aim a blow at the French right flank next day. Opinions were divided, and arguments were advanced for and against this project. Yermolov, Dohturov, and Raevsky sided with Bennigsen. Led by a feeling that a sacrifice was called for before abandoning the city, and by other personal considerations, these generals seemed unable to grasp that the council then sitting could not affect the inevitable course of events, and that Moscow was already in effect abandoned. The other generals understood this, and leaving the question of Moscow on one side, talked of the direction the army ought to take in retreating.
Malasha, who kept her eyes fixed on what was passing before her, saw the council in quite a different light. It seemed to her that the whole point at issue was a personal struggle between “Granddad” and “Longcoat,” as she called Bennigsen to herself. She saw that they were angry when they spoke to one another, and in her heart she was on “Granddad's” side. In the middle of the conversation, she caught the swift, subtle glance that “Granddad” gave Bennigsen, and immediately after she noted with glee that “Granddad's” words had put “Longcoat” down. Bennigsen suddenly flushed, and strode angrily across the room. The words that had thus affected Bennigsen were Kutuzov's quietly and softly uttered comment on his proposal to move the troops from the right to the left flank in the night in order to attack the French right.
“I cannot approve of the count's plan, gentlemen,” said Kutuzov. “Movements of troops in close proximity to the enemy are always risky, and military history affords many examples of disasters arising from them. For instance …” (Kutuzov seemed to ponder, seeking an example, and then looking with a frank, naïve expression at Bennigsen) … “well, the battle of Friedland, which, as I have no doubt the count remembers, was not … completely successful owing to the change of the position of the troops in too close proximity to the enemy …”
A momentary silence followed that seemed lengthy to all.
The debate was renewed; but pauses often interrupted it, and it was felt that there was nothing to talk about.
In one of these pauses Kutuzov heaved a heavy sigh, as though preparing to speak. All looked round at him.
“Well, gentlemen, I see that it is I who will have to pay for the broken pots,” he said. And slowly rising from his seat, he walked up to the table. “Gentlemen, I have heard your opinions. Some of you will not agree with me. But I” (he stopped), “by the authority intrusted me by my Tsar and my country, give the order to retire.”
After that the generals began to disperse with the solemnity and circumspect taciturnity with which people separate after a funeral. Several of the generals made some communication to the commander-in-chief in a low voice, pitched in quite a different scale from that in which they had been talking at the council.
Malasha, who had long been expected in the other room to supper, dropped backwards down from the stove, her bare toes clinging to the projections of the stove, and slipping between the generals' legs, she darted out at the door.
After dismissing the generals, Kutuzov sat a long while with his elbows on the table, pondering that terrible question: “When, when had it become inevitable that Moscow should be abandoned? When was the thing done that made it inevitable, and who is to blame for it?”
“This I did not expect!” he said to the adjutant, Schneider, who came in to him late at night; “this I did not expect! This I never thought of!”
“You must rest, your highness,” said Schneider.
“Yes; but they shall eat horse-flesh like the Turks!” Kutuzov cried, not heeding him, as he brought his podgy fist down on the table. “They too, shall eat it, if only …!”