One year at the Russian court/Chapter 9
Tiflis is a town of 100,000 inhabitants, built, as it were, at the bottom of a basin, surrounded by high mountains which in former days were wooded, now, however, absolutely bare owing to a terrible conflagration some years ago.
The view of the snow-capped Mount Kasbeck is one of the most beautiful to be obtained in that superb range.
The streets of the town were paved with rough cobbles placed in upright position making it almost impossible for pedestrians, so much so that for their convenience little smooth crossings are made at intervals. The horses of the country are as sure-footed as mules, and they go at full tilt down the streets which to my unaccustomed mind seemed more like precipices than anything else. But I never once saw any of these animals stumble.
I could not help remarking the strange get-up of the police at night; "night watchmen" as they are called, posted at various street corners armed with huge clubs. I took them to be robbers before their calling was explained to me.
Apart from the European quarter of Tiflis there is also the Mussulman quarter, which is most interesting and its aspect most picturesque with its curious looking cosmopolitan populace.
It is wiser for a woman not to venture alone into this quarter, in spite of the amiable smiles and brilliant and inviting eyes of the Turks and Persians, who try to attract you into their pretty little shops so full of cachet. Many make carpets, some of which are very beautiful. The Persian bakers' shops are full of originality with their different loaves, not resembling ours in the least, and their large and flat pastry cakes which they hang on cords in their shop fronts, even several layers of these cakes one on the top of another where the glass front of the shops would be with us; glass does not exist with them.
In the houses of the Caucasians there is always a vast divan covered with a sumptuous carpet; which makes a very comfortable seat on which often five or six people crowd themselves, some sitting on the top after the manner of tailors. In the study or little drawing-room there are often besides great carpets hung on the wall which gives to the room a warm, furnished and comfortable look. The silver-work in the Caucasus is also very good, somewhat in the style of what you find in India. The country silks are of a beautiful colouring and are of a solidity beyond all question, even the taffeta, which is not the case with us.
This indeed is the East, the East beneath a sky perpetually blue and a climate which would make our Riviera green with envy.
Merchandise in this district was conveyed for the most part by camels and it was a common occurrence to see them in the streets of Tiflis.
TIFLIS—A PERSIAN BAKER'S SHOP
TIFLIS—A PERSIAN SHOEMAKER'S SHOP
I have always admired those fine animals with their placid expression and their grand, slow, soft movements, which nothing seems to disturb. The mineral wealth of the Caucasus is worthy of The Arabian Nights, but, unfortunately, owing to the non-existence of railways, it is next to impossible to utilize the output from but very few places.
The oil wells at Bakou and other places are, as every one knows, one of the great sources of the wealth of the country. Nothing is more terrible to behold than one of these oil-wells when it catches fire, which sometimes happens.
The Armenian church is interesting; the Armenians are known as the Jews of the Caucasus, and there is a saying that one Armenian is equal to five Jews!
There are two Catholic churches, one specially frequented by the Poles and built in the Polish quarter; the other built almost entirely by one of my grandmother's brothers, and where I used to go.
This grand-uncle of mine, Baron Louis de Nicolay, became a celebrated Russian General and conqueror of Shamyl, the famous Caucasian Chief held to be invincible till then in his mountains. This uncle ended his days as a monk at the Grande-Chartreuse, near Grenoble, in France, where he was known to the last, even by the visitors who always asked to see him, as "the old Russian General." He charmed them all in spite of himself by his brilliant intelligence and his charming gift of conversation; and they wondered how so much genius, hidden beneath the humble fustian of his frock, could adapt itself to the severe life of the cloister after the rough and free existence of a soldier and the emotions of the battle-field. The Superior allowed him a newspaper, a weak and solitary link to bind him to that world which had awarded him so many honours, but which he had left to be worthy of others more glorious.
A Protestant in his youth, he had been converted to the Catholic faith, during one of his visits to France, after several conversations with the well-known Monseigneur Dupanloup.
The monks of the Grande-Chartreuse made that delicious liqueur known everywhere under the name of Chartreuse—white and green. Certainly it is one of the best liqueurs procurable, and its good qualities are derived from the great purity of the ingredients used in its manufacture; the secret of its fine and strong flavour exists, they say, in certain plants and flowers collected by the monks in the mountains. The secret of its fabrication was only known to the Superior and in case of his death to one of the Fathers. Since the separation of Church and State in France the Carthusians have been expelled—an example of the liberty of republics—and they have taken refuge in Spain, since when they have made a liqueur called Tarragone, which is not equal to the other, as, the flora not being the same, many of the first elements are missing.
Many princes of the country don the Caucasian costume, which is similar to the Cossack uniform; even the servants sometimes wear it and at first it was at times hard for me to make a distinction! One day I accompanied Lise Cheremetieff, Madame Arapoff, née Princesse Galitzine, and several other young women from the Dragoon and other regiments on a bicycle picnic in the neighbourhood of Tiflis; there were also present a few officers. We lunched gaily in the garden of a little country inn; and all went well till our return, but then our luck changed. Madame Arapoff fell and had the misfortune to sprain both her ankles. We had to hoist her into one of the carriages which followed. Three officers also found themselves unseated, and, as for me, I went over my handle bar, right in the middle of a descent, and picked myself up off a bed of pointed stones, which I found very hard in the Caucasus. I had as escort "Romeo"—an officer so nicknamed—who was also thrown off; he sang, danced and said a thousand foolish things. A little behind us followed a moucha or porter, a giant who carried my bicycle like a feather on one of his shoulders. We caught up the others at the tobacco manufactory. Then I got into the carriage with Madame Arapoff, when what was my astonishment to see her take from her muff two little slippers, most fascinating to behold, and put them on!
By what mystery were these two little slippers in her muff? That is a question that I have not yet solved—but, after all, a mystery is always insoluble or it ceases to be one any longer, and the mysterious has so much charm.
In these smart regiments one found the greatest diversity of types—a subject for interesting study—from the most refined from North Russia to that of the Tartar prince, very powerful but also very savage, I thought; the women were very elegant, many being dressed by Paquin.
We had the bad luck to miss at Tiflis Count Worontsoff-Dachkoff, the new governor of the Caucasus, and a friend of my aunt's, who was expected shortly.
There in the depth of the Caucasus one did not notice the war as in the north of Russia; indeed, one would hardly have realized it except for the departure of Prince Petia Troubetzkoy and a few others, and the visits we paid to Madame Cheremetieff—the Dowager—whom we always found surrounded by cases for the Red Cross, which she painted white herself, adding a big red Cross. She must certainly have flooded the Empire with them. She was very nice looking, and very amiable and distinguished.
At the end of December my aunt and I retraced our steps to Petrograd, in a direct route, having to renounce once again the Crimea and the Volga, as on our coming, my aunt's health not permitting the longer journey. I regretted it, for it would have been delightful and full of interest.
We bore the journey very well in spite of the three days and four nights in the train, during which time I found myself again much admiring three things: the banks of the Don, the country of the Cossacks; the Caucasus range; and the shores of the Caspian Sea, especially by moonlight.
The love of liberty, of war, of rapine are the chief characteristics of the Cossacks. They are excellent warriors and believe themselves superior to all other races. The power of Russia only makes itself felt in their country by troops which are quartered there. They look upon these soldiers as so many intruders, and despise the Russian peasant, whom they consider coarse and savage.
The Cossack does not work at home; the young girl is allowed to do nothing, but may amuse herself to her heart's content; a married woman must work very hard up to even the most advanced age. She must be submissive and laborious, like the woman of the East.
Apparently resigned, the Cossack woman has nevertheless in her home more real authority than the woman of the West.
The Cossack would not like to treat her familiarly in the presence of strangers, but tête-à-tête he acknowledges her supremacy and realizes that it is to her that he owes all that goes towards making the home comfortable. Thanks to this severe regime, the Cossack woman develops both morally and physically; she possesses much good sense, and above all great firmness of character; she is very superior to the men of her race. Her beauty is a mixture of the women of northern Russia and the Tcherkesse or mountaineer type. She wears their costume: Tartar chemisette, with an embroidered jacket, Tartar shoes, and on the head the coloured handkerchief that the Russian peasant also wears. She is clean, and is careful about her dress.
The Cossack makes his own wine; and does not look upon drunkenness as a vice, but as a custom to which he should strictly conform.
A terrible snowdrift blocked our progress during several hours in the Russian Steppes. It seemed as though it would have been impossible to advance. In England we have no idea what these snowstorms are like.
At Rostoff on the Don, as on our outward journey, we walked a little way, taking this opportunity for a little air and exercise. At the station library awaiting a purchaser, I saw some French novels for sale, a choice which astonished me on account of their insignificance. I should never have expected to find them so far away. Possibly as a last resource!
On the other hand, at the Petrograd libraries one only sees the lightest French literature well exposed in the front row in the windows, those which we should refuse to read in France, the Russians pretending to believe that all French books are of that description. This made me furious; the falseness of the argument exasperated me, and I used to answer that they must evidently have been chosen and written specially for the Russian market, for in France one never heard them spoken of.
Moscow, the real capital of Russia, which one feels so well to be the soul of this great people, and which had enchanted me in October during the too short hours which I spent there, enchanted me again with its Kremlin, its gilded cupolas, its Chinese town, its Red Square, old cannons. The old cannon balls heaped around, which had been taken from Napoleon, made my heart ache; but the city enchanted me more than ever, seen thus beneath its snow mantle.
May Russia become the tomb of the barbarous Hun—and may that day be not too long delayed. May the real Russia, the real great invincible Russia, though dumb at this moment, speak behind those high walls of the Kremlin, make herself heard, collect herself and understand her folly, and refuse to be any more the plaything and the prey of an enemy as detested as detestable, of an enemy who scoffs at her as it scoffed at her former sovereigns.
The sleeping-carriages in this Caucasus train were comfortable, but much in them was primitive. Thus each compartment was only lighted by one solitary smoky candle, of bad quality, which guttered very much, fixed in a sort of stand of the simplest kind, placed above the door leading to the corridor. When it went out, there was nothing to do but gaze on the darkness and call the attendant, who was often a long time in coming. The heating also was of the most primitive kind, consisting of a horrible little cheap stove placed at the end of every carriage, near the corridor by the exit, and all stuffed with birch wood. A pipe ran the length of the carriage, which was thus warmed.
When we arrived at Petrograd the thermometer was more than ten degrees Réaumur below zero; so cold was it that, when opening one's mouth to speak, it seemed as though one had been stabbed to the heels by cold steel.
The cold is doubly increased by the wind—and at Petrograd it nearly always blows hard—tearing with violence along the canals which traverse the town in all directions.
As at Tiflis many friends and relations had come to the station with flowers and bonbons; it is a charming custom, I think. Among them was Uncle Cherwachidze, who in spite of his wish to join us in the Caucasus, which he adores, had been unable to do so on account of his important duties at the Court. Some years before, the younger brother of the Emperor, Grand Duke George, had come to the Caucasus on account of his health, being consumptive, and one day, on his return from a motor drive with my uncle, he died in the latter's arms. It is since that time that the Empress-Dowager has shown my uncle so great an attachment and friendship that she cannot bear to be separated from him for long.
I brought back from the Caucasus a memory that was sunny and full of gratitude for the charming welcome that I found there. My aunt often gives me news from there and old friends still send me their remembrances, and with all my heart I send them the same.
The Caucasian has the right to be proud of his beautiful country, with its ever blue sky and its ever temperate climate which seems to give him that wonderful joie-de-vivre expression which appeals so deeply to the stranger, who is always struck by that warm and unforgettable charm of welcome which greets him at every turn.