One year at the Russian court/Chapter 3
The Court spent the summer at the Palace of Peterhof. My aunt, Princess Cherwachidze, always rented a villa there on leaving her house at Petrograd. Most of the Grand Dukes had their palaces there also. Being only at a distance of about one hour by train from Petrograd, Peterhof with its numerous palaces and villas, situated in their lovely gardens, reminded me of the Riviera; by its brilliant society, both military and civil, Peterhof was indeed a delightful place to live in. There was a perpetual round of luncheons and dinners in the Court Circle which I enjoyed very much, also the concerts and the theatre.
The place is charmingly pretty; the park magnificent, reaching right down to the shores of the Baltic where many of its fine trees dip their long branches into the sea. In the park we used to meet the Imperial Children, Grand Duchess Olga, the eldest, and lately one of the leading sister-disciples of Rasputin's religion, was then a pretty little doll, always very gracious and well-dressed. She used to say "Bonjour" aloud when anyone bowed to her; policemen and others were delighted with the salutation of their "little Empress!" Later on, their drives and rides had to be discontinued as attempts on their lives were feared.
The second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, was said to be the cleverest of the family and her father's favourite.
The playing of the fountains was a sight worth seeing, the Russians never ceased asking me whether they did not outshine the "Grandes Eaux" of Versailles.
The appearance of the exterior of the Palace inspired gaiety, whilst the interior was the very acme of comfort.
The Russian Court was the most luxurious Court in the world, combining as it did all the wealth and luxury of the East and the West. It was a rule that all the numerous palaces of the Emperor should be kept up during his absence just as though he were in residence—always ready to receive him at any moment.
I often accompanied my aunt to the Palace of Peterhof to see my uncle, Prince Cherwachidze, who was Grand Master of the Court of Russia, specially attached to the person of the Empress-Dowager, being also Grand Master of her Court; and he sometimes came to spend his evenings with us.My aunt continually lunched with the Empress-Dowager, who used to invite her every year to spend long friendly visits with her at Gatchina; she also lunched very often at the Palace. My aunt might have taken up her abode in the Palace had she chosen, out always declared she preferred her liberty to the perpetual glow and
THE CASTLE OF MONREPOS FROM THE PARK
PETERHOF, THE IMPERIAL CHILDREN
Princess Cherwachidze, née Baronne de Nicolay, my father's first cousin, is small and slender, very refined and fragile, so fragile indeed that one is almost afraid of breaking her when embracing her, but possessing in her heart an unfathomable depth of kindness and devotion.
My dear little aunt—Aunt Maka, as I called her—seemed to be in love, so much in love with her husband that morning and night, especially when at Petrograd, she rushed off as fast as she could cover the ground to the telephone to converse with the object of her adoration, who was always in waiting on his Imperial Mistress wherever she happened to be—Gatchina, Peterhof, Tsarskoe-Celo or Petrograd, at the Anitschkoff Palace. The conversation was always the same and in her soft emotional voice she commenced:—
"Comment vas-tu?" The reply I never caught. "Allons tant mieux." Idem. "Tu vas venir aujourd'hui, n'est-ce pas?" I guessed the reply to be in the negative. "Et demain?" Again in the negative. "Alors tu me diras. Au revoir." Then it was over. He was not often able to respond to these summonses.
She seemed quite satisfied to know that her spouse was in good health—there was no alternative—and then again would rush off across the drawing-rooms back to her comfortable study where she always had a vast correspondence to attend to, and to reply to in that beautiful caligraphy of hers—everything she undertook to do was executed to perfection. Every day she received several begging letters, some from people desirous of obtaining employment, others seeking for Imperial audiences for some protégé or other—and these latter simply poured in!
Again at night, she used to ring up my uncle on the telephone which, alas, more often than not gave no reply; then my poor little aunt became quite thoughtful and sadly consoled herself by saying, "Comme son service est fatiguant!"
She had also a conversation on the telephone very often with Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovitch who had been a friend of hers for many years. His Imperial Highness sometimes came to see us in the evening and we always knew when he had entered the apartment by the tremendous clatter of his scabbard on the parquet floor of the ante-room and the clinking of his spurs as he walked. He was of a jovial disposition and spoke with a very loud voice. He was besides un gai causeur and extremely literary, amongst his last publications was La Famille des Strogonoff.
Every morning, dressed as simply as possible, and wearing a little black felt hat with a tiny little ruffled up feather and carrying a small black leather bag, my aunt used to go out on missions of charity; the felt was no longer very new, neither was the feather, but that mattered not at all to my dear little aunt.
Ordinary—and extraordinary—confessor to all the troubled consciences which chose to make her house their meeting place, nothing struck me as being more strangely dissimilar than this immaculate soul—almost unique beneath the snow-laden sky of this frozen country—to those who invaded the blessed atmosphere of that drawing-room, pouring out all their griefs and faults into her ever-sympathetic ears.
The Prince was less sentimental. Spoilt by a great fortune, occupying a high post at Court, his presence at home became less and less until there seemed no real reason to bind him to it at all, and yet, when he did happen to come, he seemed so happy. But it was extremely difficult for anyone to read exactly the innermost thoughts of my dear uncle, who belongs to a very good old princely family of Georgia; he is a Caucasian, and consequently portrays in his character all the mystery of his race, to a greater degree even than the Slav. He has a somewhat striking appearance with his large dark eyes. He is very gracious, when he chooses, and unequalled in the art of finesse, morally speaking.
Although his thoughts were nearly always in the clouds, they occasionally issued from their nebulous seclusion, but never for long. This originality seemed to please his Sovereign Lady and some people used to conceive this to be the cause of the high favour in which he stood.
At official ceremonies my uncle, in his magnificent gold uniform all covered with Ribbons and Orders, appeared to emerge from the midst of those yards of shimmering velvet or silk which formed the train of the Empress-Dowager and which seemed to take pleasure in rustling all the more at his touch. He cut a superb figure as he sat in his Court carriage, wearing his fine cocked hat surmounted with white plumes, and on the box seat the men in Royal scarlet and gold liveries with their gold-gallooned hats slightly tilted to one side—the whole being drawn by a pair of high-stepping greys.
At Peterhof we often used to drive in this fine turn-out, and many were the low obeisances bestowed on us by respectful functionaries as we passed.
Tongues were very busy on the subject of my uncle and I could not but feel a little sad for my aunt. It was with eyes closed and with her heart brim-full of him that she used to visit a certain perfidious beauty enjoying the liberty of grass widowhood—her husband being at the war—and I felt sure that the lady knew more about my uncle during her brief acquaintance with him than did my dear good credulous aunt during the whole of her twenty-five years of legitimate married life. But perhaps my youthful imagination ran riot and judging from what people whispered you may think jealousy is as rampant in Russia as it is here.
Queen Alexandra arrived at Peterhof during my sojourn there to spend a few days with her sister, the Empress-Dowager, and I remember so well seeing her. A cordon of sentinels had been drawn only a few paces apart all round the Park interspersed with mounted Cossacks. My uncle has a profound admiration for the Rose Queen, who has held him in great esteem for many years. In the old days, when the world was normal, he used to meet Her Majesty at Copenhagen every year, where she always presented him with the latest photograph, of herself, signed by her Royal hand—and at Petrograd he had a regular gallery of these.
My uncle is entirely devoted to the Empress and she will never let him out of her sight for long, giving him her full confidence; but, as he is a very bad sailor and dreads the long sea voyages, he always obtained her Imperial sanction to travel by way of Germany; so as to avoid sea-sickness as much as possible and for this purpose he wears a pair of red glasses. May this be a hint in future to all those who suffer from mal de mer!
He is still attached to the person of his Imperial Mistress, in the Crimea, and now sharing her life in misfortune with as much devotion as in former days. I feel sure he will never willingly consent to abandon her as in all probability she has been forsaken by so many.On one occasion, while at Copenhagen, a little scandal was spread about in which the name of a certain very pretty maid of honour, who for the fun of the thing mischievous people wished to compromise, and that of my uncle, amongst others, were coupled. The papers, of course, got hold of the story and naturally exaggerated the whole event.
The Empress was furious and outraged at the mere suggestion of such a thing and in a loud voice protested, saying, "Le Prince n'y était pas, le Prince était chez moi." Now, the hour mentioned was one in which Morpheus makes one forget the sad hours when he no longer holds sway—and it was good of the Empress to champion her hero thus. People smiled but held their peace!
As every one knows, the greatest love and affection exist between our lovely Queen Alexandra and her sister. Since these Russian days I have often been to see my uncle in London, both at Buckingham Palace and, since King Edward's death, at Marlborough. House, during the Empress's visits to the Queen, which during King Edward's lifetime usually took place when he was abroad on his several diplomatic missions, causing him to be recognized as Edward the Peacemaker. How richly he deserved that appellation is to be shown in the great result he achieved in bringing about the Entente Cordiale—as though he foresaw the present cataclysm thus laying the foundation of the great brotherhood in arms which now exists between France and her old antagonist England in their common determination to crush the loathsome beast—the abominable Hun—in a life or death struggle. May time only strengthen this great alliance, is the heartfelt desire of one amongst thousands of the daughters of France.
At Buckingham Palace my uncle occupied a charming apartment just above the Visitors' Entrance, though at Marlborough House his installation was naturally less sumptuous. There I was greeted at the top of the stairs by two giant Cossacks, the Cossacks of the Empress.
As my uncle experiences a good deal of difficulty in speaking English, the long sojourn in our midst used to get rather on his nerves, especially after King Edward died, as it was so hard for Queen Alexandra to reconcile herself to parting with her Imperial sister. Whenever the Empress thought of departure, the Queen threw herself into the Empress's arms and begged her to remain—and remain she did. Neither did the visits to Sandringham satisfy my uncle, who was only really happy in one place and that place was Copenhagen—where he seemed to become young again! quite young! I was told. My uncle took his place in the funeral procession of the late King Edward as one of the Russian delegates on that solemn occasion.
On his last visit to London, soon after my marriage, my husband and I saw a great deal of my uncle, with whom we often used to lunch at Buckingham Palace Hotel where he had a lovely suite of apartments on the first floor, because, as he used to say, "I am freer here than at Marlborough House." And he seemed to revel in the idea of his own garçonnière, although he had his room at Marlborough House as well.
That year the Empress remained in England until the last day of July, and was travelling on her way back to Russia through Germany on the day Russia actually declared war. On her arrival at Berlin the Imperial bomb-proof train was not allowed to continue any further east, but was ordered either to go back whence it came, namely to Calais, or else proceed to Denmark, as German Authorities felt sure she was conveying important messages from the King to his cousin the Tzar.
Her Imperial Majesty chose the latter route, thinking it would be the best way home later on.
My uncle also showed us a very pretty miniature of the Empress-Dowager given to him lately by Queen Alexandra, a charming thought for which he seemed very grateful.
He had sent to Petrograd for an enormous box of delicious bonbons which he gave us, they are so luscious there, and to ensure getting a good cup of tea when he came to see us, I expect, he presented us with some excellent green Russian tea.