Though Balashev was used to imperial pomp, he was amazed at the luxury and magnificence of Napoleon’s court.The Comte de Turenne showed him into a big reception room where many generals, gentlemen-in-waiting, and Polish magnates- several of whom Balashev had seen at the court of the Emperor of Russia- were waiting. Duroc said that Napoleon would receive the Russian general before going for his ride.
After some minutes, the gentleman-in-waiting who was on duty came into the great reception room and, bowing politely, asked Balashev to follow him.
Balashev went into a small reception room, one door of which led into a study, the very one from which the Russian Emperor had dispatched him on his mission. He stood a minute or two, waiting. He heard hurried footsteps beyond the door, both halves of it were opened rapidly; all was silent and then from the study the sound was heard of other steps, firm and resolute- they were those of Napoleon. He had just finished dressing for his ride, and wore a blue uniform, opening in front over a white waistcoat so long that it covered his rotund stomach, white leather breeches tightly fitting the fat thighs of his short legs, and Hessian boots. His short hair had evidently just been brushed, but one lock hung down in the middle of his broad forehead. His plump white neck stood out sharply above the black collar of his uniform, and he smelled of Eau de Cologne. His full face, rather young-looking, with its prominent chin, wore a gracious and majestic expression of imperial welcome.
He entered briskly, with a jerk at every step and his head slightly thrown back. His whole short corpulent figure with broad thick shoulders, and chest and stomach involuntarily protruding, had that imposing and stately appearance one sees in men of forty who live in comfort. It was evident, too, that he was in the best of spirits that day.
He nodded in answer to Balashav’s low and respectful bow, and coming up to him at once began speaking like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well.
„Good day, General!“ said he. „I have received the letter you brought from the Emperor Alexander and am very glad to see you.“ He glanced with his large eyes into Balashav’s face and immediately looked past him.
It was plain that Balashev’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will.
„I do not, and did not, desire war,“ he continued, „but it has been forced on me. Even now“ (he emphasized the word) „I am ready to receive any explanations you can give me.“
And he began clearly and concisely to explain his reasons for dissatisfaction with the Russian government. Judging by the calmly moderate and amicable tone in which the French Emperor spoke, Balashev was firmly persuaded that he wished for peace and intended to enter into negotiations.
When Napoleon, having finished speaking, looked inquiringly at the Russian envoy, Balashev began a speech he had prepared long before: „Sire! The Emperor, my master…“ but the sight of the Emperor’s eyes bent on him confused him. „You are flurried- compose yourself!“ Napoleon seemed to say, as with a scarcely perceptible smile he looked at Balashev’s uniform and sword.
Balashev recovered himself and began to speak. He said that the Emperor Alexander did not consider Kurakin’s demand for his passports a sufficient cause for war; that Kurakin had acted on his own initiative and without his sovereign’s assent, that the Emperor Alexander did not desire war, and had no relations with England.
„Not yet!“ interposed Napoleon, and, as if fearing to give vent to his feelings, he frowned and nodded slightly as a sign that Balashev might proceed.
After saying all he had been instructed to say, Balashev added that the Emperor Alexander wished for peace, but would not enter into negotiations except on condition that… Here Balashev hesitated: he remembered the words the Emperor Alexander had not written in his letter, but had specially inserted in the rescript to Saltykov and had told Balashev to repeat to Napoleon. Balashev remembered these words, „So long as a single armed foe remains on Russian soil,“ but some complex feeling restrained him. He could not utter them, though he wished to do so. He grew confused and said: „On condition that the French army retires beyond the Niemen.“
Napoleon noticed Balashev’s embarrassment when uttering these last words; his face twitched and the calf of his left leg began to quiver rhythmically. Without moving from where he stood he began speaking in a louder tone and more hurriedly than before. During the speech that followed, Balashev, who more than once lowered his eyes, involuntarily noticed the quivering of Napoleon’s left leg which increased the more Napoleon raised his voice.
„I desire peace, no less than the Emperor Alexander,“ he began. „Have I not for eighteen months been doing everything to obtain it? I have waited eighteen months for explanations. But in order to begin negotiations, what is demanded of me?“ he said, frowning and making an energetic gesture of inquiry with his small white plump hand.
„The withdrawal of your army beyond the Niemen, sire,“ replied Balashev.
„The Niemen?“ repeated Napoleon. „So now you want me to retire beyond the Niemen- only the Niemen?“ repeated Napoleon, looking straight at Balashev.
The latter bowed his head respectfully.
Instead of the demand of four months earlier to withdraw from Pomerania, only a withdrawal beyond the Niemen was now demanded. Napoleon turned quickly and began to pace the room.
„You say the demand now is that I am to withdraw beyond the Niemen before commencing negotiations, but in just the same way two months ago the demand was that I should withdraw beyond the Vistula and the Oder, and yet you are willing to negotiate.“
He went in silence from one corner of the room to the other and again stopped in front of Balashev. Balashev noticed that his left leg was quivering faster than before and his face seemed petrified in its stern expression. This quivering of his left leg was a thing Napoleon was conscious of. „The vibration of my left calf is a great sign with me,“ he remarked at a later date.
„Such demands as to retreat beyond the Vistula and Oder may be made to a Prince of Baden, but not to me!“ Napoleon almost screamed, quite to his own surprise. „If you gave me Petersburg and Moscow I could not accept such conditions. You say I have begun this war! But who first joined his army? The Emperor Alexander, not I! And you offer me negotiations when I have expended millions, when you are in alliance with England, and when your position is a bad one. You offer me negotiations! But what is the aim of your alliance with England? What has she given you?“ he continued hurriedly, evidently no longer trying to show the advantages of peace and discuss its possibility, but only to prove his own rectitude and power and Alexander’s errors and duplicity.
The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words.
The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander- just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview.
„I hear you have made peace with Turkey?“
Balashev bowed his head affirmatively.
„Peace has been concluded…“ he began.
But Napoleon did not let him speak. He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.
„Yes, I know you have made peace with the Turks without obtaining Moldavia and Wallachia; I would have given your sovereign those provinces as I gave him Finland. Yes,“ he went on, „I promised and would have given the Emperor Alexander Moldavia and Wallachia, and now he won’t have those splendid provinces. Yet he might have united them to his empire and in a single reign would have extended Russia from the Gulf of Bothnia to the mouths of the Danube. Catherine the Great could not have done more,“ said Napoleon, growing more and more excited as he paced up and down the room, repeating to Balashev almost the very words he had used to Alexander himself at Tilsit. „All that, he would have owed to my friendship. Oh, what a splendid reign!“ he repeated several times, then paused, drew from his pocket a gold snuffbox, lifted it to his nose, and greedily sniffed at it.
„What a splendid reign the Emperor Alexander’s might have been!“
He looked compassionately at Balashev, and as soon as the latter tried to make some rejoinder hastily interrupted him.
„What could he wish or look for that he would not have obtained through my friendship?“ demanded Napoleon, shrugging his shoulders in perplexity. „But no, he has preferred to surround himself with my enemies, and with whom? With Steins, Armfeldts, Bennigsens, and Wintzingerodes! Stein, a traitor expelled from his own country; Armfeldt, a rake and an intriguer; Wintzingerode, a fugitive French subject; Bennigsen, rather more of a soldier than the others, but all the same an incompetent who was unable to do anything in 1807 and who should awaken terrible memories in the Emperor Alexander’s mind…. Granted that were they competent they might be made use of,“ continued Napoleon- hardly able to keep pace in words with the rush of thoughts that incessantly sprang up, proving how right and strong he was (in his perception the two were one and the same)- „but they are not even that! They are neither fit for war nor peace! Barclay is said to be the most capable of them all, but I cannot say so, judging by his first movements. And what are they doing, all these courtiers? Pfuel proposes, Armfeldt disputes, Bennigsen considers, and Barclay, called on to act, does not know what to decide on, and time passes bringing no result. Bagration alone is a military man. He’s stupid, but he has experience, a quick eye, and resolution…. And what role is your young monarch playing in that monstrous crowd? They compromise him and throw on him the responsibility for all that happens. A sovereign should not be with the army unless he is a general!“ said Napoleon, evidently uttering these words as a direct challenge to the Emperor. He knew how Alexander desired to be a military commander.
„The campaign began only a week ago, and you haven’t even been able to defend Vilna. You are cut in two and have been driven out of the Polish provinces. Your army is grumbling.“
„On the contrary, Your Majesty,“ said Balashev, hardly able to remember what had been said to him and following these verbal fireworks with difficulty, „the troops are burning with eagerness…“
„I know everything!“ Napoleon interrupted him. „I know everything. I know the number of your battalions as exactly as I know my own. You have not two hundred thousand men, and I have three times that number. I give you my word of honor,“ said Napoleon, forgetting that his word of honor could carry no weight- „I give you my word of honor that I have five hundred and thirty thousand men this side of the Vistula. The Turks will be of no use to you; they are worth nothing and have shown it by making peace with you. As for the Swedes- it is their fate to be governed by mad kings. Their king was insane and they changed him for another- Bernadotte, who promptly went mad- for no Swede would ally himself with Russia unless he were mad.“
Napoleon grinned maliciously and again raised his snuffbox to his nose.
Balashev knew how to reply to each of Napoleon’s remarks, and would have done so; he continually made the gesture of a man wishing to say something, but Napoleon always interrupted him. To the alleged insanity of the Swedes, Balashev wished to reply that when Russia is on her side Sweden is practically an island: but Napoleon gave an angry exclamation to drown his voice. Napoleon was in that state of irritability in which a man has to talk, talk, and talk, merely to convince himself that he is in the right. Balashev began to feel uncomfortable: as envoy he feared to demean his dignity and felt the necessity of replying; but, as a man, he shrank before the transport of groundless wrath that had evidently seized Napoleon. He knew that none of the words now uttered by Napoleon had any significance, and that Napoleon himself would be ashamed of them when he came to his senses. Balashev stood with downcast eyes, looking at the movements of Napoleon’s stout legs and trying to avoid meeting his eyes.
„But what do I care about your allies?“ said Napoleon. „I have allies- the Poles. There are eighty thousand of them and they fight like lions. And there will be two hundred thousand of them.“
And probably still more perturbed by the fact that he had uttered this obvious falsehood, and that Balashev still stood silently before him in the same attitude of submission to fate, Napoleon abruptly turned round, drew close to Balashev’s face, and, gesticulating rapidly and energetically with his white hands, almost shouted:
„Know that if you stir up Prussia against me, I’ll wipe it off the map of Europe!“ he declared, his face pale and distorted by anger, and he struck one of his small hands energetically with the other. „Yes, I will throw you back beyond the Dvina and beyond the Dnieper, and will re-erect against you that barrier which it was criminal and blind of Europe to allow to be destroyed. Yes, that is what will happen to you. That is what you have gained by alienating me!“ And he walked silently several times up and down the room, his fat shoulders twitching.
He put his snuffbox into his waistcoat pocket, took it out again, lifted it several times to his nose, and stopped in front of Balashev. He paused, looked ironically straight into Balashev’s eyes, and said in a quiet voice:
„And yet what a splendid reign your master might have had!“
Balashev, feeling it incumbent on him to reply, said that from the Russian side things did not appear in so gloomy a light. Napoleon was silent, still looking derisively at him and evidently not listening to him. Balashev said that in Russia the best results were expected from the war. Napoleon nodded condescendingly, as if to say, „I know it’s your duty to say that, but you don’t believe it yourself. I have convinced you.“
When Balashev had ended, Napoleon again took out his snuffbox, sniffed at it, and stamped his foot twice on the floor as a signal. The door opened, a gentleman-in-waiting, bending respectfully, handed the Emperor his hat and gloves; another brought hima pocket handkerchief. Napoleon, without giving them a glance, turned to Balashev:
„Assure the Emperor Alexander from me,“ said he, taking his hat, „that I am as devoted to him as before: I know him thoroughly and very highly esteem his lofty qualities. I will detain you no longer, General; you shall receive my letter to the Emperor.“
And Napoleon went quickly to the door. Everyone in the reception room rushed forward and descended the staircase.