My childhood - Our playmates - The Argentinian - The 1900 Exposition in Paris - General Bernov - Gugusse - Travel gives experience to the young.
Left: Felix's mother Zenaida in her boudoir in the Moika Palace, from a painting by Serov, 1900-02.
In my early youth, I was a prey to every disease known to childhood and remained small and sickly for a long time. I was ashamed of my skinniness, and longed to find a means of fattening out. Then, one day, I happened to see an advertisement which gave me high hopes. It extolled the merits of Pilules Orientales, a French patent medicine warranted to turn the flattest breasted lady into a harem beauty of opulent charms. I managed to get bold of a box of these pills and took them on the sly, but, alas, without result. The doctor who attended me saw them in my bedroom and asked what they were for. When I told him of my disappointment be was much amused, but advised me to discontinue the treatment.
I was in the hands of several doctors, but I bad a marked preference for Dr. Korovin, whom I nicknamed Uncle Moo (korova in Russian means cow). When, from my bed, I heard his footsteps coming down the corridor, I used to "moo" and he, not to be outdone, gave an answering bellow. Like most old-fashioned doctors, he never used a stethoscope but put a towel on my chest to which be laid his car. I loved the smell of his hair lotion; for years I thought that all doctors' heads must necessarily have a nice smell.
I was a difficult child, Today, after so many years, I still think remorsefully of all those who wore themselves out in an effort to bring me to bring me up properly. First on the list was a German nurse who bad been with my brothers, and who went off her head. This was partly due to her unrequited passion for my father's secretary, and partly no doubt to my bad temper. My parents bad to send her to a mental home, and I was handed over to my mother's former governess, Mademoiselle Versiloff, a charming, good and devoted woman, who had become one of the family. I was a very bad pupil. My governess, thinking that a little competition might do me good, organized classes so that I could work with other children; but I remained lazy and uninterested, and my bad example had a most disastrous effect upon my fellow pupils. Late in life Mlle Versiloff married my brother's Swiss tutor, M. Penard, a kindly, scholarly man whom I remember with great affection. He is now ninety-six years old and lives in Geneva. His letters bring me echoes of a faraway past, when I so often used to put his good nature and patience to the test.
After a drunken German who went to bed every night with a bottle of champagne, there followed a succession of Russian, French, English, Swiss and German tutors, to say nothing of a Roman Catholic priest who afterward taught the Queen of Rumania's children. Many years later, the Queen told me that the memory of me was still a nightmare to the wretched priest, and she wanted to know if what he had told her about me was true. I had to admit that nothing could be truer! I still remember my music teacher whose finger I bit so savagely that the poor woman was unable to play the piano for a year.
We had no real cousins on my mother's side. The Kutouzov, Cantacuzene, Ribeaupierre and Stakhovich families were distant relatives, and though we saw little of them we were on excellent terms with each other. It was the same with our first cousins, Helen and Michael Sumarokov, who lived almost entirely abroad on account of their father's bad health. Our closest companions were Michael, Vladimir and Irene Lazarev, the children of my father's sister, and also Uncle Sumarokov-Elston's two daughters, Catherine and Zenaide.
We all fell in love with Catherine, who was very pretty, Her sister was less good-looking, but so nice that everyone adored her. Michael, the eldest Lazarev boy, was about the same age as my brother, and was very witty and extremely intelligent, but his brother Vladimir had a sort of comical charm of his own that made him irresistible. His merry, expressive face and turned-up nose made him look rather like a clown, but he was full of fun and exuberance, and was the life and soul of all our parties. He was generous to a fault, but his levity prevented him from taking anything seriously. He laughed at everybody and everything, and thought of nothing but amusement. Together he and I played the maddest, pranks; I still think of them with amusement and, I must say, without remorse. His sister Irene had the same happy nature; she had many admirers, attracted by her beautiful Egyptian profile and long green eyes.
The children of the Minister of justice, Mouraviev, and those of the Secretary of State, Taniev, also belonged to the group of young people who met on Sundays and holidays at our house on the Moika. Once a week M. Troitsky, the fashionable dancing master, initiated us into the mysteries of the waltz and the quadrille. Slender, affected, perfumed, his hair covered with pomatum, his well-brushed gray beard parted in the middle, be used to come mincing in, always attired in a beautifully cut dress suit, with a flower in his buttonhole, patent leather pumps and white gloves.
My usual partner was Choura Muraviev who was as charming as she was clever. I was a poor dancer, but she endured my clumsiness with the utmost sweetness, and never resented my treading so repeatedly on her toes. Time has not weakened our friendship.
There was a dance every Saturday at the Taneievs. These parties were large and very gay. Anna, the eldest Taneiev girl, was tall and stout with a puffy, shiny face, and no charm whatever.
Although she was not at all intelligent, she was extremely crafty and rather sly. It was quite a problem to find partners for her. No one could have foreseen that this unattractive girl would one day become the intimate friend and evil genius of the Tsarina. It was largely to her that Rasputin owed his amazing rise to favor.
I had reached the age when, to a child, everything is followed by a big question mark. I used to pester my friends with questions on every sort of subject, such as, for example, the origin of the world. When I was told that everything came from God, I wanted to know who God was.
"The invisible Power that lives in Heaven."
The answer was too vague to satisfy me, and for a long time I used to gaze at the sky, hoping to discover some image or revelation that would give me a clearer idea of the Divinity.
But when I tried to solve the mystery of childbirth, it seemed to me that the explanations I got were even more confusing. People talked of marriages, of a sacrament established by Christ. They said I was too young to understand such things, but that later on I would discover their meaning for myself. Such vague replies did not satisfy me. Left to myself, I tried to solve these riddles after my own fashion. I pictured God as the King of Kings, seated on a golden throne amidst the clouds, surrounded by a court of archangels. And, thinking that the birds must be the purveyors of this Heavenly Court, I used to set aside part of my food and put a plateful on the window sill. I was delighted when I found the plate empty, for this convinced me that the King of Kings had accepted my offering.
As for the enigma of procreation, I solved it in the same simple manner. Being sure, for instance, that an egg laid by a hen was nothing but a fragment detached from the rooster's body, and that this fragment was instantly replaced, I deduced that the same phenomenon occurred with human beings. The difference between the sexes, which I had noticed on statues and by a study udy of my own anatomy, had led me to this strange conclusion, with which I was quite satisfied. Then, one day, the truth was brutally revealed to me by a chance encounter at Contrexeville, where my mother was taking the waters. I was then about twelve. I had gone out alone one evening after dinner, for a walk in the park. I happened to pass a summer house, and glancing through the window I saw a very pretty young woman in the arms of a stalwart youth. A strange emotion swept over me as I watched them embracing with such obvious pleasure. I tiptoed closer to gaze at the handsome couple, who were of course unaware of my presence.
On returning to the hotel, I told my mother of my experience; she seemed upset and quickly changed the subject.
Troubled and fascinated by what I had seen, I spent a sleepless night. The next day, at the same hour, I went back to the summer house only to find it empty. I was just going home when I met the young man coming up the path. I went up to him and asked him point-blank whether he had an appointment with the girl that evening. He stared at me in astonishment, then began to laugh and asked why I wished to know. When I confessed that I had watched them in the summer house, be told me he was expecting the girl at his hotel that same evening, and asked me to join them there. Imagine my feelings on receiving this invitation.
Everything conspired to make things easy for me. My mother was tired and went to bed early, and my father had an engagement to play cards with some friends; furthermore, the young man's hotel was near ours. He was sitting on the veranda waiting for me. He congratulated me on my punctuality and took me to his room, and had just begun to tell me that he was from the Argentine when his girl friend appeared.
I don't know how long I was with them. When I got home, I threw myself fully dressed onto my bed and fell into a deep sleep. That fateful evening, I had received an answer to the question that had mystified me. As for the Argentinean to whom I owed my initiation, he had disappeared the next day and I never saw him again.
My first impulse was to go to my mother and tell her everything, but a feeling of modesty and apprehension held me back. I was so amazed by what I had learned that, in my youthful ignorance, I failed to discriminate between the sexes. In my imagination, I began to picture men and women I knew in the most ridiculous postures. Did they really all behave in such a strange fashion? I was seized with giddiness, as fantastic pictures floated through my mind. A little later, when I told all this to my brother, I was surprised to find him completely uninterested in the questions that so engrossed me. So I retired within myself and never again touched on this matter to anyone.
In 1900 I left for Paris with my family to see the World Exposition. I have only a very vague memory of it, and of being dragged there morning and afternoon, in the hottest weather, to visit stands that did not interest me in the least. I used to reach home tired out and came to detest the Exposition. One day, when my patience was exhausted, I suddenly noticed a fire hose which I at once seized and, turning it on the crowd, copiously watered all those who attempted to approach me. There were screams, a stampede and a general panic. Policemen rushed up, tore the hose from my hands and took me, with my entire family, to the police station. A long discussion ensued, and much waving of hands, but it was at last decided that the heat had gone to my head and we were finally released after paying a heavy fine. To punish me, my parents deprived me of the pleasure of returning to the Exposition, never dreaming that this was the one thing I wanted. I was, however, allowed to wander about Paris alone and completely free I went to bars and struck up friendships with all sorts of people. But the first time that I brought some of my new acquaintances to the hotel, my horrified parents forbade me ever to go out alone again. n.
A visit to Versailles and the Trianons impressed me enormously. I was not very familiar with the story of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but when I heard all the details of their tragic end I became devoutly attached to their memory. I hung their portraits in my room and always kept fresh flowers before them.
When my parents went abroad, they were generally accompanied by one friend or another. On this occasion it was General Bernov, whom everyone for some unknown reason called "Aunt Votia," who went with them. He looked exactly like a fat seal, very ugly, with such long mustaches that he could have tied them round his head - and he was so proud of his mustaches! He was really kindness itself, a most benevolent old gentleman who fell in with all my father's whims. In fact, my father could not do without him. General Bernov had a trick of always using the words "in there" in season and, more frequently, out of season. No one had the least idea what the words corresponded to in his Mind. But be said it once too often. At a review, be was in command of a regiment of the Guards which, swords drawn, was to ride at full gallop past the Tsar. When the time came to give the order to charge, he cried: "In there!" and charged at full speed, not noticing that his men, confused by the unfamiliar order, remained standing at attention.
Russian officers, even when off duty, always wore uniform. They were unused to civilian clothes, and when they wore them always looked stiff and strange as if they were disguised. My father was no exception to this rule and once found himself in a most embarrassing situation. He and his friend Bernov bad taken some of my mother's jewels to Boucheron, the jeweler in the Rue de la Paix, to have them reset. Seeing these valuable gems in the hands of two such suspicious-looking characters, Boucheron thought it best to send for the police. The jeweler apologized profusely when my father and General Bernov produced their identity papers, but he could scarcely be blamed.
Once when I was walking in the Rue de la Paix with my mother
I saw some dogs for sale. I took such a fancy to a small brown ball of fur with a black nose, who answered to the name of Napoleon, that I begged my mother to buy it for me. To my joy, she consented, but as I felt it disrespectful to call my dog after such a famous man I named it Gugusse.
For eighteen years, Gugusse was my devoted and inseparable companion. He soon became quite famous, for everyone knew and loved him, from members of the Imperial family to the least of our peasants. He was a real Parisian guttersnipe who loved to be dressed up, put on an air of importance when he was photographed, adored candy and champagne... He was most amusing when slightly tipsy. He used to suffer from flatulence and would trot to the fireplace, stick his backside into the hearth and look up with an apologetic expression.
Gugusse loved some people and hated others, and nothing could stop him from showing his dislike by relieving himself on the trousers or the skirts of his enemies. He had such an aversion for one of my mother's friends that we were obliged to shut him up whenever she called at the house. She came one day in a lovely gown of pink velvet, a Worth creation. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to lock up Gugusse; no sooner had she entered the room than he made a dash for her. The gown was ruined and the poor lady had hysterics.
Gugusse could have performed in a circus. Dressed as a jockey, he would ride a tiny pony or, with a pipe stuck between his teeth, would pretend to smoke. He used to love going out with the guns, and would bring in game like a retriever.
The head of the Holy Synod (*Supreme Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.) called on my mother one day and, to my mind, stayed far too long. I resolved that Gugusse should create a diversion. I made him up as an old cocotte, sparing neither powder nor paint, rigged him out in a dress and wig and pushed him into the drawing room. Gugusse seemed to understand what was expected of him, for he made a sensational entry on his hind legs, to the dismay of our visitor who very quickly took his leave, which was exactly what I wanted.
I was never parted from my dog: he went everywhere with me and slept on a cushion by my bed, When Serov, the well-known artist, painted my portrait, he insisted that Gugusse should be in the picture, saying that the dog was his best model.
Gugusse reached the ripe old age of eighteen and when he died I buried him in the garden of our house on the Moika.
The Grand Duke Michael Nicholaievich and his youngest son, the Grand Duke Alexis, used to spend a few days with us each summer at Arkhangelskoye. The Grand Duke Michael was the last surviving son of Tsar Nicholas 1. He had fought in the Crimean, Caucasian and Turkish wars and filled, with great distinction, the post of Viceroy of the Caucasus for twenty-two years. Later on, he was appointed Inspector General of Artillery and was President of the Council of the Empire. He was loved and respected by all.
The Grand Duke Alexis was ten years older than I, and during my childhood always used to bring me toys, I remember particularly a rubber harlequin which could be blown out to twice my size. I loved it, but my pleasure was short-lived for, alas, Tipti, my little squirrel, soon tore it to pieces.
The Grand Duke Michael liked to watch my brother and myself playing tennis. Settled comfortably in a big armchair, be used to watch the game for hours. As I played very badly and sent the ball in all directions but the right one, it one day struck the Grand Duke in the eye with such violence that one of the greatest specialists in Moscow had to be called in to save the eye.
I behaved in the same clumsy fashion at Pavlovsk, the summer residence of the Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich. Among the people present were his sister, Queen Olga of Greece, and his mother, the Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna. Everyone had the deepest respect for this venerable old lady who, when she was promenaded through the park in a wheel chair, surrounded by her family, had the air of a high ecclesiastical dignitary heading a procession.
This imposing company sallied forth from the cbateau one day while the Grand Duke's children, Prince Christopher (Queen Olga's youngest son) and I were playing ball on the lawn. With my usual clumsiness, I sent the ball with a masterly kick toward the august group and struck the venerable lady full in the face.
At St. Petersburg, the Grand Duke Constantine lived in the Marble Palace, a very fine marble edifice built by Catherine the Great for her favorite, Prince Orlov. I often played there with the Grand Duke's children. One day they had the idea of reenacting the funeral of President Felix Faure, whose Christian name was the same as mine. I dutifully pretended to be dead during the whole ceremony but, once released from the box which served me as a coffin, I was so ill-tempered that I fell upon the "undertakers" and gave them such a trouncing that every one of them bad a black eye for days. I was never again invited to the Marble Palace or to Pavlovsk.
I used to walk in my sleep until I was about fifteen. One night, at Arkhangelskoye, a bird's call or some such small noise awakened me as I was straddling the balustrade that surrounded the terraced roof. I was terrified to find myself perched in midair, but a manservant heard my screams and rescued me from my precarious position. I felt so grateful to him that I asked my parents to attach him to my service. From that day on, Ivan never left me, and I considered him more a friend than a servant. He was with me until 1917. As he was away on holiday when the Revolution broke out, he was unable to rejoin me, and I could never find out what became of him.
In 1902, my parents decided to send me on a tour of Italy with an old professor of art, Adrian Prakhov. The professor's appearance was so comic that it was impossible for him to pass unnoticed. Short, squat, his big head framed by a leonine shock of hair, his beard dyed red, he looked like a clown. We had decided to call each other Don Adriano and Don Felice. The journey began at Venice and ended in Sicily. It was most instructive but not, perhaps, in the way intended by my parents.
I suffered greatly from the heat, and was not in the mood to admire the artistic beauties of Italy. Don Adriano, on the contrary, briskly inspected churches and museums without showing the least trace of fatigue. He stopped for hours before every picture, and gave a lecture in French, with the most atrocious accent, for the benefit of anyone present. We were always followed by groups of tourists, obviously dazzled by his eloquence. As for me, I never enjoyed improving my mind in public, and I cursed the perspiring crowd, armed with cameras, that dogged our heels.
Don Adriano had adopted a costume which he considered suitable for the climate: a white alpaca suit, straw hat and a sunshade lined with apple green. We never went out without an escort of street urchins and, although I was so young, I felt quite certain that this ridiculous-looking personage was not the ideal companion for an expedition through Venice in a gondola!
At Naples, we stopped at the Hotel de Vesuve. The heat was appalling and I refused to go out before nightfall. The professor had a number of friends in town and spent his days with them while I stayed alone in the hotel. In the evening, when the heat abated somewhat, I used to sit on a balcony and amuse myself by watching the passers-by. I even occasionally exchanged a few words with them, but my scanty knowledge of Italian did not take me very far. One evening, a cab stopped in front of the hotel and two ladies alighted, I spoke to the coachman, a pleasant looking young man who understood a little French. I confided to him that I was dreadfully bored and would like to visit Naples by night. He offered to be my guide and show me round the city and said he would call for me that night at eleven. By then the professor was in bed and asleep. I tiptoed from my room, and without worrying about the fact that I hadn't a penny in my pocket jumped into the cab and off we went. After driving along some deserted streets the coachman stopped before a door at the end of a dark alley. On entering the house, I was surprised to see a quantity of stuffed animals - among them a large crocodile hanging from the ceiling by strings. I thought for a moment that my guide bad brought me to a natural history museum. I realized my mistake when a stout, outrageously made-up woman covered with imitation jewelry advanced to meet us, I felt a little embarrassed, but the coachman, very much at his ease, ordered champagne and sat down on one side of me while the woman settled down on the other. In an atmosphere heavy with the odor of perspiration and cheap scent, women filed past us... women of all colors, including Negresses. Some were completely naked, others were dressed as Turkish beauties, sailors, or little girls. They swung their hips and cast alluring glances at me; I became more and more embarrassed, even rather frightened. Madame and the coachman drank copiously and I began to do the same. From time to time she kissed me, exclaiming: "Che bello bambinol"
All of a sudden, the door opened and I was petrified to see my professor appear. Madame rushed to meet him and greeted him as an old friend of the house, clasping him to her broad bosom. As for me, I tried to hide behind the coachman's back, but Don Adriano had already seen me. His face lit up with a big smile and, coming up to me, he embraced me effusively, crying: "Don Felice! Don Felice!" The onlookers looked at us in astonishment; the coachman was the first to recover. He filled a glass of champagne and, raising it, cried "Evviva! Evviva," and my cicerone and I received a frenzied ovation.
I don't know how late it was when the party ended, but I awoke next morning with a splitting headache. From then on, I no longer remained alone in my hotel. In the afternoons as soon as the heat abated I visited museums with my professor, and in in the evenings we "did" Naples in the company of the obliging coachman.
From Naples we went to Sicily to visit Palermo, Taormina and Catania. In the still air the beat was unbearable: the smoke rose in a straight line from Etna's snow-covered summit. As I longed for the cool mountain air, I suggested a climb to the crater. Don Adriano showed little enthusiasm, but I finally persuaded him, and off we went on donkeys, accompanied by guides. The ascent seemed endless, and when we reached the crater the professor was half dead with fatigue. We dismounted to admire the magnifi cent view when suddenly we felt the ground under our feet becoming hotter and hotter, while steam leaked through it in places. Panic-stricken, we jumped on our donkeys and started down the slope, when our guides, much amused by our terror, called us back, explaining that this was quite normal and that there was no cause for alarm. We spent the night in a shelter which was so cold that we could not sleep. Next day we agreed that the heat on the plain was far easier to bear than the cold in the mountains and decided to return to Catania without further delay. An accident which might have bad a tragic ending markedour departure. When skirting the crater, the professor's donkey slipped, and he fell and rolled into the abyss. Luckily Don Adriano was able to grasp at a protruding rock, which gave the guides time to come to his rescue. They hauled him up, more dead than alive.
Before returning to Russia we spent a few days in Rome. It is most regrettable that I should not have profited more by our journey. Venice and Florence impressed me greatly, but I was too young to appreciate, or even take in, so much beauty, and my memories of this first trip to Italy were not, as we have seen, particularly artistic.
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