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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager



IT was late in 1898 that I was chosen to take charge of the little Grand Duchesses of Russia, and early the following year I set off for the land of the Czar.

It had been arranged that a Royal messenger should meet me in Berlin, and I was to have travelled under his escort to St. Petersburg. But in case of any failure of the plan, the friend who had kindly undertaken to smooth all difficulties in the travelling gave me a telegram for the Empress's Chancellor to be sent off from the frontier.

On arriving in Berlin I was met by a servant from the Embassy, armed with an immense white linen bag, tied round with red tape and sealed with several great seals. To my dismay I was asked to take charge of the bag and deliver it safely to a messenger from the Embassy in St. Petersburg, who should meet me at the station there.

The ambassador sent me a letter telling me that I should in no wise lose sight of the bag on the journey, and that I should not allow it to be examined by the Custom House officials, nor by the Police.

Before leaving England I had been told that the Empress would send a servant to the frontier to meet me, who would look after my luggage and help me generally on the rest of the journey; so, feeling sure that my troubles would end there, I undertook the charge of the bag. I fear that had I known the trouble it would be to me before the end of the journey, I should have declined to be burdened with it.

I had been given a passport for the bag, and on arriving at the frontier, I walked up to a gentleman in uniform, presented the passport, and asked if there was anyone to meet me. There was no one, but the gentleman gave me into the charge of a porter and told him to help me, so I followed him about like a pet dog, only refusing to part with my precious bag.

I sent off a telegram to the Winter Palace, and had my luggage examined. Oh! What an examination it was! Everything I possessed was turned out of my trunks, and they even put their hands into my boots and gloves. I then had to pay sixpence for the examination of each trunk. Finally, I heard my name called by an official, so made my way to him and received my passport, which had been taken up for examination. All being in order, I was at last released from durance vile; so I took my precious bag in my arms, and seated myself in the train. I had lunched at the frontier, as in Russia the trains have no. dining-cars; travellers have difficulty in securing refreshment on the way. The bag weighed heavily on my mind, and I dared not leave it unprotected in the train. I could not carry it in my arms to the refreshment-rooms, so I made up my mind that I should have to go without food.

Fortunately a lady in the train took compassion upon me, and with the help of a friend procured me a cup of tea and a sandwich. I may say here that the Russians are sympathetic and kind to a degree, and they are always willing to help a stranger in any way in their power.

My kind friend soon left. I then met with a rather unpleasant experience. The guard, on looking at my ticket, compelled me to change my carriage, as I had been travelling second-class with a first-class ticket. The compartment was very warm and the night very cold, so the difference of temperature was very trying, and I felt nervous and frightened. In solitary grandeur I continued my journey to St. Petersburg, where my precious bag and I safely arrived. I was met by a lady from the Winter Palace.

In vain I looked for someone to relieve me of the bag. On arriving at the Winter Palace, according to the Empress's orders I had lunched and retired. I had not long been asleep when I was roused by knocking at the door, and I, believing it to be Madame G., called out, "Come in." To my surprise a young man entered the room, saying, " I've come for that bag."

I begged him to leave the room until I rose and dressed. I felt doubtful at first about giving him the bag, but finally didso. His reason for coming to my room himself for it was that a servant in the Palace told him, when inquiring for me, that an English lunatic had arrived, carrying a great bag which she would not give up to anyone, so his only chance of getting it was to come up for it himself !

Hardly was he gone when Madame G. returned to conduct me to the Empress. I thought her then, and think her now, the handsomest woman I had ever seen. She is tall, statuesque in appearance, with very regular features and a high complexion.

She was wearing a mauve dress, as the mourning for the Queen of Denmark was not over. It was also the 2nd of February, the Purification of the Virgin, and a great feast in Russia, and Russians never wear black during a festival. The Empress received me in her boudoir -a lovely room, upholstered in mauve and silver brocade; the walls were hung with the same fabric, with a frieze of white wood decorated with trails and wreaths of wysteria painted on the wood. Wreaths of the same graceful plant adorned the ceiling. The furniture was made of Russian white wood.

She herself conducted me to the nurseries, where I saw my future charges, who were beautifully dressed, in honour of the festival, in transparent white muslin dresses trimmed with Brussels lace, and worn over pale-blue satin slips. Pale-blue sashes and shoulder ribbons completed their costumes. The little Grand Duchess Olga was at this time over three years of age. She was a very fine child, and had large blue-grey eyes and long golden curls. The Grand Duchess Tatiana was a year and a half; a very pretty child, remarkably like her mother, but delicate in appearance.

The Winter Palace is the largest building in Europe. It was begun by Peter the Great and finished by Catherine II., and is built in red sandstone. On one side there is a little enclosed garden, where in fine weather the children played and snowballed one another. The snow in the north of Russia does not cling together; it is too dry and powdery.

This garden is now enclosed by a red stone wall, surmounted by beautifully wrought iron railings, which were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition. I never saw the garden free from snow, but have been told that in summer it is beautiful with roses and lilac.

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