Memories of Russia: 1916 - 1919 by Princess Paley

Chapter XIV

Days of confinement

Our captivity lasted eighteen days, from August 27th/September 9th to September 13th/26th. As long as we kept to our rooms they left us in peace and our life did not seem much changed, but the moment we wished to move out and take the air our vexations began. They had left at our disposal for walking the open space (in French style) in front of the house facing the garden. Only one of the doors giving access to this was left open and it was guarded by several armed sentries, as were also the walks surrounding the parterre. Kouzmine had indicated a portion of the garden in which we could move about. A soldier whom they had forgotten to warn that the walk which went along the garden railing continued into the enclosure which was open to us, pointed his rifle at me because I had ventured into it. I continued to advance, sure of my right.

"Tu ne vois done ,pas que je vais tirer, la bourgeoise? " he cried out to me.

"D'abord, je te defends de me d'idiot (dourak)," I said to him, and I passed on.

He let his rifle sink down, dumbfounded.

Thereupon, an under-officer who was on duty came forward and apologised and proceeded to explain to the soldier the topography of the garden. We had remarked that the soldiers were odious when there were a number of them together; singly they were quick to protest their fidelity and devotion. In the course of these eighteen days I had many conversations with them. When they heard the news spread about by Kerensky as to Korniloff's approach, the soldiers became particularly nervous. One of them questioned me:

"Say, Madame (Barinia), are you for Kerensky or for Korniloff? "

In spite of the imprudence of my reply, I said:

"For Korniloff, without a doubt! "

"Well," said the soldier without showing any kind of emotion, "my notion is, he ought to be shot."

He did not report on me because at that time one was supposed to be free to say and think anything out loud. Another time, one of them, his rifle held at ease, was looking at the majestic outlines of our house standing etched against the sky.

"And to think," he reflected out loud, " that all these fine dwellings have sprung up on our backs, at the sweat of our brows" - one could detect the fruits of Lenin's propaganda!

"You are mistaken," I said to him. "This house was built and decorated by French workmen. You would never have been able to do so well."

He looked at me sideways, with angry eyes, without venturing to say anything. These people who thought everything was permitted to them, became silent immediately one stood up to them, Another soldier, quite a youth, asked me sarcastically, "if that amused me, walking up and down on so tiny a piece of ground."

Instead of answering, I asked him:

"Tell me, if intruders were installed in your own home in the country, what would you say? "

" I'd drive them out with blows from a stick!" he replied, laughing.

"Well, I'd gladly do the same but you have a gun and I have no stick."

But I could see he was not listening to me. I had evoked a vision of his homeland-I could see his face change, his eyes soften.

"Say, Barinia, when do you think this war will finish and there'll be order again and we'll be able to get back down there? "

"Back down there! (Domo'i!") He uttered the word in a low voice. One noticed a wailing in his tones - the poor boy was home-sick at heart.

"How do you imagine there can be any order as there is no longer any Tsar?" I said to him.

"Yes," he agreed, "the Tsar is good. I was in the ranks the day he went and he gave us a poltinnik in silver (fifty kopecks) each."

I have kept until the last an incident which moved us to tears. A soldier on sentry duty was looking at our little daughters, Irene and Nathalie, who were walking up and down very sedately hand in hand. Suddenly, still holding his gun, he drew a big handkerchief out of his pocket and began to weep copiously. I asked the reason for his tears.

"Ah, Barinia-Kniaguinia" (Madame la Princesse) he replied: "I weep at being obliged to mount guard over the grandchildren of the Tsar Liberator, our Tsar Alexander II."

Seeing what a good fellow he was, the children and I stood round him and talked with him. He talked to me of his village, of his wife and six children whom he had left behind him. Having stopped weeping, he amused himself telling my girls the names of his six little ones.

The children and I were glad to chat in this way with our jailers. The Grand Duke alone walked about, taciturn and serious, not saying a word, and soon re-entering the house. Ever since his tender youth he had been an officer - a soldier at heart ever. It hurt him to see all this disorder, this insubordination, this carelessness of bearing. He thought of his father, of the Emperor Alexander III. Looking down from Heaven, they could see what the traitors had made of their dear Russia, how they must suffer!

Every twenty-four hours there was a relief of the squad who were on guard over us as well as of the officer and non-commissioned officer. Well, I affirm on my honour that out of the eighteen officers who in turn were in command of the guard, at least fourteen protested with tears in their eyes their fidelity to the old regime. They availed themselves of the moment when the doctor, Obnissky, the regular medical attendant of the Grand Duke (who alone had free access to us) arrived to see his august patient. The officer on duty had to be present during the doctor's daily visit, so that the latter should not bring the Grand Duke anything except his attention. I have seen officers weeping as they kissed the Grand Duke's hands and begged his pardon for their enforced presence. And the Grand Duke, in his immense goodness, lavished consolations and encouragements on them! In presence of the soldiers, the officers became impassive again, and reserved and stiff. We committed the imprudence of asking one of them to lunch. Some hours later, the officer was recalled, having been reported on by soldiers or by a servant.

One day I was walking up and down in front of the house, the officer on duty who was walking behind me and who had seemed until then not to notice me, murmured to me as he passed:

"I am for the Grand Duke and you for life. Don't reply! " he added quickly, seeing a soldier approach.

Thus these young men of culture and education trembled before the country louts whom they had under their command. . . . Was this a possible condition of things? Was it not bound to end in disaster?

Some time before our arrest, the Grand Duchess Marie, who was staying with us, became engaged to Prince Serge Pontiatine, a friend of Vladimir's-the latter had had a good deal to say to this match. The date of their marriage, fixed for September 6th/19th, the birthday of her brother Dimitri, exiled in Persia, was approaching. All the entreaties made and all the steps taken with a view to obtaining for the Grand Duke the authorization to be present at his daughter's wedding were in vain. Kerensky and Savinkoff - who have stones in place of hearts - remained deaf to all prayers. The young married couple were only allowed to come and embrace us after the ceremony, which took place in the beautiful palace of Pavlovsk, in presence of Queen Olga of Greece, the Grand Duchess Constantine, Princess John of Russia, daughter of King Peter I of Serbia, and some friends. The Grand Duke was very sad at not being able to stand by his daughter at so solemn a moment in her life. He was glad however to know that she was no longer alone and that she had a husband by her to protect her. It was, moreover, a safeguard for her to abandon provisionally her title of Grand Duchess and her name of Romanoff.

The only person who knew how to procure "permits" to see us was my daughter Marianne. By dint of charm and cleverness she managed to get to know Kouzmine, who lost his heart to her completely. At the risk of drawing down on himself the thunders of Kerensky he granted her as many "permits" as she wanted. It was like a breath of fresh air which came to us every day with all the news of what was going on. It was she, also, who hustled Kouzmine into hastening on our liberation. Kouzmine went to see Kerensky and persuaded him that the soldiers were tired of guarding us and that they wanted to be off. Always timorous before force and arrogant before those who were defenceless, Kerensky gave in and Kouzmine, overjoyed, came and told us that we were free, and that the soldiers would quit the palace in an hour's time. As soon as we recovered the use of the telephone, the Chief of the Bureau, whom by the way I had never seen, said to me:

"At last, Madame la Princesse, these wretches have given you back your freedom and the telephone! We were all so miserable and so anxious about you! "

The damages which we had to make good were considerable. The room which had had to be placed at the disposal of the soldiers as a guardroom, and another which had been turned into a dining-room, had become veritable hot-houses of infection. The borders of the flower-beds in the garden had been trampled down and our rosetrees spoilt. Bits of bark torn from tree-trunks were hanging down dejectedly. The beautiful railings made of wrought iron ornamented with the initials of the Grand Duke in gilt bronze and surmounted by an imperial crown, bore traces of violence. The crowns held fast, despite visible efforts to get them off, but the acanthus leaves and the decorations on the lamps had been broken and carried off. Now that we were free it was the moment to take flight from Tsarskoe, after this first warning which showed that even the Grand Duke, who had been so popular formerly with the troops and who had not been disquieted until then, was no longer safe. . . . Alas! there was no lack of opportunities for flight. A number of faithful officers, brought to us by my son Alexander, offered to get us away. One of them named Brigguer, whom I had met with the young Youssoupoffs, was sent by his chief to the Grand Duke, said to him: "Monseigneur, the danger is becoming greater every day for you and yours. I beg of you to listen to me, to have confidence in me, I am an aviator and my chief, Colonel Sikorsky, the inventor of the IIie-Mourometz, is informed of my plans. I shall come down one night on one of the lawns in the Tsarskoe Park, which we shall choose with you. You will come there with the Princess, your three children and some luggage. My machine is like a regular room with arm-chairs in it. In four hours we shall be in Stockholm. . ."

The Grand Duke looked at him sadly: "My dear friend," he replied, "you see me touched to the bottom of my heart but what you propose is out of Jules Verne! How could we disappear without being seen, even with the fewest possible preparations? We are under watch, spied upon, kept in sight by our servants. We should be caught in the act and our fate and yours would be still harder than at present. . . ,"

Brigguer went off heart-broken. The mission, with which Sikorsky had charged him, had failed. I saw him again only once after his visit; two months later he was fleeing from the Bolshevist invasion. As for Sikorsky, a Russian subject but a Pole, he returned to his own country of whose army he is now one of the commanders and one of its purest glories.

Thus we remained on at Tsarskoe, waiting for a miracle from Heaven, that is to say better times . . , and every day was more dreadful and more terrifying. . . .

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