One year at the Russian court/Chapter 15
Russians are very superstitious: for instance, they would never tell you that you are looking well, without tapping wood several times with the forefinger for fear that what they said should bring you bad luck. My Uncle de Baranoff, an intelligent and staid man, was a victim to this weakness, and I have sometimes seen him rise from his armchair and cross a large room to go and tap on a piece of wood which he considered suitable when having made a statement of this sort.
In business matters Russians are so slow as to be very trying. I knew many important industrial people, constructors of ships and guns, who were in despair; belonging as they did to an allied but foreign Power, they were nearly distracted.
During the winter one is fed almost entirely on frozen food—which does not suit every one—meat, venison, poultry, eggs, etc. Also every country house possesses an icehouse, a regular little house, where provisions are stored for the winter, when Nature slumbers in that heavy lethargy from which the sudden arrival of spring alone can rouse her. Gelinotte is very frequently served, and it is eaten with a sort of jelly made from wild berries picked in the woods, which blend very well with the strong flavour that the little birds contract from the juniper berries with which they are fed, and of which they are very fond. These little birds make an unpretentious dish out there, but one which is generally appreciated.
The cooking is very good in Russia, at least in the houses which I frequented; it is also very cosmopolitan, much resembling our own, when our own is good—which is not always the case! It is very substantial, for in that cold country one has to eat a good deal. There are nevertheless some very Russian dishes which one finds nowhere else. Among these I mention blinki, a sort of pancake made with sour cream, which is eaten especially at Eastertide, and then pasca, a cream cake, eaten at the réveillon, which succeeds the midnight mass on Easter Eve. Also there is a beetroot soup, called borche, quite red since it is made of the juice of the beetroot and to which cream is added; this is always very well served at the Carlton Hotel in London. There is also a cabbage soup with which a piece of beef is placed on your plate.
Caviare is an almost daily dish, either fresh or preserved; there is often a choice of both.
Minced meats—poultry, etc.—are often eaten, arranged in the shape of cutlets, into each of which is inserted a handle made of bone, decorated with a little bit of ornamental paper, as is often done in France also.
There is one thing which you will never eat at a Russian house, and that is a pigeon! In the snow-covered streets and courtyards, everywhere in fact, flocks of big fat pigeons used to swoop down in great numbers. Pigeons in Russia are considered sacred, and the people place much faith in them, venerating but never eating them. Happy Russian pigeon—how your brethren of the West would envy you if they knew of your good luck!
Champagne seems to flow in rivers in Russia, and all the wine there is very good; French wines are drunk and others coming from the Crimea and the Caucasus, which produces very good vintages.
Cucumbers are also very much eaten, during their season, a specially small kind of cucumber. Every one has his own, and they are passed round the table whole in a great salad bowl, in which there is a little salt water; one cuts it as if it were a pear.
It is usual to find in one's place for lunch and dinner two sorts of bread, one white and one black. I liked the black bread, which was very thick and substantial, for one has a good appetite in Russia.
If life is of the most comfortable and of the most luxurious among rich people, the Russian moujik lives the most primitive existence in his izba. In winter, to keep himself warm, he sleeps on the tile-covered stove. The Russian peasant woman has a child every year, but terrible epidemics decimate these numerous families; scarlatina and diphtheria make awful ravages. In the villages there is a public bath where the moujik goes, but as on coming out he dresses again in his dirty sheepskin, his object seems but half attained. This bath has not the luxury of the sulphur baths at Tiflis; all of white marble, not only the piscina, but the walls and the floor of the room also. I went one day to see the public bath for women. For all clothing they had only their hair spread out, and reminded me of the story of Genevieve of Brabant.
I remember one young woman whose long black hair fell below her knees. In one hand she held a child of about three, and all the bathers gave me the impression of real Naïades, with their bodies half out of the water, and one wondered whether the rest of them was not fish-like. The masseurs, it appears, are excellent.
I was much struck in Russia by the number of people in the streets who were pitted with smallpox marks to an extent that is quite appalling.
The peasant is well versed in the properties of herbs, the virtue of which he knows, and which he uses with success.
It appears that a certain peasant has discovered an infallible cure for hydrophobia, which is kept as a family secret and which is as regards results quite equal, it is said, to that of Pasteur. Patients come to him from the uttermost corners of Russia, for a mad dog is not as with us an unknown quantity, but on the contrary is rather common. The cure consists in eating a sort of omelet—the ingredients of which contain a certain purifying herb.
It was very necessary in Russia never to be separated from one's passport, which was certainly one's most precious possession. They ask you for it wherever you may be spending the night, the dvornik, or porter, comes to fetch it and shows it to the police, and brings it back to you with one more signature on it, for which you have to pay the infinitesimal sum of a few kopecks, or pennies.
During the day a man-servant, more or less covered with gold braid, does the honours of the house when you enter or leave it. He is known as the Suisse. The dvornik, a primitive person whose name is derived from dvor or door, fills the rôle of concierge, and is on duty all night.
One day we left the Hôtel de France in the most brilliant style. We should have felt enchanted had it not been for the disorderly gait of the horses which drew us, and the want of stability of our fat coachman who really seemed to oscillate on his wide, his very wide base all inflated and wadded even there, as it is the custom for them to be during the cold winter months.
My friend, Madame de Saint-Pair, was taking me with her to pay some calls. It was one of those disagreeable days of thaw when the roads are nothing but pools of brackish water, and the remains of half-melted snow. After having narrowly escaped getting hung up with other vehicles, or upsetting into the heaps of snow which encumbered the road, we arrived at our destination. My friend was going to visit a friend who was ill, and I decided to remain in the carriage, thinking the coachman would keep still—but not at all.
In vain I called to him out of the window—sacrificing thereby my hat—"Stop, stop!" The footman who had got down gave him the same order, but in vain. He had taken it into his head to drive as fast as possible, like the humming-top he seemed to have become, round and round the circular grass plot in front of the house. This narrow space, surrounded by rather high iron railings, inspired me with some fear, as we kept knocking up against this barrier, placed there for the protection of the lawn from incautious pedestrians, and this was the cause of my receiving many unpleasant bumps.
Tired at last of this mad race, he pulled up suddenly, and I enjoyed a period of relative calm, mitigated by the fear of seeing him possessed by some fresh whim, when all of a sudden to my terror I perceived all this wadded mass oscillating once more, seeming more inflated than ever—as I have already explained, the wider it is the more chic it is considered. It shook again and then finally quitted the cushioned seat to fall on one side, into a most strange and comical position, almost suspended. Puzzled, I ended by hazarding once more my big hat through the window, and, mon Dieu, what did I see? My fat, wadded coachman suspended, his arms swaying in the air, his head thrown back, his face convulsed, red almost purple; his lips black with the cold and the vodka, murmuring in a beatifically amiable manner words that I could not catch, as his mouth seemed full of a thick glue. In this cold, and in such a condition, what a predicament to be in!
I seemed to see him already dying "d'un coup" as the Russians say when they want to say "of a stroke." I leapt out, summoned the Suisse, and with the help of the footman we re-established our intoxicated Jehu on his wide base. I had hardly settled myself again in the carriage, when the same scene took place all over again and the base began to oscillate as though agitated by an earthquake or some invisible spring, and this time it fell so low, so much off the seat, that I asked myself by what miracle it adhered thereto.
At last my friend reappeared. In proportion as he became more torpid from the fumes of that terrible vodka, our fat coachman seemed to swell all the more. In Petrograd there was not to be found I am sure a more ample caftan enclosing a larger individual, and how proud he was of his gold lace, which told every one that he was an Embassy coachman. Well—we did not swell with pride at all in spite of his brilliant accoutrements.
Then it was the turn of our poor footman to distinguish himself. Earth, snow and water desired him at all costs. On returning to the carriage after leaving some cards, we saw him seat himself, not on the little corner of the seat regretfully conceded to him by his obstructive neighbour, but fair and square into space. We nearly fainted. It seemed to us that the wheels, as they went over him, must have crushed some bones of his frail body. Our driver, more unconscious than ever, his quarters bulging, his head between his shoulders, his great arms stretched out, exciting the two black horses with that guttural cry so typical of the Russian coachman, drove on his course unheedingly.
However, the footman caught us up, but, mon Dieu, in what a lamentable state he appeared—paler even than we were and literally covered from head to foot in mud and filth. So ended that memorable drive; how gladly we should have greeted a ukase from the "Little Father" forbidding alcohol.
In winter a little railway is constructed on the ice of the Neva, in a certain place not far from the fortress of St Peter and St Paul, to connect the two sides. I often used to drive on the frozen waters of the river, covered with dazzling snow, in my aunt's carriages. I enjoyed it immensely, and I liked sometimes going to see the ice being sawn into huge blocks, great cartloads of it being taken away.
As the snow freezes as it falls, there is never any necessity to encumber oneself with an umbrella.
One of my diplomatic friends never adhered to this rule and consequently one day he was pursued in the street by urchins yelling out "Sale Anglais." It is here necessary to explain that during the Russo-Japanese war the English did not altogether lie on a bed of roses over there.
He felt doubly innocent of these accusations and could not lay claim to belonging in any way to Albion. He consequently disappeared into the first friendly door he passed, and the umbrella never went out again.
The great secret of being able to support the climate of Petrograd is to wear the same greatcoat every day throughout the winter, whatever the temperature may be, until after what is known there as the débâcle of the Neva.
To leave off one's winter clothes before this moment is pure madness. Your winter coat must necessarily be very warm, lined with fur and very thick, with a very high fur collar, which when raised—and it must always be raised—must entirely cover the ears; a fur toque is the most practical head-dress, with one's hair done low on the forehead, as the cold is so intense that it seems to wish to penetrate like a chisel just where the nose begins, between the eyes.
A pair of snow-boots, or a pair of velinki—dainty, little fur-lined boots—is indispensable unless one wishes to contract congestion of the lungs—a thing very easily accomplished in that country. When skating, these particular shoes must be warmly lined.
Russians never take much exercise, and they nearly all wear what is known there as the chouba, a kind of pelisse lined very thickly and often with the most valuable furs; but I did not adopt this mode, for the good reason that I could not bear the idea of being always smothered up, and I hated its feather-bed appearance.
In winter, every window is hermetically sealed with the exception of one small casement, which is opened for a few minutes only each day, just sufficient to allow a little fresh air to penetrate—so intense is the cold.
It is usual even to fill with sand the space between the double windows—on account of the cold there are always double-windows—up to the height of the bottom of the first pane of glass.
One takes off and puts on one's heavy furs in a specially arranged place just inside the front door of the houses, as it would not be possible to bear the weight of them in the warm atmosphere indoors and it would be sudden death to venture outside without them. Consequently, with these arrangements for one's comfort and with reasonable precautions, there is no country in the world where one need suffer less from the cold than in Russia; not that dreadful penetrating damp cold one continually experiences in French and English houses only fit for snipes and snipers to exist in.
Many martyrs to rheumatism in our countries would not be troubled by that painful complaint in Russia, a fact which must be entirely due to the dry atmosphere of the houses.
Contrary to the general opinion which one hears so often expressed, that the atmosphere of Russian houses during the winter is oppressive, I must say I only once experienced this uncomfortable sensation, and then only on a staircase. I own I was there again spoilt, as my aunts lived in the luxury of spacious and lofty apartments, and all the people I knew did likewise. The doors connecting the different rooms were always left open as much as possible, thus equalizing the warmth of each, which was delicious. Every room had its own large tiled stove; the stoves are closed so that the fire cannot be seen, and they are of the same height as the room, seeming to form part of the wall, which has not an ugly effect, as it is concealed as much as possible. Birch wood was burnt and only required stoking once a day.
To the amazement of my aunts I bore the climate without the least hitch, the secret of which was, I think, the delight I felt at being there realizing a dream which I had always had, which I had nursed in silence, and cherished as a vision, and which I enjoyed, even more than I had dreamt, as a reality. It seemed as though I had always lived this life that I loved, surrounded by the warm friendly affection which had welcomed me, and as in the song, it was mine to say:—
"Et le grand soleil qui me brûle
Est dans mon cœur."