THE EMPRESS AT HOME-HER FRIENDS
Left: The Empress Alexandra in full court regalia. She is wearing a splendid pearl and diamond tiara from the period of Catherine the Great.
The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna's life was made up of long and busy days. Most of her afternoons were spent in giving audiences, in going to schools, or seeing people about her various charities. Her receptions took up a great deal of time, as she felt less shy when she saw each person separately. She was often quite worn out by the evening, and to very little effect, so far as her personal popularity was concerned. There was no one to arrange her work for her, to choose the essential things, those which the public at large would appreciate, and to omit those which were less important. The Empress wore herself out in doing kind things in individual cases, in which she could have the satisfaction of knowing the pleasure she gave ; but these things were neither known to nor appreciated by the public at large.
She always felt in a hurry, which is not to be wondered at, considering the great place her children filled in her life, and the amount of work she got through. She often transacted her correspondence, both private and business, in bed ; for she got up late in the morning by doctor's orders, and wrote her letters during long wakeful hours at night. Whenever she sat with her family she had some piece of fancy work in her hand - a habit acquired in childhood under the influence of Queen Victoria. She was a great reader. Her taste lay towards serious books, though she enjoyed modern English novels and read them with her daughters as they grew up. The Empress had never been a sportswoman, and her sciatica prevented her from playing any games after her marriage. She loved riding, and often rode with the Emperor in early years, and even rode at the head of her Lancers at their jubilee review in -1903. But she had to give up all forms of exercise shortly after the Tsarevich's birth. After 1905, when she had more time, Alexandra Feodorovna took up her music again. She played duets with Professor Kuendinger, who came to her every week for some hours, and she began to take singing lessons with Mme. N. A. Iretskaya of the Conservatoire. The Empress had a fine contralto voice, and looked forward to the time when she would be able to sing with her daughters. She sometimes invited other music-lovers to sing duets with her: Baroness Mary Stackelberg (nee Kaulbars), Anya and Alia Tanieva, Countess Emma Freedericsz and Mesdames X- and X-, two well-known singers from the Opera. Alexandra Feodorovna was far too timid to sing in public, and these few ladies were the only people who heard her. Princess Sonya Orbeliani often arranged little musical parties to which the Empress came. Singers and pianists were invited, and a few of the Princess's personal friends made up the audience. Princess Orbeliani hoped this might lead to other parties of the same sort which the Empress could have given herself. However, the Empress's heart trouble soon obliged her to give up her music also, which was a very real regret to her.
The Empress's personal tastes were all simple, and in spite of the outward luxury and all the money spent by the Court, the Imperial Fan-lily had in reality fewer actual comforts than many private people. They had to submit to old-fashioned rules and regulations, which the Empress tried in vain to break through. Even an autocrat cannot alter established routine, and she could change little even in her own household, except the dresses of her maids. For tea at the Palace buns were served of the same kind as had been given to the Empress Catherine; scores of servants loitered about, when a quarter of the number could have done the work, had it been systematically arranged; and very often the Empress would do a thing herself rather than send for the special servant whose duty it was to do that special thing. There were old-world traditions that hampered her own movements. The Empress would have shocked the whole nation if she had ever dared to enter a shop in St. Petersburg (Yalta or Tsarskoe Selo were considered rural residences and shopping was possible). When she began to go to church alone with her daughters, people were astonished-and dubious. It did not seem to be quite the thing for her to do! The Empress could not drive alone in an open carriage (droshky) except at Peterhof, where the Emperor's great-grandmother had occasionally driven a phaeton in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and a precedent having been established, the Empress could drive alone in a victoria at Peterhof without being criticized! All these rules were irksome to the Empress, but when she disregarded them comment was always excited.
Alexandra Feodorovna was economical and knew the value of money. She dressed well but not extravagantly. She chose the clothes that suited her type, and hated the extremes of fashion. She looked magnificent in full dress and was always beautiful. She never impoverished the Treasury by having costly jewels bought for herself. She had many fine jewels that were family 'heirlooms (most of the Crown jewels were still worn by the Dowager Empress) ; but as the big tiaras she wore on State occasions were the Crown jewels put aside for the wife of the Tsarevich, she used laughingly to say that, when Alexei Nicolaevitch married, she would have to hand them over and do what she could for herself. The Emperor, of course, gave his wife many jewels, but they were things that were chosen in accordance with her own taste and not on account of their value, so that she had many sets of her favorite stones, amethysts and aquamarines. She thriftily wore her gala dresses for years, and during the war made it a point not to get a single new dress for herself or for her daughters, using the whole of her dress allowance, and theirs, for charity. Blue and mauve were her favorite colours, and she loved the long sweeping draperies of no particular shape in which she looked so well.
When the Empress found that she could not strike the right note with St. Petersburg society, she drew still more into herself. From the very beginning, she had thought it her duty to bring more serious interests into the lives of society women. She tried to start a working guild, which continued to exist till 1917, but it was looked upon as "an educational measure," one of the conditions being that the work had to be done by the member with her own hands. All her schemes were scoffed at. She could never carry out the reforms she thought necessary in the "Patriotic schools." Changes in the lists of invitations to Court balls which were made at the beginning of the reign were ascribed to her personally and created bitterness. Criticisms of outre fashions that she was said to have made were repeated and resented by those concerned. Alexandra Feodorovna felt that everything she did was criticized adversely by certain sections. Misled by the cheering that welcomed her on public appearances, she believed herself popular with the country at large, and this consoled her for her unpopularity in society. She disliked publicity, and by her special wish her charities and kindnesses were never spoken of outside a small circle. But family affection was the most important thing to her, and in this respect the Empress's life was full and happy. She was devoted to the Emperor's two sisters, the Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga. She took interest in the lives of all her Household, from the Grande maitresse down to the last little maid, often helping the humble ones and their families in ways that no one knew. She was democratic in the real Christian sense, and made no distinction of class. She would go to see a sick maid as readily as one of her ladies-in-waiting. During the terrible time of her captivity at Tobolsk she remembered that her faithful maid, Madeleine Zanotti, had been with her for twenty-five years. She contrived to have a little present made, and begged the commander to send it to her on that anniversary. Though she was naturally hot tempered, the Empress seldom gave way to irritation. When greatly provoked, she would flare up, but she would be much distressed at her hastiness, and would worry for days about a small thing, which had probably been forgotten by the person who had incurred her displeasure. The forgiveness which, in accordance with the Russian custom, she begged of those round her before going to confession was really asked for from the heart.
The Empress found it inadvisable on principle to make friends of her ladies-in-waiting, as she thought it might cause jealousy if she showed more sympathy to one than she did to the others. She was kind and attentive to all. She gave us beautiful presents and she looked after us, personally, when we were ill, but there was a certain barrier that was never passed. Only when their official position had ended-as, for instance, when the Princess Bariatinsky left her post as lady-in-waiting or when Sonya Orbeliani became an invalid-did she show her ladies the personal friendship she felt for them.
But if her ladies were not allowed the privilege of full intimacy during their time of service, she was always goodness itself to them, and all the Household came to the Empress in any trouble or difficulty. I shall never forget the kindness the Empress showed me at the time of my mother's death, when I shared the Imperial Family's imprisonment at Tsarskoe Selo. It was a time of grave danger, for the Emperor, danger so great that I felt I could not leave and go to my mother who was seriously ill at Kazan; as I had been told that, if I did, I should not be allowed to return. The Empress sympathized with my anxieties as if they had been her own. Though she had never asked a single favour for herself during all the time of her detention, she now begged the revolutionary commander of the Palace as a personal favour to bring her the telegram about my mother at whatever hour it might come, as she wanted to prepare me herself for the news she feared it might hold. The telegram came on the night of the Empress's birthday, and it was she who broke the news of her death to me next morning with a tenderness and love that no words can describe.
Having few friends in society, Alexandra Feodorovna clung all the more to those she found. Motherliness lay at the root of her character, and she was always particularly attracted by people she could help and guide. In her youth in Germany and in her early years in Russia she had two friends on whom she could lean in her turn; these were women slightly older than herself - Countess Julie Rantzau and Princess Marie Bariatinsky. It was to the latter she wrote (November 23, 1905):
I must have a person to myself, if I want to be my real self. I am not made to shine before an assembly - I have not got the easy nor the witty talk one needs for that. I like the internal being, and that attracts me with great force. As you know, I am of the preacher type. I want to help others in life, to help them to fight their battles and bear their crosses.... What can I tell you in a letter ? Things are more than serious and intricate, and all one's hope and trust must be placed in God. Serious times are yet ahead, and rough ones - One's heart is so full. . . .
The Empress had a lofty ideal. She gave herself completely to those who were her friends. Difference of tank did not exist. She was ready to do literally anything for her friends ; their interests became her own, and their sorrows were hers. She would take up things and people with violent enthusiasm. The first enthusiasm might wane with time, but her friendships were lasting, even though she saw the objects of them as seldom as she did the friends of her youth, Frau Bracht (Toni Becker) and "Juju " Rantzau, whose death she mourned in 1901, or her old governess, Miss Jackson. She wrote about Countess Rantzau to Princess M. Bariatinsky on February 24th, 1901:
She was a rare flower, too delicate for this world, but rejoicing others with her fragrance and cheering them on the way. -She understood the difficulties of this world, and the different temptations, and always encouraged one in the right, and helped one to fight one's weaknesses.. It came so naturally to speak about one's faith to her, that now I feel her loss greatly. Only her dear writings have remained to me. [The Empress and the Countess wrote a kind of diary to each other, which they exchanged every week.] I pray to God to make me as worthy, as she was, of a new and more perfectly happy life in yonder world.
Another time, in a letter to the same person, she says :
DEAREST MARY, - I send you my most loving thanks for your dear letter from the frontier-it was great happiness hearing from you. I miss you and our cosy chats very much indeed, and since you left 1 have again had such a loss-it is very hard, but I cannot but be grateful, that God took her to Him and that her long and weary sufferings have come to an end. But to all that knew her it is a great loss, but she was well fit for Heaven -a pure, ideal Christian. Only an hour before the fatal news, I received her last letter, so you can imagine what a shock it was. But I must not write to you about sad things, though my heart is full of sorrow-and I am awfully anxious about Gretchen Fabrice - I hope the journey was not too tiring.
The Princess Marie Bariatinsky, to whom these letters were written, had been appointed the Empress's lady-in-waiting in November 1896, and had to resign her post in 1898 to be with her old parents, as her father's health was failing. She greatly endeared herself to the Empress, and became one of her few friends after she gave up her official position. Princess Marie Bariatinsky had a fine and sensitive nature and great charm of manner. Her tact and worldly savoir-faire made her a great help to the Empress during her first years in Russia. When Princess Bariatinsky settled permanently in Rome with her parents, the Empress saw her only at rare intervals, but whenever she came to Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna always had her friend with her for several weeks as a guest. She at first missed her companionship greatly: " I long for you," she wrote to her, shortly after her friend had left, and in another letter to her said:
(St. Petersburg, January 29th, 1901.)
" To have such a true and devoted friend is indeed a gift of God and I thank Him for it daily" (December 28, 1898).
The same feeling is echoed in another letter dated August 9, 1912:
Once more let me tell you bow very happy I was to have seen you again, dear, after 5 long years of separation. It is a joy to see a dear friend so unchanged again, and to feel as though we had never been separated at all, these years. But that is real friendship that remains the same though time and space may sever one. A warm heart is a treat, and I always deeply, gratefully, value it.
In another earlier letter she says :
Separation makes no difference-friends remain the same, don't they, dear ? And you will have a lot to tell me about your life and interests, and I shall have my little ones to show you. Life brings us sorrows and trials without end, but all is for the best, and God gives one strength to bear one's heavy cross, and go on fighting....
The simple, affectionate terms between the Empress and her friends are seen in these letters and in the following, which also show the interest she took in all those that belonged to them. She wrote to Princess Bariatinsky on December 28, 1898, from Tsarskoe Selo:
Don't be anxious about me, I tell you openly all, so that you need not worry. I am careful, and rest all day and miss your dear company more than I can say. For your precious letter from the frontier a hearty kiss and many thanks. Your words of tender love did me much good.
And to the same (Tsarskoe Selo, May 8, 1901) :
Thank God, that your dear father is a wee bit better. I can so well imagine your feelings and know well the anxiety you are going through. Only that he should not suffer. God give you all strength and comfort. If I could have a wee word from time to time with news of him, I should be most grateful. The weather is glorious, so warm and nice. I sit working on the balcony. Anemones and -blue flowers are out and the buds on the bushes are quite big, and the birds sing so sweetly. But enough for to-day. Good-bye, and God bless you. Tenderest love from your devoted friend,
Protective feeling was at the bottom of the Empress's friendship for Sonya Orbeliani, another of her ladies. She was a Georgian, the daughter of Prince John Orbeliani and Princess M. D. Sviatopolk-Mirsky. She was only 23 when she came to Court in 1898. Princess Orbeliani was very small, fair, with distinctive features, a good sportswoman, clever, amusing, and a very fine musician. She attracted the Empress by her frank, unaffected manners and high spirits, and in her turn formed an intense attachment to Alexandra Feodorovna, which was, of course, increased by A the Empress did for her during her long illness - a form of spinal disease, which made her practically a cripple towards the end. The Empress had great moral influence over her, and it was she who led the doomed woman, who knew what was awaiting her, to the attainment of that wonderful Christian submission with which she not only patiently bore her malady but managed to keep a cheerful spirit and keen interest in life.
For nine long years, whatever her own health was, the Empress never paid her daily visit to her children without going to Sonya's rooms, which adjoined those of the Grand Duchesses. When Sonya had an acute attack of illness, which happened from time to time, the Empress went to her not only several times a day but often at night when she was very ill: indeed no mother could have been more loving. Special carriages and special appliances were made for Sonya, so that she could share the general life as if she were well, and she followed the Empress everywhere. Alexandra Feodorovna made her feel that she was a privileged person, so afraid was she that she might realise that she had become, instead of the help she had been, only one person more needing the Empress's care.
The Empress's friendship with the Grand Duchesses Militza and Stana, which was at its height during the first years of the century, was more on the basis of intellectual affinity. When the Empress thought that her cousins had become the prey of intriguers, who had prejudiced them against Rasputin, in whom they at first had believed, she turned from them in disappointment and bitterness.
The most intimate friend the Empress made in later years was Anna Alexandrovna Vyrubova (Anya Tanieva). The Empress's interest in her was first awakened when Anya, as a girl of sixteen, was dangerously ill with typhoid. Her father was the head of the Emperor's private chancellery, and when the Empress heard of his daughter's dangerous illness, she showed the greatest sympathy, and frequently came to see Anna Tanieva, who was not expected to recover. She did so, however, and the romantic young girl conceived a passionate admiration for Alexandra Feodorovna in return for her kindness. There was more frequent intercourse in the next winter, as the Empress had discovered Mlle. Tanieva's musical abilities, and she was often sent for to the Palace to play accompaniments or sing duets with Her Majesty. She was one of the numerous maids-of-honour, but never held the post of lady-in-waiting. Only once, in 1905, when there had been a suggestion that the maids-of-honour might occasionally come into waiting for a longer period, she was one of the three who were selected. The others were Mlle. Sophie Raievsky (now Princess Gagarine) and myself. This was, of course, before my appointment as lady-in-waiting. Little by little a great friendship grew up between the Empress and Anna. They had many tastes in common; Mlle. Tanieva was also of a deeply religious nature, and the Empress had a motherly feeling towards the young girl, whose open adoration touched her greatly. She became a constant visitor at the Palace and was even invited to join the Imperial Family in their cruises on the yacht, which was an exceptional favour, as no one was ever invited on these trips except a few members of the Household.
From the outset Anna complained that the Court people were not always amiable towards her, and this roused the Empress's protective feeling. This, in fact, always was the case, for Mme. Vyrubova had few friends at Court, except the family of Count Freedericsz, the ministre de la cour, and her position was difficult. Alexandra Feodorovna was mentally far superior to Anna, whom she regarded as a child whose mind she had to prepare for the struggle of life. Anna poured out all her heart to the Empress. At first they were the griefs of girlhood, but ere long she had real sorrows to confide, for her unhappy marriage with Lieutenant Vyrubov was soon dissolved. After this the Empress devoted even more time to her childless and lonely young friend, and tried to bring new interests into her life. By this time Anna had made the acquaintance of Rasputin. Piety and great superstition were united in her nature, and she became a sincere believer, which was another link with the Empress. Anna now centred bet whole life on Alexandra Feodorovna. She could show her attentions and give her little presents, in an informal way that was permissible in a friend but not in anyone of the Household. The Empress thought her unpretentious and guileless, and felt happy in having again found a devoted friend, now that Princess Bariatinsky was away and Sonya Orbeliani could not be all that she had been on account of her health. Mme. Vyrubova was a handsome woman in the florid style, with small features and fine, child-like eyes. She was tender-hearted and generous to the poor to the point of recklessness, but not clever. She was genuinely devoted to the Empress, and yet, unwittingly, she harmed her in the latter years, for she did not realise how much she was in the public eye as the Empress's best friend, nor that her every word and gesture were watched and adversely commented upon. Her trustfulness often misled her into receiving everyone who came to her on one plea or another, believing that she was serving the Empress by keeping herself in touch with the world outside the precincts of the Court. She was far too inexperienced to distinguish between the people she thus received. She did not introduce them into the Palace, but the fact that she had even casually seen them recoiled on the Empress, for in public opinion the French proverb, Les amis de nos amis sont nos amis, is always believed.
The Empress's ill-health and consequent seclusion in the last years brought about the possibility of Mme. Vyrubova's daily visit to the Palace becoming an institution. The Emperor and the children liked her, and she was treated by all as a member of the family. If by chance one day passed without her seeing the Empress, Anna was in childish despair. Her Majesty laughed at her but was touched. There were occasional clouds when Mme. Vyrubova became too gushing or exacting; to her, the Empress filled her life, while for Alexandra Feodorovna the Emperor and her children always came before everything, and she had also many other people who had their share of her solicitude. The Empress and Mme. Vyrubova had a friend in common, Mme. "Lily " Dehn, nee Smolsky. Mme. Dehn's husband had been one of the officers of the Imperial yachts, and the Empress had stood sponsor to their small son and taken great interest in the boy and his young mother. When the child was desperately ill Mme. Dehn sent for Rasputin, and ever after believed that his prayers had saved her boy's life at that crisis. This created a bond between the two mothers, and during the war the Empress saw more and more of Mme. Dehn , comforting her in her anxieties for her husband at the front. Mme. Dehn often came to the Empress, but never stayed at the Palace itself. She continued to live in their flat in the officers' barracks of the equipage de la garde. Mme. Dehn was a clever, pleasant woman, no intriguer, and never forcing herself into prominence on the strength of the Empress's friendship. During the weeks after the Revolution she offered to stay at the Palace and help the Empress to nurse the sick Grand Duchesses. She had been nursing Mme. Vyrubova, who was visiting at the Palace and who also developed measles at the time the Revolution broke out. For the three weeks Mme. Dehn remained with the Empress during that terrible time , she showed the Empress the greatest devotion and was a real help to her.
Sickness and suffering were always sure keys to the Empress's heart. She wrote to Marie Bariatinsky, speaking of Countess Hendrikova's mother, who was a confirmed invalid :
I thank God that He allows me to be the means of giving her a little comfort and brightness. After all, it is life's greatest consolation to feel that the sorrowing need one, and that is my daily prayer, for years already, that God should just send me the sorrowing, and give me the possibility to be a help to them, through His infinite mercy.
Times without number, often weak and ailing herself, the Empress went from Tsarskoe Selo to St. Petersburg to see the sick woman, and when she was dying, she spent hours at her deathbed, in fulfillment of a promise she had made her. She was herself such a devoted mother that she felt particular sympathy with other mothers' griefs. The illness or loss of a child made an immediate appeal to her, were it the child of a great lady or that of some humble person. It was with real understanding that she wrote to the friend of her youth, Frau Erhardt, in 1912, when she heard that her only daughter was slowly dying. In all her letters she speaks with the warmest sympathy of sickness and grief. For instance, of Princess Zenaida Yussoupova's grief over the loss of a promising young son, the Empress writes:
One's heart bleeds to see poor Zenaida in her terrible sorrow-she looks so wee and frail and lovely, tho' she sees people, and far more than she would like. Even out here they follow her. Lily is again in sorrow.... (To the Princess Bariatinsky, March 21, 1905.)
Young Mme. Balashoff mourning her baby, Princess Galitzine an idolised grandchild, people she knew well, others that she knew but slightly, all were sure of finding warm, spontaneous sympathy in their troubles from Alexandra Feodorovna. If it was only possible, her first impulse was to go to them. When she could not do so, it was in writing that she poured out her warm heart. Her choice flowers, her best loved books were always sent by her to them. I have myself many a time seen her go unobtrusively and simply at Yalta to visit some poor consumptive patient in his home, and talk with a mother's understanding to the youth's mother. During the war many a poor widow and mother would be sent for to the Palace, and be met with those words of human sympathy which came straight from the Empress's heart. Her ladies were often told not to receive such visitors , for Alexandra Feodorovna did not wish official ceremonial to intrude when she wanted her guest to feel that she was but a woman who understood the distress of another. None who saw that side of the Empress ever said that she was stiff and cold.
Next chapter: Last Years of Peace
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