AT FOUR O'CLOCK in the afternoon, Murat's troops entered Moscow. In front rode a detachment of Würtemberg hussars, behind, with an immense suite, rode the King of Naples himself.
Near the middle of Arbaty, close to Nikola Yavlenny, Murat halted to await information from the detachment in advance as to the condition in which the citadel of the city, “le Kremlin,” had been found.
A small group of inhabitants of Moscow had gathered about Murat. All stared with timid astonishment at the strange figure of the long-haired commander, decked in gold and feathers.
“Why, is this their Tsar himself? Nought amiss with him,” voices were heard saying softly.
An interpreter approached the group of gazers.
“Caps … caps off,” they muttered, turning to each other in the little crowd. The interpreter accosted one old porter, and asked him if it were far to the Kremlin. The porter, listening with surprise to the unfamiliar Polish accent, and not recognising the interpreter's words for Russian, had no notion what was being said to him, and took refuge behind the others.
Murat approached the interpreter, and told him to ask where were the Russian troops. One of the Russians understood this question, and several voices began answering the interpreter simultaneously. A French officer from the detachment in advance rode up to Murat and reported that the gates into the citadel were blocked up, and that probably there was an ambush there.
“Good,” said Murat, and turning to one of the gentlemen of his suite, he commanded four light cannons to be moved forward, and the gates to be shelled upon.
The artillery came trotting out from the column following Murat, and advanced along Arbaty. When they reached the end of Vosdvizhenka the artillery halted and drew up in the square. Several French officers superintended the placing of the cannon some distance apart, and looked at the Kremlin through a field-glass. A bell was ringing in the Kremlin for evening service, and that sound troubled the French. They supposed that it was the call to arms. Several infantry soldiers ran to the Kutafyev gateway. A barricade of beams and planks lay across the gateway. Two musket shots rang out from the gates, just as an officer with some men were running up to them. The general standing by the cannons shouted some words of command to the officer, and the officer and the soldiers ran back.
Three more shots were heard from the gate. One shot grazed the leg of a French soldier, and a strange shout of several voices rose from behind the barricade. Instantaneously, as though at the word of command, the expression of good humour and serenity on the faces of the French general, officers, and men was replaced by a stubborn, concentrated expression of readiness for conflict and suffering. To all of them, from the marshal to the lowest soldier, this place was not Vosdvizhenka, Mohova, Kutaf, and the Troitsky gates; it was a new battlefield, likely to be the scene of a bloody conflict. And all were ready for that conflict. The shouts from the gates died away. The cannons were moved forward. The artillerymen quenched the burning linstocks. An officer shouted “Fire!” and two whistling sounds of clinking tin rang out one after another. The grapeshot fell rattling on the stone of the gateway, on the beams and screens of planks, and two clouds of smoke rolled over the square.
Some instants after the echoes of the shots had died away over the stone Kremlin, a strange sound was heard over the heads of the French. An immense flock of jackdaws rose above the walls and swept round in the air with loud caws, and the whir of thousands of wings. Together with this sound, there rose a solitary human cry at the gate, and the figure of a man bareheaded, in a long peasant's coat, came into sight through the smoke. Holding a gun up, he took aim at the French. “Fire!” repeated the artillery officer, and at the same instant one rifle shot and two cannon shots were heard. The gate was again hidden in smoke.
Nothing more stirred behind the barricade, and the French infantry soldiers with their officers passed in at the gate. In the gateway lay three men wounded and four dead. Two men in long peasant-coats had run away along the walls toward Znamenka.
“Clear this away,” said the officer, pointing to the beams and the corpses; and the French soldiers finished off the wounded, and flung the corpses over the fence below. Who these men were nobody knew. “Clear this away!” was all that was said of them, and they were flung away that they might not stink. Thiers has indeed devoted some eloquent lines to their memories. “These wretches had invaded the sacred citadel, had taken possession of the guns of the arsenal, and fired (the wretches) on the French. Some of them were sabred, and the Kremlin was purged of their presence.”
Murat was informed that the way had been cleared. The French entered the gates, and began pitching their camp on Senate-house Square. The soldiers flung the chairs out of the windows of the Senate-house into the square, and began making fires.
Other detachments marched across the Kremlin and encamped in Moroseyka, Lubyanka, and Pokrovka. Others pitched their camps in Vosdvizhenka, Znamenka, Nikolskaya, and Tverskaya. Not finding citizens to entertain them, the French everywhere bivouacked as in a camp pitched in a town, instead of quartering themselves on the houses.
Tattered, hungry, and exhausted, as they were, and dwindled to one-third their original numbers, the French soldiers yet entered Moscow in good discipline. It was a harassed and exhausted, yet still active and menacing army. But it was an army only up to the moment when the soldiers of the army dispersed all over the town. As soon as the soldiers began to disperse about the wealthy, deserted houses, the army was lost for ever, and in its place was a multitude of men, neither citizens nor soldiers, but something nondescript between, known as marauders. When five weeks later these same men set out from Moscow, they no longer made up an army. They were a mob of marauders, each of whom carried or dragged along with him a mass of objects he regarded as precious and useful. The aim of each of these men on leaving Moscow was not, as it had been, to fight as a soldier, but simply to keep the booty he had obtained. Like the ape, who slipping his hand into the narrow neck of a pitcher, and snatching up a handful of nuts inside it, will not open his fist for fear of losing his prize, even to his own ruin, the French on leaving Moscow were inevitably bound to come to ruin, because they dragged their plunder along with them, and it seemed as impossible to them to fling away their booty as it seems to the ape to let go of the nuts. Ten minutes after the several French regiments had dispersed about the various quarters of Moscow, not a soldier nor an officer was left among them. At the windows of the houses men could be seen in military coats and Hessian boots, laughing and strolling through the rooms. In the cellars, in the storerooms similar men were busily looking after the provisions; in the courtyards they were unlocking or breaking open the doors of sheds and stables; in the kitchens they were making up fires, and with bare arms mixing, kneading, and baking, and frightening, or trying to coax and amuse, women and children. Men there were in plenty everywhere, in all the shops and houses; but the army was no more.
That day one order after another was issued by the French commanders forbidding the troops to disperse about the town, sternly forbidding violence to the inhabitants, and pillaging, and proclaiming that a general roll-call was to take place that evening. But in spite of all such measures the men, who had made up an army, flowed about the wealthy, deserted city, so richly provided with luxuries and comforts. Like a starved herd, that keeps together crossing a barren plain, but at once on reaching rich pastures inevitably strays apart and scatters over them, the army was irresistibly lured into scattering over the wealthy town.
Moscow was without its inhabitants, and the soldiers were sucked up in her, like water into sand, as they flowed away irresistibly in all directions from the Kremlin, which they had entered first. Cavalry soldiers who had entered a merchant's house abandoned with all its belongings, and finding stabling for their horses and to spare, yet went on to take the house next door, which seemed to them better. Many took several houses, chalking their names on them, and quarrelled and even fought with other companies for their possession. Soldiers had no sooner succeeded in securing quarters than they ran along the street to look at the town, and on hearing that everything had been abandoned, hurried off where objects of value could be carried off for nothing. The officers followed to check the soldiers, and were involuntarily lured into doing the same. In Carriage Row shops had been abandoned stocked with carriages, and the generals flocked thither to choose coaches and carriages for themselves. The few inhabitants who had stayed on invited the officers into their houses, hoping thereby to secure themselves against being robbed. Wealth there was in abundance: there seemed no end to it. Everywhere all round the parts occupied by the French there were unexplored regions unoccupied beyond, in which the French fancied there were even more riches to be found. And Moscow absorbed them further and further into herself. Just as when water flows over dry land, water and dry land alike disappear and are lost in mud, so when the hungry army entered the wealthy, deserted city, the army and the wealth of the city both perished; and fires and marauding bands sprang up where they had been.
The French ascribed the burning of Moscow au patriotisme féroce de Rastoptchine; the Russians to the savagery of the French. In reality, explanations of the fire of Moscow, in the sense of the conflagration being brought home to the door of any one person or group of persons, there have never been, and never could be. Moscow was burned because she was placed in conditions in which any town built of wood was bound to be burned, quite apart from the question whether there were or were not one hundred and thirty inefficient fire-engines in the town. Moscow was sure to be burned, because her inhabitants had gone away, as inevitably as a heap of straw is sure to be burned where sparks are scattered on it for several days in succession. A town of wooden houses, in which when the police and the inhabitants owning the houses are in possession of it, fires are of daily occurrence, cannot escape being burned when its inhabitants are gone and it is filled with soldiers smoking pipes, making fires in Senate-house Square of the Senate-house chairs, and cooking themselves meals twice a day. In times of peace, whenever troops are quartered on villages in any district, the number of fires in the district at once increases. How greatly must the likelihood of fires be increased in an abandoned town, built of wood, and occupied by foreign soldiers! Le patriotisme féroce de Rastoptchine and the savagery of the French do not come into the question. Moscow was burned through the pipes, the kitchen stoves, and camp-fires, through the recklessness of the enemy's soldiers, who lived in the houses without the care of householders. Even if there were cases of incendiarism (which is very doubtful, because no one had any reason for incendiarism, and in any case such a crime is a troublesome and dangerous one), there is no need to accept incendiarism as the cause, for the conflagration would have been inevitable anyway without it.
Soothing as it was to the vanity of the French to throw the blame on the ferocity of Rastoptchin, and to that of the Russians to throw the blame on the miscreant Bonaparte, or later on to place the heroic torch in the hand of its patriot peasantry, we cannot disguise from ourselves that there could be no such direct cause of the fire, since Moscow was as certain to be burned as any village, factory, or house forsaken by its owners, and used as a temporary shelter and cooking-place by strangers. Moscow was burned by her inhabitants, it is true; but not by the inhabitants who had lingered on, but by the inhabitants who had abandoned her. Moscow did not, like Berlin, Vienna, and other towns, escape harm while in the occupation of the enemy, simply because her inhabitants did not receive the French with the keys, and the bread and salt of welcome, but abandoned her.