In one of the earliest days of 1905 my mother received a telegram from Princess Galatzina, first lady in waiting, saying that my immediate presence at Court was required. The Princess Orbeliani, also a lady in waiting, was seriously ill, and some one was needed to replace her in attendance on Her Majesty. I left at once for Tsarskoe Selo, then, as always, the favorite home of the Imperial Family, and on my arrival was conducted to the apartments in the palace known as the Lyceum. The rooms were small and dark with windows looking out on a little church. It was the first time I had ever been away from home, and in any surroundings I should have been homesick and forlorn, but in these unfriendly surroundings my spirits were with some excuse depressed.
The time of my coming to Court was unpropitious, the Imperial Family and all connections being in deep mourning for the Grand Duke Serge who, on the morning of February 4, had been barbarously assassinated. The Grand Duke Serge, uncle of Nicholas II, had been Governor of Moscow. He was undoubtedly a reactionary, and his rule was said to have been harsh. Certain it is that his administrative methods earned him the intense enmity of the Social Revolutionaries and he had long lived in danger of assassination. His wife, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, was devoted to him inspite of his difficult temperment, and she never willingly allowed him to leave the palace of the Kremlin unaccompanied. Usually she went with him herself, but on this fatal February morning he, being in a dark mood, left the palace without her knowledge. Suddenly a great explosion shook all the windows, and the poor Grand Duchess, springing from her chair, cried out in an agonized voice: "It is Serge !"
Rushing out into the court she saw a horrible sight, the body of her husband scattered in a hundred bleeding fragments over the snow. The bomb had literally torn the unfortunate man to pieces, so that in the dismembered mass of flesh and blood there was nothing recognizable of what had been, only a few minutes before, a strong and dominating man.
The terrorist who threw the bomb was promptly arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. It was entirely characteristic of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth that in the midst of her grief and horror she still found room in her heart to pity the misguided wretch sitting in his cell waiting his miserable end. The Grand Duchess insisted on visiting the man in prison, assuring him of her forgiveness, and praying for him on the stone floor of his cell. Whether or not he joined in her prayers I do not know. The Social Revolutionaries prided themselves on being irreligious and very many of them were Jews.
The Court weighed down by this terrible tragedy was a sad enough place for a homesick girl like myself. Like all the other ladies in waiting I wore a black dress with a long veil, and when at length I was received by the Empress I found her, too, dressed in deep mourning. After this first formal reception I saw very little of the Empress, all her time being devoted to her sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, and to Princess Henry of Prussia, who was visiting her. The Empress Dowager also came, so that the suite was thrown together in what for me was not altogether a pleasant association. My special duty, as I discovered, was attendance on the old Princess Orbeliani, whose illness, I am bound to admit, did not sweeten her disposition. But as she was dying of that terribly trying malady, creeping paralysis, I am ashamed, even now, to criticize her. For the other dames d'honneur, however, I have no hesitation to say that they were not on their best behavior. Being entirely a stranger at Court and unacquainted with insincerities which afterwards I came to know only too well, I suffered keenly from the cutting remarks of my colleagues. My French, which I own I spoke rather badly, came in for a great deal of ridicule. On the whole it was rather an unhappy period in my young life.
The one bright spot that I remember was a drive with the Empress to which I was summoned by telephone. It was a warm day in early spring and the snow around the tree roots along the road was thawing in the pale sunlight. We drove in an open carriage, a big Cossack, picturesquely uniformed, riding behind. It was my first public appearance with Royalty and I was a little confused as to how to behave in the presence of the low-bowing crowds that lined the way. The Empress, however, soon put me at my ease, chatting of simple things, talking of her children, especially of the infant heir, at that time about eight months old. Our drive was not very long because the Empress had to hurry back to superintend a dancing lesson of the young Grand Duchesses. I remember when I returned to the apartment of the invalid Princess Orbeliani, she commented rather maliciously on the fact that I was not invited to attend the dancing lesson. But by that time, alas! I knew that had I been invited her comment might have been more malicious still. Still I must not speak badly of the poor Princess, for in spite of her illness and approaching death she was very brave and kinder than most people in her circumstances would have been.
Lent came on and in the palace church there were held every Wednesday and Friday special services for the Imperial Family. I asked and was given permission to assist in these services and I found great solace in them. At that time also I became warmly attached to a maid of honor of the Grand Duchess Serge, Princess Shankovsky, a woman of rare character. She had recently lost her mother and was in a sad mood. Almost everyone, in fact, was sad at this time. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth, although she bore her tragedy with dignity and courage, went about with a white face and eyes in which horror still lingered. On religious holidays she laid aside her black robes and appeared all in white like a madonna.
The Princess Irene of Prussia (Princess Henry) was still in mourning for her little son who had died of the same incurable disease which afflicted the Tsarevich. She spoke to me with emotion of the child, to whom she had been deeply attached.
My duty came to an end in Holy Week, and I went to the private apartments to make my farewell of the Empress. She received me in the nursery, the baby Tsarevich in her arms, and I cannot forget how beautiful the child appeared or how healthy and normal. He had a wealth of golden hair, large blue eyes, and an expression of intelligence rare in so young a child. The Empress was kindness itself. At parting she kissed me, and gave me as a souvenir of my first service a locket set in diamonds. Yet for all her gracious kindness how gladly I left that night for my beloved home.
The following summer, which as usual we spent at Peterhof, I saw much more of the Empress than in my month of attendance on her. With my mother and sister I again worked daily in the workrooms established for the wounded in the Japanese War, and there almost daily the Empress came to sew with the other women. Once every week she visited the hospitals at Tsarskoe Selo, and twice that summer, at her request, I accompanied her to her foundation hospital for training nurses. The Empress in the military hospitals was at her very best. Passing from bedside to bedside, speaking as tenderly as a mother to the sick and suffering men, sitting down to a game of checkers with convalescent officers, it was difficult to imagine how anyone could ever call her cold or shy. She was altogether charming and as she passed all eyes followed her with love and gratitude. To me she was everything that was good and kind, and into my heart there was born a great emotion of love and loyalty that made me determine that I would devote my whole life to the service of my Sovereigns. Soon after I was to know that they, too, desired that I should be intimately associated with their household. The first intimation came in the form of an invitation to spend two weeks on the Royal yacht which was about to leave for a cruise in Finnish waters. We left on the small yacht Alexandria, and at Kronstadt transferred to the larger yacht Polar Star. We were a fairly large company on board, among others Prince Obolensky, Naval Minister, Admiral Birilev, Count Tolstoy, Admiral Shagin of the Emperor's staff, and Mademoiselle Schneider and myself in attendance on Her Majesty. A little to my embarrassment I was placed at table next the Emperor with whom I was not at all acquainted. It is true that I had often seen him at Tsarskoe and at Peterhof riding, or walking with his kennel of English collies, eleven magnificent animals in which he took great pride. But this time, on the Polar Star, was the first time I had been brought into personal contact with him. With the Empress I felt more at home, and this he knew, for he began almost at once to speak to me of her and of her great help to him in the pain and anxiety of the Japanese War. "Without her," he said with feeling, "I could never have endured the strain."
The war was again recalled by a visit on board the yacht from Count Witte, fresh from the Portsmouth Conference. As a reward for his work done there he received for the first time his title by which the world now knows him. During dinner he related with great gusto all his experiences in the United States, his triumph over the Japanese delegates, his popularity with the Americans, appearing very happy and satisfied with himself. The Emperor complimented him warmly, but Count Witte for all his talents was never a favorite with the Sovereigns.
Life on board the Polar Star was very informal, very lazy and agreeable. We sailed through the quiet waters of the Baltic, every day going ashore for walks, the Emperor and his staff sometimes shooting a little, but more often spending the time climbing rocks, hunting mushrooms and berries in the woods and meadows, and playing with the children to whom this country holiday was heavenly pleasure. Living long hours in the open air and indulging in so much vigorous exercise made me desperately sleepy so that I found myself drowsy at dinner and almost dead for sleep by the time the eleven o'clock tea hour came round. Everyone found my drowsiness a source of never-ending amusement, and once, after I had actually fallen asleep at tea and had nearly pitched out of my chair, the Emperor presented me with a silver matchbox with which he said I might prop my eyes open until bedtime.
There was, of course, a piano in the salon of the yacht, and the Empress and I found a new bond in our common love of music. We spent hours playing fourhand pieces, all our dearly loved classics, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and others. In our quiet hours with our music, and especially before going to bed, the Empress and I had many intimate conversations. As if to relieve a heart too much constrained to silence and solitude the Empress confided in me freely the difficulties of her life. From the first day of her coming to the Russian Court she felt herself disliked, and this was all the more a grief and mortification to her because her marriage with the Emperor was a true love match, and she ardently desired that their union should increase in the Russian people the loyalty and devotion they undoubtedly felt in those days for the House of Romanov.
All the stories of the reluctance of Alexandra Feodorovna to marry Nicholas 11 are absurdly untrue. As a small child she had been taken to Petrograd to the marriage of her older sister Elizabeth and the Grand Duke Serge. With the Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of Nicholas, she formed a warm friendship, and with the young heir himself she was on the best of terms. One day he presented her with a pretty little brooch which from very shyness she accepted but afterwards repenting, she returned, squeezing the gift into his hand in the course of a children's party. The young Tsarevich, much offended, or rather much hurt, passed the brooch on to his sister Xenia who, not knowing its history, cheerfully accepted it.
The attraction so early established increased with years and ripened into romantic love, yet Alexandra Feodorovna hesitated to accept Nicholas as her betrothed because of the change of religion which was necessary. Her home life at this time was not particularly happy. Her mother, Princess Alice of England, had died in her childhood, and now her father, the reigning Grand Duke of Hesse, died suddenly of a stroke of paralysis. Her brother Ernest, who inherited the title and who was of course her guardian, had made an unhappy marriage with Princess Victoria Melita of Coburg, and the home life of the family was not particularly pleasant. Later this marriage was dissolved, and in 19o8 Grand Duke Ernest was happily united to Princess Eleanor of Sohmslich. It was at his first marriage that Alexandra Feodorovna again met the Tsarevich, and from this time on he became a suitor. After their formal betrothal the young pair spent some happy weeks with Queen Victoria in England, where the match met with the approval of all the English relatives.
Emperor Alexander III was at this time lying mortally ill in the Summer Palace Livadia, in the Crimea, and when his condition became hopeless Alexandra Feodorovna, as the future Tsarina, was summoned to join the Imperial Family at his bedside. The dying Tsar rose from his sickbed and, dressed in full uniform, gave her the greeting due her dignity as a royal bride. From the rest of the family, unfortunately, she had a less cordial reception. The Empress and her ladies in waiting, Princess Oblenskaya and Countess Voronzova, were distant and formal, and the rest of the Court, as might be expected, followed their example. The whole atmosphere of the palace seemed to the young girl unwholesome and unsympathetic. Upstairs lay the dying Emperor, while below the suite lunched and dined and followed ordinary pursuits very much as though nothing untoward was happening. To Alexandra Feodorovna, accustomed to the intimacy of a small and much less formal Court, this behavior seemed unfeeling and unkind.
The end came suddenly one day when the Emperor, at the moment almost free from pain or weakness, was sitting in his armchair. The Empress Marie, quite overcome, fainted in the arms of Alexandra, who in that hour of extreme sorrow, prayed sincerely that she and her future mother-in-law might be drawn together in bonds of affection. But this, alas I was never to be.
The days that followed were gray and desolate for the young bride. The funeral procession of Alexander III wound slowly and solemnly from the Crimea to Petersburg, a journey of many days. The young Emperor, absorbed in his new duties, had little time to devote to the lonely, homesick girl, and indeed they hardly met before the morning of their marriage, a few days after the state funeral of the dead Emperor. The marriage took place in the church of the Winter Palace, and those who witnessed it have said that the bride, in her rich satin robes, looked very pale and unhappy. As she herself told me, the wedding seemed only a continuation of the long funeral ceremonies she had so lately attended.
Thus came Alexandra Feodorovna to Russia, nor did the weeks that followed her arrival bring her any happiness. To her friend Countess Rantsau, lady in waiting to Princess Irene of Prussia, she wrote:
I feel myself completely alone, and I am in despair that those who surround my husband are apparently false and insincere. Here nobody seems to do his duty for duty's sake, or for Russia, but only for his own selfish interests and for his own advancement. I weep and I worry all day long because I feel that my husband is so young and so inexperienced. He does not at all realize how they are all profiting at the expense of the State. What will come of it in the end? I am alone most of the time. My husband is all day occupied and he spends his evenings with his mother.
This was true, as Nicholas was very inexperienced and his mother's influence and, it must be said, her knowledge of affairs were very potent. All during the first year the Emperor and the two Empresses lived together in the Anichkov Palace on the Nevski Prospekt. Alexandra Feodorovna comforted herself with the thought that summer would bring her a real honeymoon in the Crimea. Meanwhile she and her young husband went for an occasional sledge ride together, about the only time granted them for confidences. Fortunately the first baby came soon and the second was soon expected. That autumn in the Crimea the Emperor was stricken with typhus and his wife insisted upon nursing him herself, hardly permitting his personal servant to assist her. Christmas was celebrated in his sickroom, his recovery having set in some weeks before. During these days of convalescence they went on solitary walks together, and the Emperor began to read with his wife, to confide in her with affection. When they went back to Petro. grad it was with every cloud dispelled, and the Empress a radiantly happy wife. However, the somewhat cold and distant manner acquired in the first unhappy months of her stay in Russia remained with her. Russia seemed to her an unfriendly land, and she was never able to present to it her really sunny and amiable disposition.
Not all of these confidences did the Empress impart to me on that first cruise I was privileged to share with her on the Polar Star. Little by little, then and later, I learned the story of her unhappy youth. But what she told me that summer seemed to relieve her mind, and she was more cheerful at the ending of the cruise than at the beginning. The commander of the yacht was good enough to tell me that I had broken down the wall of ice that seemed to surround Her Majesty, and that now she could be more easily approached. At the close of the voyage the Emperor said: "You are to go with us every year after this."
But dearest of all in my memory were the words of the Empress at parting: "Dear Anya, God has sent me a friend in you." And so I remained ever afterwards, not a courtier, not long a lady in waiting, or even a maid of honor, or in any capacity an official member of the Court, but merely a devoted and an intimate friend of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.
Next chapter: III
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