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First Lessons at Court - Pierre Gilliard - Thirteen Years at the Russian Court
In the autumn of 1904 I accepted a proposal which had been made to me to go to Duke Sergei of Leuchtenberg as French professor.
My pupil's father, Duke George of Leuchtenberg, was the grandson of Eugene de Beuharnais; through his mother, the Grand-Duchess Marie Nicolaievna, daughter of Nicholas I, he was a cousin of the Tsar Nicholas II.
At the time the family were at the small estate they possessed on the shores of the Black Sea. They spent the whole winter there. It was there that we were surprised by the tragic events of the spring of 1905 and passed through many a poignant hour owing to the revolt of the Black Sea Fleet, the bombardment of the coast, the series of pogroms, and the violent acts of repression which followed. From the very start Russia showed herself to me under a terrible and menacing aspect, a presage of the horrors and sufferings she had in store for me.
At the beginning of June the family took up their residence in the attractive Villa Sergievskaia Datcha, which the Duke possessed at Peterhof. The contrast was most striking as we left the barren coast of the southern Crimea, with its little Tatar villages snuggling in the mountains and its dusty cypresses, for the splendid forests and delicious fresh breezes of the shores of the Gulf of Finland.
Peterhof had been the favorite residence of its founder, Peter the Great. It was there that he rested from the exhausting work of building St. Petersburg, the city which at his command rose from the marshes at the mouth of the Neva as if by enchantment - a city destined to rival the great European capitals.
Everything about Peterhof recalls its creator. First of all there is Marly in which he resided for some time - a "maisonnette" out in the water on an isthmus of land separating two great lakes. Then comes the Hermitage, by the shores of the gulf where he liked to treat his helpers to banquets where the wine flowed freely. There is Monplaisir, a building in the Dutch style with a terrace sheer above the sea. It was his favorite residence. How curious that this "landsman" loved the sea so much! Last comes the Great Palace, which, with its lakes and the superb views in its park, he meant to rival the splendors of Versailles.
All these buildings, with the exception of the Great Palace, produce the impression of those abandoned, empty edifices which memories of the past alone can bring to life.
The Tsar Nicholas II had inherited his ancestors' preference for this delicious spot, and every summer he brought his family to the little Alexandria Cottage in the centre of a wooded park which sheltered it from prying eyes.
The Duke of Leuchtenberg's family spent the entire summer of 1905 at Peterhof. Intercourse between Alexandria and Sergievskaia Datcha was lively, for the Tsarina and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were on terms of the closest friendship. I was thus able to get occasional glimpses of the members of the royal family.
When my time ran out it was suggested that I should stay on as tutor to my pupil and at the same time teach French to the Grand-Duchesses Olga Nicolaievna and Tatiana Nicolaievna, the two elder daughters of the Tsar Nicholas II, I agreed, and after a short visit to Switzerland I returned to Peterhof in the early days of September. A few weeks later I took up my new duties at the Imperial Court.
On the day appointed for my first lesson a royal carriage came to take me to Alexandria Cottage, where the Tsar and his family were residing. Yet in spite of the liveried coachman, the Imperial arms on the panels, and the orders with regard to my arrival which had no doubt been given, I learned to my cost that it was no easy task to enter the residence of Their Majesties. I was stopped at the park gates, and there were several minutes of discussion before I was allowed to go in. On turning a comer I soon observed two small brick buildings connected by a covered bridge. If the carriage had not stopped I should not have known I had arrived at my destination.
I was taken up to a small room, soberly furnished in the English style, on the second storey. The door opened and the Tsarina came in, holding her daughters Olga and Tatiana by the hand. After a few pleasant remarks she sat down at the table and invited me to take a place opposite her. The children sat at each end.
Above: From left; Marie, Olga, Alexandra, Tatiana and Anastasia standing in front of the Lower Palace at Alexandria/Peterhof, the palace where this lesson took place.
The Tsarina was still a beautiful woman at that time. She was tall and slender and carried herself superbly. But all this ceased to count the moment one looked into her eyes - those speaking, grey-blue eyes which mirrored the emotions of a sensitive soul.
Olga, the eldest of the Grand-Duchesses, was a girl of ten, very fair, and with sparkling, mischievous eyes and a slightly retroussé nose. She examined me with a look which seemed from the first moment to be searching for the weak point in my armor, but there was something so pure and frank about the child that one liked her straight off.
The second girl, Tatiana, was eight and a half. She had auburn hair and was prettier than her sister, but gave one the impression of being less transparent, frank, and spontaneous.
The lesson began. I was amazed, even embarrassed, by the very simplicity of a scene I had anticipated would be quite different. The Tsarina followed everything I said very closely. I distinctly felt that I was not so much giving a lesson as undergoing an examination. The contrast between anticipation and reality quite disconcerted me. To crown my discomfort, I had had an idea that my pupils were much more advanced than they actually were. I had selected certain exercises, but they proved far too difficult. The lesson I had prepared was useless, and I had to improvise and resort to expedients. At length, to my great relief, the clock struck the hour and put an end to my ordeal.
In the weeks following the Tsarina was always present at the children's lessons, in which she took visible interest. Quite frequently, when her daughters had left us, she would discuss with me the best means and methods of teaching modern languages, and I was always struck by the shrewd good sense of her views.
Of those early days I have preserved the memory of a lesson I gave a day or two previous to the issue of the Manifesto of October, 1905, which summoned the Duma. The Tsarina was sitting in a low chair near the window. She struck me instantly as absent-minded and preoccupied. In spite of all she could do, her face betrayed her inward agitation. She made obvious efforts to concentrate her thoughts upon us, but soon relapsed into a melancholy reverie in which she was utterly lost. Her work slipped from her fingers to her lap. She had clasped her hands, and her gaze, following her thoughts, seemed lost and indifferent to the things about her.
I had made a practice, when the lesson was over, of shutting my book and waiting until the Tsarina rose as a signal for me to retire. This time, notwithstanding the silence which followed the end of the lesson, she was so lost in thought that she did not move. The minutes passed and the children fidgeted. I opened my book again and went on reading. Not for a quarter of an hour, when one of the Grand-Duchesses went up to her mother, did she realise the time.
After a few months the Tsarina appointed one of her ladies-in-waiting, Princess Obolensky, to take her place during my lessons. She thus marked the end of the kind of trial to which I had been subjected. I must admit the change was a relief. I was far more at my ease in Princess Obolensky's presence, and besides, she gave me devoted help. Yet of those first months I have preserved a vivid recollection of the great interest which the Tsarina, a mother with a high sense of duty, took in the education and training of her children. Instead of the cold and haughty Empress of which I had heard so much, I had been amazed to find myself in the presence of a woman wholly devoted to her maternal obligations.
It was then, too, that I learned to realise by certain signs that the reserve which so many people had taken as an affront and had made her so many enemies was rather the effect of a natural timidity, as it were - a mask covering her sensitiveness.
I will give one detail which illustrates the Tsarina's anxious interest in the upbringing of her children and the importance she attached to their showing respect for their teachers by observing that sense of decorum which is the first element of politeness. While she was present at my lessons, when I entered the room I always found the books and notebooks piled neatly in my pupils' places at the table, and I was never kept waiting a moment. It was the same afterwards. In due course my first pupils, Olga and Tatiana, were joined by Marie, in 1907, and Anastasia, in 1909, as soon as these two younger daughters had reached their ninth year.
The Tsarina's health, already tried by her anxiety about the menace hanging over the Tsarevitch's head, by degrees prevented her from following her daughters' education. At the time I did not realise what was the cause of her apparent indifference, and was inclined to censure her for it, but it was not long before events showed me my mistake.