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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager

CHAPTER 15

THE LITTLE PRISON OPENER

WE spent Christmas that year in the Crimea, and brought in quantities of holly and ivy to decorate the house. Holly does not grow in the north of Russia at all; the climate is too severe for it.

The children were greatly charmed with the decorations, and pulled each other under the mistletoe for kissing purposes. A heavy fall of snow had blocked up the railway lines, and we were afraid there would be no Christmas parcels from either England or Gatchina. However, the special messengers had taken sledges and come across the mountains, so the gifts were all received on Christmas Eve in time for the trees. We had our Christmas tree as usual, and little Marie was specially delighted with it, as she could not remember anything of the kind. She said to the Emperor, who was just beginning to get about, "Papa, did you ever see anything so beautiful?"

It was late in January when we left the Crimea. We were all in bed on board the Standart when a special messenger came on board bringing the news of the death of Queen Victoria. The telegram was not opened till next morning; the Empress was greatly grieved. There was much searching for mourning, and fortunately everyone had something black with them.

We arrived in St. Petersburg on Saturday, and I had a rush to get a suitable hat to wear at church on Sunday. The church was crowded and everyone there was dressed in mourning, some even wore crepe. I never saw anything so melancholy in my life.

There were, of course, no balls given that year on account of the heavy mourning. The Crown Prince of Austria came on a visit. He had a quiet time, but some dinners were given in his honour. On one occasion there was a large dinner party in the Winter Palace. The Major Domo carried in a dish of fish, and began to hand it round; suddenly he fell -- the fish was spilt on the carpet and the Empress's dress. In great confusion he got out of the room; he then came in with another dish; some of the fish must have remained on the carpet for the unfortunate man again fell and gave the Empress a liberal helping of whatever he was carrying. The second time was too much. All the company simply laughed till they were tired.

Though there was no ball season, the children began to go out a great deal, and to give little parties at home.

One day the little Grand Duchess Marie was looking out of the window at a regiment of soldiers marching past, and exclaimed, "Oh! I love these dear soldiers; I should like to kiss them all!" I said, "Marie, nice little girls don't kiss soldiers." She made no remark. A few days afterwards we had a children's party, and the Grand Duke Constantine's children were amongst the guests. One of them, having reached twelve years of age, had been put into the Corps de Cadets, and came in his uniform. He wanted to kiss his little cousin Marie, but she put her hand over her mouth and drew back from the proffered embrace. "Go away, soldier," said she, with great dignity. "I don't kiss soldiers." The boy was greatly delighted at being taken for a real soldier, and not a little amused at the same time.

I saw a great deal of St. Petersburg that year, and visited, amongst other places of interest, the Mint. I believe it is the largest in the world. When I went they were minting gold. They do all the melting with wood fires, great furnaces. I do not know how the men can stand over them. They have a piece of gold there which the Grand Duke Vladimir himself refined. In comparison to it an English sovereign looks like copper. One of the workmen invented a table by which gold can be counted very quickly. This table is all divided into little squares; one thousand ten-rouble pieces exactly fills each square. They can count them about twenty thousand pieces of money in an incredibly short space of time. Some of the machinery used is of a very fine and delicate nature. They mint here for the whole Russian Empire, and here, too, are struck the medals and decorations in use in Russia.

I also saw the cathedral of Notre Dame de Kazan. There are always many worshippers in the Russian churches. One poor woman was walking down the church on her knees. In the church itself were sellers of holy pictures. A lady who was with me suggested she would buy me one of these and I should buy her one in memory of this visit. I agreed, and she accordingly chose for herself the Madonna and Child. I paid for it forty kopecks, which is about tenpence of our money. This included in the blessing, so it was cheap enough. It was now my turn to choose, and I liked one with a picture of St. George and the Dragon. I t struck me as being such a beautiful thing for adoration. I put it up in my sitting-room across one of the corners. Later on, the old archbishop, who gave the little Grand Duchess Olga religious instruction, came to lunch with me. He looked at this icon, and said, "But your name is not Georgette, is it? " I answered, "No, father; but it was given to me by a friend." "Oh!" said he, "and his name was George! " and he nodded his head in a most knowing way. It so happens that my friend is called Lilian. But I let it pass.

We also visited the cathedral of St. Isaac. This, of course, is not the Isaac of the Bible but a more modern saint. With the exception of Westminster Abbey, I know of no church which pleases more than St. Isaac. There is a beautiful golden screen, and pillars of malachite, lapis lazulias and Italian marble. I particularly admired the bronze doors; the workmanship of them is very beautiful. Personally, I seldom admire icons; they are curious, but not to my mind beautiful; but St. Isaac's contains some very fine specimens. I stood under the dome, and, looking up, saw a dove apparently lifesize. I was afterwards told it measured twelve feet from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other.

The nursery party went to Tsarskoe Selo very early that year, the Emperor and Empress staying on in St. Petersburg. We returned to town at Easter, going back to Tsarskoe Selo until it was time to go to Peterhoff. Just before we went to Peterhoff that year, the Grand Duchess Olga had typhoid fever. She had been ailing for a few days, but the weather was unusually hot for the time of the year, and we thought that might be the cause and that the cooler air of the seaside would probably be beneficial to her, so the journey was not postponed. But when we arrived at Peterhoff she was very ill, and had to be put to bed at once. She lay there through five long weary weeks. I nursed her day and night, and at one time she was so ill that I feared she would not recover; but thank God she did. She wearied to see her sister Tatiana, and was very pleased when the doctor said Tatiana might pay her a visit for just five minutes. I went down and fetched her to see Olga. She stood by the side of the bed and conversed in a most amiable manner to the little sick sister. I was rather surprised at her manner, and when the five minutes were up, told her I must take her down to the nursery again. When she got outside of the door, she exclaimed: "You told me you were bringing me to see Olga and I have not seen her." I told her that the little girl in bed was indeed her sister. She cried with great grief. "That little pale thin child is my dear sister Olga! Oh no, no! I cannot believe it!" She wept bitterly at the change, and it was difficult to persuade her that Olga would soon be herself again.

Olga was still in bed when little Anastasie was born. Anastasie means "the breaker of chains," or "the prison opener," and in the icon sacred to her she is always represented with broken fetters behind her. The little Grand Duchess was called by this name because, in honour of her birth, the Emperor pardoned and reinstated the students who had been imprisoned for participating in the riots in St. Petersburg and Moscow during the winter. Alas! many of them were soon after in a state of revolution.

I cannot tell why the students are so restless in the Russian universities. They must know that in no country is the Government committed into the hands of young men studying for their professions. Weare told that there is little or no entrance examination, no age disqualifications, and the fees are very low. Every professor has a certain number of free students who are elected to the order in which they apply. Many of these students have been failures, more or less, in other branches of life, and naturally enough they are also failures in the universities. When they fail in their examinations they say the examiners favoured so-and-so because he is rich, quite regardless of the fact that failure to pass an examination does not affect these free scholarships at all.

The anarchists, of whom many are to be found in the universities in the guise of students, :find these discontented men an easy prey, but tell them they will always be passed over in life till all men are equal, etc. Sipiaguin and Plevhe were both murdered by students.

Sipiaguin's murderer was hanged, because for the purpose of getting near his victim he assumed the uniform of an officer, and represented that he was aide-de-camp to the Grand Duke Serge, who had sent him with a letter to the university; he refused to give any account of himself, and was consequently tried as an officer by the War Council, who alone can pass sentence of death in Russia. There is no capital punishment except for military offences.

All university students wear uniform. The constitution of the Russian universities may be the cause of the frequent outbreaks among the students. It is sad to think of the mischief done to the cause of education and to the more serious students, and the great loss of time and enforced idleness, when, as so often happens, the universities are closed for three or even six months.

Recently the students organised a meeting of protest against something or other, and held it in the Nevsky, the principal street in St. Petersburg. They chose the front of the cathedral of St. Kazan to make their speeches. Divine service was going on at the time, and naturally enough the police ordered them to clear. They refused to do so, so the Cossacks charged them, using their whips pretty freely. One woman student threw a smoothing iron and killed a young Cossack officer on the spot. This enraged the Cossacks, who pressed the students more closely. The latter took refuge in the church; stones were thrown and the officiating priest was struck on the head and severely wounded. Some hundreds of students, including many women, were arrested. They protested that they had only come out to walk just to amuse themselves, and were hemmed in by the Cossacks, and were only fighting to get clear of the crowd.

The authorities thought it was best to send them to the country for a while, and the ringleaders were put in prison.

The Grand Duchess Anastasie Nicolaivna was baptised when she was a fortnight old. I was not present at the ceremony as the Grand Duchess Olga had not yet quite recovered from the fever. But the ceremony was exactly the same at that observed for the baptism of the Grand Duchess Marie.

Many people have expressed surprise that one of the little Grand Duchesses was not called Victoria or Alexandra. The Russian Church only allows names which exist in the language. Victoria does not exist, though Victor does; Alexandra is considered very unlucky for the Romanoff family.

The Emperor Paul had a daughter named Alexandra. Her life was short, but troubled. When she was about seventeen years of age her grandmother, Catherine II., arranged a marriage for her with the King of Sweden. The wedding-day arrived, the bride was dressed, the tables laid for the feast, the guests assembled and the priests in waiting. The bridegroom suddenly declared to his gentlemen that he could not and would not go on with the marriage. Vainly they implored him not to insult his chosen bride and the great Russian nation. He was obstinate. The bride and her family waited for him. Presently a very frightened and trembling courtier crept timidly into the room, and throwing himself on the ground before the august Catherine, broke the terrible news to her. She was already angry at the delay and her wrath was terrible to witness.

The King of Sweden and his suite left the Winter Palace as quickly as possible. A marriage was speedily arranged for the poor humiliated young Grand Duchess with an Austrian Grand Duke, but she never recovered the shock, and died broken-hearted at nineteen years of age.

Nicholas I. had a very beautiful daughter named Alexandra. She was married to the step-son of Napoleon Bonaparte. She died of scarlatina before she was twenty years of age. There is a beautiful statue to her memory at Tsarskoe Selo, also a lovely little memorial church.

Alexandra II. had a daughter of the name; she died in childhood; a pretty golden-haired child she was, judging by her portrait. A little blue silk frock which she used to wear is still shown in the Winter Palace.

Other branches of the family had also Alexandras, but in no case did they live to be twenty-one years of age.

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