One year at the Russian court/Chapter 6
Life at Michaelovka was very gay and delightful, in that beautiful palace belonging to Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch on the shore of the Baltic, and surrounded by every possible luxury amidst a gay and numerous suite.
Michaelovka is situated at Strelna, quite near Peterhof. I stayed there with my uncle, General de Baranoff, and my aunt. My uncle was Grand Marshal of the Court of Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch, who always spent a great part of each summer there.
The poor Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch was then very old and in failing health and was not often visible—for years past he had spent his winters at Cannes, where he owned the beautiful Villa Kasbeck.
My uncle and aunt made a perfect couple and ideal parents. It was a genuine pleasure for one to see their two white heads approach one another several times a day and join in an affectionate embrace. I had met my uncle on the Riviera when at Cannes some years previously and also General Tolstoi, both forming part of the suite of the Grand Duke. General Tolstoi could be really witty at times, and once I remember he amused us greatly when he came to see us with my uncle. Bowing and bending himself with that grace and suppleness peculiar to the Russian he pretended to efface himself while ushering in my uncle and said: "Je vous présente un grand ravageur." Of this particular side of my uncle's character I know nothing, but I can well believe he might have been the cause of many a heart beat, and I for one should have heartily congratulated each one of those hearts for the good taste they showed.
Very tall and thin, very intelligent beneath an impassive countenance, kindness itself, General de Baranoff combines the acme of distinction with the personification of honesty; very fond, like nearly all Russians, of putting questions to foreigners but making a point of never answering any—himself a past master in the art.
Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch, however, paid full justice to my uncle's great integrity and appreciated the advantage of having at his side a man of his high character, for they were often surrounded by sycophants of whom, however, one might say that they followed the example of their august masters in that their needs were insatiable and unsatisfied, certainly a thorn in the side of the Imperial crown; so much so that one day while walking with one of my aunts in the palace grounds, we were passed by a big motor-car, salutations were exchanged and I asked my aunt who was the gorgeous occupant.
"C'est le Grand Duc, . . ." she said, "le 'seul' qui soit sérieux!"
Unlike the rest of the suite of Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch, my uncle never took any advantage of his position and would never even take at the Grand Duke's expense a single trunk with him beyond what was strictly necessary, though he accompanied him on all his journeys—Cannes, Baden-Baden, etc. This was in vivid contrast to one of the Grand Duke's retinue, who never spent a penny except at his master's charge and even went so far as to get the Grand Duke to pay the tickets of all his family and finally persuaded him to rent for them a Villa at Cannes much to the disgust of my uncle. I never liked this person with a German sounding name and a doubtful profile.
I often said to my aunt, "Do you know, I almost entertain a passion for my uncle," whereupon she used to smile that beautiful smile of hers which I liked seeing so much.
My Aunt de Baranoff, née de Bibikoff, was charming; she had beautiful white hair and very pretty blue eyes, and in her youth must have been very much admired.
She combined tremendous entrain with much affability, and in her own set she was what might be called, in schoolboy language, a jolly good sort, which pleased me—her reflections being always to the point, and time spent with her never lagged. How we used to laugh over things together! I shall always retain much affection for her. I believe her first husband—whom she divorced—was a perfect brute to her.
By her marriage with my uncle she had two children; her daughter Olga was married to Lieutenant de Zinovieff, in the Garde à Cheval quartered at Petrograd, a late page of the Empress, but she was for the time being at the Camp of Crasnoë-Celo, not far from us, and I spent a few delightful days with her.
Russian soldiers always leave their barracks during the summer months and camp out of doors—those of Petrograd going into the neighbourhood. This healthy measure is never practised in France, which is a great mistake I think; and I always admired these huge camps composed of innumerable white tents, like parasols, erected in perfect symmetry, looking from a distance like so many small white mushrooms instead of being the improvised shelters of these giant-like soldiers. The Camp of Crasnoë-Celo was, I think, the largest.
Her son Petia, the regular type of a true Russian, not without charm and dark and good-looking, was at that time preparing at the Lycée to enter the regiment of the Chevaliers-Gardes in which he held a distinguished position before the war.
My poor aunt, fearing the wars, wanted him to choose a diplomatic career, but nothing would induce him to change his mind. He is now in the trenches—or was lately—and has been badly wounded once.
During the summer the heat is at times very intense in Russia—a kind of damp heat like the mild hot vapours of a conservatory—and the nights on the coast of the Baltic were very damp and a thick white steam rose spirally from the ground in patches, like smoke, between the Palace and the sea, which caused a most curious effect.
My aunt had one daughter, Lily, by her first marriage and she and I became great friends. She also lived with her parents, as she had been obliged to leave a brute of a husband who was an officer of the Lancers of the Guard, of which my uncle was in command at the time of her marriage at Peterhof. Not long after her marriage she had gone away for a few days to visit a relation who was ill, and on her return she found her own house occupied not only by her husband's mistress but by the children of that illicit union as well. The wretch then proposed to her that she should remain on in the house and that they should all live together, which proposition she naturally scorned and thereupon returned to her old home.
She divorced the man in consequence, but not, like most people in Russian society, in order to try her luck again, having already looked out for number "two"—not at all, once having recovered her liberty she took good care to preserve it.
Her library seemed to me to be literally filled with the works of Anatole France and Pierre Loti, and my acquaintance with literature owing to my strict French upbringing being more than limited—I had scarcely ever read anything but fairy tales until then—I consequently found it extremely difficult to talk to our friends with any clear knowledge of those popular French authors about whom I was always being questioned.
Lily seemed to take me somewhat under her wing and gave me—at least in words—an insight into life; and with the passing of time I have often thought how very much to the point her doctrine was.
Colonel Échappard du Breuil was frequently to be seen at my aunt's house, he claimed to be of French origin, his ancestors having escaped—échappé—across the Pyrenées into France at the time of the Moorish expulsion from Spain, during the reign of the "Catholic Kings," Ferdinand and Isabella—hence the origin of this somewhat curious name.
The Colonel was attached to the suite of Grand Duke George, and whenever I asked him where he was going he always replied "To Christophky"—to the grand café-concert, on the island of that name at The Islands—and he never ceased expatiating on the charms of the fair and dark beauties of that delectable spot. He was a jolly fellow with a fat round face wreathed in smiles—he seemed to render the very atmosphere sunny.
And Lily behind the wings—dans les coulisses, as we say in France—used to hum to salute his departure the following refrain, which she had taught me and which we loved, this charming little refrain about the three cocks:—
Quand je veux, je peux.
(Le jeune coq.)
Quand je peux, je veux.
(Coq d'âge moyen.)
Que vous êtes heureux.
(Le vieux coq.)
Oh, how we did pity you, poor old man! And we did not allow feathers to grow in this hen coup, but, willy-nilly, spurs and uniform of some attaché de la suite.
Another character was General Tolstoi, whom I have already mentioned. He came very often to see us, especially when we were in Petrograd; he frequently spoke Russian and recounted interminably long stories in that language which I regret to say used to make me yawn, as I could not always follow them, and just to tease me, at the most critical part of the story, he rapidly changed from Russian into French so that my ears should receive the full benefit of it all. Quel toupet!
One evening, he told us of how he had once climbed up a tree, and from there had had an uninterrupted view over a high fence, behind which, apparently believing themselves to be sheltered from inquisitive eyes, some members of the fair sex were in the full enjoyment of a sun bath cure! These descendants of Eve were walking about in their birthday costumes, so that the marvellous effects of the luminous rays should have full play. On this occasion his particular attention was drawn to a certain Titianesque beauty.
I pictured him in this attitude looking like a hideous orang-outang squatting on a branch of a tree—as he, poor fellow, was not endowed with any personal beauty!
If I am not mistaken, I am afraid he has since come to a tragic end attributed to debts.
At my Aunt de Baranoff's all the suite of the Grand Duke came more or less every day and Prince Orbeliani with them, always shuffling his feet on the floor and making a terrible noise in doing so; this unfortunate peculiarity, apart from being an illness from which nearly all the members of his family suffer, was with him to some extent a pose—où va-t-elle se nicher—la pose!—and a very disturbing one, too, as far as I was concerned.
As luck would have it, the princely apartments were situated just over my bedroom, so that every morning my peaceful slumbers were disturbed by his Excellency's shufflings, which he admitted he accentuated just to tease me.
He was married to Countess Kleinmichel, the daughter of old Countess Kleinmichel who entertained a good deal in Petrograd; the latter had the reputation of being a spy for Germany, and was arrested at the outbreak of the Revolution; she was also it appears a fervent sister disciple of Rasputin's new religion.
Princess Lobanoff was another frequent guest at my aunt's, she was maid of honour to Grand Duchess George, and was so imbued with the sense of her own importance that she could not even cross the courtyard of the palace on foot and always had her carriage ordered for the transit.
She finally married an American who lives in California. What must be her impression of that democratic country, I wonder? But what would she feel like being in Russia now! The sister of Princess Lobanoff had married an Englishman, Sir Edwin Egerton, then Minister at Athens; he was much older than his wife.
Grand Duchess George is a Greek princess, sister of the ex-King Tino. She did not look very pleasant I thought. She was very fond of riding.
One day my Aunt de Baranoff and I were invited to tea by a friend, a lieutenant of the Cossacks of the Guard—Cossacks of the Escort. This was a very select corps, always in attendance on the Emperor, and a very picked body of men they were, with their wild expressions and wasp-like waists.The Cossacks are extraordinarily active and supple, with their soft leather boots which pull on like stockings and have no hard soles. Our young host was a great favourite of the Grand Duchesses at Court Balls, as he danced very well. He ordered his men to sing and dance
CRONSTADT—TWO SURVIVORS OF THE GLORIOUS KOREITZ
THE BARRACKS AT PETERHOF, TWO COSSACKS OF THE ESCORT
THE CROWN PRINCE OF GERMANY WITH PRINCESS CECILIE AS FIANCÉS
Grand Duchess Anastasia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, daughter of Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch, was also spending her summer at Michaelovka. She often invited my aunt to dinner, but these invitations to help to amuse "Satanasia"—as she is nicknamed in Germany—were sometimes a doubtful pleasure even to my aunt, as the task must have been a difficult one at times.
Grand Duchess Anastasia was no longer what is called a "young" woman, but she had a beautiful figure and was very striking-looking. She, too, affected the wearing of sailor-hats—and thick white veils!
Princess Cecilie, her daughter, was very attached to my young cousin Olga and often came to tea with us. The German Crown Prince and she had met at the same house previously and had become almost secretly engaged, as there were difficulties in the way of their union. The Kaiser was against the marriage, but the young people met again the following winter at Cannes—this, in spite of furious messages from the War Lord recalling his son to Germany, but the Crown Prince paid no heed to them, so it is related. It is also told by people who met the fiancés on the Riviera that their eyes were sometimes swollen by tears shed because of the Emperor's resistance, which was caused by his dislike of Grand Duchess Anastasia, whom he always refused to receive at Court since the marriage.
Although Princess Cecilie is not as handsome as her mother, yet she is tall and graceful and most attractive.
The vision of a throne must have had a great deal to do with her choice, I fancy; and she was reputed to have said that she would only consent to marry a "throne"!
At the Russian Court it was rather expected that she might have married the Tzar's brother, but he never paid her any attention, and she declared to her lady-in-waiting that there were too many bombs in Russia and that she no longer wished to remain there!
One of the favourite games of Grand Duke Michael-Alexandrovitch, the Tzar's brother and at that time his heir, was to place a potato in a pail of water and then get his friends down on all fours to lean over the pail and with their mouths try to extract the wretched thing—usually with such results as might be imagined, some clumsy jaws sinking so deep into the water as almost to cause their owner's death by drowning, while the potato seemed to take pleasure in their discomfiture by rising and sinking at every touch to a most alarming degree.
Another visitor staying at the Palace was Prince Cristopher of Greece, brother of ex-King Tino and of Grand Duchess George, who always came with Princess Cecilie to see my aunt. He was a fat boy of about fourteen at the time and full of every conceivable mischief. One of his greatest jokes was to leap with both feet into the middle of a mud puddle so as to splash the Princess and my cousin from head to foot!
My aunt remarked to him once in front of me that he seemed to be very fond of his cousin— Princess Cecilie—upon which he blushed to the roots of his hair and exclaimed "Moi, je n'aime personne!"
The following year Princess Cecilie married the German Crown Prince and three weeks after she sent a telegram to my cousin Olga—they have corresponded for years—saying: "Je suis très heureuse." I wonder if she is still of the same opinion!
Now, she has become the mother of a large family, and quite "German" I am told.
She had been brought up very severely by her mother, as is so often the way with parents who are not over-particular concerning their own mode of living.
Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, seemingly unconscious of the charms of his beautiful Villa Wenden at Cannes, of the perfume of the lovely roses and all the other exquisite flowers of his garden, was perhaps preoccupied in another direction of life, which must have been full of heavy storm clouds for him, so heavy indeed that he felt unable to bear them and one day threw himself over the parapet of the bridge in his park which traverses the road—and there was found the dead body of the Grand Duke.
Grand Duchess Anastasia, at Cannes as elsewhere, led a joyous life, and a supposed attack of measles, with an unusual and far-reaching result—not always experienced by those suffering from that complaint—made the whole Riviera talk and most of it smile a little maliciously perhaps.
Her men-servants were chosen for their good looks—and, if rumour said truly, each one of those ran a good chance of promotion; though her private secretary was always supposed to be the most favoured one.
Since I left Russia I have often seen her in Paris.
One day, in far distant Mecklenburg, an aeronaut fell from the heavens into her park. Accidentally or not, he made no mistake and found on terra firma his consolations—good nursing, for he was wounded on descending, and care so tender and true that after several years he was still there. Perhaps he may have accompanied his benefactress to Russia as since the outbreak of war the Grand Duchess returned to her native land, no longer wishing to have anything more to do with Germany and the Kaiser—at least she says so—to whom she owes a great grudge for his harshness.
Lily was again often requested to go to Mecklenburg, to resume her previous occupation of lady-in-waiting to H.I.H.; but this situation was no longer enviable or possible and she politely begged to be excused.
I have heard that Anastasia is in Cannes, on the French Riviera, spending her winters there as before, though not amidst the same gaiety. Last winter she often went to visit a certain military hospital, but was asked to come no more. The Crown Princess actually paid a visit to her mother there last winter, but not officially of course!
Numbers of the secret police invaded the Grand Duke's park, and it seemed to me that one was to be met with at every few yards; but as they knew who I was they did not interfere with me. With their long coats buttoned up at the neck, their dark blue ties, and each carrying a walking stick, their appearance amused me rather in spite of the grave functions imposed upon them.