One year at the Russian court/Chapter 7
While I was at Michaelovka the Revolution was gaining ground every day. Russia was going through a critical period of her history and one felt as though one was living on a volcano—yet, in the end, an approximative degree of order came out of what looked like being chaos.
An attempt against the Tzar's life was really to be feared, and during a certain time the railway line from Peterhof to Petrograd by which he often travelled had a military guard, a close cordon of troops being placed below the embankment on which the train passed, on both sides of the track. A bomb there would have done important work as these trains were always conveying Ministers and Grand Dukes.
After dinner we often went to listen to "La Musique Rouge," the Emperor's private band; the musicians were dressed in red, each one of them being an artist. They played in the park at Peterhof, to which we drove in a large open landau and took our place in the long line of carriages there to meet numbers of friends. These concerts, however, were soon after discontinued on account of the growing troubles.
The Empress-Dowager often came over from Peterhof driving herself a low carriage with a pair of black horses and wearing a black sailor-hat!
Another frequent visitor at Michaelovka was a young Count Toll, in the Lancers of the Guard, cousin of my uncle Count Pahlen, and also related by marriage to the late Russian Ambassador in Paris, Monsieur Isvoltzky; and this recalls to my memory an interesting incident which was the direct cause of the latter's advancement.
The father of Madame Isvoltzky, née Countess Toll, Russian Minister at Copenhagen, was most anxious to get his daughter suitably married—which seemed rather a difficult task—and informed the Emperor of the situation, who despatched several couriers to Copenhagen with this idea. At last Isvoltzky—whose chief recommendations perhaps were his intelligence and the high favour in which he stood at Court—was sent. On this errand of courtship he was successful, and the Emperor made a career for him. All went well with poor Isvoltzky until the outbreak of the Revolution, when naturally he was amongst the first to be recalled and humbled.
I have often been to their receptions at the Russian Embassy in Paris. He was very clever, but possessed neither the presence nor the exquisite manners of his predecessor, Count de Nelidoff.
The celebration of my Aunt de Baranoff's birthday was a great event: a regular défilé of celebrities both civil and military; every regiment seemed to have been represented and the drawing-rooms were more than ever filled with flowers—a regular avalanche in fact.
The dinner-party in the evening was of the gayest. I sat between Colonel Échappard and the Russian Minister at Dresden and was anything but dull.
In Russia birthday anniversaries are always made a great deal of. The heroine of the occasion is always dressed in white or pearl grey and no one is allowed to wear black. Even if one is in mourning, one must discard its outward signs for the day or else keep away from the fête altogether.
I never shall forget the gaiety of those 1 a.m. teas at Michaelovka, the tables being laden with the choicest fruits, melons, strawberries, peaches in abundance, all that Nature could be persuaded to produce. Those mountains of luscious fruit, set in the most tasteful style amidst the richest of table decorations imaginable, would have made a perfect subject for any great artist of still life to reproduce on canvas. These midnight or early morning teas I thought a delightful custom. In Russia the night is turned into day, which fascinated me.
People actually call on one another between 11 p.m. and midnight, and I often accompanied my aunts on such visits; I wonder what sort of a reception nocturnal visitors in hum-drum Western Europe would receive should anyone venture to ring the front bell at that hour: a house plunged in darkness and at every door a glimpse of pyjama or visions of more diaphanous raiment and, above, angry, sleepy, maybe frightened physiognomies, anxiously inquiring who the intruder was who dared to come at such an hour; and Cerberus would either refuse to answer the door or else give a month's notice from to-morrow!
Then on retiring to my own room I sat down in the white light of the white nights and took up my pen and wrote to far away France; and I am sure the reader will understand what my feelings were on my return to my pacific and unchangeable Normandy, when I had to rejoin Morpheus at 10 p.m.
From time to time Petia, whom I always called "the dear little cousin," used to take his sister Olga, who was often there, and me out in a little Canadian canoe, which certainly looked a most fragile craft; and one day, whilst contemplating the two birthday suits of nymphs who were bathing not far away—this being the custom it appears in summer time—I had visions which were almost realized of being upset into the water and having to save ourselves by hanging on to a bunch of bulrushes. Olga and I got off safely, however; but I decided never more to follow the nymph-lover again on the still waters of the Gulf.
My attention was often drawn to a certain monk in the streets of Peterhof, carrying a long iron staff in his hand. His hair—which he wore very long—was of reddish colour, his eyes had a haggard expression and his complexion was burnt and bronzed by continual exposure to the sun and to that "vent de Russie" of which Pierre Loti always speaks in his books. This striking and unusual figure was dressed in a rather short white habit. I am almost certain I saw him once or twice again, years after, in the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He belonged to a Greek orthodox sect who walk from place to place the whole year round living on charity, they are called staretz. He must doubtless have walked there by slow stages right across Europe as the pilgrims of old were wont to do.
Amongst the many people who came to see my aunt at Michaelovka I have forgotten to mention an old Baron Winspear who was charming; although he was a Neapolitan, he had made all his career at the Court of Grand Duke Michael-Michaelovitch. Many young aides-de-camp came in relays to do their wait from time to time, amongst them being one who was extraordinarily good-looking.
My uncle used to tease me about him by saying "Il est beau, très beau, Renée," from the height of his impassible face—I use the word height because he is so tall and so straight—and this was said not only once but each time he left the room until it became really a perfect plague! He certainly was very good-looking, especially when wearing all his decorations, but I never lost my heart to Adonis, who is always so impressed by his own importance that he makes one positively "pant" for plus de laideur; and, besides, he could not speak a word of French.
On this subject I may say that the preceding generation spoke French much better than my generation. French which had been for such a long time the language used at Court, and resorted to in many families, had lost ground and had of late years been dethroned by Russian; consequently many young men spoke it badly.
English since the marriage of Nicholas II. had been much spoken in Court circles. I really wonder why it was not German!
In drawing-rooms one frequently heard four languages spoken at the same time, people passing from one to the other with the utmost facility.
The Russian certainly has the gift of languages; which is a real gift and possesses great charm.
One day I was taken by my aunt to a large monastery situated not very far from Michaelovka. The monks were very typiques in their white habits, but I thought to myself I would not care to meet one of them in the dark!
The service was extremely beautiful, as is usually the case in the Greek Church; these services always appeal to me, and it was ever my wont during my travels to attend them as often as I could. That peculiar Russian chant seems to carry one away into another world—a dream world full of mystic ideals. It was on one of these occasions that I witnessed for the first time little babies in their mothers' or nurses' arms having the Blessed Sacrament administered to them; and what astonished me so tremendously was the goodness of these little innocent creatures as they unconsciously went through this great and solemn act. I found this ceremony both touching and pretty; it is a pity the Catholic Church has abandoned its usage.
The Saint-Pairs and I had then intended going to spend a week or two at Stockholm and I was enchanted with the idea; but at the eleventh hour Monsieur Pelletan, then the French Ministre de la Marine—one always wondered the why and wherefore of that appointment, as I am sure, with many others, he had never seen salt water any more than its fresh substitute—refused to allow Monsieur de Saint-Pair on account of his official position at the Embassy to leave his post, owing to the serious political events that were occurring at that time. I was therefore obliged to have my luggage brought back from Petrograd, where it was all ready to be put on board the steamer, feeling rather dejected at having to do so, as we were the bearers of so many charming introductions to all the accredited Ministers and different Members of the Court Circle; and it would have been a real delight to have seen the Venice of the North under such agreeable conditions, while the crossing would only have taken about eighteen hours.
Then I returned to Finland—back again to that enchanting Monrepos, perhaps even more dreamlike than before beneath its exquisite autumn tints. The pretty Isle of Ludwinstein seemed to me more poetic than ever beneath the slow rain of its golden leaves—poignant and lifelike image of the lives which had been but were no more, resting there so near in the depths of the cold sepulchre. The dream of all this Northern Nature enfolded me more closely now than before; in this country where the sun sinks to rest in all the glory of its opalescent rays, in all this translucency of nature which is not shared by us, but belongs entirely to it and seemingly admits us a little way into the abstract world of souls who are no more—but who watch—and everywhere I encountered the shadow of my adored and adoring grandmother.
One Sunday morning on my return from Viborg I perceived some pretty flags composed of bright colours floating in the wind in the clear atmosphere of a most beautiful day. The primitive music had just ceased, and an orator mounted on an upturned barrel was addressing in a loud voice an audience composed of about fifty people. Then I clearly understood, on perceiving the busy bee-like movements of the little poked bonnets all around, the significance of this gathering: it was the Salvation Army to whom my uncle had given permission to hold the meeting in his park.
The effect of this assemblage was pretty beneath the thick dome of pine branches, with long hanging cones through which the rich indigo sky was accentuated in its depths.
We took up boating trips again on the Gulf, going thus very often to Viborg. I envied the faithful Kousma who with my aunt's horses always did the journey to Petrograd from Finland on a ferry-boat, peacefully gliding on the surface of the waves without a thought or care—his soul was pure, he never missed any of the necessary ablutions prescribed by the Prophet; he was a good servant, a true and tender husband—with this enchanting panorama for his eyes to look upon, where the only missing link to perfect bliss for him was the absence of his Mahomet.
At this visit I met my aunt's sister, Countess Czapska. Her property was in the neighbourhood of Cracow, where she also spent a part of the year.
When that part of the country came into the war zone, she sought refuge at Monrepos—but returned to die. She was a charming character, very well read, and combined good will with a great sense of humour.
In the household of my Aunt de Nicolay there was a most important institution whom I ought to have mentioned before, so long had she been there. Mademoiselle Stirry was her name. The usual charms of her sex she lacked entirely. She was as flat as a pancake, all shrunken and crooked, with a few spare hairs growing on her head drawn back with the utmost difficulty on to the skull where they lay spread out; on her cheeks were several beauty spots from which hairs grew in abundance, so large indeed were they that they became hideous by force of their importance; her small eyes were sharp as gimlets and took notice of every one and everything, letting nothing escape them, as they gave animation to her most hideous physiognomy with its livid and earthy complexion and, I must not forget, rather important whiskers and beard. Two large square sinewy hands with enormous knuckles, more like a labourer's than the hands of a woman, were attached to a pair of arms far too long for her height and too short for any ordinarily proportioned person. This is a true description of this most faithful and devoted creature of Aline: she performed her duties of housekeeper to the utmost perfection.
She could be positively ferocious at times when anyone ventured to criticize or attack the acts of her mistress; at others she could be gentle and kind, and fortunately for me I only know her in this light, but could not in spite of this find her beautiful. To be in her good graces was absolutely necessary for every one in the house, otherwise she would make their lives unbearable. Her influence and power were great, and I often thought she sometimes usurped her rights in regard to my aunt.
I am indebted to her, however, for my knowledge of Russian, as she used to give me a lesson in that language every evening when I was in Finland.
One day she announced with great excitement and most mysteriously her intention of spending a few days in Petrograd in order to see a friend of hers—a certain Armenian doctor who was passing through the capital. Before I had caught sight of his dark bearded appearance, and he had rather alarmed me. But love is sometimes blind, isn't it?
We had much diversion over what we called "les écarts de Mademoiselle Stirry."
"I am sure she is a man in disguise," my Aunt de Baranoff always said. "Look how devotedly attached she is to Aline. Don't you think she must be?"
I answered laughing that I knew nothing of that and would not possibly allow such an infamous idea to exist.
Aunt Aline possessed a marvellous gift for languages and spoke I don't know how many; amongst them were Swedish and Finnish, the latter a very difficult language.