The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 31
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Chapter XXXI: Leaves from Letters
|Chapter XXXII: Two Returns, One of Them Not Expected→|
LEAVES FROM LETTERS.
"Umile in tanta gloria."—Petrach.
THE bright spring-tide had ripened into a yet brighter summer, when one day Clémence entered the parlour where the two elder ladies sat at work. Her cheeks were glowing, and she held in her hand several closely-written sheets of paper. "Dear aunt and dear mother," she said, "I thought you would like me to read for you part of the letter from—St. Petersburg."
"Yes, dear child," answered Madame de Talmont tenderly. "I am sorry Henri is not here. He was so anxious about it."
Henri had gone to Brie, that he might bring to the sorrowing family of his "true comrade," Mathieu Féron, what comfort he could—at least the mournful comfort of certainty.
Madame de Salgues motioned Clémence to a footstool near her. "We shall be glad to hear of M. Pojarsky," she said kindly, but as if the kindness was not quite without an effort.
From the first sheet Clémence read scarcely anything. "He says that his journey has been prosperous," she explained in general terms, "but that he feels a little solitary without—without us all." It must be owned that this was a very tame and inadequate rendering of the eloquent original, which she kept to herself. At length she began to read: "'You will remember our last expedition to Paris on the day of the king's triumphal entry, and Henri's pleased surprise when he found how completely the Czar kept himself and his Russians out of sight, only mingling incognito with the crowd of spectators, that none might say of the son of St. Louis, "Foreign bayonets have brought him back to his capital." You said to me then, "Think what a welcome they will give him in St. Petersburg! That will be a triumph to throw this one completely into the shade!" And Henri added, "Would that I could see it! But you must tell us all about it when you write." I must so far as I can; but it would be impossible to paint the rapture of enthusiasm, of loyalty, of gratitude with which his return was awaited. Think of it! Russia not only delivered from her enemies, but set upon a pinnacle of glory she had never known before. In less than two short years, the invader driven back from our capital to his own, stripped of the power he had misused, and hurled from the throne he had disgraced, France conquered, rescued, forgiven.'"
"If there is much more about the conquest of France, you may pass it over," said Madame de Salgues rather tartly. "Of course, M. Pojarsky writes as a Russian."
"The honour of France is dear—at least to some Russians," Clémence answered with a heightened colour. She went on: "'Three long days did the Senate spend in debating what Russia should do to show her gratitude to the Czar Alexander Paulovitch. Other princes had been given high-sounding titles, had been styled in their life-time the Great, the Magnificent, the Invincible, or, still more honourable, the Well-beloved—and for him surely that would have been appropriate. But some who knew the heart of our Czar spoke and said, "Such titles would give the honour to himself alone; let us find one which brings it back to God. That will please him best." "Blessed of Heaven" was the name chosen at last. Would it not have sounded well in the long and glorious line of our Czars, Alexander Paulovitch, the Blessed of Heaven? Moreover, they planned to erect in St. Petersburg, in the Isaac's Square, a splendid monument, grander than your column of the Place Vendôme, to celebrate his glory and familiarize to every eye the names of his victories. They sent a deputation proposing these things, and at the same time praying him to accept the Grand Order of St. George, the highest and rarest of our military distinctions; and to allow them to organize—or rather to permit, for the people were but too willing—public receptions, fêtes, illuminations, on the most magnificent scale.
"'I marvel, Clémence, whether you will be disappointed, as I was, when you hear his answer. In no words but his own can I tell it. This is what he wrote to the Senate: "I most earnestly desire and implore the benediction of the Most High upon the nation he has confided to me, that I may be blessed by my dear and faithful subjects, and, if possible, by the whole human race. But though I desire to attain this end, I cannot flatter myself that I have attained it; nor can I permit myself to accept this surname, for I should give the lie to nry own principles in offering my faithful subjects an example so contrary to the sentiments of moderation and the spirit of humility that I am endeavouring to inculcate. Therefore, while expressing my deepest gratitude, I request the Senate to regard these things as though they had never been. Raise a monument for me in your hearts, as there is one for you in mine. May my people bless me, even as I also bless them. May Russia be happy, and may the Divine benediction rest upon her and upon me." "It is for posterity," he said after wards, " to erect me a monument if they think me worthy of it." The Grand Order of St. George he declined to accept, because it is only given to a general who has saved the country from imminent danger, conducted a successful campaign, or gained a great battle. He had not personally performed any of these things, he said; though it may be that in this particular posterity will not agree with him. "This arm," added he, "has done no more than another man's." As for fêtes, illuminations, and processions, he requested most earnestly that the money which would have been expended upon these should be used for the succour of the widows and orphans made by the war. To insure this as far as he could, he came back to his capital, unannounced and unattended, some days before he was expected. He went first to the Church of Kazan to pray, then to the Winter Palace to see his mother. That was all. Next day there was a solemn thanksgiving service in the cathedral. I trust that to many of us it was no empty ceremony, and that the words, "Not us! not us! but His name!" went up from our hearts as well as from our lips.
"'Yet I will own that at first I was disappointed and that bitterly—at the self-abnegation of my Czar. But now I am more than content; I am rejoiced that he has put aside the intoxicating cup that was borne to his lips. I am learning to see more honour in humility than in monuments, decorations, high-sounding titles.
"'He intends soon to hold a levee for the especial benefit of the officers who have been wounded during the war; and we are invited, each of us, to state his wants and desires directly to himself. I will not say that I long for this opportunity—nor perhaps could I say it with truth. For I trust. I leave with perfect confidence my future—our future, which is infinitely more in the hands of my God and of my sovereign.
"'Yesterday I called upon General Soltikoff, who showed me so much kindness two years ago. He looks greatly aged and broken; indeed, I fear the days of mourning for the noble old man are at hand. But he was kind and thoughtful as ever. He told me he had just had the honour of presenting a memorial to the Czar upon a matter which nearly concerned me, but that at present he could say no more, as his Imperial Majesty had expressed a wish to be himself my informant. This has piqued my curiosity not a little, as you may readily imagine. I conclude he will speak to me about it at the levee.'"
This was as much of her letter as Clémence saw fit to read aloud. One more paragraph may, however, be given here: "My beloved, I read every day the little book you gave me." (The parting gifts of Clemence to her betrothed had been the sketch of his mother pencilled by her father's hand, and that treasury of heavenward aspiration, so loved by devout and earnest souls like hers, the "Imitation of Christ.") "It is grand and beautiful, but terrible to me. I feel more and more, as I read, how full of sin, how utterly unworthy and vile I am—how far from being wholly detached from the world and given up to Christ. Then I go back to my Bible, and that makes me feel my own unworthiness yet more deeply; but it also makes me think of the love of God and the gentleness of Christ, and thinking upon these I have hope. There are some words of yours that often come to my mind. You said that the day you saw me first, lying wounded in the hospital, you were surprised and touched to hear me say I could not help rejoicing in the triumph of my Czar, though I had no share in it. You said it made you think that if you truly loved your King and Saviour, you would be able even thus to rejoice in him, however it might be with yourself. When I read his own good and gracious words, and think what he is, and what he has done for us, I seem to understand your meaning. But I am very ignorant; and oh, how I need you to teach me—you, beloved, so much wiser and better than I. I often marvel how you deigned to care for me at all. I think it could not have come about had not a ray of light reflected from my Czar fallen upon me." The letter did not by any means end there; but there may fitly end the extracts presented to the general reader. Of course many courteous and grateful messages to Madame de Salgues, Madame de Talmont, and Henri found a place ere it was concluded, and these were duly delivered by Clémence.
About a week afterwards another letter arrived, and Henri had now returned to share its tidings. At first Clémence did not read any part of it aloud; she only told its contents more or less fully. Afterwards she read some portions of it to her mother. It ran thus:—
"St. Petersburg, Wednesday Night.
"My Beloved,—It is with a full heart—half glad, half sorrowful that I write to thee to-night. God has been good to me good beyond my utmost dreams; for has he not given me thee? But in the sweetest cup some longed-for drop of sweetness is still lacking; in the brightest life some brightness is still wanting some cherished wish ungranted. God wills it so, and his will is best. Since my childhood a strong untold longing has lain hidden in the depths of my heart. Now I know it can never be fulfilled never—on this side of the grave. The old hope, the hope of my boyhood and youth, is gone from me. I cannot help these few tears which are falling on the page as I write. But do not heed them; they are not tears of bitterness—for I have been, comforted. I am going to tell you how.
"To-day the Imperial reception of which I told you was held for the wounded officers. It was crowded. Amongst those who were present I saw Count Rostopchine, to whom I shall always feel grateful, because he was the first man who gave me work to do, and bade me go and do it. He looks ill and haggard. It is said he sees nothing day or night except the flames of Moscow. The world gives him the credit of the conflagration; and I cannot say that in this instance the world is mistaken, although hitherto it has been the fashion here to assume that it was done by the French. The count has made himself very unpopular by his severities towards those who were suspected of favouring the invaders, and it is not thought that he will continue in office. He has nobly refused to accept any compensation for his own enormous losses in the doomed city.
"I suppose I am writing all this just to make you a sharer in my own long suspense and weary waiting. I thought my turn for a word from my sovereign would never come, there were so many present older than I. Besides, on such occasions his Majesty never is in haste. He speaks to each: the words perhaps are few, but they are so spoken that each feels that his own particular case and circumstances are for the time the sole objects of attention. But my five minutes came at last, and proved enough to crown my long patience with an abundant reward. A kindly question or two about my wound was asked and answered; and then, without further preface, the Emperor spoke to me of my father. He said that after our first interview he had requested General Soltikoff to ascertain whether he yet lived, and that, 'during our absence,' the general had succeeded in obtaining full information about him. 'He will give you the papers to-morrow,' he added—and paused for a moment. Something in his face told me my father was no more, and almost unawares the words passed my lips, 'He is dead, sire.' 'I wish I could say you are mistaken,' he answered. 'All was different from what we thought. He was never sent to Siberia. At his own earnest and impassioned request—the request of a brave man—his punishment was changed to that of compulsory service in the army as a private. "Let me show my sovereign," said he, "that although the enemy of Louis of France, I am faithful to Catherine of Russia." Ivan Ivanovitch, he redeemed his word nobly, though not to the Czarina. He was one of the many gallant men whom I led to their death at Austerlitz, on the most unfortunate day of my life. His regiment kept its place until not a man was left unwounded. Will it comfort you to know that he died a hero's death, and that he died for me?'
"'What more could I desire for him, or for myself?' I said. That was nearly all that passed between us. But it was enough. I am comforted concerning my father.
"I cannot write or think of aught else just now. My dear unknown father! So unfortunate! So young too—scarce older, when the storm burst upon him, than I am now. What agony he must have suffered! what desolation! Yet he kept his sorely-tried loyalty without a taint; only craving, as his last boon, leave to die for the sovereign who drove him from her presence with insult, and doomed him to ruin and disgrace. Surely his heart was true, whatever baseless, fantastic dreams of liberty and equality may have set his brain on fire. The Czar says he died a hero's death, and that he died for him. Thank God!
"My Clémence perhaps will wonder that I said nothing to the Czar about our future about my plans, hopes, or prospects. Truly I had intended, if the opportunity offered, to have spoken of these. But to-day I could not I could think of no subject save one. Forgive me this delay.
"It is late, but I am still sitting at my desk with that precious sketch before me which your father's hand transferred to paper, and your hand placed in mine. My dear mother's face seems to look upon me and to say, 'I too am comforted concerning all I love. Here or elsewhere they are in God's keeping. Never, even in their darkest days, did he wholly take away his loving-kindness from them.'
"To-morrow General Soltikoff is to tell me more. Not much more, I suppose. Few particulars of the life and death of a man degraded to the ranks are ever likely to be known. But had he told me what I know now, how different everything would have seemed to me to-night!
"Now it is not late, but early. That is really the light of dawn, our Northern dawn, which is stealing in pale and faint. I must put out my lamp and lie down, first thanking God for all his mercies, and praying him to keep me, and those a thousand times dearer than myself, in the hollow of his hand. Good-night,—my Clémence, my queen, good-night!"
"I take my pen in haste to add a few lines which will change everything for thee and me, Clémence. No, not change, only clear away our perplexities, and make the crooked places straight before us. My last night's vigil made me rather a late sleeper this morning, and I woke to find my servant standing by my side, with a large packet in his hand bearing the Imperial seal. You may be sure I lost no time in opening it. Two separate parchments fell out—one the patent renewing in my favour my father's title of 'Prince' Pojarsky, the other the title-deeds of his estate, Nicolofsky.
"I cannot to-day write commonplace words about this; you will read between the lines, and share the emotions that fill my heart. Surely God has dealt well with me—infinitely better than I deserve. It only remains now for estate, title, and all else that I have and am, to be laid at your feet by your happy, grateful, and devoted Ivan."
- A well-known form of punishment in Russia. Alexander himself inflicted it upon some personages of the highest rank, for gross acts of peculation and dishonesty.
- Alexander always referred to the day of Austerlitz as "his unfortunate day," and never ceased to mourn the slaughter to which he led his brave army upon that occasion.
- A similar act of imperial munificence, performed in a similar way, drew the comment from De Maistre: "En fait d'élégance souvrraine, l'Empereur de Russie est un grand artiste."