One year at the Russian court/Chapter 2
The country from Petrograd to Viborg is for the most part like one perpetual garden, the train passes between what is literally a long series of villas and gardens in the midst of silver birch and pine-trees, broken occasionally by an evident attempt to create a new place; then succeeds again a planted solitude; and at last, after a journey of four hours, Viborg—a town of 30,000 inhabitants—is reached.
That planted solitude has since those days become very much built over, I expect, as Finland is a very sought-after summer resort.
Finland—the country of the thousand lakes, or rather one ought to say of the five thousand lakes! My grandmother's land won my heart at once. Monrepos was for me a touching souvenir of her.
It is a well-known show place, with its lovely and hilly woodlands reaching down to the Gulf of Finland, its gorgeous flower-beds and standard orange-trees, where the coast is indented with its pink coloured rocks and in the background are interminable forests of pine and silver beech, where wolves come in winter. In one of the kiosks in the park is a marble bust of the Empress Maria, given by her to my great-grandfather to whom she was much attached. In the park there stands also a column erected to the memory of two Princes de Broglie who fell, fighting for the Allies, against Napoleon—these two princes were brothers of my great-grandmother. Another column was presented to my great-grandfather by the town of Viborg in recognition of a gift of land and other bequests made by him. Every corner contains some souvenir; every bench is named after a member of the family.
My aunt took me to visit the tomb of the Nicolays situated on one of the prettiest islands in the park, named the Isle of Ludwinstein, all formed of pink coloured rocks covered with lovely trees. To reach this poetic spot where the dear dead rest so peacefully, one effects the crossing of a narrow arm of the Gulf on a ferry bridge worked by ropes fastened at either end, by means of which one is enabled to pull oneself over the deeply-shaded waters of the beautiful Gulf of Finland. Ludwinstein dominates its full immensity interspersed by thickly-wooded islands; there the great northern sun bathes itself before setting in its multi-coloured glory. Then is the time to steal quietly away to think—and pray—on the island of Death and Life and Hope.Finland is far more Swedish than Russian, having belonged to the Swedish Crown for so long, and Viborg was very animated; we often went there. The long drives into the country generally in the char-à-bancs were a great joy to me. My aunt's coachman, Kousma, besides
IN THE PARK OF MONREPOS, THE FERRY TO LUDWINSTEIN
Another of my great amusements was to go for a sail in one or the other of my aunt's boats on the Gulf; and at times we used to row ourselves—a form of exercise which has always appealed to me.
The Catholic Church at Viborg was very small; the congregation consisted of about three to four hundred soldiers and a few peasant women, picturesque with their bright coloured—generally red—handkerchiefs on their heads. Whenever I entered the church these soldiers lined up on either side of the aisle in my honour. I almost imagined I was the Empress! But I never shall forget the smell of their top boots caused by the fat used for cleaning them. It was almost unbearable.
There is always a night watchman round the house, who chimes the hours all through the night and keeps a vigilant watch. Monrepos is entirely built of wood, after the fashion of so many large houses in Russia, but so strong and massive in construction that it is difficult to realize the absence of stone.
The house—the houses, I ought to say, for there are two—is of enormous dimensions and to give an illustration of this I may mention that the large drawing-room is more than 150 feet in length and very lofty.
My aunt always lived with her three unmarried children, Paul and his two sisters, Marie and Aline; it has always been my habit to call them "uncle" and "aunt" on account of their being so much older than myself and I thought it more respectful to do so. The first two are entirely devoted to good works and before the war my uncle was absolutely absorbed by the Œuvre des Étudiants, an international business, and as this body held their annual meetings in different places each year he was continually travelling, and thought no more of starting off to America or Japan than he did of going to Petrograd.
My young Pahlen cousins, children of the married daughter of my aunt, came to stay. I nicknamed them "Les Moustiques" as, all day long, they clambered on to my knees and then smothered me with kisses! Their father, Count de Pahlen, was then Governor of Vilna—now, alas, fallen into the hands of the detestable Hun! They played the balalaika—a cross between the mandoline and the guitar—very well.
Uncle de Pahlen, although a somewhat pronounced Protestant, was large-minded enough to rescue the Roman Catholic Bishop of Vilna, by concealing him in the bottom of his equipage, from the hands of the revolutionaries the following winter. All the Nicolays are very low church, with the exception of Uncle Paul who admires and venerates God far more in nature than beneath the roof of any temple—so I was told.
The Finns' one idea was and still is to obtain an autonomy of their own—the Russian Governor of the Province was usually hated and I am right in stating that during my visit several attempts on his life were made.
When women received the right to vote in Finland, the accomplishment of this achievement was the cause of a frenzy of delight.
We were always a large party at Monrepos, a perpetual coming and going of friends. On the occasion of the visit of my French friends, Monsieur and Madame de Saint-Pair, we had arranged together to visit Imatra, the famous waterfalls of which are known the world over. The great fall is superb—the foam reaching to an immense height—but I prefer the smaller fall, although it is stiller but a good deal wider than the great fall.
It happened to be the feast of St John, in celebration of which huge bonfires are lit all over the country. We did not actually see the midnight sun, as we were not quite far enough north for that, but it was 11.30 p.m. before the afterglow entirely vanished. Then we went to see a country dance undertaken amidst profound silence, the Finn takes his pleasures quietly! I noticed that all the men of the dance wore small daggers in their belts, no doubt to protect their belles, I concluded; and the latter certainly were remarkable for the wonderful dazzling brightness of their fair hair plaited in thick tresses of wonderful richness.
On our return to the inn we were served with a whole ham cut in the form of a duck, and radishes to represent flowers, while the butter took the shape of sea anemones.
The following morning we drove 36 kilometres in a carriage which looked more like a hearse than anything else, with no springs, and drawn by three horses who took the bits between their mouths and galloped for all they were worth along a road like a switchback, only worse, on account of the innumerable deep ruts all over it, and in some places edged with real precipices. Naturally the vehicle possessed no brake!
The country is very wild, full of woods and thick undergrowth on either side of the road; then, wooded hills and a few cottages here and there; pines and birch-trees everywhere.
Our hearse-shaped conveyance certainly possessed the semblance of a roof, but the planks of wood composing it did not fit, with the result that we were obliged to open our umbrellas inside to prevent ourselves from being soaked by the heavy rain occasioned by a severe thunderstorm which overtook us, on this never-to-be-forgotten excursion in the wildest and most romantic parts of the country. The little boys on the road blew us kisses, while the little girls offered us fruit, flowers, eggs, and pretty coloured stones.
On arrival at Rättijärvi we took the steamer down the canal of Lake Saima, thoroughly enjoying the lovely scenery by which we were surrounded, as we passed on our way through many lakes.
The locks of Juustila are very interesting—our boat sunk deeper and deeper, so deep indeed that I thought we would never reach the bottom! We returned enchanted with our Finnish trip.
At Monrepos, we had some charming neighbours, amongst whom were the Count and Countess de Stackelberg. The latter was before her marriage Countess Shouvaloff, a niece of my aunt and the daughter of a former Russian Ambassador at Berlin, while her husband, General Baron de Stackelberg, was attached to the person of one of the Grand Dukes. I have often met them in Paris since those days, and to my great regret I heard lately that at the outbreak of the late revolution in March 1917 Count Stackelberg was arrested and was actually being led off to the Bureau Central by a detachment of soldiers to be tried, when, while still on his own staircase, a shot was fired—presumably by some ill-advised person, at the top of the staircase—whereupon the soldiers, who were on the ground-floor and far from the unfortunate General who was unarmed, imagining that it was he who had fired at them, turned on him with violence and finally shot him in cold blood.
Half an hour after this tragedy my uncle, Baron Paul de Nicolay, called at the house, when he also was arrested by a young revolutionary who left him in charge of two soldiers while he went off to fetch his revolver. The soldiers' attention being taken away by their leader's action, my uncle profited by their momentary distraction and most fortunately was thus enabled to make good his escape, otherwise he would most probably have shared the same fate as poor Stackelberg.
I have the greatest affection for Uncle Paul, from whom I often receive long and most interesting letters, which help to remind me of the happy days I am now attempting to describe—the golden memory of which will ever remain impressed upon my heart.
It is to be hoped that Fate will spare Finland and the cradle of the family from an invasion by the brutal Hun, and may the Angel of Peace protect those blessed tombs from his sacrilegious and infamous hands.
I left Finland to go back to Petrograd with my aunt for a few days, which I spent most gaily. Then I went to Peterhof with my aunt, Princess Cherwachidze, and to Michaelovka with Aunt de Baranoff, going often from one to the other.