One year at the Russian court/Chapter 5
Great preparations now began for the baptism of the Tzarevitch. I shall never forget with what joy we heard the appointed number of guns fired announcing the glad tidings that a son and heir had been born to the Emperor and Empress.
This happy event—July 30th, 1904—coincided with the Silver Wedding day of my uncle and aunt, my aunt being the recipient of many beautiful and valuable gifts from the Empress-Dowager, Grand Duchess Xenia and many others. My Uncle Cherwachidze presented me with a charming curbed chain Faberge bangle made of the three golds, as the Russians say, namely of white gold or platinum, red gold and green gold. It was a delicate attention on his part and one, which needless to say, I greatly appreciated.
Since the birth of his son, the Emperor appeared radiant.
I saw him shortly after the event at Crasnoë-Celo races distributing the prizes amongst the winners from the Imperial stand, which resembles a small villa with a balcony on the first floor—as is customary in Russian houses.
Then I saw Grand Duke Cyril, just back from the war in Manchuria where he had fallen into a hole; he was recuperating and declared that the air of Petrograd was the only one that could improve his health!
He was at this time paying attention to his divorced cousin, whom he eventually married in spite of the Tzar's disapproval.
We went also to the Tzaria, the great national festival, and were invited to the Imperial tent; the Empress-Dowager drove up in a carriage with four horses and postilions. The Court uniforms were most brilliant. My uncle appeared again all in gold lace. The scene was most beautiful and impressive.
For the baptism of Grand Duke Alexis, heir to the throne, we first went to the Countesses Koutousoff, two sisters, maids of honour to the Empress-Dowager, where we found Countess Worontsoff and the others in full Russian Court Dress, of dark green velvet, as she was mistress of the Court of the Empress-Dowager, each Grand Duke's Court having its own particular colour.
There we met a number of friends, amongst whom were a Princess Troubetzkoy and her husband, and Princess Yousoupoff, a great friend of my aunt. The latter was absolutely charming, I thought, so pretty and so simple. She possesses the largest fortune in Russia, and jewels—such as one reads of in fairy tales.
Her second son was there, who notwithstanding a rather effeminate appearance has distinguished himself lately by being implicated in the murder of that arch-fiend and mock monk Rasputin.
Very soon after the baptism of Grand Duke Alexis, the eldest son was killed in a duel; he had fallen head over ears in love with a well-known girl in Russian Society, but his parents absolutely refused to sanction this alliance. In consideration of their position and of their immense fortune, they imagined that the only suitable wife for their son must be the daughter of a Grand Duke.
Accordingly, the announcement of the young lady's engagement to another suitor was made public and the religious ceremony took place in Paris, but that very night she gave her husband the slip and flew to the hotel where her lover awaited her.
The result of this naturally was a duel in which the lover was killed by the husband—his dead body being sent back to his home quite unattended in his motor—and some time after his adversary became mad.
Petrograd society was dumbfounded by this drama and for many years the young woman who was the cause of it was looked at askance, but now, I have heard, she is being readmitted into the enchanted circle.
Prince and Princess Yousoupoff were quite overcome with sorrow and could not reconcile themselves to the fact that they would never see their adored son again. They had his body embalmed and laid in a glass coffin, so that they could gaze upon his features, and made a point of conveying the coffin with them wherever they went. This state of things went on for over a year, until one day a friend broke it quietly to them that it was high time to put the coffin out of sight; and this they finally agreed to do.
The Yousoupoffs' second and only remaining son has accomplished the feat of marrying the beautiful sister of Grand Duke Dmitri, thus satisfying his parents' ambition, and should be universally applauded for having helped to rid Russia and the whole world of that most evil genius of the age, the mock monk Rasputin, who through his deplorable influence over the pro-German Empress Alexandra Feodorovna has been the cause not only of the fall of the House of Romanoff and of that supremely brilliant Court but also, I fear, of the complete downfall of great Holy Russia—at least for generations to come.
The Imperial cortège was truly fairy-like: there were gilt coaches surmounted at the four corners by white ostrich feathers, drawn by four or eight white horses with white harness and white plumes on their heads; the bridle of each horse being held by a footman dressed in white and gold.
In one of the coaches was Princess Galitzine, Grand Mistress of the Court, and in her arms the then precious infant, a very fine child, with blue eyes and dark hair.
The religious ceremony in the Imperial Chapel was indescribably beautiful. I fancied myself in Fairyland. My aunt was of course in full Court dress and looked a real picture in her velvet dress with a lot of her jewels on her kakochnik or head-dress.
About this cradle surrounded as it was by so much love—and also by so much hate, during these already troublous times—one could not help but ask oneself, with anxious feelings at the bottom of one's heart, as to what the future held in store for this innocent babe, born in the purple: the hope of the Romanoffs—the target of its enemies.
Prince Dolgorouky, who was Gold Stick in Waiting, drove past in a gilded open state carriage looking the regular grand seigneur with his air of supreme distinction as he held his long wand of office in his right hand. In spite of his already advanced age and of his silvery locks, he was still a superb-looking man. One unwelcome shower having fallen during the return journey rather damaged the splendour of his white plumed hat and splendid uniform.
I knew all the members of his family very well, as they and the Nicolays were on very intimate terms with one another. His sister, Madame d'Albédinsky, had been a great friend of the Emperor Alexander III. She was charming—most sympathetic.
A few days later we attended the parade of the Chevaliers-Gardes at Peterhof; a magnificent spectacle, the troops wearing white uniforms with silver helmets surmounted by a golden eagle with outspread wings.
On one side a carpet had been laid down and priests were offering up prayer, for there is never any ceremony in Russia without a religious side to it.
I often met Baron Fredericks—since then he has become Count—who had been Grand Marshal of the Court for many years. He was to be seen here, there, and everywhere and must have proved himself a most useful spy of the Kaiser—as recent events have indicated.
On the outbreak of the late Revolution he was found in hiding and promptly imprisoned in the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul; from which, however, in consideration of his great age and for a big lump sum of money he has been released.
Princess Lise Bagration-Moucransky, my aunt's friend, was on intimate terms with all the crowned heads and even the non-crowned ones of the Imperial family. One day I went with her to see Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch and his daughter, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin—of whom I shall have more to say later on.
I found the Princess quite charming; "elle avait dû avoir beaucoup de 'chien,'" as we say in France, and still had a very merry twinkle in her eye which caused me great amusement. Being a Bagration, she was descended from the Royal House of Georgia, and her husband—who had been dead some years—had held numerous high appointments.
One day I went with my aunt to see Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, sister of the Tzar—who has since divorced the Grand Duke, to marry his aide-de-camp—she lived quite near us; also Grand Duke and Duchess of Leuchtenbergh. This corner of the world seemed to be peopled with nothing but Royalties!
One of our frequent visitors was a very dignified and decided though kind looking cousin of my uncle's, also a Princess Cherwachidze, who was maid of honour to Grand Duchess Eugénie of Oldenburg.
It pleased my uncle sometimes to be extremely gay and amusing, and I remember what fun we had together singing "Viens, Poupoule, viens." This was then a favourite refrain of the Paris Boulevards, which the Russians adored.
There were at Oranienbaum, near Peterhof, a great number of soldiers getting ready to start for the theatre of war, wearing caps covered with a sort of greenish grey cloth and blouses of the same shade, with khaki coloured greatcoats, which they always wore. The officers wore green tunics and dark caps.
One evening at six o'clock we went to see them take their departure and I never shall forget the beauty of the setting for that sad scene—the Baltic seemed to have borrowed something of the deep warm tones of the Mediterranean. Cronstadt stood out, in the distance across the water, as clear against the radiantly blue sky as if it had been painted for some stage scenery.
There they were, bands playing and flags waving in the breeze, all those gallant fellows having mustered from many different parts of the Empire, all ready to step into that long brick-red train with the Imperial Arms emblazoned on it, which would convey them far, far away to other Steppes, but desert ones these—and terrible.
How many restrained tears in those dark or blue eyes, to which pain and suffering had given an almost terrible expression, and how many never to be realized dreams were enclosed behind these broad foreheads. How melancholy—sad, too—were the expressions on the fresh faces of the young, as on the wrinkled ones of the old peasant women with their heads almost entirely concealed beneath wide gaudy coloured handkerchiefs.
From time to time the stillness of this great pathetic scene was disturbed by the shrill and joyous tones of a voice of a child too young as yet to understand the true and awful significance of this—for many—the last earthly farewell. How numerous they were—these poor little innocents!
When the bell announcing the starting of the train rang for the third time, one last and long hurrah was raised by the entire sad-hearted multitude; and it was terrible to think of the hardships those poor fellows would be subjected to during that long journey to accomplish across Siberia, forty of them in one truck, an open one very often!
Ammunition and guns were conveyed by the same train, which I was told would take six weeks to reach its destination. Altogether a most poignant spectacle, which greatly impressed me; but nowadays such an event as the one I have attempted to describe has become, alas, a common occurrence in almost every country of the world which is traversing the most terrible agony of pain and sorrow of all time.
The Emperor had come and bid them farewell the night before.
As Oranienbaum is so near Cronstadt, it was a favourite place for the wives of sailors with their, usually, large families to live in.
Amongst my aunt's numerous men-servants there was one called Coucoulsky who was the head butler—very fat and rotund, with the usual flat head of the Pole, wearing enormous whiskers, with a pair of tiny sparkling eyes always filled with astonishment. The poor man was no longer young—il sue, il souffle, il est rendu—and to put him into this state it was merely sufficient for him to offer to his little Princess on a huge silver tray some wonderful pièce montée, which he held at such an angle that one always expected to see the contents flung into her lap. This he did with a most beatified expression on his broad smiling face.
He was for ever tripping up over imaginary obstacles, and always appeared to be running, but somehow or other he never managed to be there when required; this was inexplicable. And yet, in this fanciful and fantastic being, there was a soul, an exquisite poetic soul.
In the summer on moonlight nights, afar off in the garden, alone amongst the shrubs, his comical profile could be seen detaching itself against the sky, his huge mouth wide open, his whiskers trembling and his little eyes closed; while he sang languorously. Three fox terriers disturbed in their slumbers by these nocturnal sounds always made a combined attack on him, threatening to bite his calves to the bone. One by one the windows of the house were closed, but all in vain—nothing could distract him from this reverie of song!
One evening, on one of the rare occasions of a visit from Prince Cherwachidze, Coucoulsky appeared with a radiant expression carrying a plat monté, as my amorous little aunt was determined to welcome her spouse by setting before him a regular feast.
Every one's surprise was great on perceiving the faithful butler with a napkin like a child's immense bib tied beneath his chin, he in his anxiety having forgotten to remove it and no one venturing to remind him of its existence as neither my aunt, on account of her short sightedness, nor my uncle, owing to his usual state of oblivion, had noticed the grotesque appearance of the poor man, as he trotted and scrambled round the table balancing the huge dish and threatening everybody with a douche of its contents.
Later on, I found out that the reason for his wearing the bib was on account of the desire to preserve the freshness of his highly-starched collar when off duty—but on this celebrated occasion he had forgotten to remove it.
Although the charms of poor Coucoulsky were many, my aunt failed to see them in their true light and, after a few months, he with many tears of regret was obliged to leave this hospitable interior where he was considered both too old and too young. He left but too few regrets, only the memory of him made many laugh.
He was quite unique, this good Coucoulsky. He returned to his wife who was somewhat old, rather ugly and with only one eye, but to him she appeared always full of charm and grace—she never was more beautiful nor less blind—but they were young, both of them. Oh, the good old time!