One year at the Russian court/Chapter 1
At last, I was on the eve of my departure for Russia! The dream of my twenty summers! For that great Russia, the country of my devoted grandmother, Baroness de Nicolay, who, however, was born in London, her father, Baron de Nicolay, being at the time attached to the Russian Embassy there. He subsequently became Russian Minister at Copenhagen, where on account of the many friendships he had formed in society and his deep attachment to the then King and Queen of Denmark and all their family—who held him in the greatest esteem and intimacy—he remained more than twenty years, refusing every offer of advancement in consequence.
Queen Louise, Queen Alexandra's mother, kept up a frequent correspondence with my grandmother up to the time of the latter's death. Here, it may be of interest to mention that I have amongst my most valued possessions a beautiful diamond bracelet given by the Queen to my grandmother, who was by birth half French on her mother's side, née Princesse de Broglie-Revel, and until her marriage maid of honour to the Empress of Russia. That great Russia, the charms and delights of which in my innermost self I had longed for and at night dreamt of, during the long winter months passed in the solitude of my ancient and austere Norman home, listening to the howling of the wind amongst the pine trees as they groaned and bent their heads in cadence. How good it was to dream then!
Years after my Uncle Auguste de Villaine, my father's brother, was specially requested by the King and Queen of Denmark, in remembrance of the past, to be sent as French Military Attaché to Copenhagen.
The husband of my friend Madame de Saint-Pair had just been appointed Naval Attaché at St Petersburg (Petrograd), and I obtained my father's permission to accompany her on her journey to rejoin her husband. First of all I was to pay a visit to my aunt, Baroness de Nicolay, who was waiting to receive me.
On reaching the Russian Frontier, at Wirballen, at 8.30 p.m., we had to change from the North Express into the Russian train on account of the gauge being much wider in the land of the Tzar—as it was then. No sooner had the train come to a standstill than our compartment was literally invaded by a crowd of porters—at least one for each of our packages! The train which had been so full on leaving Paris was by this time almost empty—hence the reason for this invasion, each one fighting as to which should bear the burden! Dressed in those curiously long coats caught up in pleats at the waist, with their baggy trousers, top boots, flat caps and white aprons reaching to the knee, as they walked about on the station platform with their hands behind their backs, they looked like male hospital nurses.
Thanks to the very special recommendation of the Russian Ambassador in Paris and, in spite of the fierce expression worn by the tall, pompous and bewhiskered Colonel of the Gendarmes, this very important functionary merely bowed to our luggage allowing it all to pass the customs without being examined. Many jealous eyes must have watched us there, for the Russian Customs were most severe.
I noticed a large picture of the Sacred Heart with a huge candle burning in front of it—I was indeed in Holy Russia.
An amusing incident occurred on the arrival of the train at Gatchina, where Her Imperial Majesty the Dowager-Empress had a palace, which I feel I must relate. From the windows of our compartment we were able to get a peep at the Grand Duke Nicholas-Michaelovitch, who had just left our train for a dressing-room in the station, and witnessed in silence the transformation of a Grand Duke from civilian clothes into the uniform of his rank, which is by no means a small affair but I must say a quick one!
A few minutes later we saw His Imperial Highness dashing away in a brilliant Court equipage, his attendants in Imperial scarlet liveries. This was certainly my first experience of a Grand Duke in such complete négligé.
At Petrograd my aunt's brougham was awaiting me. A Russian turn-out is delightfully picturesque. The coachman is dressed in a long dark blue padded coat, especially thick in winter; his vast proportions completely fill up the whole box-seat and sometimes even overlap it. The fatter he looks, the smarter he is. He wears a very full skirt and, with his face framed by his long hair, his top hat cut short, his waist-belt of many colours, his fashion of driving with both his arms stretched out at full length in front of him, and instead of using a whip—which is non-existent—occasionally calling out in guttural tones, he forms a truly picturesque object to the visitors from foreign lands.
There is yet another type of coachman, seen more seldom, however, who is dressed as a Russian postilion and who in summer wears long silk sleeves of varied brilliant hues issuing from his dark coat. The top of his round toque is edged with short up-standing peacock feathers. The big, black, sure-footed, nervous horses, with their long tails and manes, do not resemble ours in any way. The reins and the red or blue tassels brighten up the harness, and how enjoyable it is to go for a drive in a sleigh at full tilt, zigzagging about over the pure white snow as slippery as glass, specially so in a troïka, to the tinkling sound of its many bells. But, in a droschki, with its narrow borderless seat, the only alternative is to seize one's companion's waist; it may have its charm also!My Aunt de Nicolay—Tante Sonine, as I always called her—née Baroness de Meyendorff, had frequented all the most brilliant Courts of
|RUSSIAN COACHMAN||CAUCASUS—GOURIAN PRINCE|
RUSSIAN EQUIPAGES—TWO TROÏKAS (THREE HORSES)
My aunt was altogether charming; tall and very distinguished looking, and extraordinarily refined—in fact a real grande dame to her fingertips. She appeared to be much younger than she was. Her beautiful features had preserved a wonderfully youthful charm, to be seen at their full value when she smiled that sweet smile of hers—so good and so true. I very soon began positively to adore her.
During her youth my aunt had been very pretty, with her dazzling fair hair and fresh pink and white complexion, so much so that at a great Court ball at the Winter Palace one of the Grand Dukes remarked: "She is not a woman, she is a swan!"
Even at the time of my visit she still gave one this impression: she was so graceful in all her movements and as active and supple as any young woman of twenty-five; and, to see her beautiful little head so proudly borne on her long flexible neck with its aristocratic lines attached to those exquisitely moulded shoulders of hers, one could imagine that she had simply sailed through life partaking of all its beauties and avoiding all contact with the horrors and pettiness of the great world she frequented, thus conserving intact, both in a moral and a physical sense, the pure whiteness of the "swan"!
Left a widow at thirty-two, my aunt was always an ideal mother, giving every proof of entire devotion to her children—her every thought was for them and theirs. Her voice, combining softness with firmness, was one of her most charming characteristics, with such a perfect pronunciation in French, English and German that a stranger would have asked himself which of the three was her native tongue.
She declared she did not know Russian well enough, and preferred never to speak in that language in society.
One of the first instructions I received from her was—"Always shake hands with a gentleman when he is presented." How different from the English custom, where a slight nod and side look often suffices! While in France a young girl is more demure still! Where a married woman is concerned in Russia, a man generally kisses her hand—which suits the Russian as much as it renders ridiculous the Frenchman when he tries to imitate.
Then, another day, she said to me looking rather upset at having to touch such a delicate subject: "Tu sais—on a beaucoup de cousins ici." This was said as a warning for me not to be shocked, as I might perhaps have been, at the sight of a somewhat too great familiarity between certain people on frequent occasion. This warning amused me intensely, as, although I was very innocent at the time, I was not sufficiently so not to understand the hint! I was simply charmed by the thought—more so still at the explanation and was never quite able to repress a smile when I came across "happy cousins"!
She always retained the best impressions of London life, having spent several years here. "Jews are very well received there," she once said to me, "very different from here." In fact, I think London is their Paradise, I am quite sure they are in no hurry for the accomplishment of the Gospel!
She informed me, much to my surprise, that the German woman was the most light of morals of any nation. Their heavy, massive appearance had always made me imagine them unable to see life but through heavily-rimmed spectacles and that the great majority of them followed the example of their homely plump Kaiserin and her three "K" doctrine for women—"Kinder, Kirche and Kuchen."
On my return to France my aunt accompanied me as far as Berlin and proved herself an excellent cicerone, pointing out to me the various palaces she had so often been received in and other places of interest. The only thing I could truthfully admire in the city was its scrupulous cleanliness. I beheld with horror these long rows of white "stucco" rulers of Germany erected by their descendent and admirer Wilhelm the Hun; neither was I impressed by that fearful crude blue light of the chapel containing the Imperial tombs—again a result of the imagination of the "All Highest." Clearly this decoration simply aimed at showy effect—just like every action he commits.
Although Petrograd is more primitive than Paris, yet it impressed me far more, with its wide arteries, its large quays, its superb Neva, like an arm of the sea.
Russia is the country of space, of dreams—the country of all that is magnificent. It gives one an unforgettable impression.
The Newsky Prospect is said to be the widest street in Europe; on one side of it is an ancient caravanserai of enormous dimensions, now occupied by shops of every description, some of which are most fascinating.
I was also taken to see the famous fortress of St Peter and St Paul, the burial place of the Russian sovereigns and also a prison, returning by steamer on the Neva, and then to the Hermitage—the National Gallery of Petrograd—containing many of Murillo's best works as well as Rembrandt's and others. Another day I went to the Alexander III. Museum and to the Church of Kazan where there is a most venerated statue of the Virgin. The Cathedral of St Isaac is of magnificent proportions and possesses immense wealth of decoration—the mosaiques being superb, whilst a number of the sacred images are inlaid with diamonds and other precious stones.
During the course of my explorations, nothing struck me so forcibly in contrast to all this magnificence as the house of Peter the Great—which is so minute!
I thoroughly enjoyed going to the restaurants at The Islands, specially to Ernest's, where one meets natives, diplomats, foreign visitors, in fact, every one, while listening to the strains of a gay Rumanian orchestra.
The Islands are the Bois de Boulogne of Petrograd. The place is lovely: very green; beautiful trees overshadowing paths which are well laid out; and from the end of the park a view of the sea is obtainable. There are many beautiful villas there occupied during the summer.
I never shall forget my impressions of Paris on my return from Russia, where there seems to be no limit to space, where everything is on a huge scale—from the luxury of life in general to the immense size of all the buildings and the great width of the noble Neva. Paris appeared to me a squalid town and the Seine a mere brook—and not too clean a one either—and altogether it struck me as being a very dismal place.
I only spent then a very short time at Petrograd as, at that period of the year, every one begins to flit away to their country places for the summer, so, after having become acquainted with a number of relations and made several friends, I, like the rest, took my departure from the capital, and accompanied my aunt to her beautiful home of Monrepos in Finland.