One year at the Russian court/Chapter 12
The Court left Petrograd for Tsarskoe-Celo in January 1905, not to return again for two years.
The Empress lived in constant dread of some misfortune befalling the Emperor or the Tzarevitch, and had to endure the most cruel tortures in consequence. Not a day passed without there being some plot discovered, and once, even, an infernal machine was found connected by wires to the infant's bed when he was but a few months old!
The Empress, tall and still a beautiful woman, had, however, no longer the delicate beauty which I believe she possessed at the time of her marriage. She was very cold in appearance and manner—perhaps due to shyness as some affirm—and in conversation never seemed to have the courage to start a subject, possibly finding nothing to say.
The notion that this limitation is necessary to a Sovereign-Lady is negatived by the conversational powers of the Queen of Italy, for instance, who expatiates upon the doings of the King, of herself and her children from the time of their rising—very early, as I was informed by Her Majesty, and from which I decided that it is not worth while to be a Queen—till they go to bed: a flowing stream of information.
In spite of all this sad state of affairs the winter passed for me like a dream.
My friends Monsieur et Madame de Saint-Pair, a charming distinguished couple, were kindness itself to me, and it was not long before I got to know all the corps diplomatique. I was invited on their reception days and to their parties, and of course those of a great number of Russians.
On Mondays I dined and spent the evening at the French Embassy. Tuesdays the German Embassy received in the evenings. Thursdays it was Belgium's turn, and so on; added to which there were afternoon receptions and luncheons and dinners—not a single day passed without my being engaged from morning till morning again.
I got dreadfully spoilt.
I was often taken to the Russian Opera at the Théâtre Marie; the performance was very good, and Madame Litvinne one of the great attractions. Even in those days she was very stout, but less vast than when last I saw her in Paris. The lady seemed to realize that she displayed herself to better advantage by maintaining a front towards the audience than by exhibiting herself in profile.
She had married a Polish Count.
Those who respected themselves, and there were many whose desire it was to do so, had their stall at the ballet.
The Russian ballet, which had become so popular a feature of the last few pre-war Covent Garden seasons, has always been one of the most fashionable meeting-places of Petrograd society. I often went to the ballet and thoroughly enjoyed those evenings, being extremely amused always in contemplating the varied expressions on the physiognomies of both my young and old bachelor friends, with their eyes lost in rapt admiration—absolutely embedded in their opera-glasses. Certainly, the dancing was marvellous and the luxurious setting beyond description, exhibiting the most perfect and artistic taste imaginable.
The school of the ballet was an Imperial institution, entirely financed by the Crown. The stars were in receipt of enormous salaries, and those who were destined to make their career in the ballet started to learn their steps at the early age of three years.
All the very smartest and best-known people in society made a point of going to the ballet once or twice a week. Afterwards we went to supper at a restaurant—my weakness was for "l'Ours," then very much the fashion. The Théâtre Michel, where French plays were given, was also a great rendezvous, and during, the intervals our box was always packed with visitors.
In summer, after an evening party or the theatre, we sometimes drove to the Islands—the Hyde Park of Petrograd. It was a delightful thing to do by the light of those white nights, and it filled one with joy. The streets and the bridges were sometimes so animated that the night seemed like day.
La Baletta—a pretty actress and a Jewess—was then in great favour and had attracted the attention of the Grand Duke Alexis.
Tongues were soon busy with this affair, and the Grand Duke was accused of having spent on her the funds intended for the fleet to buy her splendid jewels. To contradict this report she appeared on the stage without a single jewel.
The Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch, brother of the late Emperor Alexander III., and son of Alexander II., the Tzar Liberator, had never ceased to mourn the death of his morganatic wife to whom he had been deeply attached. So greatly did he feel his loss that he was gradually pining away, and this sad state perturbed the whole of the Imperial family, who were in despair concerning the fate of poor Alexis, until one of their members, seeing La Baletta acting at the theatre, and being struck by her resemblance to the late "Grand Duchess," had the brilliant inspiration of bringing about a meeting between the disconsolate Grand Duke and the actress, with the result that "Xesis" fell head over ears in love with the lady, and immediately forgot all about his late wife.
They lived together for many years in Paris, after the disgrace into which the Grand Duke had fallen following on his scandalous sequestration of funds intended for naval purposes during his tenure of the post of Grand Admiral of the Fleet when the war with Japan was on, spending their winters in Pau and Biarritz, where they were always to be seen at the gambling tables of the Casino.
The Grand Duke died in exile in Paris about nine years ago, remaining faithful to La Baletta to the end; but rumour has it, that she was left no money and, consequently, she was obliged to sell one by one her many beautiful jewels, until she was reduced to penury, dying a few years ago neglected and forgotten.
Many amusing tales were told about this couple and the people they met, but one of the drollest was that of a very vulgar rich American woman, who spent her time running after royalties during the latter's villeggiatúra at Biarritz, where she entertained them lavishly.
Mrs X… had often met the Grand Duke Alexis at the tables, but not being satisfied merely with a bowing acquaintance, one day approached H.I.H. and in a most drawling voice said: "Monseigneur, je vous prie de me présenter à Madame la grande-duchesse." To this remark Alexis at first paid no attention, but, on the request being repeated, he acceded to her wish; and she, all smiles and bows before La Baletta, drawled out again, "Très honorée, madame la grande-duchesse."
On another occasion my husband was standing beside the Grand Duke and his companion at the tables when he overheard the Grand Duke remonstrate with La Baletta for not staking a certain winning horse, to which she replied: "Je l'aurais bien fait, monseigneur, si je possédais les coffres-forts de Votre Altesse."
Before the season for the Isles commenced, the quays at Petrograd were the favourite rendezvous, where one was sure to meet a number of friends, carriages being occupied for the most part by ladies wearing magnificent furs.
A party of about twenty of us used to meet every morning out skating—a very cosmopolitan lot composed of diplomats from all over Europe.
The daughters of Monsieur Mouravieff, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, and afterwards Russian Ambassador in Rome, where he died, used to join our party every day; Countess Berchthold came very often; also Mrs Napier, with her husband Colonel Napier, then Military Attaché to the British Embassy; and many others.
The skating rinks in Russia are very safe, as notwithstanding the great thickness of the ice they submerge large flat boats placed side by side up to a few inches below the water before it has frozen, so that if the ice breaks there is no danger of disappearing under the floes.
Nothing was more amusing once one had on one's skates than to let oneself be pushed by the wind, at a pace which sometimes reached a giddy speed.
My trembling steps made their debut between "Belgium" and "Holland," whose patience I admired, while little wooden seats—very heavy, too heavy to be upset—gave a precious help to the beginner.
Ski-ing was also much in favour, and one of my friends used to ski from Petrograd to Cronstadt in two hours. It must have been delightful to carve out a road for oneself through that immense, glittering whiteness; an excursion full of poetry and dreams, it seemed to me, in all the sadness of Nature at this season, which sleeps for many months under its thick white shroud—sleeps "as in a death."
The troika charmed me, especially for making long excursions, enveloped in warm furs, to the sound of pretty bells; one felt quite Russified. On one's veil the breath froze in the icy air and formed real stalactites.
The Russians recommend veils of white wool, made like light shawls, for this sort of expedition. I thought them dreadful, so unbecoming, a quite barbarous invention, but the only efficacious one against the cold.
As for the Montagnes-russes, or toboggan runs, and really "ice mountains" in Russian practice, nothing could be more heating, the descent being more than swift, so swift and so narrow that on each side there are planks forming walls to prevent a serious fall; but the emotion warms one up, and that is exactly what one needs in that country of ice and snow. This Montagnes-russe Club was charming and is situated on the island of Christophky, on the Islands.
These "mountains" consist, in fact, of a very high block of ice, as high as a house. One gains the summit by climbing a staircase of wood, which is behind. Arrived at the top, the cavalier places himself flat on his chest on a little flat steel sleigh; this steel is so slippery on the ice, and the beginning of the descent so near and so sudden, that it seems as if one would disappear into the abyss before the appointed time.
At the start of the sleigh the cavalier's head is over the abyss, and therefore much lower than his feet, and he guides the sleigh with his arms, which he stretches more or less on one side or another as he feels it necessary. I mounted behind him on another little sleigh of the same kind, but I knelt on it and sat on my heels, and there was only just room, the sleigh being very narrow; then I had to seize my cavalier's two legs, placing his two feet, shod with thick boots, one under each of my arms, holding tight and not letting go whatever happened. These two legs were one's only chance of ensuring a safe descent.
Once I felt my sleigh leave me and made the descent on my knees. The descent is so abrupt that, for the rest, one only has a very feeble notion of what is going on. One sees the light of "36 chandelles," which are certainly not really there!
This slope is succeeded by a flat stretch of ground where the sleigh slackens its pace little by little, losing the acquired speed and so on until it comes to a complete stop. Then one starts all over again.
Once we all—six of us—seated ourselves on a straw mat at the top of the slope. It seemed to whirl round several times on itself during the descent, shedding us to right and left, and finally deposited us lower down pell-mell in the soft white snow.
My cavalier had a costume designed ad hoc—à la Nansen tout-à-fait. This party ended up by a tea at the Club; and I truly believe that no more warming sport exists.
Every afternoon I spent several hours at the Winter Palace or at the French Embassy, where we worked with energy for the Red Cross, for those unfortunate soldiers who were fighting so far away and also for their families and all they held dear—so far away indeed that one was apt to forget that they were fighting in the same country at all—on the borders of Manchuria. My aunt had presented me at Court, and I was given the privilege—this being a very special favour—of attending, with a number of young girls in society, the daily work parties which were held at the Palace, in the pharmaceutical section, for dispatching parcels to the front.
On my way to the room where we worked I always encountered Princess Orbeliani—Prince Orbeliani's sister—in her invalid chair; she had entirely lost the use of her feet. She was the favourite maid-of-honour of the Empress, and guarded this favour jealously—as maybe a faithful dog would—but, nevertheless, she was a great nuisance, always watching and scanning the comings and goings of others.
In all the churches on Easter Eve, Midnight Mass is celebrated; and the ceremony is especially beautiful. I was to have attended the service at St Isaac's Cathedral, and had a seat given me amongst those reserved for the Diplomatic Corps, but it was expected that a bomb outrage would be committed, so instead of going there I was persuaded to accompany my aunt to the chapel of the Winter Palace.
The services of the Greek Church are extremely fatiguing, as there are no chairs except for invalids; and the heat on this occasion was so great that the small candles we held melted and bent themselves double.
It is a custom at this Mass to kiss one's neighbour.
In the street, on Easter Sunday, I noticed all the moujiks, country people, and the populace salute one another in the most solemn manner and embracing each other, while uttering the words "Christ is Risen."
There is in Russia a custom which I think quite charming; it consists in the ladies shaking hands with their hostess, while the men and children kiss her hand after luncheon and dinner. A lady does not require much encouragement to kiss the forehead of a gentleman who happens to be on friendly terms with her.
The Catholic churches at Petrograd are always fearfully overcrowded, but soon I gave up going to them, as once at St Catherine's, on the Newsky Prospect, I was literally carried off my feet by the crowd swaying backwards and forwards; and there were very few benches. So in future I preferred going to the Chapel of the Corps des Pages, a college reserved entirely for the young men of the best families destined for a military career, where there was also a Catholic chapel, in which I had been offered a seat, by my Ambassadress, on the benches reserved for the corps diplomatique, which was very comfortable.
But, before this, I went there once and settled myself in one of the benches belonging to the general public. I knelt devoutly for an instant, but on resuming my seat I realized that I was doing so on some one's knees and not on the hard plank of wood that I expected to find. I turned round to explore the horizon, and what did I find? A stout Polish woman had slipped in behind me while I was at my orisons, and had altogether possessed herself of my seat. I can still see her fat, round face, her heavy, massive figure. One could not dream of using force to dispossess her, and her big victorious eyes gazed at me above their spectacles and the old prayer book, with its pages yellowed by age and its enormous print.
I felt like choking with fury at the sight of all my poor plans for comfort destroyed, and I gave vent to a formidable "Dourak," the only abusive expression in my repertory; a great insult in Russian, and not a very appropriate one, as it means "Imbecile" or even more, and she had not been in the least "imbecile." I ought at any rate to have said "Doura," which is the feminine, but my knowledge of the Russian language was not yet so advanced. It seemed to me that the intruder looked horrified, but sank more than ever into her seat with the air of saying, "J'y suis: j'y reste." It only remained for me to yield her the ground. It was a real defeat.
One of the most interesting ceremonies of Holy Week in this chapel was the procession on Maundy Thursday of the Blessed Sacrament being carried to the tomb, when the four Catholic Ambassadors—France, Italy, Spain and Austria—in full-dress uniform, hold the dais, followed by the Catholic personnel of the various Embassies, also in full dress.
The Austrian Ambassador was the late Count Aerenthal, who has since played such an important political role in Austria, and specially during the last few years of his life; it was he who united Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austrian Crown.
The Italian Ambassador was Count Tornielli, a small man with a good-looking, amiable face; the French Ambassador was Monsieur M. Bompard, who played a role on this occasion that he would not have dared to play in France!
I often met Prince Hohenlohe, at that time Military Attaché to the German Embassy in Petrograd, and a cousin of the Kaiser's, as well as the chief of His Majesty's spy bureau in Switzerland. It has since been proved that he was a very dangerous one, and had received enormous sums at Paris—where he had also subsequently become Military Attaché—which he distributed to numerous "Bolos"; as for so many people "L'argent n'a pas d'odeur"! He was also present that day, wearing a green plume in the style of a feather brush in his officer's shako.
The works of Leon Tolstoy enchanted me; but for all that I did not like the man who had traced those talented lines. A humbug of the first water, a great Socialist for every one but himself—like most people of his class—Tolstoy had managed to instil his false doctrines into the minds of the students, those thousands of "fish out of water" who are a thorn in the side of Russia, doctrines which caused them to take so energetic a part in the first Revolution also.
May his ashes be agitated in his tomb and suffer at the sight of all the blood spilt, for it is not to be denied that his writings are greatly responsible for the Revolutions which have succeeded each other in Russia; but I fear they rejoice at it!
Possessor of a great fortune, he lived in the greatest luxury, though he posed for poverty and simple tastes, having himself photographed writing his works in a poor cottage for propaganda on post cards, or working himself behind a plough in a field.
Even his death was a final pose. To leave his home to go and die in a railway station, so that he should be talked about to the last! flying from his family and his devoted wife who had helped him so much in his work, and had copied, it is said, eight times the whole of War and Peace; which act certainly denotes the greatest devotion!