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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager

CHAPTER 6

CONCERNING PETERHOFF

PETERHOFF has also historical interests. Peter the Great loved the place, and built there two residences for himself. His ideas on this subject were very humble and the houses which contented him were very small and plain. One of these little cottages in Peterhoff is built in the Dutch style. The walls are tiled in blue and white; the kitchen contains a dresser with blue and white china, and there are many brass cooking utensils, all kept shining and bright. There are many specimens of his carving and other work. In front of the door is a fish pond in which are numbers of carp. These fish are so tamed and trained that at the sound of a bell they come swimming up to be fed.

Lately one of the rooms in this house was burned down. Two gentlemen went to the place, one of them lit a cigarette and threw away the still burning match. The woodwork of the house is naturally very old and thoroughly impregnated with turpentine, and, of course, highly inflammable; a great deal of damage was done before the fire could be got under.

The second of Peter the Great's houses is called "The Hermitage." It has a moat all round it and a drawbridge.

He disliked servants waiting in the room during meals, so he designed a large round table with an ingenious arrangement of pulleys by which each plate and dish could be removed and changed from downstairs. The table would seat about twenty people, and each place was furnished with a bell which the guest was supposed to ring when the plates required changing. The worst of the arrangement was that no table-cloth could be used, but I should think that matter would trouble Peter the Great very little; he was, after all, very much of a barbarian.

In the large park is "Mon Plaisir," the summer residence of Catherine the Great. In her days the park was a wood and here she used to chase the deer. On one occasion a poor hunted deer took refuge in the house and with his antler knocked a piece of the gilt moulding off the wall. The place is still shown to visitors. There is a very pretty little garden in front of the house with several fountains. The custodian asks the visitors most politely to sit down on a certain bench. Should you be so unwary as to do so you find yourself immediately surrounded by a shower of water. The wicked man has touched a spring and turned on a fountain which plays all round the seat, and there you must stop until he turns it off again. It was at Peterhoff that Catherine awaited the news of her husband's murder. She had been separated from him for some time; he was a weak, dissolute young man, and the country was on the verge of a revolution. She was unscrupulous, and she arranged for his death. Opportunity was found in a drunken brawl, and he was stabbed by one of his friends, who immediately rode to Peterhoff, where he arrived early in the morning. Catherine took horse and rode to St. Petersburg, announced the death of the Emperor, and that she herself would hence forth reign. She settled the grievances of the soldiers, quelled all mutiny and rebellion, and ruled with a strong hand.

About four or five miles from Peterhoff is Subswina Datcha (my own villa), a little rococo house built and furnished in the First Empire style. The furniture alone would realise a very considerable' fortune if sold in London. It is most beautiful; there are many very valuable pictures, and much really lovely china, including some great vases of beautiful old Dresden china. The house is surrounded by well wooded and excellently kept parks and gardens, among which is. a pretty rose garden. It was built by order of Nicholas I., a baIl was given there for his son's twenty-first birthday; they danced on a broad wooden bridge which spans the road.

One of the delights of the children was to go there to spend the afternoon and take tea, especially during hay-making time, when they would have rides in the hay-cocks, and run up and down the grassy slopes. Another great delight was to visit the farm, see the cows milked, feed the fowls, collect eggs, and fill baskets with apples. Two years ago the farmer's wife, a most amiable woman, was bringing up by hand four kittens whose mother had been killed. When the little Grand Duchesses went over in the morning on their Shetland ponies or bicycles, the kittens were always brought out, four bottles of milk were produced and each child, bottle of milk in one hand and a kitten comfortably tucked under her arm, would quietly take a place in the milk-cart and go for a drive round the farm-yards, feeding the kittens in the meantime.

When the Grand Duchess Marie was a baby we went to spend a day at Robshai. There were manreuvres going on at that time to which the Emperor and Empress went, and one day we drove off in a carriage drawn by four horses abreast, and after two hours fast driving we reached Robshai. The palace is large but is seldom occupied, and there are nice gardens. A short time afterwards we spent a few days at Krasnoe Selo, where there were also manreuvres. Krasnoe Selo means ÒThe Pretty Village" -- a misnomer, if ever there was one. It is a miserable collection of dirty wooden huts, each standing a little way back from the road and with a pool of stagnant water standing before it. No trace of a garden, not even a cabbage to be seen. There is a rather pretty little park with numbers of rowan trees, and here we used to walk every morning.

When Marie was a fortnight old she was baptised in the church in the Great Palace in Peterhoff. The ceremony, which is a most imposing one, lasted for a couple of hours, or rather more. The Empress had made arrangements for me to go into the church by a particular door and to return by the same. Accordingly, on the appointed day, clad in a white silk dress, I took my place in the carriage and was driven to the church. The Cossack who was on guard would not allow the carriage to pass; I spoke no Russian, and I thought that perhaps I might be allowed to pass in on foot. I therefore got out of the carriage. But no! he lowered his bayonet and blocked the way. There I stood in my white dress in the road, with the assembled crowd gazing at me. I did not know my way round to any other door, but at last I saw an officer whose face I knew, having seen him on guard at the palace. I made my way to him, addressed him in French and told him my dilemma. The officer was exceedingly kind and took me through the guards, and into the church itself, where the priests and bishops were assembled. They were engaged in combing out their long locks. One of them came to me and in a wonderful mixture of tongues asked me how hot the water should be. I answered him in French and English, but he did not seem to understand. I then showed him on my fingers the number of degrees, and a group of interested and excited priests prepared the font for the child. Presently in came all the invited guests -- ambassadors and their wives, all in the dresses of their various courts. The little Chinese lady looked very sweet and bright. She wore a gorgeous blue-figured silk Kimono, and had a little round blue cap on her head, a red flower over one ear and a white one over the other. The Roman Catholic church was represented by a cardinal with his red hat and soutane, and the head of the Lutheran Church in Russia was also present, wearing a black gown with white ruffles. The Poles are for the most part Roman Catholic, and the Finns Lutheran or Reformed church. There were also present the suites of the various courts. The Dowager and young Empress have five hundred ladies belonging to their court --"Demoiselles d'honneur" as they are called. These ladies all dress alike on such occasions, in scarlet velvet trains embroidered in gold, with petticoats of white satin. While the elder ladies, "Les dames de la cour," wear dark green, embroidered in gold.

When all were assembled, the small heroine was carried into the church by Princess Galitzin, the senior lady of the Court. She carried a pillow of cloth of gold, on which reposed the little Marie Nicolaivna in the full glory of her lace robes lined with pink silk, and wearing a little close-fitting cap or bonnet. The Emperor, the Dowager Empress, the other god-parents and all the Grand Dukes and Duchesses and foreign royalties followed. According to the law of the Russian Church the parents are not allowed to remain in the church during the baptism, so the Emperor, having received the congratulations of his relations, withdrew from the church, returning afterwards for the Confirmation, and to bestow the Order of St. Anne upon his little daughter. The baby was then undressed to her little shirt, which was the same that the Emperor had worn at his baptism. It was, alas! stolen from the church that day and never recovered. She was then dipped three times in the font, the hair was cut in four places, in the form of a cross. What was cut off was rolled in wax and thrown into the font. According to Russian superstition the good or evil future of the child's life depends on whether the hair sinks or swims. Little Marie's hair behaved in an orthodox fashion and all sank at once, so there is no need for alarm concerning her future. The child was then brought behind the screen, where she was dressed in entirely fresh clothing, and the robe of cloth of silver was put on her and the Mass proceeded. She was again carried into the church and anointed with oil. Her face, eyes, ears, hands and feet, were touched with a fine brush dipped in oil. She was now carried round the church three times by the Dowager Empress, supported on each side by the god-fathers. Two pages held up the Empress's train. The Emperor, who had re-entered the church when the baptismal ceremony was over, came forward and invested her with her Order in diamonds, after which the procession retired in the same order that it had entered the church. The baby was brought to the church in a gilt and glass coach drawn by six snow-white horses, each horse led by a groom in white and scarlet livery with powdered wig, and she was escorted by a guard of Cossacks.

When I wished to return by the same route I had come the soldiers would not allow me to pass, I was therefore obliged to return into the church. I could not remain there, so I passed along the way I had seen the procession go, through the great state-rooms, and presently was fortunate enough to find some one from the palace. I explained my dilemma, and was left in charge of an elderly respectable woman, who I afterwards found was one of the servants of the palace, and my guide said he would telephone for a carriage. The carriage, however, did not arrive, and to return on foot was out of the question, for one thing the distance was too great, and I know enough Russian to ask a policeman. At about half-past three the woman went off to find someone to help me; she soon returned with a man who said, "I no speaking English, I speaking German." I explained that I spoke neither German nor Russian. The question of language, however, did not trouble my Good Samaritan. He called an izvochik, as the street carriages are called in Russian, put me into it and sent me home, as he imagined. I was taken to the Dowager Empress's palace by mistake at first, and when at last I arrived home I had been away in all seven hours, and now felt rather tired and hungry.

The next morning the news reached Peterhoff of the death of the Czarovitch, George Alexandrovitch. This poor young fellow had suffered from consumption for many years. He had lived for some time in Egypt, and had tried many other climates, but only at Abbas Tuman, in the Caucasus, could he breathe. His life there was lonely and sad. His mother and sisters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia, with the latter's children, used to visit him every year, going after Easter and staying until the weather got too hot for them. For the climate is hot, and the journey long and difficult, especially for children. That year, on account of little Marie's birth, the journey had been postponed till later than usual, and the poor young Grand Duke was awaiting their arrival with impatience. In a letter written just before his death he said he longed for the sound of a woman's voice, the touch of a woman's hand, and begged his mother to come as soon as possible after the baptism. He was keenly disappointed that Marie was not a boy, as he felt the burden of his heirship almost intolerable.

Through a mistake the Emperor had named him Czarovitch, instead of Heir Apparent. In Russia this title can never be withdrawn, excepting when the bearer of it becomes Emperor. After his death the Emperor named his young brother Michael Heir Apparent. He has borne his title with great dignity and honour, but he was very glad to be relieved of it by the birth of the tiny heir, the Grand Duke Alexis, on August 12th, 1904.

On the morning following the baptism the Czarovitch had got up ea.rlier than usual. He felt better and brighter, and, notwithstanding the remonstrances of his valet, took a ride on his bicycle. He rode down a hill, and on reaching the bottom of it suddenly fell from his bicycle. An old peasant woman going to his villa with milk, accompanied by her grandson, were the sole witnesses of the accident. She ran to his assistance, and found blood pouring from his mouth. She despatched her grandson to the villa for help, and sitting on the ground took the young Grand Duke's head in her lap, but in a few minutes he was dead. Thus on the roadside, attended by an old peasant woman, died the heir to the Russian throne. He fulfilled the saying regarding the Romanoffs, that none of them will ever die in their beds. So far as I know Nicholas I. was the only one who did die in his bed. He died of pneumonia, a few days after the fall of Sevastopol. Though Alexander III. died a natural death, he was sitting in a chair in the balcony when it took place.

A church has been erected over the spot where George Alexandrovitch breathed his last. The Dowager Empress with all her family went to the Crimea to meet his body, which they conveyed to St. Petersburg and laid in the Fortress Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. His tomb is attended to with loving hands, fresh flowers and plants always appear on it, and every year there is held a memorial service. This service will be held so long as any of the children of his family are alive. Such is the custom of the Russian Church. It has been said that the Grand Duke George was married to a telegraph girl. The story is absolutely untrue. He lived alone in his house in the Caucasus with his servants, except when visited by his mother and family.

A few days after his funeral the battleship Alexander III. was christened. The Emperor, Empress, Dowager Empress, and other members of the family went to the ceremony. According to Russian tradition they wore white mourning, for no one attends any ceremony in Russia in black. A sudden thunderstorm came on, and the lightning struck the flagstaff. It fell on the heads of some officers standing on deck, killing three of them, and wounding seven or eight. The ship bore the name of the Dowager Empress's husband, and she was terribly upset over it. She said it would go down in its first engagement. There was another curious prophecy, that from the time it was put into action three years, counting one year for each person killed, would see the end of the Romanoff family.

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