Michael Semenovich Vorontsov, being the son of the Russian Ambassador, had been educated in England and possessed a European education quite exceptional among the higher Russian officials of his day. He was ambitious, gentle and kind in his manner with inferiors, and a finished courtier with superiors. He did not understand life without power and submission. He had obtained all the highest ranks and decorations and was looked upon as a clever commander, and even as the conqueror of Napoleon at Krasnoe.
In 1852 he was over seventy, but young for his age, he moved briskly, and above all was in full possession of a facile, refined, and agreeable intellect which he used to maintain his power and strengthen and increase his popularity. He possessed large means — his own and his wife’s (who had been a countess Branitski) — and received an enormous salary as Viceroy, and he spent a great part of his means on building a palace and laying out a garden on the south coast of the Crimea.
On the evening of December the 4th, 1852, a courier’s troika drew up before his palace in Tiflis. an officer, tired and black with dust, sent by General Kozlovski with the news of Hadji Murad’s surrender to the Russians, entered the wide porch, stretching the stiffened muscles of his legs as he passed the sentinel. It was six o’clock, and Vorontsov was just going in to dinner when he was informed of the courier’s arrival. He received him at once, and was therefore a few minutes late for dinner.
When he entered the drawing room the thirty persons invited to dine, who were sitting beside Princess Elizabeth Ksaverevna Vorontsova, or standing in groups by the windows, turned their faces towards him. Vorontsov was dressed in his usual black military coat, with shoulderstraps but no epaulets, and wore the White Cross of the Order of St. George at his neck.
His clean shaven, foxlike face wore a pleasant smile as, screwing up his eyes, he surveyed the assembly. Entering with quick soft steps he apologized to the ladies for being late, greeted the men, and approaching Princess Manana Orbelyani — a tall, fine, handsome woman of Oriental type about forty-five years of age — he offered her his arm to take her in to dinner. Princess Elizabeth Ksaverevna Vorontsova gave her arm to a red- haired general with bristly mustaches who was visiting Tiflis. A Georgian prince offered his arm to Princess Vorontsova’s friend, Countess Choiseuil. Doctor Andreevsky, the aide-de-camp, and others, with ladies or without, followed these first couples. Footmen in livery and knee-breeches drew back and replaced the guests’ chairs when they sat down, while the major-domo ceremoniously ladled out steaming soup from a silver tureen.
Vorontsov took his place in the center of one side of the long table, and wife sat opposite, with the general on her right. On the prince’s right sat his lady, the beautiful Orbelyani; and on his left was a graceful, dark, red-cheeked Georgian woman, glittering with jewels and incessantly smiling.
“Excellentes, chere amie!” replied Vorontsov to his wife’s inquiry about what news the courier had brought him. “Simon a eu de la chance!” And he began to tell aloud, so that everyone could hear, the striking news (for him alone not quite unexpected, because negotiations had long been going on) that Hadji Murad, the bravest and most famous of Shamil’s officers, had come over to the Russians and would in a day or two be brought to Tiflis.
Everybody — even the young aides-de-camp and officials who sat at the far ends of the table and who had been quietly laughing at something among themselves — became silent and listened.
“And you, General, have you ever met this Hadji Murad?” asked the princess of her neighbor, the carroty general with the bristly mustaches, when the prince had finished speaking.
“More than once, Princess.”
And the general went on to tell how Hadji Murad, after the mountaineers had captured Gergebel in 1843, had fallen upon General Pahlen’s detachment and killed Colones Zolotukhin almost before their very eyes.
Vorontsov listened to the general and smiled amiably, evidently pleased that the latter had joined in the conversation. But suddenly his face assumed an absent-minded and depressed expression.
The general, having started talking, had begun to tell of his second encounter with Hadji Murad.
“Why, it was he, if your Excellency will please remember,” said the general, “who arranged the ambush that attacked the rescue party in the ‘Biscuit’ expedition.”
“Where?” asked Vorontsov, screwing up his eyes.
What the brave general spoke of as the “rescue” was the affair in the unfortunate Dargo campaign in which a whole detachment, including Prince Vorontsov who commanded it, would certainly have perished had it not been rescued by the arrival of fresh troops. Every one knew that the whole Dargo campaign under Vorontsov’s command — in which the Russians lost many killed and wounded and several cannon — had been a shameful affair, and therefore if any one mentioned it in Vorontsov’s presence they did so only in the aspect in which Vorontsov had reported it to the Tsar — as a brilliant achievement of the Russian army. But the word “rescue” plainly indicated that it was not a brilliant victory but a blunder costing many lives. Everybody understood this and some pretended not to notice the meaning of the general’s words, others nervously waited to see what would follow, while a few exchanged glances, and smiled. Only the carroty general with the bristly mustaches noticed nothing, and carried away by his narrative quietly replied:
“At the rescue, your Excellency.”
Having started on his favorite theme, the general recounted circumstantially how Hadji Murad had so cleverly cut the detachment in two that if the rescue party had not arrived (he seemed to be particularly fond of repeating the word “rescue”) not a man in the division would have escaped, because . . . He did not finish his story, for Manana Orbelyani, having understood what was happening, interrupted him by asking if he had found comfortable quarters in Tiflis. The general, surprised, glanced at everybody all round and saw his aides-de-camp from the end of the table looking fixedly and significantly at him, and he suddenly understood! Without replying to the princess’s question, he frowned, became silent, and began hurriedly swallowing the delicacy that lay on his plate, the appearance and taste of which both completely mystified him.
Everybody felt uncomfortable, but the awkwardness of the situation was relieved by the Georgian prince — a very stupid man but an extraordinarily refined and artful flatterer and courtier — who sat on the other side of Princess Vorontsova. Without seeming to have noticed anything he began to relate how Hadji Murad had carried off the widow of Akhmet Khan of Mekhtuli.
“He came into the village at night, seized what he wanted, and galloped off again with the whole party.”
“Why did he want that particular woman?” asked the princess.
“Oh, he was her husband’s enemy, and pursued him but could never once succeed in meeting him right up to the time of his death, so he revenged himself on the widow.”
The princess translated this into French for her old friend Countess Choiseuil, who sat next to the Georgian prince.
“Quelle horreur!” said the countess, closing her eyes and shaking her head.
“Oh no!” said Vorontsov, smiling. “I have been told that he treated his captive with chivalrous respect and afterwards released her.”
“Yes, for a ransom!”
“Well, of course. But all the same he acted honorably.”
These words of Vorontsov’s set the tone for the further conversation. The courtiers understood that the more importance was attributed to Hadji Murad the better the prince would be pleased.
“The man’s audacity is amazing. A remarkable man!”
“Why, in 1849 he dashed into Temir Khan Shura and plundered the shops in broad daylight.”
An Armenian sitting at the end of the table, who had been in Temir Khan Shura at the time, related the particulars of that exploit of Hadji Murad’s.
In fact, Hadji Murad was the sole topic of conversation during the whole dinner.
Everybody in succession praised his courage, his ability, and his magnanimity. Someone mentioned his having ordered twenty six prisoners to be killed, but that too was met by the usual rejoinder, “What’s to be done? A la guerre, comme al la guerre!”
“He is a great man.”
“Had he been born in Europe he might have been another Napoleon,” said the stupid Georgian prince with a gift of flattery.
He knew that every mention of Napoleon was pleasant to Vorontsov, who wore the White Cross at his neck as a reward for having defeated him.
“Well, not Napoleon perhaps, but a gallant cavalry general if you like,” said Vorontsov.
“If not Napoleon, then Murat.”
“And his name is Hadji Murad!”
“Hadji Murad has surrendered and now there’ll be an end to Shamil too,” someone remarked.
“They feel that now” (this “now” meant under Vorontsov) “they can’t hold out,” remarked another.
“Tout cela est grace a vous!” said Manana Orbelyani.
Prince Vorontsov tried to moderate the waves of flattery which began to flow over him. Still, it was pleasant, and in the best of spirits he led his lady back into the drawing room.
After dinner, when coffee was being served in the drawing room, the prince was particularly amiable to everybody, and going up to the general with the red bristly mustaches he tried to appear not to have noticed his blunder.
Having made a round of the visitors he sat down to the card table. He only played the old-fashioned game of ombre. His partners were the Georgian prince, an Armenia general (who had learned the game of ombre from Prince Vorontsov’s valet), and Doctor Andreevsky, a man remarkable for the great influence he exercised.
Placing beside him his gold snuff-box with a portrait of Aleksandr I on the lid, the prince tore open a pack of highly glazed cards and was going to spread them out, when his Italian valet brought him a letter on a silver tray.
“Another courier, your Excellency.”
Vorontsov laid down the cards, excused himself, opened the letter, and began to read.
The letter was from his son, who described Hadji Murad’s surrender and his own encounter with Meller-Zakomelsky.
The princess came up and inquired what their son had written.
“It’s all about the same matter. . . . Il a eu quelques desagrements avec le commandant de la place. Simon a eu tort. . . . But ‘All’s well that ends well,’” he added in English, handing the letter to his wife; and turning to his respectfully waiting partners he asked them to draw cards.
When the first round had been dealt Vorontsov did what he was in the habit of doing when in a particularly pleasant mood: with his white, wrinkled old hand he took out a pinch of French snuff, carried it to his nose, and released it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01