Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A Constantine czarowicz in Warsaw - Part 3



The Catholic Church in Poland was always exceptional in character. It was rather Polish Catholic than Roman Catholic in its instincts and tendencies. It was never disgraced by the Smithfield fires of England, the autos-da-fé of Spain, or the St. Bartholomew of France. Once only in its annals do we find a trace of those terrible phases of by-gone ages, the murder of the Protestants at Thorn; but that was contrived and carried out by French and Italian Jesuits, brought thither in the train of a Duke of Anjou.

Religion to the Pole is not so much a creed—a thing to be brought into formulas, a subject for neat controversy and theological fine-drawing—as a sentiment, an outlet for the poetical instincts of his Slavonic nature; intensely prone to mysticism, a tendency perhaps painfully exaggerated by his deprivation of well-nigh every intellectual pursuit. It therefore forms more a resource for his heart than a subject of speculation or of calm study. Religion to him means not only the practice of domestic virtues, but still more the faithful observance of public duties: enervating asceticism, or tame submission to wrong, forms no part of it; nor can he conceive religious excellence practised at the expense of patriotism.

The proselytizing efforts of the Czar were to little purpose. The lower clergy were too numerous and too poor to be bribed; and their ranks were now reinforced from the students of the University, members of some of the most honourable families in the country, who renounced all the flatteries of their Russian masters, and the attractions of a life of ease, to devote themselves to the improvement of the peasantry in far-away villages.

Hope and resolution were kept alive in the hearts of the people by their spiritual teachers, from whom they learned not merely lessons of self-denial, and those precepts of patience and submission so beloved of tyrants,—not merely their duties with reference to another world, but those which, as brave men and faithful citizens, were demanded of them in this. Strange as it may seem to our western ideas, liberty found no more enthusiastic apostles than in the monastic orders. The monks at that period formed a peculiar class, recruited in great part from Dombrowski’s old troopers, who thus escaped enlistment under a foreign master. They made no pretence to a false asceticism; they “prayed to the God of mercy, as they had prayed to the God of battles,” like honest, simple-hearted soldiers, who felt that, come what would, they had done and would do their duty, though they as little imagined themselves heroes as saints.

With strong religious feelings, like all their countrymen, they made no parade of their profession, but took an honest satisfaction in turning out a good soup, and still more in sharing it with the poor of their village. They were careful farmers, proud of their pigs and their poultry-yards, apt surgeons, too, ready at any moment to join a wolf-hunt, or seek out some wanderer lost in the winter snow-drift. Though many joined the fraternities who, under other circumstances, would have lapsed into idleness and self-indulgence, they were insensibly influenced by the example of their companions, and shamed into following their example. Hidden behind the altar, or safe in their driest cellar, the good brothers kept their old swords and muskets, trusting the secret only to those whose faith was sure, for in every monastery and cloister it was seldom that one of Rozniecki’s agents had not found admission. Then from time to time, when the spy was safe in his cell, the brave old tonsured warriors stole silently down to inspect their treasure, carefully cleared off each spot of rust from the well-hacked blade, and polished the trusty barrel, as they whispered together of the day that must come soon when they should be used against the Moskovite.

Such, is a brief sketch of the “system” which brought about the Polish Revolution of 1831. As the time of the outbreak approached, Constantine made his “preventive,” “repressive,” and “retributive” measures still more and more severe. The censorship of the press was thought not strict enough, so a commissioner was sent to Vienna to study that system which had condemned Silvio Pellico to his long martyrdom. From 12,000 to 13,000 Russian soldiers, with their officers, were garrisoned in Warsaw. A vague feeling of the “coming struggle” penetrated even Constantine’s obtuse brain; never had the secret police so much to do, never were the dungeons and “piombi” so full. At the prison windows, spies were constantly posted to note down the names of all persons who, in passing, looked up with any expression of interest. But the very excess of this rigour defeated its own object: men became reckless, as they do in sieges or in a long-continued plague, when death grows too familiar to be feared. There was, moreover, no conspiracy—only the whole country was weary of the weight of passive endurance, and felt that an appeal to arms must soon become inevitable.

It was at this time that the Commander-in-Chief, driving through the streets of Warsaw one day, suddenly caught some notes of “Dombrowski’s Mazurek,” the famous national song of Poland, which he had shortly before prohibited under the heaviest penalties. He at once made the coachman draw up, and commanded an adjutant in attendance to arrest the disobedient wretch who dared whistle the incendiary air.

“Pardon me, your Imperial Highness,” cried the adjutant, returning without the culprit, “but—”

“Hold your tongue, sir! I heard the cursed ‘Mazurek’ distinctly: I have prohibited it, and I will see that the rascal is punished who presumes to defy my orders.”

“Your Highness, it is only necessary—”

“Not another word! Bring the wretch directly!”

“May it please your Imperial Highness, I cannot,—the offender is—”

“Not possible? What! when I command it! Do you want to share his fate?”

“May it please your Imperial Highness, the creature is a starling.”

“So much the better; if it is only a bird, that’s no reason it should escape the law. Buy it—there’s a ducat. It shall be taken to the guard-house, and its head chopped off. It will serve as an example.”

There were 40,000 Polish infantry and 15,000 cavalry in the kingdom, and as Constantine, despite the most harassing requirements and all the efforts of his police, could find no signs of disaffection in their ranks, he blindly believed that “his children,” as he called them, were willing to become the executioners of their countrymen if he but willed it. But the army submitted to his discipline the better to defend the rights of the country it represented when the proper moment came. The soldiers, with few exceptions, were all devoted to the patriotic cause; and, while gradually prepared for the coming struggle by their young officers, they were taught by them to repress every slightest sign of discontent which might endanger success by arousing suspicion.

Among the young officers who were most indefatigable in the cause was Lieutenant Wysocki, head master of the Military Academy, whose bravery in the Revolution, and whose long martyrdom at the mines of Nerchinsk, and the far more terrible fortress of Akatoega, have made his name immortal.

The elder generals held aloof from the movement; every means were taken to secure their support and to induce them to assume the direction of the coming struggle; but, though they wished it success, their hopes had grown too faint: they did not betray, but they would not aid the work.

The propaganda was presently commenced throughout the country by the friends and devoted adherents of Wysocki and his brother officers. There needed none: the people but waited the sign to be given to take the field. Scythes were sharpened and kept in readiness, and every peaceful implement of husbandry that could be made into a weapon of destruction was carefully prepared and hidden away. So came and went the first months of 1830.

It has been again and again repeated that the Revolution of 1831 was originated wholly by the aristocratic classes. No idea is more unfounded: not a single workshop throughout the country but had its adherents to the cause; the very shoemakers and cobblers were all as enthusiastic as the proudest noble in the land.

The Minister of Finance, Lubeckoi, warned the Czar of the disaffection existing throughout Poland; but Constantine quieted his brother’s misgivings by the assurance that the secret police, if a little more vigilant, were quite sufficient to secure the loyalty of the country.

Thus November approached. Meantime the Revolution of July had taken place in Paris, and Nicholas at length hoped to put his Prussian convention to profitable account. A detailed list of all the Prussian fortified places and their garrisons had been supplied from Berlin. The Hohenzollern was as conveniently servile as his forebears or descendants, and his great ally was daily engaged in reviewing the troops which were to restore legitimacy to France, and to correct the map of Europe.

No details of the great event in Paris had reached Poland until long after its consummation; but, despite all the vigilance of custom-house and censorship, the truth at length oozed out, and then came intelligence that the Czar was about to call upon his Polish soldiers to complete their degradation by aiding to enslave the nation to which they still fondly looked for sympathy and aid themselves.

This was a depth of infamy to which the country could not sink. A rising had been contemplated in the following spring, but it was now impossible to defer it so long, and the night of the 29th of November was fixed upon for the commencement of the rebellion. Warsaw, during those last four weeks before the Revolution, was strangely tranquil; the spies found even some difficulty in keeping Rozniecki’s lists sufficiently supplied. Now and again some one inconsiderately lost in thought would be arrested for not pulling off his hat with sufficient celerity when the Commander-in-Chief’s carriage appeared, but his Highness met with no open marks of disrespect, except, perhaps, a notice scribbled on the walls of the Belvedere—“This house to be let, the proprietor leaving,”—an intimation which employed all the available forces of the secret service for some days, though they never discovered the author.

The streets of the capital were deserted at night; few idlers stood about by day, except Russian officers and Russian spies. The theatres and cafés found few Polish visitors—all might have indicated some approaching catastrophe; but Constantine was occupied with some new drill regulations, and heeded it not; and the ministers had their heads full of preparations for the French campaign.

On the 28th of November the Insurrectional Committee (Wysocki, Zaliski, Urbanski, Paszcowicz, military officers, and the famous savan, Lelewel) met in an obscure café, the Anusia, and drew up the plan for the next day’s proceedings.

The night of the 29th came at length: it was dark and stormy; great threatening clouds covered the sky, and the streets were deserted even earlier than usual. At six o’clock the military conspirators quietly joined their several companies, and commanded them to their respective posts without loss of time. Orders had been issued by the Grand Duke that the troops should be so centralised in case of any unusual occurrence, such as a fire or a riot, that if the present enterprise failed, even Russian suspicion could not make the troops responsible for a movement which their officers had directed in apparent conformity to orders. The men quickly obeyed, many suspecting the meaning of the nocturnal alarm, the rest quite content to follow mechanically the columns, guided by the young conspirators. The chief points of the capital were secured. The Arsenal, guarded by Russian troops, was to be the first point of attack, and it was secured with little difficulty or bloodshed by a well-concerted surprise. The Russian Infantry Barracks were close to the Arsenal, but the officers were in gaming-houses for the most part, the men quietly asleep. The next object was to seize the person of the Czarowicz. The proximity of the Military College to the Belvedere favoured this design, but the numerical weakness of the boy-heroes who claimed the honour made success doubtful: it was necessary to give them support. So four companies of riflemen, quartered four thousand paces from the Belvedere, and two companies of the line, were appointed to this duty. Only eight companies of the line and Kuratowski’s regiment refused to join the popular movement. Such were the preliminaries of the insurgents. Open hostilities were to follow when Constantine was secured. It was now midnight. The Russian cavalry, quartered a cannon-shot from the palace, gave no sign of alarm, and the Belvedere was wrapped in silence and darkness.

The Czarowicz, wearied by his labours of the day, had thrown himself on a couch to snatch a moment’s sleep. Presently a strange unaccustomed sound was heard in that silent palace,—a cry for mercy; doors were burst violently open, and, in another instant, Lubowicki, one of his infamous favourites, rushed into the Grand Duke’s presence, and, pale and trembling, told his master, who was still paler and more panic-stricken than he, that insurgents had forced the guards at the gates, and were fast approaching. It was the eighteen young volunteers from the Military College. The clank of arms sounded nearer and nearer; Constantine, shaking in every limb, threw a dressing-gown over his uniform, and, accompanied by a valet, sought refuge in the gardens of the palace, passing some of the insurgents on his way. They did not recognise in the crouching, colourless wretch, the loud-voiced arrogant tyrant of whom they were in search. Lubowicki was less fortunate than his master; he fell, a few minutes after, pierced by thirteen bayonet wounds,—the number of murders he had lately consummated. The Grand Duchess, awakened by the report of fire-arms, was on her knees: was it to pray for the tyrant, whose love was little better than infamy, or for the country he had steeped in blood?

But the Czarowicz has escaped, and the alarm is given; and whilst the Jews barricaded their shops and got ready the Polish colours in case the insurrection succeeded; whilst the Russian troops vainly struggled against the desperate bravery of the patriots; whilst the eighteen young assailants of the Belvedere abandonded their search in despair, and, seeing none of the signals agreed on, almost feared they were betrayed, and, falling in with a party of the enemy, escaped only by miracles of bravery; so, through all the mistakes and terrors of those hours between midnight and dawn, Warsaw was awakening to a morrow of freedom, and Sass, Makrott, Gendre, three of Constantine’s best spies, were hung or bayoneted.

The people, supplied with arms from the arsenal, enthusiastically obeyed the directions of the pupils of the Military College, and rushed on to deliver the prisoners. Alas! in some instances, they came too late: Constantine’s satellites, knowing the value he placed on his favourite victims, secured them in time, chained them to gun-carriages, and so dragged them to the Russian camp beyond Warsaw. General Rozniecki escaped thither disguised as a coachman. Constantine, after in vain waiting for any of his followers to whom he could trust himself, at length ventured to leave the gardens; he got beyond the town, and was presently startled by a well-known voice. It was that of the Prussian ambassador, who, after seeking the Czarowicz in every place not in the power of the triumphant insurgents, at last encountered and recognised his Imperial Highness, who returned his greeting by exclaiming, piteously: “All is lost, Schmidt; you must get away—get away with me.” In vain the ambassador tried to infuse some courage into his companion:—

“What measures does your Imperial Highness propose to take?”

“None at all—I must think of that to-morrow.”

The ambassador declared he at least must send off news of the occurrence to his master, and finally persuaded Constantine to despatch intelligence to the Czar.

A group of cottages belonging to one of the new factories was at hand; the two fugitives entered the first door, and the Prussian asked the housewife for pen, ink, and paper. She was a good-hearted German woman, and, having placed a seat for the fine gentleman who addressed her, brushed past Constantine, who stood shivering by the stove, and presently returned with the desired articles.

“Ah, your honour!” she cried, “you look as if you had passed as uneasy a night as we have. Does your honour know what has become of the Czarowicz? He’ll be in a nice taking. I shouldn’t like to come across him! Though I don’t belong to the country, I must say the people are right. The pitcher that goes—ah, your honour wants some sealing-wax.”

Constantine was spared any further gossip, and in half an hour the despatches were on their way to Petersburg and Berlin. When General Diesst, at Posen, was wakened up from a doze he was enjoying to forward the document onward, on seeing the dirty scrap of paper which represented it, he exclaimed:

“What’s this? Schmidt! A revolution in Warsaw, and all upon a scrap of paper like that. Oh, it’s a d—d mystification!”

He lay down quietly to sleep again, but could not rest, and after sending round to all the “State councillors,” finally found one who recognised the signature, and then, with trepidation and loyal haste, the despatch was sped on to the King at Berlin, who might read in it the destruction of all his fondest hopes of French plunder.

We have little more to say of Constantine: the close of his crimes and his life was fast approaching; and the latter only concerns us here through its connection with Warsaw. With Warsaw, or one very dear to it, his existence was still linked: Major Lucasinski was still in his power, with many other Polish prisoners. Lucasinski, though imprisoned since 1819, and subjected to every ingenuity of torture, had never confessed anything of the plans with which Constantine affected to believe him mixed up. Hunger, thirst, the burning brazier, and hot pincers had been employed in vain; so the Czarowicz, made still more cruel by his humiliation, fell on the idea of driving his victim into temporary insanity, thinking to gather from his ravings the clue desired. Lucasinski was chained to a machine for grinding ashes, that turned night and day in his Russian dungeon, permitting no sleep or rest; but it was still in vain; no word passed his lips that could be tortured into an accusation even by Russian ingenuity. Constantine dragged his prisoner about with him in chains wherever he went. The Grand Duke was once more to enter Warsaw, and to leave it in panic fear. Lucasinski accompanied him, and could hear the shouts of his countrymen, who would have proudly risked their lives for his rescue; but it was not to be: he was doomed to die in a Russian prison,—none know where but those who murdered him.

But a little time and the world was told the Czarowicz was dead; that his wife and child were also dead; that Nicholas was freed from an elder brother whose wild fury was incompatible with his own discreeter crimes; whilst the Czar feared his ascendancy over the Russian troops as much as he scorned his character.

We must stop here. We cannot follow the Revolution through its varying phases of heroism, treachery, devotion, and disaster. France was saved by it from a terrible war; but “La paix tout prix” was the maxim of Louis Philippe’s government; and England, though she highly sympathised with the Poles, of course could not interfere in the home affairs of a friendly power. Then came long lists of proscription and systematised robbery. Ukases promising mercy, whilst they beggared its recipients—death by torture and wholesale massacre. Constantine was dead, and finally Nicholas died, but the system has survived—made, perhaps, still more odious by the hypocrisy of liberality, and the cheap trickery which has won for the new Imperial practitioner the epithet of the “well meaning.” He also has signalised his reign by the cold-blooded massacre and the exile of hundreds whose only crime was the probability of future disaffection. The epitome of his policy—so admirable an appendix to that of his uncle Constantine and his father Nicholas—is best given in his own words as King of Poland to the nobles of Poland?—“What my father did was well done, and I maintain it.”

E. S.