THE EMPRESS AND HER FAMILY
Above: The Empress and her daughters, clockwise, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, Marie and the Empress.
The Emperor Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were everything to each other, and their devotion lasted all their lives. Their natures were very different, but they had grown into harmony with each other till they had reached that perfection of understanding in which the tastes and habits of the one are a development and continuation of those of the other. The Empress had the stronger character, and in matters concerning the Household or the children's education, which the Emperor left in her hands, her wishes were law. If anyone referred such questions to the Emperor, he always said "It is as Her Majesty desires." He believed in her intuitive good sense and depended on her judgment. This trust in her opinion made the Empress more self-reliant than, she had been in her youth. Her opinion once given, she stuck to it, as she did not like to bother the Emperor with changes of mind; but except in matters that were her regular province, she always quoted him as the law giving authority. She tactfully avoided questions on which she knew he had definite prejudices, taking it as unalterable that " the Emperor dislikes such and such a thing," and so avoiding direct opposition to him. She was always ready with a welcoming smile whenever he came into the room. She loved him passionately, even fanatically, and had boundless admiration for his wonderful gentleness, self-denial, patience and sense of duty. She had adopted a semi religious reverence for his rank, and though she was so modest about her own position, anything that seemed like the slightest disrespect to him made her flare up with indignation. The due respect she demanded for herself was for his sake-as the consort of the anointed Emperor. She would have preferred to be on more familiar terms with people, but she felt that she owed it to the Emperor to endure restraint and ceremonial that were really distasteful to her. At the same time, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was full of true dignity, and on official occasions could be more impressive than Nicholas II, who had wonderful simplicity and an almost homely manner, inherited from his mother, the Empress Marie.
Perhaps it was the Empress's German blood that made her so devoted to her father, brother and husband. Her father and brother, stronger characters than Nicholas II, dominated her. The Emperor, chivalrous and gentle, full of pity for her in her agony over their boy, was, where his home was concerned, under the Empress's influence. She was the centre of the life of her husband and children. All her thoughts were for them, and they looked to her for sympathy in all their doings. She was an ideal wife and an ideal mother. She shared her children's joys -and sorrows, and entered into all their games and interests with real enthusiasm. She nursed all her children herself, and the baby's cradle used always to stand in her boudoir in the day-time. When she had to give up nursing the little Grand Duchess Anastasia, she said in a letter to Princess Louis of Battenberg, " It is very hard, - she will be given over to the nurses, a moment that always makes me melancholy, as now she is always in my room or next door."
From an early age the children came down to luncheon with their parents, even if there were guests present in addition to the members of the Household. While they were still babies, their table manners were very good and they talked quite easily to strangers. They changed into romping clothes for the afternoon, but appeared again at tea time in their best frocks with their toys. Later the toys were replaced by needlework, for the Empress would never allow them to sit about idle. They were perfectly at ease with their parents, looking upon them, not only as parents, but as delightful companions. When they grew up, they laughed and joked with them, the Empress joining in when the Emperor teased his daughters.
The girls were all four remarkably healthy, though they had the usual children's complaints- croup, measles and chicken-pox. Anastasia had diphtheria also, and Olga and Tatiana typhoid. Their mother nursed them through all these illnesses, isolating herself with the sick child, and sitting up for whole nights to soothe and comfort the restless little patient. They had, of course, a
staff of nurses; an English head-nurse in charge, with Russians under her, while the Tsarevich had a Russian head-nurse of his own.
The Empress's favorite child, the one on whom all her thoughts were centred, was her boy. His illness was the tragedy of her happy home life. She could never feel for an hour that he was safe. The little accidents that are bound to happen to a lively child were grave dangers in his case. just because a fall was so serious to him he seemed always to be falling. When he hurt himself before any public function, the real reason was never given for his non-appearance. It was said that he had a cold or a sprained ankle. All he suffered in the course of his short life can scarcely be believed. It did not embitter him. It only seemed to give him a pity, unusual in a child, for the suffering of other people. He was a pretty child, tall for his age, with regular features, splendid dark blue eyes with a spark of mischief in them, brown hair, and an uptight figure. His frequent illnesses made him rather backward at his lessons, but he was very clever, with a good memory, and when he was well he worked hard to make up for lost time.
He was full of spirits and had quick powers of observation, a generous nature and very strong will. He had chosen as a motto the words of Peter the Great that he had found for himself in a book: " Prayer to God and service to the Tsar will not be lost (i.e. in vain)."
He knew the meaning of gratitude, a rare trait in the great, who are often too much inclined to take everything without question. I gave him English lessons after the Revolution, and it was pretty to see him when a lesson was over, getting up ceremoniously, though he might have seen me several times before on that day, and would see me again, giving me his hand, with an exact imitation of the Emperor's manner, and thanking me with his own particularly sweet, smile: " It is really nice of you, you know." He felt he was under an obligation to me, as I was not-one of his regular teachers. He always tried to show me small attentions, and chose little presents for me from among his own things-he could not buy anything, as he was a prisoner. He was the most conscientious child I ever knew, and always tried to know his lesson well, " as a return for your trouble."
Alexei Nicolaevitch was not impressed by his own importance, and his simple courteous manner was like his father's. He knew and felt that he was the Tsarevich, and from babyhood mechanically took his place in front of his elder sisters. But he took no pride in the position that he knew was his due, and, after the Revolution, gave it up quite quietly, without a word. His chief friend was the son of Dr. Derevenko, and as a small child he played with the sons of his sailor servant, whose name also, curiously enough, was Derevenko.
All the children adored their mother, but her constant care of him made a particular bond of love between mother and son. When the Emperor left for General Headquarters in 1915, Alexei Nicolaevitch felt he was, as he once said to me, " the man in the house," and it was delightful to see the grown-up way in which he would look after the Empress when they went to church or to some function together. He would help her to rise, or would unobtrusively push a chair towards her, as the Emperor might have done.
From the very first, the Empress looked after her children's education herself, She gave them their first spelling lessons, and taught them their prayers, going up each evening to pray with them - a custom which she kept up to the end with Alexei Nicolaevitch. As the children grew older, they had of course their own teachers. The Tsarevich had an excellent tutor in M. P. Gilliard, a Swiss, who was helped after 1915 by an English colleague, Mr. Sydney C. Gibbes.
For a long time the Empress did not want her daughters to have a regular governess. She did not like the idea of a stranger coming between herself and her children. But as the girls grew up, it became necessary to have someone to direct their education and go about with them, and the Empress appointed Mlle. Sophie Ivanovna Tioutcheff as their lady-in-waiting and governess. Mlle. Tioutcheff was a Muscovite, a relation of the poet Tioutcheff. The Empress had heard of her from the Grand Duchess Serge and at first liked her very much.
Mlle. Tioutcheff did not stay many years, however, as she and the Empress disagreed on the subject of Rasputin. Mlle. Tioutcheff was deeply distressed at leaving, as she had got to love her charges. She was the unconscious originator of many false legends about the Court. What she said carelessly was twisted and turned into marvellous stories, which did the Empress a great deal of harm.
After her departure, the Grand Duchesses had no one especially attached to them. Mlle. Schneider took the charge of the two youngest, Marie and Anastasia, while the elder ones went about with one or other of the Empress's ladies-in-waiting.
The Empress really brought up her daughters herself, and her work was well done. It is not possible to imagine more charming, pure and high-minded girls. She could exercise her authority when necessary, but not in such a way as to interfere with the perfect confidence that existed between mother and daughters. She understood the high spirits of youth, and never put a check on laughter or wild pranks. She liked, too, to be present at their lessons, and to discuss with their teachers the line their studies should follow.
The girls were all very good-looking. The eldest, the Grand Duchess Olga Nicolaevna, was fair and tall, with smiling blue eyes, a somewhat short nose, which she called CC my humble snub," and lovely teeth. She had a remarkably graceful figure and was a beautiful rider and dancer. She was the cleverest of the sisters, and was very musical, having, her teachers said, an " absolutely correct ear." She could play by ear anything she had heard, and could transpose' complicated pieces of music, play the most difficult accompaniments at sight, and her touch on the piano was delightful. She sang prettily in a mezzosoprano. She was lazy at practising, but when the spirit moved her she would play by the hour.
Olga Nicolaevna was very straightforward, sometimes too outspoken, but always sincere. She had great charm, and could be the merriest of the merry. When she was a schoolgirl, her unfortunate teachers had every possible practical joke played on them by her. When she grew up, she was always ready for any amusement. She was generous, and an appeal to her met with immediate response. "Oh, one must help poor so-and-so. I must do it somehow," she would say. Her more careful sister, Tatiana, would suggest practical measures, would note names and details, and come back to the subject later out of a sense of duty.
Olga Nicolaevna was devoted to her father. The horror of the Revolution told on her more keenly than on any of the others. She changed completely, and all her bright spirits disappeared.
Tatiana Nicolaevna was to my mind prettier than her sisters. She was taller even than the Empress, but she was so slight and well-proportioned that her great height was not remarkable. She had fine, regular features, recalling pictures of ancestresses who had been famous beauties. She had dark hair, a rather pale complexion, and wide-apart, light-brown eyes, that gave her a poetic far-away look, not quite in keeping -with her character. This was a mixture of exactness, thoroughness and perseverance, with leanings towards poetic and abstract ideas. She was closest in sympathy to her mother, and was the definite favorite of both her parents. She was completely unselfish, always ready to give up her own plans to go for a walk with her father, to read to her mother, to do anything that was wanted. It was Tatiana Nicolaevna who took care of the little ones, and who -was a constant help to the Household, always willing to help them in arranging that their official duties should not clash with their private engagements. She had the Empress's practical mind and love of detail. She planned and arranged everything in the " Children's quarters " as it was called. She had a less strong character than Olga Nicolaevna, whose lead she would always follow, but she could make up her mind in an emergency quicker than her elder sister, and never lost her head.
When her brother was ill, Tatiana Nicolaevna could take her mother's place, following the doctor's directions and playing with the sick boy for hours. Out of a sense of duty, she undertook more thin her share of public appearances. She was shy, Eke all her sisters, but her natural friendliness made her want to say pleasant things to people. She became much better known than her cleverer elder sister, as she took more trouble about the people she met.
Tatiana Nicolaevna loved dress. Any frock, no matter how old, looked well on her. She knew how to put on her clothes, was admired and liked admiration. She was sociable, and friends would have been welcome, but no young girls were ever asked to the Palace. The Empress thought that the four sisters should be able to entertain one another. They were close friends when they outgrew the squabbles of childhood. The two elder shared one bedroom, the two younger another, while their schoolrooms and dining-room were in common. The little Tsarevich had his own rooms, in which M. Gilliard ruled.
Marie Nicolaevna was like Olga Nicolaevna in colouring and features, but all on a more vivid scale. She had the same charming smile, the same shape of face, but her eyes, "Marie's saucers," as they were called by her cousins, were magnificent, and of a deep dark blue. Her hair had golden lights in it, and when it was cut after her illness in 1917, it curled naturally over her head. Marie Nicolaevna, alone of the sisters, had a decided talent for drawing, and sketched quite -well, always with her left hand. "Mashka," as her sisters called her, was ruled entirely by her youngest sister, Anastasia Nicolaevna, nicknamed by her mother "the imp."
Perhaps Anastasia Nicolaevna would have grown up the prettiest of the sisters. Her features were regular and finely cut. She had fair hair, fine eyes, with impish laughter in their depths, and dark eyebrows that nearly met. These combined to make the youngest Grand Duchess quite unlike any of her sisters. She had a type of her own and was more like her mother's than her father's family. She was rather short even at seventeen, and was, then decidedly fat, but it was the fatness of youth. She would have outgrown it, as had her sister Marie.
Anastasia Nicolaevna was the originator of all mischief, and was as witty and amusing as she was lazy at her lessons. She was quick and observant, with a keen sense of humour, and was the only one of the sisters who never knew the meaning of shyness. Even as a baby she had entertained grave old men, who were her neighbors at table, with her astonishing remarks.
All the Grand Duchesses were very Russian in their outlook and ideas. Their only experience of foreign countries had been in short visits to Darmstadt, and once to England, and they preferred life in their own country to anything else. They always spoke Russian among themselves and to the Emperor, English to their mother, and French to M. Gilliard. The elder girls had a smattering of German, but spoke it with difficulty; the younger ones and the Tsarevich did not know it at all.
The Grand Duchesses' best and most intimate friend was their young aunt, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. They looked on her as an elder sister, and she was their ideal in everything. She had a delightful and cheerful personality, and was a great favorite with her sister-in-law, the Empress, and came constantly to Tsarskoe Selo before the war. She had young people's parties for her nieces nearly every Sunday afternoon in her town house, at which they all enjoyed themselves immensely. No elders were invited to these parties except the Grand Duchess's cousin, the Duchess Marie Leuchtenberg (nee Countess Grabbe), who brought her own girls and acted as chaperone to all the others. These Sunday afternoons were great events in the girls' lives.
The two elder girls were to have made their official appearance in St. Petersburg society in 1914, when the Empress had meant to resume the giving of Court balls in their honour. They were always present at the rare functions given at Court after 1915. They looked very attractive, the one fair and the other dark. The Empress dressed her daughters well. Sometimes all four were dressed alike, sometimes the two elder wore one colour, the two younger another. Though their outward surroundings had, naturally, to be luxurious, their private lives and tastes were very simple, simpler indeed in many ways than the lives led by many Russian girls of less position. The Empress would not allow them to be pampered. They dressed themselves, their maids only arranging their clothes. According to the tradition of Russian Court nurseries, dating from the time of Catherine II, when Rousseau's ideas on education bad been followed, they slept on hard camp beds. They went on wearing their clothes until they were worn out, or they had outgrown them, when the dresses of the elder girls were altered for the younger ones. The Empress did not like squandering money, though she was so lavish in charity. The Grand Duchesses had large fortunes of their own., but they were each given, as pocket money, only two pounds a month, with which to buy their note-paper, scent, small presents, etc. Their dress bills were of course paid for them. In this way they learned to think before spending. Every present they gave was' the result of some personal sacrifice. They had to go without something for themselves before they could buy anything for their parents, sisters and ladies-in-waiting, CC out of their own pocket." In this way their mother hoped to make them realise the value of money, a thing that princes find it hard to understand. But etiquette prevented their going into any shops but those of the little stationers at Tsarskoe Selo and Yalta, and they never bad any clear idea of the value and price of things.
Their rank meant very little to them, and they felt ill at ease when they were treated ceremoniously. Once at a committee I had to address "my President," the Grand Duchess Tatiana, officially, and naturally began, " May it please Your Imperial Highness." She looked at me with astonishment, and when I sat down again beside her 1 was rewarded by a violent kick under the table and a whispered " Are you crazy to speak to me like that ? " In common with all the Household, I called the Emperor's daughters, in the Russian fashion, by their names and patronymic, and she thought it quite absurdly formal for me to have given her her full title ! I had to appeal to the Empress to persuade her that on official occasions it was really necessary.
The Grand Duchesses very seldom saw other children. Sometimes their cousins, the children of the Grand Duchess Xenia, came to see them. There was an occasional tea party at Mme. Vyroubova's or a Sunday afternoon party at "Aunt Olga's." They were used to a quiet life, and never grumbled, or seemed bored with one another's society. They took the greatest interest in the Household from the highest to the lowest, and were considerate in little ways, often doing things for themselves so as to enable their maids to go out. They knew the names and family histories of the officers and men of the yacht and of the Cossacks of the escort, and talked to them freely. I was a great deal with the two elder Grand Duchesses, who had no lady-in-waiting of their own, and often went about with them. They were deeply interested in everything I did, and all four invariably came to help me to dress for a ball, somewhat to the consternation of my maid, who felt she could not do justice to my toilette with four lively Grand Duchesses in the room, each giving her own directions. On one occasion they thought my dress needed a parure of rubies to complete it. I said I had none, and that my pearls would have to do. Tatiana Nicolaevna rushed off, and appeared with some brooches of hers which she wanted me to wear. I naturally refused, to her great astonishment.
We sisters always borrow from each other," she said, "when we think the jewels of the one will suit the dress of the other."
No appeal to them for help was ever put on one side. They would ask over and over again if this or that person had been helped, and what had been done. When Olga Nicolaevna, at the age of twenty, began to have some of her money in her own hands, the first thing she did was to ask her mother to allow her to pay for a crippled child to be treated in a sanatorium. On her drives she had often seen this child hobbling about on crutches, and had heard that the parents were poor and could not afford a long and costly treatment. She had at once begun to put aside her small monthly allowance to go towards paying for the treatment.
Family life at the Tsarskoe Palace had a special atmosphere of its own. The children were closely united, and, in spite of the difference in their characters, understood one another well. They could never have been happy apart. It would have been an unheard-of thing for one of the Grand Duchesses to go anywhere even for a day without her sisters. She would not have enjoyed it at all.
Of course, with such differences in character there were bound also to be differences in points of view, leading to hot discussions. Marie Nicolaevna was obstinate; Olga Nicolaevna was hot tempered and would sometimes turn suddenly cross when she was offended. But they never quarrelled or wrangled, and with their parents they were on terms of fond familiarity and respect that were delightful to see.
It was not possible to avoid wondering what would happen in so united a family when the question of marriage arose. The Emperor and Empress did not want their daughters to make marriages de convenance. They wanted them to marry for love, as they themselves had done. On the other hand, the Empress disliked the idea of marriage with commoners. She thought that it tended to weaken the prestige of the Imperial Family, and that the Emperor's daughters had a duty towards their father's position. She did not scheme for her daughters, nor would she have forced their inclinations. There were discussions of a Rumanian marriage for the Grand Duchess Olga Nicolaevna, which the families and Ministers of both countries would have liked. But the young Grand Duchess was not attracted by the suggested bridegroom, and told her mother so. In one or two other cases Olga Nicolaevna was equally firm. The Empress thought a loveless marriage impossible, and was quite ready for her daughters to wait till the right men came to claim them.
Next chapter: The Empress at Home - Her Friends
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