A change of residence - Spiritualism and theosophy - The Viasemkaia Lavra - My last journey abroad with my brother - His duel and death.
IN 1906 my father was given the command of the Chevalier Gardes, and we had to leave our house on the Moika for a suite of rooms in the regimental quarters on the Zaharievskaia. Nicholas and I were in despair at having to leave our own home in St. Petersburg and to miss our holidays at Arkhangelskoye, We had a villa in Krasnoie-Selo, where we now spent the summer, as my father's new regiment was stationed there. Our parents kept open house for the officers of the regiment and their wives; some of these were very nice, but neither my brother nor I liked the life, and our one idea was to escape it by going abroad or to Arkhangelskoye. We were inseparable at that time. When the holidays were over, Nicholas resumed his studies at the University and I went back to the Gourevitch School. In winter, although we lived with our parents, all our free time was spent at the Moika where our friends joined us in the evening.
Among these was Prince Michael Gortchakov, known to all his friends as Mika; he was a very intelligent boy, hot-headed, but with a heart of gold and very good-looking in rather an oriental way. Knowing how much my conduct distressed my parents, he decided to try to reform me. In this he did not succeed, and in fact I led him such a life that he had a nervous breakdown and was obliged to go abroad for treatment. He bore me no grudge, however, and we have always remained very good friends. He later married Countess Steinbock Fermor, a charming woman with a very sweet nature.
Until I was sixteen, I used often to talk in my sleep. One evening before leaving for Moscow, my parents came into my bedroom and heard me say distinctly and repeatedly: "The train has run off the lines ... the train has run off the lines." This struck them so forcibly that they put off their journey and, by a curious coincidence, the train they were to have taken did run off the lines and many lives were lost. This was sufficient to establish my reputation as a prophet, and I naturally exploited this for my personal ends. My parents allowed themselves to be guided by my so-called revelations until the day came when the fraud was discovered and my career as a prophet came to a sudden and distinctly disagreeable end.
My brother and I took a great interest in spiritualism. We witnessed some rather surprising things at the seances which we held with a few friends. But when a marble statue broke and fell off its pedestal at our feet, we resolved to give them up. I none the less continued to take a deep interest in everything connected with the mystery of life after death.
It was at this time that Nicholas and I promised each other that the first of us to die would appear to the survivor. The Almighty God, the afterlife and self-perfection were constantly on my mind. A priest with whom I talked freely on these matters told me: "Don't try and find an answer to all these questions. Don't philosophize too much. just believe in God." But this wise advice did not satisfy my craving for knowledge. I immersed myself in the study of occult sciences and theosophy. I had difficulty in believing that it was possible, during the course of our brief sojourn on earth, to earn the right to eternal life, as the Christian doctrine teaches us. The theory of reincarnation seemed, to my mind, a much better solution of the problems which preoccupied me. I learned that certain exercises of bodily and spiritual discipline could little by little develop in one a superhuman power which enabled one to master one's own weaknesses and dominate other people. With the conviction that I was inspired by a divine truth, I devoted myself to the practice of Yoga exercises. Every day I took a special course of gymnastics and did an incalculable number of breathing exercises; at the same time, I tried to concentrate and develop my will power. I soon noticed a change in myself: my mind became clearer, my memory improved, and my strength of will increased. Several people told me that even my expression had changed. I myself noticed that some people could not look me in the eye, and I concluded that I had acquired a sort of hypnotic power. To test my capacity for bearing pain, I held my hand over a lighted candle. I suffered the most excruciating pain, but it was not till the smell of roast flesh filled the room that I withdrew my hand. Having to undergo a particularly painful dental operation, I amazed the dentist by refusing an anesthetic. I felt proud of having acquired so much control over myself and I no longer doubted that I could also control other people.
Nicholas and I had met a young actor of great talent, Blumenthal Tamarine, known to his friends as Vova. Gorki's The Underworld was then being given at the Alexander Theater, and Vova advised us to see this play in which Gorki paints the life of St. Petersburg's tramps in the Viasemskaya-Lavra quarter. After seeing the play, I was seized with a longing to visit this "Beggars' Market" and asked Vova to help me set about it. He knew a great many theatrical people and easily found the kind of clothes we needed.
On the appointed day, we all three went off disguised as beggars, slinking through deserted alleys to avoid the police. We were obliged to pass by the Bouffes Theater just as the play ended and the audience came pouring out. I played my part in good earnest, as I was curious to know how it felt to beg; taking up my stand at the street corner, I held out my hand and asked for alms. Although I was only a fake beggar, I was indignant when grand ladies covered with jewels and costly furs, and fine gentlemen smoking big cigars, passed me without so much as a glance. I understood how the real poor must feel.
When we reached the Lavra gates, Vova advised us to keep silent to avoid giving ourselves away. At the night shelter we hired three sordid pallets and lay down on them, pretending to sleep, but furtively examining our surroundings. What we saw was frightful All around us the dregs of humanity, both men and women, lay half-naked, drunk and filthy. The popping of corks could be heard as they drained bottles of vodka at a gulp and threw the empty bottles at their neighbors. The unfortunate wretches quarreled, copulated, used the filthiest language and vomited all over each other. The stench of the place was beyond description. Sickened by the revolting spectacle, we fled.
Once outside, I drew a deep breath of fresh night air. It was difficult to believe that what I had just seen was real. How, in our times, could a government allow human beings to be reduced to such abject misery? I was haunted for a long time by memories of the horrible sights I had seen.
We must have looked the parts to perfection, because we had the greatest difficulty in persuading the porter of our house to let us in.
During a trip we made to Paris in the summer of 1907, Nicholas met Marion Loti, one of the great courtesans of the time, and fell madly in love with her. She was a very pretty and very well-dressed woman who lived in the greatest luxury: she had a house of her own, magnificent carriages, sumptuous jewelry and even a dwarf whom she looked upon as a mascot. She went everywhere with an ex-cocotte called Bibi. Bibi had grown old and infirm but was still proud of her former liaison with the Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich. Nicholas had completely lost his head, and spent all his days and nights with Marion. From time to time he deigned to remember my existence and invited me to accompany Marion and himself to a cabaret. But three is not company and I soon had a liaison of my own with a charming young girl, less showy than Marion but most attractive. She smoked opium and one evening offered to initiate me into the delight of an artificial paradise! She took me to a Chinese opium den at Montmartre where we were received by an old Chinaman who led us to the basement. I was struck by the peculiar odor of the drug, and also by the deathlike silence that reigned in the place. Half-dressed people lay on rush mats apparently plunged in deep sleep. A small oil lamp burned in front of each smoker.
Nobody took any notice of us. We stretched ourselves out on a vacant mat and a young Chinaman brought lamps and prepared pipes. I had already smoked several pipes and was beginning to feel dizzy when suddenly a bell rang and someone cried: "Police!"
All the sleepers leapt to their feet and hurriedly started to tidy themselves. My companion, who was familiar with the premises, led me out through a secret exit and we left the building unmolested. She had, however, great difficulty in getting me to her apartment, where I collapsed on her bed. The next day I woke with a racking headache and swore never to smoke opium again-, it goes without saying that I broke my word at the first opportunity.
Soon after this adventure, I left for Russia with my brother.
We resumed our gay, carefree life in St. Petersburg and Nicholas soon forgot his Parisian love affair. As happens to all rich young men, he was constantly pursued by matchmaking mothers, but Nicholas was far too fond of his freedom to think of marriage.
But, as ill luck would have it, he met a most beautiful and attractive girl and fell passionately in love with her. She and her mother led a very worldly life. They entertained a lot and their parties were always very gay. When my brother met this girl she was engaged to an officer in one of the Guards regiments. This, however, did not deter Nicholas, and he made up his mind to marry her himself . Our parents refused their consent to a match of which they thoroughly disapproved. Personally, I knew the young woman too well not to share their point of view, but I had to conceal my feelings in order to keep my brother's affection and confidence, for I still hoped to induce him to change his mind.
Meanwhile the date of the wedding was continually being postponed. Wearying of these repeated delays, the fiance finally insisted upon a day being fixed. Nicholas was in despair; the girl wept and declared that she would rather die than marry a man she did not love. I found out that she had asked Nicholas to have supper with her for the last time on the evening before the wedding. Having failed to persuade Nicholas not to go, I decided to go with him to the party. Vova was among the guests and, after he had drunk a good deal, he launched into an impassioned speech and exhorted the lovers to place their love above any other consideration... When the weeping fiancee begged Nicholas to elope with her, I rushed off to fetch her mother, but it was only with the greatest difficulty that I persuaded her to come back with me. When we got to the restaurant where the party was being held, mother and daughter fell into each other's arms. I took advantage of this to get Nicholas away. I practically had to drag him home.
The marriage took place on the following day and the couple left for Paris on their honeymoon. This, to my parents' great relief, seemed to put an end to the whole affair. Nicholas resumed his normal way of living, which completely reassured my mother, but I, for one, was not deceived by his apparent indifference.
The Russian opera company, with Chaliapin, was then giving a series of performances in Paris. My brother suddenly decided to attend these performances. Our parents, suspecting that Chaliapin was merely an excuse, tried to dissuade him. But nothing could hold Nicholas back.
They then sent me to Paris so that I could keep an eye on him. When I heard that he had been meeting the young woman again, I telegraphed my parents asking them to join me.
Nicholas remained hidden away and gave no sign of life. I decided to consult two of the best-known clairvoyants of the period: Madame de Thebes and Madame Freya. The first warned me that a member of my family was in serious danger of being killed in a duel. The second said much the same thing, and added a prophecy about myself: "In a few years you will take part in a political assassination and will go through a terrible ordeal which will end in a complete victory for you."
Contradictory reports reached us. There was no possible doubt that the husband was aware of his wife's relations with Nicholas, but, while some people claimed that a duel was inevitable, others believed that he would merely ask for a divorce. Finally, we heard that be had actually challenged my brother, but that the seconds pronounced the motives insufficient.
Then one day to our surprise the husband came round to see us. He told us that he and Nicholas had been reconciled; he said that he considered his wife mainly responsible for what had occurred, and that he was going to apply for a divorce.
We were greatly relieved to know that a duel had been avoided, but we were still very anxious about the outcome of the divorce proceedings.
Soon alarming news called us back to St. Petersburg: the husband, probably urged on by his brother officers, was again considering a duel.
Not a word could be got out of Nicholas, who remained obstinately silent. However, one day he told me that the duel was to take place very soon. I immediately warned my parents and they sent for him, He managed to reassure them by stating quite positively that nothing would happen.
That same evening, I found two notes on my desk: one from my mother, asking me to come to her as soon as possible, the other from Nicholas inviting me to supper at Contant's. I thought the invitation a good omen, for this was the first time since our return to Russia that he had asked me to spend the evening with him.
I first went to see my mother and found her seated before the mirror while her maid brushed her hair for the night. I can still see the expression of radiant happiness in her eyes.
"I had a talk with your brother this evening," she said; "all the rumors of a duel are pure inventions; everything has been arranged. You can't imagine bow happy I am. I dreaded the duel, because Nicholas will be twenty-six in a few days."
It was then that I heard of the strange fate which it appears has pursued the Yussupov family since its earliest days: in each generation all the heirs but one die before reaching the age of twenty-six. My mother had had four sons, of whom only Nicholas and I survived. She had never ceased to fear for each of us in turn. The threat of a duel coinciding with the approach of my brother's twenty-sixth birthday had made her anxiety almost unbearable.
I kissed my mother, who was weeping for joy, and went off to the restaurant where I was to meet Nicholas. As I did not find him there, I searched the whole town for him and returned home, more anxious than ever. What with the clairvoyants' predictions and my mother's revelations, Nicholas' disappearance drove me wild with anxiety. He himself had told me that the duel would be taking place soon. He had probably wished to spend this last evening with me. What unforeseen circumstances could have prevented this? A prey to the gloomiest thoughts, I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
I was awakened by my valet, Ivan, who gasped: "Come quickly, something terrible has happened . . ." Gripped by a dreadful foreboding, I jumped out of bed and rushed to my mother's rooms. I met several of the servants on the staircase; their faces were distorted with grief; none of them would answer my questions. Heartbreaking sobs came from my father's dressing room. I entered it, to find my father standing pale as death before a stretcher on which my brother's body lay. My mother was kneeling beside the body and seemed to have completely lost her reason...
We dragged her away with the greatest difficulty and laid her on her bed. She called for me when she grew calmer, but when she saw me she took me for Nicholas. This dreadful scene left me dazed with horror and grief. My mother finally fell into a sort of coma. When she came to, she would not allow me to leave her side.
My brother's body was placed in the chapel; then came the long exhausting services for the dead, followed by an endless procession of relations and friends. Two days later, we left for Arkhangelskoye where the burial was to take place in our family vault.
The Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna was among the friends waiting for us at Moscow station, and she came with us to Arkhangelskoye.
A number of our peasants were present at the burial services. Most of them were in tears; every one of them showed in the most touching way how deeply they felt for us.
The Grand Duchess stayed with us for some time. Her kindly presence was a help to us all, especially to my mother in her extreme despair. My father was very reserved and concealed his grief, but the blow had told on him. As for myself, I was obsessed by a desire for revenge which would certainly have driven me to some desperate act if the Grand Duchess had not managed to calm me.
By then I knew the facts about the duel: it had taken place in the early morning on Prince Belosselsky's estate, on the Island of Krestovsky. It had been agreed that the weapons would be revolvers, and the distance thirty paces. The signal was given, Nicholas fired in the air; his adversary fired at him and missed him. He then insisted that the distance be reduced to fifteen paces. Nicholas agreed, and again fired in the air; the officer took careful aim and killed him instantly. Thus ended an encounter which was not a duel but a murder. Later, when going through my brother's papers, I found a letter proving that a certain Chinsky, a very well-known occultist, had played a sinister part in this affair. They showed clearly that Nicholas was completely under his influence. He told my brother that he was his guardian angel, directed by God's will; Chinsky made out that it was my brother's duty to marry the girl, and he encouraged him to follow her to Paris. All his letters sang her praises, and her mother's as well. Chinsky also warned Nicholas against revealing his intentions to his parents or to me.
Before leaving Arkhangelskoye, the Grand Duchess made me promise that as soon as my mother was a little better I would come to see her in Moscow, to talk about my future. Some time passed before I could do this. My mother's health improved slowly but she never fully recovered from my brother's death.
When I was coming back from a walk one day, I paused to gaze at the vast park, its statues and lawns and the splendid house which contained such priceless collections. I realized that all this would some day be mine and that it was only an infinitesimal part of my fortune. The idea that I would one day be one of the richest men in Russia went like wine to my head. I remembered how I used to slip into the theater and play at being my ancestor, the great eighteentb-century patron of the arts. Once again I saw the Moorish room at the Moika, where I lay on cushions of spun gold, draped in silks from the Orient, glittering with my mother's diamonds, lording it over my slaves. Wealth, splendor, power: I could not imagine life without them. Mediocrity and ugliness filled me with horror... But what would happen if a war or a revolution deprived me of my fortune? I recalled the miserable wretches I had seen at the Wiasemskaia-Lavra. Could I ever, by a turn of Fortune's wheel, sink to their level? The very thought was horrible. I quickly went into the house. As I passed my portrait by Serov, I stopped to examine it carefully. Serov was a remarkable psychologist and excelled in bringing out the character of his models. On the face of the young man before me I could read vanity, pride and selfishness. How could it be that I had changed so little after the terrible ordeal we had all been through? How could I still be the same heartless egotist? I was seized with such loathing for myself that for a moment I thought of committing suicide. It was only the knowledge that I would bring further grief to my parents that stopped me.
Remembering that I had promised the Grand Duchess that as soon as my mother was better I would go and see her in Moscow, I took advantage of the improvement in my mother's health to do so.
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