At two in the morning of the fourteenth of June, the Emperor, having sent for Balashëv and read him his letter to Napoleon, ordered him to take it and hand it personally to the French Emperor. When dispatching Balashëv, the Emperor repeated to him the words that he would not make peace so long as a single armed enemy remained on Russian soil and told him to transmit those words to Napoleon. Alexander did not insert them in his letter to Napoleon, because with his characteristic tact he felt it would be injudicious to use them at a moment when a last attempt at reconciliation was being made, but he definitely instructed Balashëv to repeat them personally to Napoleon.
Having set off in the small hours of the fourteenth, accompanied by a bugler and two Cossacks, Balashëv reached the French outposts at the village of Rykónty, on the Russian side of the Niemen, by dawn. There he was stopped by French cavalry sentinels.
A French noncommissioned officer of hussars, in crimson uniform and a shaggy cap, shouted to the approaching Balashëv to halt. Balashëv did not do so at once, but continued to advance along the road at a walking pace.
The noncommissioned officer frowned and, muttering words of abuse, advanced his horse’s chest against Balashëv, put his hand to his saber, and shouted rudely at the Russian general, asking: was he deaf that he did not do as he was told? Balashëv mentioned who he was. The noncommissioned officer began talking with his comrades about regimental matters without looking at the Russian general.
After living at the seat of the highest authority and power, after conversing with the Emperor less than three hours before, and in general being accustomed to the respect due to his rank in the service, Balashëv found it very strange here on Russian soil to encounter this hostile, and still more this disrespectful, application of brute force to himself.
The sun was only just appearing from behind the clouds, the air was fresh and dewy. A herd of cattle was being driven along the road from the village, and over the fields the larks rose trilling, one after another, like bubbles rising in water.
Balashëv looked around him, awaiting the arrival of an officer from the village. The Russian Cossacks and bugler and the French hussars looked silently at one another from time to time.
A French colonel of hussars, who had evidently just left his bed, came riding from the village on a handsome sleek gray horse, accompanied by two hussars. The officer, the soldiers, and their horses all looked smart and well kept.
It was that first period of a campaign when troops are still in full trim, almost like that of peacetime maneuvers, but with a shade of martial swagger in their clothes, and a touch of the gaiety and spirit of enterprise which always accompany the opening of a campaign.
The French colonel with difficulty repressed a yawn, but was polite and evidently understood Balashëv’s importance. He led him past his soldiers and behind the outposts and told him that his wish to be presented to the Emperor would most likely be satisfied immediately, as the Emperor’s quarters were, he believed, not far off.
They rode through the village of Rykónty, past tethered French hussar horses, past sentinels and men who saluted their colonel and stared with curiosity at a Russian uniform, and came out at the other end of the village. The colonel said that the commander of the division was a mile and a quarter away and would receive Balashëv and conduct him to his destination.
The sun had by now risen and shone gaily on the bright verdure.
They had hardly ridden up a hill, past a tavern, before they saw a group of horsemen coming toward them. In front of the group, on a black horse with trappings that glittered in the sun, rode a tall man with plumes in his hat and black hair curling down to his shoulders. He wore a red mantle, and stretched his long legs forward in French fashion. This man rode toward Balashëv at a gallop, his plumes flowing and his gems and gold lace glittering in the bright June sunshine.
Balashëv was only two horses’ length from the equestrian with the bracelets, plumes, necklaces, and gold embroidery, who was galloping toward him with a theatrically solemn countenance, when Julner, the French colonel, whispered respectfully: “The King of Naples!” It was, in fact, Murat, now called “King of Naples.” Though it was quite incomprehensible why he should be King of Naples, he was called so, and was himself convinced that he was so, and therefore assumed a more solemn and important air than formerly. He was so sure that he really was the King of Naples that when, on the eve of his departure from that city, while walking through the streets with his wife, some Italians called out to him: “Viva il re!”[*] he turned to his wife with a pensive smile and said: “Poor fellows, they don’t know that I am leaving them tomorrow!”
But though he firmly believed himself to be King of Naples and pitied the grief felt by the subjects he was abandoning, latterly, after he had been ordered to return to military service—and especially since his last interview with Napoleon in Danzig, when his august brother-in-law had told him: “I made you King that you should reign in my way, but not in yours!”—he had cheerfully taken up his familiar business, and—like a well-fed but not overfat horse that feels himself in harness and grows skittish between the shafts—he dressed up in clothes as variegated and expensive as possible, and gaily and contentedly galloped along the roads of Poland, without himself knowing why or whither.
On seeing the Russian general he threw back his head, with its long hair curling to his shoulders, in a majestically royal manner, and looked inquiringly at the French colonel. The colonel respectfully informed His Majesty of Balashëv’s mission, whose name he could not pronounce.
“De Bal-machève!” said the King (overcoming by his assurance the difficulty that had presented itself to the colonel). “Charmed to make your acquaintance, General!” he added, with a gesture of kingly condescension.
As soon as the King began to speak loud and fast his royal dignity instantly forsook him, and without noticing it he passed into his natural tone of good-natured familiarity. He laid his hand on the withers of Balashëv’s horse and said:
“Well, General, it all looks like war,” as if regretting a circumstance of which he was unable to judge.
“Your Majesty,” replied Balashëv, “my master, the Emperor, does not desire war and as Your Majesty sees...” said Balashëv, using the words Your Majesty at every opportunity, with the affectation unavoidable in frequently addressing one to whom the title was still a novelty.
Murat’s face beamed with stupid satisfaction as he listened to “Monsieur de Bal-machève.” But royauté oblige![*] and he felt it incumbent on him, as a king and an ally, to confer on state affairs with Alexander’s envoy. He dismounted, took Balashëv’s arm, and moving a few steps away from his suite, which waited respectfully, began to pace up and down with him, trying to speak significantly. He referred to the fact that the Emperor Napoleon had resented the demand that he should withdraw his troops from Prussia, especially when that demand became generally known and the dignity of France was thereby offended.
Balashëv replied that there was “nothing offensive in the demand, because...” but Murat interrupted him.
“Then you don’t consider the Emperor Alexander the aggressor?” he asked unexpectedly, with a kindly and foolish smile.
Balashëv told him why he considered Napoleon to be the originator of the war.
“Oh, my dear general!” Murat again interrupted him, “with all my heart I wish the Emperors may arrange the affair between them, and that the war begun by no wish of mine may finish as quickly as possible!” said he, in the tone of a servant who wants to remain good friends with another despite a quarrel between their masters.
And he went on to inquiries about the Grand Duke and the state of his health, and to reminiscences of the gay and amusing times he had spent with him in Naples. Then suddenly, as if remembering his royal dignity, Murat solemnly drew himself up, assumed the pose in which he had stood at his coronation, and, waving his right arm, said:
“I won’t detain you longer, General. I wish success to your mission,” and with his embroidered red mantle, his flowing feathers, and his glittering ornaments, he rejoined his suite who were respectfully awaiting him.
Balashëv rode on, supposing from Murat’s words that he would very soon be brought before Napoleon himself. But instead of that, at the next village the sentinels of Davout’s infantry corps detained him as the pickets of the vanguard had done, and an adjutant of the corps commander, who was fetched, conducted him into the village to Marshal Davout.
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