One year at the Russian court/Chapter 8
The following autumn proved a veritable time of enchantment for me. I spent it in the Caucasus, at Tiflis, with my good and kind aunt, Princess Cherwachidze, who owns a beautiful palace there. I specially admired its large white marble staircase. She also had a beautiful property near Soukhoum, called "Béthanie," not very far from Tiflis, but in consequence of the disturbances at that time we were unable to go there.
Her father, Baron Alexandre de Nicolay, had been the most popular Governor of the Caucasus, where he left behind him a remembrance only equal to that of a dearly loved sovereign; besides this, my aunt is closely allied to all the chief princely families of Georgia—many of them of royal blood. Thus my visit was carried out under the most favourable conditions.
We again met there old Princess Bagration Moucransky, a great personality everywhere, and more especially at Tiflis. She had a beautiful palace and I thought her drawing-rooms very French. She was one of our frequent visitors and we dined at each other's houses constantly. At my aunt's and also at Princess Moucransky's I met—at least four or five times a week—Prince Louis Napoléon, brother of Prince Victor Napoléon, heir to the Imperial throne of France, and a great friend of my aunt's.
The Prince did not appear often in society, but made exceptions sometimes. The reason for this aloofness was caused by the fixed idea of many Princesses to marry him; one of whom had even gone so far as to be on the point of divorcing her good, thorough-going husband with a view to accomplishing this great feat—and the only missing point in the situation was the consent of Prince Louis himself. So, to avenge themselves on the Prince, the embittered females cried out from the housetops the great news that he was already much married in Tiflis, in a very different milieu to theirs and that he was the father of many little "Bonapartes de la main gauche."
He was in command of several Caucasian regiments and was quartered at Tiflis. I greatly admired his military bearing. At that time he was in despair at not having obtained a command in Manchuria, but it was said that the French Government, fearing that he might gain his laurels there, had petitioned the Russian Government not to send him as he was a general in the Russian Army; Russia, being desirous of keeping on good terms with her French Ally, naturally acquiesced in this request.
I quite understood what the bitterness of his innermost feelings must have been. I often had long and interesting conversations with the Prince which helped me on the banks of the Koura to remember distant France.
One night I went to a Russian play at the theatre with my aunt; and the Prince, who sat next to me, whispered in my ear its version in French. Between the acts he escorted me on his arm to the foyer, when I asked him:
"Monseigneur, et la France? N'y songez- vous donc jamais?"
He looked at me and smiled, then said:
"It would be necessary to change the whole of the Army and the whole of the Navy."
When I told him of the spark of light, still visible very often amongst the Norman peasants of another generation, in the pupils of the old men's eyes, those who had fought the wars of the Empire and would have willingly laid down their lives for their Emperor—whose children now are fighting for France.
The Prince seemed pleased and surprised.
"En tous les cas," me dit-il, "ce ne serait pas à moi mais à mon frère."
As every one knows, his brother Prince Victor Napoléon lived in Brussels and married Princess Clémentine, daughter of the late King of the Belgians, after the death of the latter who for years had been opposed to the marriage. The Prince and Princess have now a daughter and a son and, perhaps, one recalls to memory the touching thought of Princess Clémentine, who when hoping she was going to have a son had some earth brought from France so that the infant, although in exile, might be born on French soil.
He signed his name in my autograph book simply "Louis Napoléon." I should have liked him to have written more but he declined, saying: "It would be commented upon," and that was the reason for his refusal. He told me he would be forty in a few days' time.
He paid long visits to my aunt lasting often more than two hours; she had known him for a long time and had made many things easier for him. In Russia he enjoyed the privileges of a Grand Duke and was treated as such at Court; but as he was not really a Grand Duke many of his brother officers were madly jealous at seeing him already enjoying such an important position and rank which would only be accorded to them when their heads were bald and their joints stiffened by the service and toil of years—if ever!
Luckily for us we had arrived in the Caucasus comparatively fresh after four nights in the train; Russian trains are not so fast as ours and in consequence not so tiring.
My introduction to Princess Orbeliani was, to say the least of it, original in the extreme. I found my hostess with all the other ladies in the room lying face downward on the floor, while the gentlemen of the party stood contemplating with more or less knowledge the somewhat uneven surfaces before them; the rotundity of the female sex is not rare and is much admired in the Caucasus.
The beauty of the average Caucasian woman is by no means a negligible quantity, the type being usually dark with large black eyes; but they grow old prematurely, often becoming very fat. The men are usually tall with wasp-like waists; their features are good, but their expression is very often decidedly savage.
In the mountain districts there exists a fair ruddy type amongst some of the tribes; the women are very pretty and are much admired.
It was subsequently explained to me that these ladies on the floor were really practising a Russian dance and they were taking the parts which should have been allotted to their male partners.
I often met Princess Murat, née Princess de Mingrélie, and her daughter Antoinette; her eldest son Lucien had married a daughter of my cousin the late Duc de Rohan, to whom the lovely Castle of Jocelyn in Brittany belongs, while her second son Napoléon, generally called Napo, was fighting on the side of the Russians at the war.
Her daughter Antoinette was looking after her mother's vast estates with the knowledge of a man—and although not dressed in khaki could have shown some of our present-day girls on the land what real hard work means.
Some years previously the Duchesse de Rohan had, much to every one's surprise, married her daughter to Prince Murat, whose ancestors do not date farther back than Napoléon, while the Rohans' motto for generations has been: "Roy ne puis, Prince ne daigne, Rohan suis."
Amongst the three daughters of the Duchess were Princess Talleyrand-Périgord, whose marriage was a failure, but who is dead now. Princess Murat does not get on very well with her husband, so no one was surprised when the third daughter, before selecting a fiancé, exclaimed: "My eldest sister was married to a man who says, 'Vive le Roi,' my other sister to one who says 'Vive l'Empereur,' I want a husband who says 'Vive la Raison.'" She eventually married a Caraman-Chimay.
The various regiments from the basis of all social activity and I spent delightful moments with Princesses Orbeliani, Ratieff, Melikoff, Heristoff, etc. I saw much of the Princess de Georgia and the young Troubetzkoy princes, Nikita and Petia, all more or less related to my aunt; they gave delightful evening parties and I really think I did not spend one evening at home.
The evening parties at Tiflis were of the gayest, and there was an uninterrupted succession of them. One ended by knowing each other well, as one was continually meeting the same people which I thought was delightful. I saw not a few little glasses of vodka emptied by the gentlemen, but without traces of injurious or disastrous results—"Honi soit qui mal y pense"—with the exception, however, of an old general whose nose was always like a lighthouse, and who I saw fall down three times in the same evening, so tipsy was he; but he was set up again on his legs the same number of times and there was no more to be said. I always found in that liquid an awful smell of methylated spirit and took good care not to get further acquainted with it.
When short of vodka the moujik easily drinks methylated spirit, it appears, and gets drunk on it; this often happened during the last Revolution. And to think that the "Little Father" suppressed the use of it among his troops since the war! What a marvellous result of the so much abused "autocratic" power.
We often began our evenings at the theatre. The Opera was very good; and the house a very fine one; my aunt had her box, needless to say. It was there that I saw performed "Mademoiselle Fifi," that story of Maupassant's, episode of the war of 1870 and 1871 which would, alas, be so life-like to-day. Then we went to visit some of our friends. I must mention a charming party given by an attractive woman à l'air gamin Madame Cheremetieff—Lise. The drawing-rooms represented a little country inn and its garden, what the Italians would describe as an "osteria." It was full of local colour. Round the tables the women in full toilette, most of the men officers in uniform—which the Russians always wear. Many among them officers in the Cossacks and Tcherkesses, wearing on their heads their high astrakhan caps either white or black. Certainly in the soft veiled light it was a very pretty sight, and created a most charming and picturesque effect.
Madame Z——, a rich Armenian, gave charming fêtes, to which my aunt and I often went: excellent buffet, amidst every possible luxury. But the story of this lady having been discovered in her own house a few days before on the knees of a young officer, whose moustache she was lovingly pulling, somewhat cooled my aunt's feelings towards her and she begged me not to go there without her in the future.
Anyone of importance passing through Tiflis always found a warm welcome at my aunt's house.
I remember meeting the Envoy Extraordinary of the Shah of Persia while on his way to Petrograd to present the Empress with a magnificent necklace of enormous pearls and the Tzarevitch with a portait of the Shah.
Two days after I met him again at a large dinner-party at the Swetchines'—Mr Swetchine was governor of Tiflis.
My Uncle de Nicolay had known this Persian official, with his strangely languorous brilliant eyes, when he was merely Persian Consul-General during my uncle's governorship, the cholera epidemic at that period having brought the two together in their work of mercy.
This parvenu—he was nothing more nor less—has since become Highness, Prince, Envoy and Ambassador-Extraordinary of the Shah, in spite of his humble past; enough success to bring hope to the most despairing heart.
During the envoy's youth he is reputed to have sold oranges; then he became a valet; and subsequently married an English governess at Tiflis whom he exchanged later on for a French girl.
Amongst the guests were several Turks and Persians wearing their fezes, which seemed absolutely a part of themselves. The effect was extremely picturesque. I must not forget the Emperor's envoy whom he had sent from Petrograd to greet this important personage.
Persia and Turkey went so far as to offer me mounts, but the idea of being accompanied by fezes made me reflect and decline the offer with many thanks.
Monsieur Swetchine was the nephew of the famous Madame Swetchine, well known for her writings and, also, for her conversion to the Catholic Faith, her death being mourned by many friends in Paris.
A well-known big game hunter, Monsieur Swetchine often took part in the Grand Duke's boar hunts, hunts which would make our Western sportsmen's mouths water. Those boars are real giants; he had then killed forty without counting the pheasants, and jackals galore.
The French Consul, also, and his wife were most kind to me.
One day I was taken to St Mzchette, to which we drove in an old tumble-down vehicle drawn by four horses, returning by moonlight across those vast plains where cattle and sheep are bred and the cultivation of wine carried out more and more every year. We followed la Route Militaire—the Georgian Military Road—which winds across the mountains of Caucasia 132 miles away; at intervals we obtained lovely views over the plains and church of Didoubée, a place of pilgrimage, as we followed the course of the Koura.The Georgian Military Road was made by order of the Empress Catherine; 800 soldiers were employed on the work, and in 1783 Count Paul Potiomkin—then in command of the Russian troops in the Caucasus—drove to Tiflis behind eight horses, the first man to make a carriage journey across the range. However, his first measure had been to build the fort of Vladikavkaz. Till then, nothing but a rough
SCENERY IN THE CAUCASUS
IN THE MOUNTAINS OF THE CAUCASUS
St Mzchette is the cradle as well as the burial place of the Kings of Georgia, and we visited the tombs of Prince Bagration-Moucransky and of Prince Grouzinsky of Georgia.
The cathedral is a fine building and contains splendid frescoes, alas, mostly smothered with plaster.
We were shown a pulpit carved out of a tree which is supposed to contain our Lord's tunic. The passion of our Lord and the deaths of several of the Apostles are represented by wooden sculptures dating from A.D. 329. The church encloses the ancient miniature cathedral which was the original edifice.
Many monks are Juried there and the whole is surrounded by a high wall with towers.
The beautiful Queen Thamar, a celebrated Queen of Georgia, whose palace was within the precincts, could not have felt very happy there, one would imagine. But who can tell!
We lunched at a most filthy inn, and subsequently visited a convent, the tiny church of which contains the remains of the first King of Georgia and of his wife; it was built by St Nina who is so greatly venerated in the Caucasus. The tower of the church is very ancient and possesses many architectural qualities. We were shown the nuns' dormitory ; their beds consist of planks of wood merely covered with a carpet, each has a single pillow but no bolster. I did pity those poor things !