Memories of Russia: 1916 - 1919 by Princess Paley

Chapter XXI

My son Vladimir

I come now to the time when my dear Vladimir experienced his last joy. In the calm of the little house in which he lived, he wrote in Russian verse a dramatic piece which he set to music, and the subject of which was Cinderella. But before describing the success of the evening when this piece was performed at the College for young girls at Tsarskoe-Selo, I wish to speak of my beloved son, and of the divine flame which God had placed in his poet's soul.

Ever since the age of thirteen Vladimir had been writing delightful verses. He was educated at the Corps-des-Pages in Petrograd, and lived at the house of his tutor, Colonel Fenoult. At Easter, in the summer, and at Christmas, he came to spend his vacation with us, either. at Boulogne-sur-Seine, or at watering-places. Each time, he returned home his poetic talent displayed itself more decidedly. His numerous occupations, and his studies at the Corps-desPages did not leave him much leisure time, but he availed himself of every free moment to devote his mind to his cherished poetry. By temperament a dreamer, he observed everything and nothing escaped his subtle, watchful attention; neither nobility of feeling, nor beauty, nor ugliness, nor, above all, the ridiculous. He loved Nature ardently. He went into ecstasy over everything God had created. A moon-beam inspired him, the scent of a flower gave him an idea for a poem. He had a prodigious memory. What he knew, what he had had the time to read in his short life, was truly marvellous.

In his personal appearance - all mothers will understand my talking about it, as he is no morehe was of remarkable beauty. I remember in the minutest details a fancy-dress Ball given by Countess Kleinmichel in January, 1914. We had come from Paris to Petrograd in order to see about getting into our house at Tsarskoe, in which we were to settle down a few months later. The Grand Duke and I had promised the Countess to come to the Ball, and Vladimir, who had just completed his seventeenth year, was dying of eagerness to go to it. Countess Kleinmichel pleaded so much and so well with the Grand Duke in favour of my son that his father consented. We had a fine costume made for him of the period of the Tsar Alexis Michallovitch: a coat of white cloth, embroidered in gold, and close-fitting, showed off his slender figure. Loose trousers made of blue silk, boots of soft red shagreen, and a cap of white cloth with wide bands of sable, completed the costume. Everyone admired him, and it was generally agreed that he was the handsomest figure at the Ball. Some French friends paid me many compliments on the subject. The painter, Leon Bakst, who was present came up to me and said:

"Your son is the Prince Charming who is dreamt of in fairy-tales! "

That evening my maternal pride exulted!

He was not nineteen when war broke out. Nevertheless, thanks to accelerated promotion, he entered on December 1/14th, the regiment of the Emperor's Hussars, and left for the Muravieff barracks in the Government of Novgorod for a . term of military service. He returned in February, 1915, and, five days later, I escorted him back to the Tsarskoe station whence he went to rejoin his regiment.

On the morning of his departure for the war we went - I, Vladimir and the little girls-to 6 o'clock Mass. My son went to confession and took Holy Communion. But for two hospital nurses and ourselves, the church was empty. What were our astonishment and joy when we recognised in the two nurses the Empress and Mme. Wiroubow! Her Majesty had wished to give Vladimir her blessing. She made him a present of a beautiful little ikon and a prayer-book. We returned home extremely moved by this touching act on the part of our Sovereign.

From the time of my son's going I seemed no longer to live for this boy of mine was that which I loved most in the world. He was my joy, my happiness, my pride. I was proud of his beauty, of his talents as a painter, as a musician, as a poet. When he danced he was grace incarnate. When he laughed his laughter lit up his charming countenance. He was an ideal son for mother a to have for he was tender and loving. The sonnet written in Russian, which he addressed to me with the first volume of his verse, gives but a weak idea of his filial feelings.

Here it is, translated by me in very mediocre manner, for if I give the words it is impossible for me to reproduce the gracious form in which they were put:

SONNET A MA MERE.

Tandis que, faible, je dormais dans Ie nid familial, Sous ton aile maternelle mes reves se blottissaient. C'est toi qui les ber~as et quand sanna man heure Les roses de mes reveries fleurirent somptueusement! . . . Rien ne mena~ait Ie chemin de ma vie, Aucune ombre n'obscurcissait mon jeune horizon. Les larmes que je versais, c'etaient encore tes larmes. De mes pensees, de mes reves, tu dais l'ideal ! Tu souffias en moi la force, la foi, l'esperance, Tu habillas man ame de vetements brillants, Tu tremblais pour moi comme je tremble a present. Que la Rime m'a ouvert largement la Porte, C' est toi et non pas moi que les Archanges frolerent. Mes vers ce sont tes vers, ils sont revenns vers toL

From February, 1915, until July, 1916, when, as I said at the beginning, he was attached to the person of the Grand Duke, this youth of eighteen or little more went through the most cruel trials of the war. He was sent off on several occasions to make qangerous reconnaissances, and it was a miracle that he was not killed. One day a shell fell quite near him. He picked up a bit of it and brought it home to me on his first leave. On another occasion he and the patrol of which he was in command had only just time to take shelter behind some big trees which were riddled with bullets. His soldiers adored him. He told me with emotion how one day when he was sitting in a trench a non-commissioned officer threw himself suddenly on him and covered him with his body. A second later, before' my son had time to collect his thoughts, an immense shell flew over their heads and burst with a tremendous crash about forty. yards behind them. This soldier had not hesitated to risk his life for his lieutenant.

In 1915 Vladimir had several days' leave, which he spent with us, proud of the Red Dragon of St. Anne, 4th Degree, which had been awarded him for his courage. He had not given up writing while at the front, and just at this moment he made a prodigious effort: he translated into Alexandrine verse a poem by the Grand Duke Constantine entitled" The King, of Judoea." It is a very fine work. The entire drama takes place in seven days, from Palm Sunday until Our Lord's Resurrection. It is a veritable tour de force, for throughout four acts there is question only of Christ, and yet our Lord does not at any moment appear on the scene.

The religious and mystical play was given in 1913 at the Theatre de l'Ermitage at Petrograd, and it was performed there many times. The whole Imperial Family, the Court, the Embassies, the high functionaries were all invited in turn to see it. The spectacle was produced magnificently, and the piece was acted by amateurs of talent; but the centre of general attention was the author himself, that is to say, the Grand Duke Constantine, who performed the part of Joseph of Arimathoea with much sincerity and piety.

This play made a deep impression on Vladimir, and having taken a copy of the text with him to the trenches, he translated it into French in well-rhymed and sonorous verse. M. Paleologue and the Comte de Chambrun read some fragments of his rendering while they were in Russia, and had nothing but praise for the young translator.

The Grand Duke Constantine, already afflicted by the malady which was to carry him off in June, 1915, on learning that Vladimir had translated his drama, invited the Grand Duke Paul and me and our son to come to Pavlovsk to his palace so that he might hear the translation. We found there his sister, the Queen Dowager of Greece; the Grand Duchess Constantine, his wife; the Princess Jean de Russie, their daughterin-law; some of their children; and M. Bailly-Comte, Professor of French at Petrograd. The latter frequently stayed with the Grand Duke Constantine at Pavlovsk.

Being something of a physiognomist, I noticed a certain look of apprehension on the face of the author of the play, but Vladimir had not read more than a few lines when' I saw the Grand Duke Constantine exchange a glance of astonishment with M. Bailly-Comte, and as the reading continued I observed signs of growing emotion on his sympathetic countenance, ravaged by suffering. On that day Vladimir read the first two acts, and he was overwhelmed with compliments and congratulations. We had to promise to return some days later to finish the reading of the last two acts. My son concluded with a Russian poem addressed to the Grand Duke concerning his work. When he had read it I saw the latter bend his head. Then, showing us his dear face bathed in tears, he said:

"I have had one of the greatest emotions of. my life - I owe it to Bodia " (a diminutive which the family used for Vladimir and which he had given to himself as a child). "I cannot say any more. I am dying. I pass on to him my lyre. I bequeath to him my talent as a poet, as though he were my son. Then, turning towards M. Bailly-Comte:

"I had asked you to find in France a translator for my poem. Be so good, if you please, as to send a telegram to Paris to make it known that I do not wish there to be any other translation. It is impossible to do better."

He embraced Vladimir repeatedly and presented him with a superb edition of his poem. I had several meetings later with M. Bailly-Comte. With a professor-like conscientiousness which did him honour, he wished to revise certain small details, for he was anxious that the whole should be perfect.

Shall I ever recover that precious poem lost in Russia at the time of my flight in February, 1919, after the abominable murder of my husband? And to think that the Grand Duke and I had conceived such a beautiful dream: to produce the drama in Paris, where it would have been admired and applauded by our friends. We pictured to ourselves Vladimir's face lit up with proud delight at seeing the success of this work, of which a great part was his own. Alas! All has been engulfed in the abyss into which class hatreds have precipitated my happiness, my desires and my dreams!

The reading of the translation had taken place during the week's leave which Vladimir had in April, 1915. At the end of May he fell seriously ill at the front and spat blood. He was sent back to the base, and Dr. Warawka ordered him off as quickly as possible to the Crimea. It was there, at the moment of the death of the Grand Duke Constantine, on June 2nd/15th-the sad news of which Vladimir heard only on the day following-that a white shade passed between my son and his cousin, who was seated beside him at table. Both beheld the vision quite distinctly.

On August 15th, 1915, Vladimir returned from the Crimea, bronzed by the sun, looking in first-rate health, handsomer than ever. He brought back with him a number of fine poems, pieces of poetry inspired by the beauty of the country and also by a first feeling of love which had flowered in the heart of this boy of eighteen.

Soon the war took possession of him again. Every letter brought us a new poem, sometimes a set of rhymes in French for the little girls; sometimes the entire letter was in verse. The Empress had made me promise that I would send her a copy of every poem - an order which I executed with natural joy and pride. The first volume of his poems appeared in November, 1915, and this fine edition was sold for the benefit of the good works patronised by the Empress Alexandra. The second volume appeared on March 21st, 1918, the eve of the accursed day when my child started for exile and for a martyr's death. 

A third volume, type-written, has remained in Russia in friendly hands. Will it ever see the light? Shall I live until the day when I shall be able to recover it? The recovering of it is a sacred duty which I bequeath to my daughters, whose tender love for their father and their brother mingles in the undying sorrow of their terrible death.

One evening in Petrograd, already given over altogether to Bolshevism, Vladimir was declaiming his verses in the home of the demoiselles Albrecht. A great Russian artist, Mme. RostchinaMsarova (Countess Serge Ignatieff), who was there, murmured as she looked at him:

"It is not possible. . . he will not live. . . . When one is gifted with such genius, with an inspiration so pure and so beautiful, one cannot have a long life. . . ."

The Grand Duchess Marie, who sat beside her, heard her distinctly.

After paying this tribute to the my dear child, I return to the memory of evening of February 25th, 1918, when the play in verse, Cinderella, was acted by the prettiest young girls at the Tsarskoe College. The one who took the role of Prince Charming was named Mlle. Doudarenko. She sang exquisitely and was delightful to look at in her disguise.

The hall was full. We were all there, and Marianne had come from Petrograd with her husband, accompanied by the Comte de Saint Sauveur and Count Dimitry Scheremetieff. A magnetic current had established itself in the hall and on the stage. After every act the young author was acclaimed, dragged on to the stage and applauded by the spectators, the actors and the musicians. A golden token inscribed with the date and some dedicatory words was presented to him, and my dear son was radiant with happiness. Apart from the success of the piece, one noticed that the audience took manifest pleasure in applauding this son of a Grand Duke. The Bolshevists had forbidden the wearing of epaulettes by officers under pain of death. Now on this evening there were a number of officers who had ostentatiously attached their epaulettes to their khaki uniform. Dimitry Scheremetieff came up to me during an interval and said:

"There is a feeling of monarchy in the hall to-night. It would not take much to set everyone singing the anthem, Boje Tzaria Chrani! "

I learnt afterwards that several young hearts upon the stage and in the hall beat faster at the sound of the name of Lieutenant Prince Vladimir Paley.

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