The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 15
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Chapter XV: The Martyr City
|Chapter XVI: Alexander→|
THE MARTYR CITY.
"Thou to thy rest art gone,
THE slow hours that had dragged their weary length since the evacuation of the doomed city began, seemed a lifetime to Ivan. He almost felt as if the suspense, the dull, hushed lull of expectation that was not hope and yet was scarcely fear, would never end. But the end came at length, and from that hour events followed each other with tremendous, bewildering rapidity.
Ivan was in the Kremlin, distributing arms to the workmen whom he found there, when some one cried that the French were fording the Moskva (the Russian general, Miloradovitch, having broken down the bridges). Ivan sprang to the nearest point of observation, and saw some horsemen in fantastic uniforms, and bringing with them a couple of guns, actually crossing the stream. A personage, splendidly attired and surrounded by a brilliant staff, was directing their movements, and apparently preparing to follow them. This, though Ivan knew it not, was Murat, King of Naples, who was leading the French vanguard, thirsting for glory and plunder, and already devouring with covetous eyes the fabulous treasures of the Kremlin.
Ivan returned to his companions. "God has delivered them into our hands," he said. "We will let them cross the ford, and then—"
What followed may be learned from Murat's own confession found in an intercepted letter to his wife. "Never in my life," wrote the King of Naples, "was I in such wild danger." First a sharp fire of musketry saluted the advancing French; then the workmen and the populace sprang upon them "with maniac fury," and fought "like demons." The two pieces of cannon which Murat had with him, and which were loaded with grape-shot, eventually decided the contest, but not until a colonel of engineers and a large number of soldiers had fallen.
After the fray Michael saw Ivan, covered with dust and mortar, leaning against a wall which had just been struck by a shot. "Are you hurt, Barrinka?" he asked.
"No," said Ivan, shaking the mortar from his clothes; "I am all right. And you too, I hope? We must not throw away our lives, Michael; there is too much still to be done. Come with me to the prison."
"Anywhere with you, Barrinka. See, though I could not use a gun, I have killed Nyemtzi." And Michael triumphantly displayed a short sabre dyed with blood.
"Where did you get that?" asked Ivan.
"Took it from one of themselves. That is French blood upon the blade," said Michael, with an air of intense satisfaction.
The Wertsch palace was directly in their way, and Ivan went in, saying, with a determined air, "I will hear no more excuses from the countess now. Go she must; her hour has come."
Her hour had come—in a sense other and more solemn than Ivan meant. The waiting-woman Maria met him in the saloon, and told him with many tears that her mistress was dying. At the tidings that the French had actually entered holy Moscow, so terrible was her agitation that she had broken a blood- vessel, and was now beyond the reach of human aid. Ivan despatched a messenger for Pope Yefim—the only priest he knew who had not left the city—while he himself hastened to the side of the dying woman, to whom he thought his presence might be a comfort.
He was too late. The countess had sunk into a state of unconsciousness, and only faint occasional sighs showed that life lingered still. As he stood in the darkened room beside the motionless form, thoughts of death, at once more solemn and more true than any that had come to him before, stole into his heart. There was a sense of reality about this slow sinking of the powers of nature which he had not felt in any of the wild and stormy perils he had braved and was braving still. That living soul, that personal mind and will, but yesterday so pronounced and active, where was it? "Whither was it going? Ivan did not know. With him all the future was mist and fog—" a land of darkness, as darkness itself." And for a moment his strong heart almost quailed as there swept over it those old yet ever new apprehensions and doubts, those
"Blank misgivings of a creature
But this mood passed as quickly as it came. He dared not linger; every moment was of importance now. With one sad look of farewell he went his way, and was soon absorbed in preparations for the great and terrible sacrifice which was approaching so quickly.
He did not forget to send a messenger to the dwelling of Petrovitch to learn the latest tidings of the heroic old man; and was told that he had left the house, with his grandson Feodor, on the first intimation of the approach of the French.
The first regiment of Frenchmen who advanced that day along the great Smolensko road to the Gate of Triumph could have told Ivan something more. Just outside the gate, under a green and spreading oak-tree, sat a venerable old man, with hair and beard of silver whiteness; while beside him stood a slight, tall stripling of some sixteen summers. The boy held a gun in his hand, and as the French advanced, he took deliberate aim at their leader, who was conspicuous on his stately horse, his plumed cap waving in the wind. In. a moment more the horse was riderless and the plumes were trailing in the dust.
This was the signal for a dozen Frenchmen with drawn sabres to spring at once upon the old man and the boy. "It is I whom you ought to kill," cried Petrovitch; "for it was I who armed him and bade him fire upon you." Feodor meanwhile took two pistols from his belt and discharged them against his assailants; then drawing a poniard, he defended his aged grandfather, until at last he fell overpowered by numbers and covered with wounds. Nor did the snow-white hairs of the patriarch save him from the same fate.
It is said that an hour afterwards Napoleon passed the spot attended by his staff. With a look of horror he turned away and drew his horse to the other side of the road, saying to those around him, "Such a venerable old man! It was a cowardly murder."
Night fell over the doomed city, and a full moon illumined its fair minarets and domes with a robe of silver light. But to the French, as they entered, it seemed like the deserted camp of the Syrians—"Behold, there was no man there, neither voice of man," except a few trembling servants, who led the conquerors into the abandoned dwellings of their lords, and showed them the rich furniture, the costly provisions, the rare wines which they had left behind them. In some cases even the unfinished embroidery of the ladies was found lying as it had fallen from their hands.
Yet the city had not surrendered to the enemy. No one brought the keys to Napoleon; no one entreated his mercy or deprecated his vengeance. The strange silence touched even his haughty soul with surprise and misgiving. In all Moscow there remained not one person with whom he could communicate, not one of sufficient importance to answer his inquiries or to receive and execute his commands. The only official he could find was the director of the Foundling Hospital, who had refused to desert his helpless little flock at the coming of the wolf.
The Bourse and the buildings around it were already wrapped in flames when the French entered the city; but the immense extent of Moscow prevented anything like a general alarm, and the first four-and-twenty hours of the Occupation passed quietly away. On the following night,—however a night much to be remembered in the annals of Russia, of Europe, and of freedom, that of the 15th of September—the sad Russian host on its weary march, and the immense crowd of weeping fugitives that followed it, beheld a sight magnificent indeed but most terrible. A sheet of flame, fanned by a tempestuous wind, grew and spread until it wrapped the wide extent of the devoted city like a shroud of fire. The entire horizon was illuminated. Three quarters of a league away men could see to read by the lurid light. Nor did the dawn of day bring any respite to the horror. The sun turned sickening from the scene, its pale beams unable to contend with that fierce red glare. Another sun arose, and yet another;—still the conflagration raged. It took six awful days and nights to consume that holocaust, the grandest the world has ever seen. But when at last the flames died slowly out, nine-tenths of the ancient capital of the Czar were laid in ashes.
- Her persistence in remaining in the city and her death are historical.