Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

Life at Tsarskoe Selo - Pierre Gilliard - Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

THE WINTER OF 1913-14

Rasputin was once more attributed the improvement in Aleksey Nicolalevich's health a few days after the terrible attack to which I have referred.

It will be remembered that the attack had occurred shortly after that change in the Tsarevitch's manner of life I thought it my duty to advocate. I thus felt partially responsible.

I was in a very great difficulty . When I decided as I did, of course, realised the great dangers involved and If strong enough to face them. But the test of dreadful that I had to consider whether I ought to persevere. . . . And yet I felt strongly that I had no alternative.

After two months' convalescence - the Tsarevich only recovered slowly - the Tsar and Tsarina made up their minds to persevere with the method they had adopted, notwithstanding the risks.

Dr. Botkin (son of the famous Professor Sergei Botkin and Court Physician) and Dr. Derevenko were of a contrary opinion, of course, thought myself reality was so bowed to the parents' desires and bravely accepted a decision which added considerably to the difficulties of a task which was exacting and unpromising enough as it was. They were always on the look-out for the possible crisis, and when the accident happened the struggle was all the harder for them because they realised the inadequacy of the remedies at their disposal. When, after nights of watching, they had the joy of seeing their young patient out of danger, the improvement was attributed, not to their care and efforts, but to the miraculous intervention of Rasputin! But there was no false pride or envy about them, for they were inspired by feelings of the deepest pity for the tortured mother and father and the sufferings of the child who, at ten years of age, had already had far more to bear than most men in a long lifetime.

Our stay in the Crimea was longer than usual owing to Aleksey Nicolaievich's illness, and we only returned to Tsarskoe-Selo in December. We then spent the whole winter of 1913-14 there.

Our life at Tsarskoe-Selo was far more intimate than when we were in residence at other palaces. With the exception of the maid-of-honour on duty and the officer commanding the "composite" (the regiment which acted as the Tsar's bodyguard. It comprised repre sentatives of all the regiments of the Guard) regiment, the suite did not live in the palace, and unless relations were visiting the family the latter generally: took their meals alone very quietly.

 

Pierre Gilliard
Above; from left - Gilliard, Aleksey, Olga, and Derevenko.
 
Lessons (at the time my pupil was learning Russian, French, arithmetic, history, geography and religious knowledge. He did not begin English until later, and never had German lessons) began at nine o'clock, and there was a break from eleven to twelve. We went out driving in a carriage, sledge, or car, and then work was resumed until lunch at one. In the afternoon we always spent two hours out of doors. The Grand-Duchesses and, when he was free, the Tsar, came with us, and Aleksey Nicolaievich played with them, sliding on an ice mountain we had made at the edge of a little artificial lake. He was also fond of playing with his donkey Vanka, which was harnessed to a sledge, and his dog Joy, an attractive little liver spaniel with short legs, and long silky ears which almost touched the ground.

Vanka was a creature of quite unusual intelligence and sense of humour. When the idea of giving Aleksey Nicolaievich a donkey had been mooted, all the horse-dealers in St. Petersburg, had been referred to in vain. Cinizelli's Circus had then agreed to part with a thoroughbred animal which had grown too old to perform any longer. Thus had Vanka come to Court, and he seemed to be immensely attached to the young family. He certainly was most amusing, for his repertoire of tricks was quite inexhaustible. In the most expert manner imaginable he would turn out your pockets in the hope of discovering delicacies. He was particularly fond of old india rubber balls, which he would quietly chew, closing one eye like an old Yankee.

These two animals played a large part In the life of Aleksey Nicolaievich, for his amusements were few. Above all, he was very short of playmates. The two sons of his sailor Derevenko, his ordinary companions, were much younger than he, and had either the education nor the development desirable.

It is true that his cousins sometimes spent Sundays and birthdays with him, but these visits were rare. I often pressed the Tsarina to remedy this state of things. As a result of this pressure an attempt was made, but without result.

Of course, the disease to which the boy was a prey made the choice of his comrades an extremely difficult matter. It was lucky that, as I have said, his sisters liked playing with him. They brought into his life an element of youthful merriment which would otherwise have been sorely missed. During our afternoon walks, the Tsar, who was very fond of walking, usually went round the park with one of his daughters, but quite frequently he came and joined us. It was with his help that we made a huge tower of snow which became quite an imposing fortress before long and kept us busy several weeks.

At four o'clock we went in and resumed lessons until dinner, which was at seven for Aleksey Nicolalevich and at eight for the rest of the family. We ended the day by reading one of his favorite books.

Aleksey Nicolalevich was the centre of this united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections. His sisters worshipped him and he was his parents' pride and joy. When he was well the palace was, as it were, transformed. Everyone and everything seemed bathed in sunshine. Endowed with a naturally happy disposition, he would have developed quite regularly and successfully had he not been kept back by his infirmity. Each of his crises meant weeks and sometimes months of the closest attention, and when the haemorrhage bad been heavy it was followed by a condition of general anaemia which made a hard work impossible for him, sometimes for a considerable period. Thus the interludes between attacks were all that were available, and, in spite of his quick brain, this made teaching a difficult matter.

The Grand-Duchesses were charming - the picture of freshness and health. It would have been difficult to find four sisters with characters more dissimilar and yet so perfectly blended in an affection which did not exclude personal independence, and, in spite of contrasting temperaments, kept them a most united family. With the initials of their Christian names they had formed a composite Christian name, Otma, and under this common signature they frequently gave their presents or sent letters written by one of them on behalf of all.

I am sure I shall be forgiven for allowing myself the pleasure of recording some personal memories here - memories which will enable me to recall these girls in all the bloom and spontaneous enthusiasms of their youth. I might almost say their childhood. For these were girls who fell victims to a dreadful fate at a time when others are blossoming into womanhood.

The eldest, Olga Nicolaievna, possessed a remarkably quick brain She had good reasoning powers as well as initiative, a very independent manner, and a gift for swift and entertaining repartee. She gave me a certain amount of trouble at first, but our early skirmishes were soon succeeded by relations of frank cordiality.

She picked up everything extremely quickly, and always managed to give an original turn to what she learned. I well remember how, in one of our first grammar lessons, when I was explaining the formation of the verbs and the use of the auxiliaries, she suddenly interrupted me with:

"I see, monsieur. The auxiliaries are the servants of the verbs It's only poor 'avoir' which has to shift for itself."

She read a good deal apart from her lessons. When she grew older, every time I gave her a book I was very careful to indicate by notes in the margin the passages or chapters she was to leave out. I used to give her a summary of these. The reason I put forward was the difficulty of the text or the fact' that it was uninteresting.

An omission of mine cost me one of the most unpleasant moments in my professional career, but, thanks to the Tsar's presence of mind, the incident ended better than I could have hoped.

Olga Nicolaievna was reading "Les Miserables," and had reached the description of the battle of Waterloo. At the beginning of the letter she handed me a list of the words she had not understood, in accordance with our practice. What was my astonishment to see in it the word which is forever associated with the name of the officer who commanded the Guard. I felt certain I had not forgotten my usual precautions. I asked for the book to verify my marginal note, and realised my omission. To avoid a delicate explanation I struck out the wretched word and handed back the list to the Grand-Duchess.

She cried, "Why, you've struck out the word I asked papa about yesterday I"

I could not have been more thunderstruck if the bolt had fallen at my feet.

"What! You asked your...

"Yes, and he asked me how I'd heard of it, and then said it was a very strong word which must not be repeated, though in the mouth of that general it was the finest word in the French language."

A few hours later I met the Tsar when I was out walking in the park. He took me on one side and said in a very serious tone.

"You are teaching my daughters a very curious vocabulary, monsieur. . . . "

I floundered in a most involved explanation. But the Tsar burst out laughing, and interrupted:

"Don't worry, monsieur. I quite realised what happened so I told my daughter that the word was one of the French "army's greatest claims to fame."

Tatiana Nicolaievna was rather reserved, essentially well-balanced, and had a will of her own, though she was less frank and spontaneous than her elder sister. She was not so gifted, either, but this inferiority was compensated by more perseverance and balance. She was very pretty, though she had not quite Olga Nicolaievna's charm.

If the Tsarina made any difference between her children, Tatiana Nicolaievna was her favorite. It was not that her sisters loved their mother any less, but Tatiana knew how to surround her with unwearying attentions and never gave way to her own capricious impulses. Through her good looks and her art of self-assertion she put her sister in the shade in public, as the latter, thoughtless about herself, seemed to take a back seat. Yet the two sisters were passionately devoted to each other. There was only eighteen months between them, and that in itself was a bond of union. They were called "the big pair," while Marie Nicolaievna and Anastasia Nicolaievna were still known as the "little pair."

Marie Nicolaievna was a fine girl, tall for her age, and a picture of glowing health and colour. She had large and beautiful grey eyes. Her tastes were very simple, and with her warm heart she was kindness itself. Her sisters took advantage somewhat of her good nature, and called her "fat little bow-wow." She certainly had the benevolent and somewhat gauche devotion of a dog.

Anastasia Nicolaievna, on the other hand, was very roguish and almost a wag. She had a very strong sense of humour, and the darts of her wit often found sensitive spots. She was rather an enfant terrible, though this fault tended to correct itself with age. She was also extremely idle, though with the idleness of a gifted child. Her French accent was excellent, and she acted scenes from comedy with remarkable talent. She was so lively, and her gaiety so infectious, that several members of the suite had fallen into the way of calling her "Sunshine," the nickname her mother had been given at the English Court.

In short, the whole charm, difficult though it was to define, of these four sisters was their extreme simplicity, candour, freshness, and instinctive kindness of heart.

Their mother, whom they adored, was, so to speak, infallible in their eyes. Olga Nicolaievna alone showed occasional traces of independence. They surrounded her with every attention. Of their own initiative they had arranged matters in such a way that they could take turns of "duty" with their mother keeping her company for the day. When the Tsarina was ill the result was that the daughter on duty could not go out at all.

Their relations with the Tsar were delightful. He was Emperor, father, and friend in one.

Their feelings for him were thus dictated by circumstances, passing from religious veneration to utter frankness and the warmest affection. Was it not he before whom the ministers, the highest dignitaries of the Church, the grand dukes, and even their mother bowed in reverence, he whose fatherly heart opened so willingly to their sorrows, he who joined so merrily in their youthful amusements, far from the eyes of the indiscreet?

With the exception of Olga Nicolaievna, the Grand-Duchesses were very moderate pupils. This was largely due to the fact that, in spite of my repeated suggestions, the Tsarina would never have a French governess. No doubt she did not wish anyone to come between herself and her daughters. The result was that though they read French, and liked it, they were never able to speak it fluently.

GILLIARD NOTE: Her Majesty talked English with them, the Tsar Russian only. The Tsarina spoke English or French with the members of her suite. She never spoke in Russian (though she spoke it pretty well ultimately) except to those who knew no other language. During the whole period of my residence with the Imperial family I never heard one of them utter a word of German, except when it was inevitable, as at receptions, etc.

The Tsarina's state of health accounts for the fact that the education of her daughters was to some extent neglected. The illness of Aleksey Nicolaievich had gradually worn down her powers of resistance. At times of crisis she spared herself nothing and displayed remarkable energy and courage. But, once the danger had passed, Nature resumed her rights, and for weeks she would lie on a sofa quite exhausted by the strain.

Olga Nicolaievna did not fulfil the hopes I had set upon her. Her fine intellect failed to find the elements necessary to its development. Instead of making progress she began to go back. Her sisters had ever had but little taste for learning, their gifts being of the practical order.

By force of circumstances all four had soon learnt to be self-sufficient and to find their natural good nature their sole resource. Very few girls would have accommodated themselves so easily to a life such as theirs - a life deprived of outside amusements, and with no other source of distraction than those joys of family life which are so despised in these days!

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