The Austrian and English embassadors at the court of St. Petersburg, Paul loaded with reproaches and even with insults. His conduct became so whimsical as to lead many to suppose that he was actually insane. He had long hated the French republicans, but now, with a new and a fresher fury, he hated the allies. The wrecks of his armies were ordered to return to Russia, and he ceased to take an active part in the prosecution of the war, without however professing, in any way, to withdraw from the coalition. Neither the Austrian nor the English embassador could obtain an audience with the emperor. He treated them with utter neglect, and, the court following the example of the sovereign, these embassadors were left in perfect solitude. They could not even secure an audience with any of the ministry.
Paul had been very justly called the Don Quixote of the coalition, and the other powers were now not a little apprehensive of the course he might adopt, for madman as he was, he was the powerful monarch of some forty millions of people. Soon he ordered the Russian fleet, which in cooeperation with the squadrons of the allies was blockading Malta, to withdraw from the conflict. Then he recalled his ministers from London and Vienna, declaring that neither England nor Austria was contending for any principle, but that they were fighting merely for their own selfish interests. England had already openly declared her intention of appropriating Malta to herself.
Napoleon had now returned from Egypt and had been invested with the supreme power in France as First Consul. There were many French prisoners in the hands of the allies. France had also ten thousand Russian prisoners. Napoleon proposed an exchange. Both England and Austria refused to exchange French prisoners for Russians.
“What,” exclaimed Napoleon, “do you refuse to liberate the Russians, who were your allies, who were fighting in your ranks and under your commanders? Do you refuse to restore to their country those men to whom you are indebted for your victories and conquests in Italy, and who have left in your hands a multitude of French prisoners whom they have taken? Such injustice excites my indignation.”
With characteristic magnanimity he added, “I will restore them to the tzar without exchange. He shall see how I esteem brave men.”
These Russian prisoners were assembled at Aix la Chapelle. They were all furnished with a complete suit of new clothing, in the uniform of their own regiments, and were thoroughly supplied with weapons of the best French manufacture. And thus they were returned to their homes. Paul was exactly in that mood of mind which best enabled him to appreciate such a deed. He at once abandoned the alliance, and with his own hand wrote to Napoleon as follows:
“Citizen First Consul,—I do not write to you to discuss the rights of men or of citizens. Every country governs itself as it pleases. Whenever I see, at the head of a nation, a man who knows how to rule and how to fight, my heart is attracted towards him. I write to acquaint you with my dissatisfaction with England, who violates every article of the law of nations and has no guide but her egotism and her interest. I wish to unite with you to put an end to the unjust proceedings of that government.”