Part 1: Childhood, Section 5
Part 1: Childhood, Section 5
When I was in my eighth year, the next step in my career was taken, in a quite unforseen way. I do not know exactly on what occasion it happened, but probably it was on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nicholas I.'s accession, when great festivities were arranged for at Moscow. The imperial family were coming to the old capital, and the Moscow nobility intended to celebrate this event by a fancy-dress ball, in which children were to play an important part. It was agreed that the whole motley crowd of nationalities of which the population of the Russian Empire is composed should be represented at this ball to greet the monarch. Great preparations went on in our house, as well as in all the houses of our neighborhood. Some sort of remarkable Russian costume was made for our stepmother. Our father, being a military man, had to appear, of course, in his uniform; but those of our relatives who were not in the military service were as busy with their Russian, Greek, Caucasian, and Mongolian costumes as the ladies themselves. When the Moscow nobility gives a ball to the imperial family, it must be something extraordinary. As for my brother Alexander and myself, we were considered too young to take part in so important a ceremonial.
And yet, after all, I did take part in it. Our mother was an intimate friend of Madame Nazímoff, the wife of the general who was governor of Wilno when the emancipation of the serfs began to be spoken of. Madame Nazímoff, who was a very beautiful woman, was expected to be present at the ball with her child, about ten years old, and to wear some wonderfully beautiful costume of a young Persian princess, in harmony with which the costume of a young Persian prince, exceedingly rich, with a belt covered with jewels, was made ready for her son. But the boy fell ill just before the ball, and Madame Nazímoff thought that one of the children of her best friend would be the best substitute for her own child. Alexander and I were taken to her house to try on the costume. It proved to be too short for Alexander, who was much taller than I, but it fitted me exactly, and therefore it was decided that I should impersonate the Persian prince.
The immense hall of the house of the Moscow nobility was crowded with guests. Each of the children received standard bearing at its top the arms of one of the sixty provinces of the Russian Empire. I had an eagle floating over a blue sea, which represented, as I learned later on, the arms of the government of Astrakhan, on the Caspian sea. We were then ranged at the back of the great hall, and slowly marched in two rows toward the raised platform upon which the Emperor and his family stood. As we reached it we marched right and left, and thus stood aligned in one row before the platform. At a given signal all standards were lowered before the Emperor. the apotheosis of autocracy was made most impressive: Nicholas was enchanted. All provinces of the empire worshiped the supreme ruler. Then we children slowly retired to the rear of the hall.
But here some confusion occurred. Chamberlains in their gold-embroidered uniforms were running about, and I was taken out of the ranks; my uncle, Prince Gagárin, dressed as a Tungus (I was dizzy with admiration of his fine leather coat, his bow, and his quiver of arrows), lifted me up in his arms, and planted me upon the imperial platform.
Whether it was because I was the tiniest in the row of boys, or that my round face, framed in curls, looked funny under the high Astrakhan fur bonnet I wore, I know not, but Nicholas wanted to have me on the platform; and there I stood amid generals and ladies looking down upon me with curiosity. I was told later on that Nicholas I., who was always fond of barrack jokes, took me by the arm, and, leading me to Marie Alexándrovna (the wife of the heir to the throne), who was then expecting her third child, said in his military way, " That is the sort of boy you must bring me," - a joke which made her blush deeply. I well remember, at any rate, Nicholas asking me whether I would have sweets; but I replied that I should like to have some of those tiny biscuits which were served with tea (we were never over-fed at home), and he called a waiter and emptied a full tray into my tall bonnet. "I will take them to Sásha," I said to him.
However, the soldier-like brother of Nicholas, Mikhael, who had the reputation of being a wit, managed to make me cry. "When you are a good boy," He said, "They treat you so," and he passed his big hand over my face downward; "but when you are naughty, they treat you so," and he passed his hand upwards, rubbing my nose, which already had a marked tendency toward growing in that direction. Tears, which I vainly tried to stop, came into my eyes. The ladies at once took my part, and the good hearted Marie Alexándrovna took me under her protection. She set me by her side, in a high velvet chair with a gilded back, and our people told me afterwards that I very soon put my head in her lap and went to sleep. She did not leave the chair during the whole time the ball was going on.
I remember also that, as we were waiting in the entrance hall for our carriage, our relatives petted and kissed me saying, "Pétya, you have been made a page;" but I answered, "I am not a page. I will go home," and was very anxious about my bonnet which contained the pretty little biscuits that I was taking home for Sásha.
I do not know whether Sásha got many of those biscuits, but I recollect what a hug he gave me when he was told about my anxiety concerning the bonnet.
To be inscribed as a candidate for the corps of pages was then a great favor, which Nicholas seldom bestowed upon Moscow nobility. My father was delighted, and already dreamed of a brilliant court career for his son. My stepmother, every time she told the story, never failed to add, "It was because I gave him my blessing before he went to the ball."
Madame Nazímoff was delighted too, and insisted upon having her portrait painted in the costume in which she looked so beautiful, with me standing at her side.
My brother Alexander's fate, also, was decided next year. the jubilee of the Izmáylovsk regiment, to which my father had belonged in his youth, was celebrated about this time in St. Petersburg. one night while all the household was plunged in deep sleep, a three-horse carriage, ringing with bells attached to the harness, stopped at our gate. A man jumped out of it, loudly shouting, "Open! An ordinance from his majesty the Emperor."
One can easily imagine the terror which this nocturnal visit spread in our house. My father, trembling, went down to his study. "Court-martial, degradation as a soldier," were words which rang then in the ears of every military man; it was a terrible epoch. But Nicholas simply wanted to have the names of sons of all the officers who had once belonged to the regiment, in order to send the boys to military schools, if that had not yet been done. A special messenger had been dispatched for that purpose from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and was now calling day and night at the houses of ex-Izmáylovsk officers.
With a shaking hand, my father wrote that his eldest son, Nicholas, was already in the first corps of cadets at Moscow; that his youngest son, Peter, was a candidate for the corps of pages; and that there remained only his second son, Alexander, who had not yet entered the military career. a few weeks later came a paper informing father of the "monarch's favor." Alexander was ordered to enter a corps of cadets in Orel, a small provincial town. it cost my father a deal of trouble and a large sum of money to get Alexander sent to a corps of cadets at Moscow. This new "favor" was obtained only in consideration of the fact that our elder brother was in that corps.
And thus, owing to the will of Nicholas I., we had both to receive a military education, though, before we were many years older, we simply hated the military career for its absurdity. But Nicholas was watchful that none of the sons of the nobility should embrace any other profession than the military one, unless they were of infirm health; and so we had all three to be officers, to the great satisfaction of my father.
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