THE WINTER PALACE AND TSAR'S BALL
From the first thing in the morning the furred messengers of the Imperial household have been going to and fro in the town, leaving invitations on those selected to appear in the evening. An invitation to Court is a command issued on the day on which it is to be obeyed, and etiquette demands that it takes precedence of all other previous engagements to private individuals; even the duty to the dead must be set aside, for mourning does not release the mourner from appearing at a Court ceremony, and black apparel must be changed for colors before the palace is entered. A woman is not allowed to appear before her sovereign in black garments unless she is in mourning for one of her nearest relations. On the night of a ball, dinner is hurried through; the féte opens at nine, and long before that the invited must be in the reception-rooms awaiting the arrival of the Emperor. Hundreds of sledges and carriages file along and discharge their loads of formless packages of furs at the Winter Palace, to make room for others succeeding them. . The empty vehicles go back and form in a line on the square; their coachmen, who have to spend part of the night in the snow, gather about huge fires burning in furnaces provided for these occasions. A picturesque bivouac it is, too, the men looking like gnomes gathered together in the darkness on a sheet of ice to guard the enchanted palace, where a magician calls up sweet visions of spring-time.
Alexander III at a Winter Palace Ball
The doors of the palace close on the packages of furs, and these are no sooner in the vestibule than they are transformed by a touch of the magician's wand, and the fairy scene begins. The heavy pelisses fall from fair bare shoulders, and bright butterflies come forth from the chrysalides among the rare flowers lining the marble steps in the soft, warm June-like air. A procession from the "Thousand and One Nights" ascends the long staircase, lace trains sweep past the porphyry pillars, gems and diamonds. gleam in the light of the lustres, many-colored uniforms flash here and there, sabres and spurs clank on the floors. The invited guests defile between pickets of the Imperial Guard chosen from among the handsomest men of the regiment - grand-looking giants, who stand motionless in their burnished armor. The crowd gathers in the White or Throne Room.
There, in the first row, we see personages of note, such as the great ladies ½ portrait so called because they wear at their breasts, set in brilliants, a miniature portrait of their sovereign. Severe guardians of ancient etiquette, lively chroniclers of all that goes on at Court, they pass on its traditions to the young aspirants under their care, the maids of honor, who can be recognized by the cipher in diamonds of the reigning Empress, which they wear fastened into a bunch of white ribbons on the left shoulder. The celebrated beauties of St. Petersburg are one and all in presence, .and they cross the room with a nameless suppleness and indolent grace in their carriage and in the pose of their heads; there is something lingering in the way they look at you and in their way of speaking, as if they were but half awakened from a long dream of some far-distant part of their interminable country. Among the courtiers who gather about them we note first men well advanced in life and of great dignity, old followers of the Czar, who have been at Court since the days of Nicholas, and have grown white in the service of the Emperor, aides-de-camp of his Majesty, ministers,ambassadors, chamberlains with the gold key on their uniforms, one and all wearing across their brave breasts grand cordons of honor, and with the fronts of their coats completely covered with decorations. Then come young officers of every corps, most of them belonging to the two picked regiments the Chevalier-gardes, or Knights of the Guard, and the Gardes a Cheval, or Cavalry Guard carrying in their hands the massive helmet surmounted by a silver eagle with out-spread wings. Beside them are Lancers with red breastplates, Grodno Hussars in green, Cossacks wrapped in their long tunics, bristling with their cartridge-cases of silver, inlaid with darker metal, on their breasts; Hussars of the Guard, with their picturesque short white dolmans slashed with gold, and trimmed with a border of sable hanging loosely about their shoulders. Among the crowd the pages of the Empress pass quietly to and fro, and lastly come the servants of the palace couriers wearing, the hats with big feathers of the time of Catherine, and negroes in Oriental costumes. The melancholy note of the black coat is banished from this grand symphony of color; we see but one dress-coat - it is that of his Excellency the Minister of the United States.
Nine o'clock! The double doors of the inner apartments are flung open, and immediately the silence of death reigns around. A voice announces "The Emperor!" The Czar approaches, followed by the members of his family, each in the order of his relationship to his Majesty. If one would understand at one glance the secret of the social life of the empire, one should stand with one's back to the door from which the Emperor has just issued, and watch the effect of his entry on the faces of those taking part in the scene. Every countenance assumes at the same instant, as if it were a uniform, the same solemn expression, at once serious and smiling; all the vital force alike of the men and of the women is concentrated in their eyes, which seek those of their master. I never contemplated this scene without thinking of sunrise on the mountains when the first rays of light appear. There is no need to look behind one to know that the orb of day has appeared; we know it by the prismatic glow upon the opposite heights. In the same way, by looking into the faces of the courtiers, we can say, "The Emperor is coming; the Emperor comes; the Emperor has come!" And his coming is truly a rising of the sun, which brings favor and dispenses life to all around.
The first chords of the polonaise are heard, the Grand Marshal and the Grand Mistress lead the way, and generally this venerable couple represents within a year or two the revolution of two centuries. The Emperor gives his hand to one of the Grand Duchesses, the Empress gives hers to one of the foreign ambassadors, the other couples follow them, and make the tour of the room. After this ceremony, which is obligatory, quadrilles and waltzes, danced with great animation, succeed each other, but the true zest of the ball does' not begin until the first measures of the mazurka, the passionate military and national dance par excellence. The cavalier beats time to the music with the sole of his spurred boot; he takes his partner into his arms like a trembling bird, flings himself forward, and in three bounds crosses the room, deposits his burden at the farther end, and falls on his knees before her. This dance is a survival of the old days of gallantry, and is full of suggestions of passionate and romantic love.
Court balls are perhaps more imposing, but private fétes, such as the palace balls, are even more magnificent. Any one who wishes to see St. Petersburg society as it was in the old days should lose no time in assisting at a so-called "palace ball." There is nothing to compare with the fairy-like scene in any other European Court. When one o'clock strikes, the Grand Marshal opens the doors of a long gallery transformed into a tropical hot-bouse. Among palms, myrtles, and camellias in full flower are set little tables, where 500 persons can sit down to supper. In the midst of this African forest, brought in the morning on sledges from the Imperial conservatories, the picturesque crowds we have just described stroll about, or sit down and listen to music, which is produced by a band hidden behind the foliage. Beneath the dome of greenery a scene of extreme beauty is spread out - flowers here, there, and everywhere, on the trees and plants, on the dresses of the women, vying in beauty with the vivid colors of the costumes and the gleaming brightness of the armor, the helmets, the swords, the costly decorations, the rivers of diamonds, such as are seen nowhere else but in Russia.
It is a unique sight for those who take part in it, but still more for the looker-on, bringing as it does into striking relief the perpetual struggle after a life of ease and refinement in a rigid, rigorous climate, the achievement of the impossible, to which St. Petersburg owes its very birth and its continued existence so near to the north pole. The women in low-necked dresses sitting there beneath the camellias have come over frozen streets through twenty degrees of frost, and between the branches of the palm-trees can be seen the motionless river covered with equipages, the carpet of snow encircling the palace, and in thought one follows this snow far beyond the limits of vision across thousands of versts, covering as far as the borders of Asia the dreary solitudes in which the Russian people sleep the long sleep of winter. As one gazes and reflects, the contrast, the miracle of this defiance of nature is borne forcibly in upon the mind - a defiance which is heard in the sounds of merrymaking breaking the awful silence, and seen in the supreme luxury of civilization which has risen up at the orders of the all-powerful Orient.
When this omniscience is tired of tropical verdure it can at will change the scene for another, made up of marvels produced by European genius, the treasures of Flemish and Italian art. When, according to custom dating from the time of the great Catherine, the scene of festivity is changed to the contiguous Museum of the Hermitage, the mazurka is danced in the presence of spectators painted by Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van dyck. The living actors in the pageant are as graceful and as noble as those represented upon the panels, and to the stranger unaccustomed to the transformation scenes of St. Petersburg the present appears as unreal as the past of the patricians of Veronese.
The Winter Palace is opened to the circles of Court society on the 1st of January, at Easter, on the anniversary of the accession to the throne, when a foreign prince is received, and at the baptism or the marriage of a member of the Imperial family, as well as at the gala balls. On the 6th of January, also, the aristocracy meet for what is known as the Féte of the Jordan, or the blessing of the waters of the Neva, which is one of the most characteristic of Russian ceremonies. A tent is set up upon the frozen river, in which a hole is made for the submersion of the cross, liturgical hymns are sung by the choirs of the Imperial chapel with inimitable perfection, while the Metropolitan is offering up his prayer. This prelate, followed by his clergy, comes to bless the waters in order that they may be merciful to man, and give fecundity to the earth in the year which has just begun. Formerly at St. Petersburg, and quite recently among the pious dwellers on the Volga and the Don, this solemn ceremony was accompanied by outbreaks of religious zeal, which sometimes led to martyrdom. As soon as the priest had plunged the crucifix into the river, mujiks flung themselves to the bottom of the sanctified waters, convinced that they had a curative virtue such as that of the Pool of Bethesda. The natural result of this icy bath would be inflammation of the lungs. At the Féte of the Jordan religious zeal was not alone in claiming martyrs; the etiquette of the Court also had its victims. Until the end of the reign of Nicholas traditional custom required the Emperor to follow the procession bareheaded and without his cloak, and of course the members of his household bad to follow his example. It is difficult to believe it, yet it is a fact that the ladies of the palace came out into the snow in low-necked dresses, exposing their delicate throats and chests to the intense cold that prevails at this time of the year. Now ancient customs are modified, and cloaks are tolerated. It is a curious sight to see an assembly in full ball toilette at eleven o'clock in the morning on the occasions when the Court meets to congratulate the Czar. The maids of honor wear their robes of state, red dresses with long trains, and their hair is confined beneath the hakoclinik, the national head-dress borrowed from the ancient bayarin women, consisting of a half-diadem, a crescent of ruby velvet set with pearls, from which hangs a long white veil-this archaic parure giving a strange character to the beauty of the fair daughters of the North.
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