NINE DAYS after the abandonment of Moscow, a courier from Kutuzov reached Petersburg with the official news of the surrender of Moscow. This courier was a Frenchman, Michaud, who did not know Russian, yet was, “though a foreigner, Russian in heart and soul,” as he used to say of himself.
The Tsar at once received the messenger in his study in the palace of Kamenny island. Michaud, who had never seen Moscow before the campaign, and did not know a word of Russian, yet felt deeply moved when he came before “notre très gracieux souverain” (as he wrote) with the news of the burning of Moscow, whose flames illumined his route.
Though the source of M. Michaud's sorrow must indeed have been different from that to which the grief of Russian people was due, Michaud had such a melancholy face when he was shown into the Tsar's study that the Tsar asked him at once:
“Do you bring me sad news, colonel?”
“Very sad, sire, the surrender of Moscow,” answered Michaud, casting his eyes down with a sigh.
“Can they have surrendered my ancient capital without a battle?” the Tsar asked quickly, suddenly flushing.
Michaud respectfully gave the message he had been commanded to give from Kutuzov, that is, that there was no possibility of fighting before Moscow, and that seeing there was no chance but either to lose the army and Moscow or to lose Moscow alone, the commander-in-chief had been obliged to choose the latter.
The Tsar listened without a word, not looking at Michaud.
“Has the enemy entered the city?” he asked.
“Yes, sire, and by now the city is in ashes. I left it all in flames,” said Michaud resolutely; but glancing at the Tsar, Michaud was horrified at what he had done. The Tsar was breathing hard and rapidly, his lower lip was twitching, and his fine blue eyes were for a moment wet with tears.
But that lasted only a moment. The Tsar suddenly frowned, as though vexed with himself for his own weakness; and raising his head, he addressed Michaud in a firm voice:
“I see, colonel, from all that is happening to us that Providence requires great sacrifices of us. I am ready to submit to His will in everything; but tell me, Michaud, how did you leave the army, seeing my ancient capital thus abandoned without striking a blow? Did you not perceive discouragement?”
Seeing that his most gracious sovereign had regained his composure, Michaud too regained his; but to the Tsar's direct question of a matter of fact which called for a direct answer, he had not yet an answer ready. “Sire, will you permit me to speak frankly, as a loyal soldier?” he said, to gain time.
“Colonel, I always expect it,” said the Tsar. “Hide nothing from me; I want to know absolutely how it is.”
“Sire!” said Michaud, with a delicate, scarcely perceptible smile on his lips, as he had now had time to prepare his answer in the form of a light and respectful play of words. “Sire! I left the whole army, from the commanders to the lowest soldier without exception, in extreme, in desperate terror.”
“How so?” the Tsar interrupted, frowning sternly. “My Russians let themselves be cast down by misfortune?…Never…”
This was just what Michaud was waiting for to get in his phrases.
“Sire,” he said, with a respectful playfulness of expression, “they fear only that your majesty through goodness of heart may let yourself be persuaded to make peace. They burn to fight,” said the plenipotentiary of the Russian people, “and to prove to your majesty by the sacrifice of their lives how devoted they are…”
“Ah!” said the Tsar, reassured, slapping Michaud on the shoulder, with a friendly light in his eyes. “You tranquillise me, colonel…”
The Tsar looked down, and for some time he was silent. “Well, go back to the army,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height and with a genial and majestic gesture addressing Michaud, “and tell our brave fellows, tell all my good subjects wherever you go, that when I have not a soldier left, I will put myself at the head of my dear nobility, of my good peasants, and so use the last resources of my empire. It offers me still more than my enemies suppose,” said the Tsar, more and more stirred. “But if it should be written in the decrees of divine Providence,” he said, and his fine, mild eyes, shining with emotion, were raised towards heaven, “that my dynasty should cease to reign on the throne of my ancestors, then after exhausting every means in my power, I would let my beard grow to here” (the Tsar put his hand halfway down his breast), “and go and eat potatoes with the meanest of my peasants rather than sign the shame of my country and my dear people, whose sacrifice I know how to appreciate.” Uttering these words in a voice of much feeling, the Tsar turned quickly away, as though wishing to conceal from Michaud the tears that were starting into his eyes, and he walked to the further end of his study. After standing there some instants, he strode back to Michaud, and with a vigorous action squeezed his arm below the elbow. The Tsar's fine, mild face was flushed, and his eyes gleamed with energy and anger. “Colonel Michaud, do not forget what I say to you here; perhaps one day we shall recall it with pleasure.…Napoleon or me,” he said, touching his breast, “we can no longer reign together. I have learned to know him. He will not deceive me again…” And the Tsar paused, frowning. Hearing these words, seeing the look of firm determination in the Tsar's eyes, Michaud, though a foreigner, Russian in heart and soul, felt (as he used to recount later) at that solemn moment moved to enthusiasm by what he had just heard; and in the following phrase he sought to give expression to his own feelings and those of the Russian people, whose representative he considered himself to be.
“Sire!” he said, “your majesty is signing at this moment the glory of the nation and the salvation of Europe!”
With a motion of his head the Tsar dismissed Michaud.