Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 9
Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 9
In June, 1861, I was nominated sergeant of the corps of pages. Some of our officers, I must say, did not like the idea of it, saying that there would be no "discipline" with me acting as a sergeant; but it could not be helped; it was usually the first pupil of the upper form who was nominated sergeant, and I had been at the top of our form for several years in succession. This appointment was considered very enviable, not only because the sergeant occupied a privileged position in the school and was treated like an officer, but especially because he was also the page de chambre of the Emperor for the time being; and to be personally known to the Emperor was of course considered as a stepping-stone to further distinctions. The most important point to me was however, that it freed me from all the drudgery of the inner service of the school, which fell on the pages de chambre, and that I should have for my studies a separate room, where I could isolate myself from the bustle of the school. True, there was also an important drawback to it: I had always found it tedious to pace up and down, many times a day, the whole length of our rooms, and used therefore to run the distance full speed, which was severely prohibited; and now I should have to walk very solemnly, with the service-book under my arm, instead of running! A consultation was even held among a few friends of mine upon this serious matter, and it was decided that from time to time I could still find opportunities to take my favorite runs; as to my relations with all the others, it depended upon myself to put them on a new comrade-like footing, and this I did.
The pages de chambre had to be at the palace frequently, in attendance at the great and small levees, the balls, the receptions, the gala dinners, and so on. During Christmas, New Year, and Easter weeks we were summoned to the palace almost every day, and sometimes twice a day. Moreover, in my military capacity of sergeant I had to report to the Emperor every Sunday, at the parade in the riding-school, that "all was well at the company of the corps of pages," even when one third of the school was ill of some contagious disease. "Shall I not report to-day that all is not quite well?" I asked the colonel on this occasion. "God bless you," was his reply, "you ought only to say so if there were an insurrection!"
Court life has undoubtedly much that is picturesque about it. With its elegant refinement of manners, --- superficial though it may be, --- its strict etiquette, and its brilliant surroundings, it is certainly meant to be impressive. A great levee is a fine pageant, and even the simple reception of a few ladies by the Empress becomes quite different from a common call, when it takes place in a richly decorated drawing-room of the palace, --- the guests ushered by chamberlains in gold-embroidered uniforms, the hostess followed by brilliantly dressed pages and a suite of ladies, and everything conducted with striking solemnity. To be an actor in the court ceremonies, in attendance upon the chief personages, offered something more than the mere interest of curiosity for a boy of my age. Besides, I then looked upon Alexander II. as a sort of hero; a man who attached no importance to the court ceremonies, but who, at this period of his reign, began his working day at six in the morning, and was engaged in a hard struggle with a powerful reactionary party in order to carry through a series of reforms, in which the abolition of serfdom was only the first step.
But gradually, as I saw more of the spectacular side of court life, and caught now and then a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes, I realized not only the futility of these shows and the things they were intended to conceal, but also that these small things so much absorbed the court as to prevent consideration of matters of far greater importance. The realities were often lost in the acting. And then from Alexander II. himself slowly faded the aureole with which my imagination had surrounded him; so that by the end of the year, even if at the outset I had cherished some illusions as to useful activity in the spheres nearest to the palace, I should have retained none.
On every important holiday, as also on the birthdays and name days of the Emperor and Empress, on the coronation day, and on other similar occasions, a great levee was held at the palace. Thousands of generals and officers of all ranks, down to that of captain, as well as the high functionaries of the civil service, were arranged in lines in the immense halls of the palace, to bow at the passage of the Emperor and his family, as they solemnly proceeded to the church. All the members of the imperial family came on those days to the palace, meeting together in a drawing-room, and merrily chatting till the moment arrived for putting on the mask of solemnity. Then the column was formed. The Emperor, giving his hand to the Empress, opened the march. He was followed by his page de chambre, and he in turn by the general aide-de-camp, the aide-de-camp on duty that day, and the minister of the imperial household; while the Empress, or rather the immense train of her dress, was attended by her two pages de chambre, who had to support the train at the turnings and to spread it out again in all its beauty. The heir apparent, who was a young man of eighteen, and all the other grand dukes and duchesses came next, in the order of their right of succession to the throne, --- each of the grand duchesses followed by her page de chambre; then there was a long procession of the ladies in attendance, old and young, all wearing the so-called Russian costume, --- that is, an evening dress which was supposed to resemble the costume worn by the women of Old Russia.
As the procession passed, I could see how each of the eldest military and civil functionaries, before making his bow, would try to catch the eye of the Emperor, and if he had his bow acknowledged by a smiling look of the Czar, or by a hardly perceptible nod of the head, or perchance by a word or two, he would look round upon his neighbors, full of pride, in the expectation of their congratulations.
From the church the procession returned in the same way, and then every one hurried back to his own affairs. Apart from a few devotees and some young ladies, not one in ten present at these levees regarded them otherwise than as a tedious duty.
Twice or thrice during the winter great balls were given at the palace, and thousands of people were invited to them. After the Emperor had opened the dances with a polonaise, full liberty was left to every one to enjoy the time as he liked. There was plenty of room in the immense brightly illuminated halls, where young girls were easily lost to the watchful eyes of their parents and aunts, and many thoroughly enjoyed the dances and the supper, during which the young people managed to be left to themselves.
My duties at these balls were rather difficult. Alexander II. did not dance, nor did he sit down, but he moved all the time among his guests, his page de chambre having to follow him at a distance, so as to be within easy call, and yet not inconveniently near. This combination of presence with absence was not easy to attain, nor did the Emperor require it: he would have preferred to be left entirely to himself; but such was the tradition, and he had to submit to it. The worst was when he entered a dense crowd of ladies who stood round the circle in which the grand dukes danced, and slowly circulated among them. It was not at all easy to make a way through this living garden, which opened to give passage to the Emperor, but closed in immediately behind him. Instead of dancing themselves, hundreds of ladies and girls stood there, closely packed, each in the expectation that one of the grand dukes would perhaps notice her and invite her to dance a waltz or a polka. Such was the influence of the court upon St. Petersburg society that if one of the grand dukes cast his eye upon a girl, her parents would do all in their power to make their child fall madly in love with the great personage, even though they knew well that no marriage could result from it, --- the Russian grand dukes not being allowed to marry "subjects" of the Czar. The conversations which I once heard in a "respectable" family, connected with the court, after the heir apparent had danced twice or thrice with a girl of seventeen, and the hopes which were expressed by her parents surpassed all that I could possibly have imagined.
Every time that we were at the palace we had lunch or dinner there, and the footmen would whisper to us bits of news from the scandalous chronicle of the place, whether we cared for it or not. They knew everything that was going on in the different palaces, --- that was their domain. For truth's sake, I must say that during the year which I speak of, that sort of chronicle was not as rich in events as it became in the seventies. The brothers of the Czar were only recently married, and his sons were all very young. But the relations of the Emperor himself with the Princess X., whom Turguéneff has so admirably depicted in "Smoke" under the name of Irène, were even more freely spoken of by the servants than by St. Petersburg society. One day, however, when we entered the room where we used to dress, we were told, "The X. has to-day got her dismissal, --- a complete one this time." Half an hour later, we saw the lady in question coming to assist at mass, with eyes swollen from weeping, and swallowing her tears during the mass, while the other ladies managed so to stand at a distance from her as to put her in evidence. The footmen were already informed about the incident, and commented upon it in their own way. There was something truly repulsive in the talk of these men, who the day before would have crouched down before the same lady.
The system of espionage which is exercised in the palace, especially around the Emperor himself, would seem almost incredible to the uninitiated. The following incident will give some idea of it. A few years later, one of the grand dukes received a severe lesson from a St. Petersburg gentleman. The latter had forbidden the grand duke his house, but, returning home unexpectedly, he found him in his drawing-room, and rushed upon him with his lifted stick. The young man dashed down the staircase, and was already jumping into his carriage, when the pursuer caught him, and dealt him a blow with his stick. The policeman who stood at the door saw the adventure and ran to report it to the chief of the police, General Trépoff, who, in his turn, jumped into his carriage and hastened to the Emperor, to be the first to report the "sad incident." Alexander II. summoned the grand duke and had a talk with him. A couple of days later, an old functionary who belonged to the Third Section of the Emperor's Chancery, --- that is; to the state police, --- and who was a friend at the house of one of my comrades, related the whole conversation. "The Emperor," he informed us, "was very angry, and said to the grand duke in conclusion, 'You should know better how to manage your little affairs.'" He was asked, of course, how he could know anything about a private conversation, but the reply was very characteristic: "The words and the opinions of his Majesty must be known to our department. How otherwise could such a delicate institution as the state police be managed? Be sure that the Emperor is the most closely watched person in all St. Petersburg."
There was no boasting in these words. Every minister, every governor-general, before entering the Emperor's study with his reports, had a talk with the private valet of the Emperor, to know what was the mood of the master that day; and, according to that mood, he either laid before him some knotty affair, or let it lie at the bottom of his portfolio in hope of a more lucky day. The governor-general of East Siberia, when he came to St. Petersburg, always sent his private aide-de-camp with a handsome gift to the private valet of the Emperor. "There are days," he used to say, "when the Emperor would get into a rage, and order a searching inquest upon every one and myself, if I should lay before him on such a day certain reports; whereas there are other days when all will go off quite smoothly. A precious man that valet is." To know from day to day the frame of mind of the Emperor was a substantial part of the art of retaining a high position, --- an art which later on Count Shuváloff and General Trépoff understood to perfection; also Count Ignátieff, who, I suppose from what I saw of him, possessed that art even without the help of the valet.
At the beginning of my service I felt a great admiration for Alexander II., the liberator of the serfs. Imagination often carries a boy beyond the realities of the moment, and my frame of mind at that time was such that if an attempt had been made in my presence upon the Czar, I should have covered him with my body. One day, at the beginning of January, 1862, I saw him leave the procession and rapidly walk alone toward the halls where parts of all the regiments of the St. Petersburg garrison were aligned for a parade. This parade usually took place outdoors, but this year, on account of the frost, it was held indoors, and Alexander II., who generally galloped at full speed in front of the troops at the reviews, had now to march in front of the regiments. I knew that my court duties ended as soon as the Emperor appeared in his capacity of military commander of the troops, and that I had to follow him to this spot, but no further. However, on looking round, I saw that he was quite alone. The two aides-de-camp had disappeared, and there was with him not a single man of his suite. "I will not leave him alone!" I said to myself, and followed him.
Whether Alexander II. was in a great hurry that day, or had other reasons to wish that the review should be over as soon as possible, I cannot say, but he dashed in front of the troops, and marched along their rows at such a speed, making such big and rapid steps, --- he was very tall, --- that I had the greatest difficulty in following him at my most rapid pace, and in places had almost to run in order to keep close behind him. He hurried as if running away from a danger. His excitement communicated itself to me, and every moment I was ready to jump in front of him, regretting only that I had on my ordnance sword and not my own sword, with a Toledo blade, which pierced copper and was a far better weapon. It was only after he had passed in front of the last battalion that he slackened his pace, and, on entering another hall, looked round, to meet my eyes glittering with the excitement of that mad march. The younger aide-decamp was running at full speed, two halls behind. I was prepared to get a severe scolding, instead of which Alexander II. said to me, perhaps betraying his own inner thoughts: "You here? Brave boy!" and as he slowly walked away, he turned into space that problematic, absentminded gaze, which I had begun often to notice.
Such was then the frame of my mind. However, various small incidents, as well as the reactionary character which the policy of Alexander II. was decidedly taking, instilled more and more doubts into my heart. Every year, on January 6, a half Christian and half pagan ceremony of sanctifying the waters is performed in Russia. It is also performed at the palace. A pavilion is built on the Nevá River, opposite the palace, and the imperial family, headed by the clergy, proceed from the palace, across the superb quay, to the pavilion, where a Te Deum is sung and the cross is plunged into the water of the river. Thousands of people stand on the quay and on the ice of the Nevá to witness the ceremony from a distance. All have to stand bareheaded during the service. This year, as the frost was rather sharp, an old general had put on a wig, and in the hurry of drawing on his cape, his wig had been dislodged and now lay across his head, without his noticing it. The Grand Duke Constantine, having caught sight of it, laughed the whole time the Te Deum was being sung, with the younger grand dukes, looking in the direction of the unhappy general, who smiled stupidly without knowing why he was the cause of so much hilarity. Constantine finally whispered to the Emperor, who also looked at the general and laughed.
A few minutes later, as the procession once more crossed the quay, on its way back to the palace, an old peasant, bareheaded too, pushed himself through the double hedge of soldiers who lined the path of the procession, and fell on his knees just at the feet of the Emperor, holding out a petition, and crying with tears in his eyes, "Father, defend us!" Ages of oppression of the Russian peasantry was in this exclamation; but Alexander II., who a few minutes before laughed during the church-service at a wig lying the wrong way, now passed by the peasant without taking the slightest notice of him. I was close behind him, and only saw in him a shudder of fear at the sudden appearance of the peasant, after which he went on without deigning even to cast a glance on the human figure at his feet. I looked round. The aides-de-camp were not there; the Grand Duke Constantine, who followed, took no more notice of the peasant than his brother did; there was nobody even to take the petition, so that I took it, although I knew that I should get a scolding for doing so. It was not my business to receive petitions, but I remembered what it must have cost the peasant before he could make his way to the capital, and then through the lines of police and soldiers who surrounded the procession. Like all peasants who hand petitions to the Czar, he was going to be put under arrest, for no one knows how long.
On the day of the emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II. was worshiped at St. Petersburg; but it is most remarkable that, apart from that moment of general enthusiasm, he had not the love of the city. His brother Nicholas --- no one could say why --- was at least very popular among the small tradespeople and the cabmen; but neither Alexander II., nor his brother Constantine, the leader of the reform party, nor his third brother, Mikhael, had won the hearts of any class of people in St. Petersburg. Alexander II. had retained too much of the despotic character of his father, which pierced now and then through his usually good-natured manners. He easily lost his temper, and often treated his courtiers in the most contemptuous way. He was not what one would describe as a truly reliable man, either in his policy or in his personal sympathies, and he was vindictive. I doubt whether he was sincerely attached to any one. Some of the men in his nearest surroundings were of the worst description, --- Count Adlerberg, for instance, who made him pay over and over again his enormous debts, and others renowned for their colossal thefts. From the beginning of 1862 he commenced to show himself capable of reviving the worst practices of his father's reign. It was known that he still wanted to carry through a series of important reforms in the judicial organization and in the army; that the terrible corporal punishmeants were about to be abolished, and that a sort of local self-government, and perhaps a constitution of some sort, would be granted. But the slightest disturbance was repressed under his orders with a stern severity: he took each movement as a personal offense, so that at any moment one might expect from him the most reactionary measures. The disorders which broke out at the universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kazán, in October, 1861, were repressed with an ever increasing strictness. The University of St. Petersburg was closed, and although free courses I were opened by most of the professors at the Town Hall, they were also soon closed, and some of the best professors left the university. Immediately after the abolition of serfdom, a great movement began for the opening of Sunday-schools; they were opened everywhere by private persons and corporations, --- all the teachers being volunteers, --- and the peasants and workers, old and young, flocked to these schools. Officers, students, even a few pages, became teachers; and such excellent methods were worked out that (Russian having a phonetic spelling) we succeeded in teaching a peasant to read in nine or ten lessons. But suddenly all Sunday-schools, in which the mass of the peasantry would have learned to read in a few years, without any expenditure by the state, were closed. In Poland, where a series of patriotic manifestations had begun, the Cossacks were sent out to disperse the crowds with their whips, and to arrest hundreds of people in the churches with their usual brutality. Men were shot in the streets of Warsaw by the end of 1861, and for the suppression of the few peasant insurrections which broke out, the horrible flogging through the double line of soldiers --- that favorite punishment of Nicholas I. --- was applied. The despot that Alexander II. became in the years 1870-81 was foreshadowed in 1862.
Of all the imperial family, undoubtedly the most sympathetic was the Empress Marie Alexándrovna. She was sincere, and when she said something pleasant, she meant it. The way in which she once thanked me for a little courtesy (it was after her reception of the ambassador of the United States, who had just come to St. Petersburg) deeply impressed me: it was not the way of a lady spoiled by courtesies, as an empress is supposed to be. She certainly was not happy in her home life; nor was she liked by the ladies of the court, who found her too severe, and could not understand why she should take so much to heart the étourderies of her husband. It is now known that she played a by no means unimportant part in bringing about the abolition of serfdom. But at that time her influence in this direction seems to have been little known, the Grand Duke Constantine and the Grand Duchess Hélène Pávlovna, who was the main support of Nicholas Milútin at the court, being considered the two leaders of the reform party in the palace spheres. The Empress was better known for the decisive part she had taken in the creation of girls' gymnasia (high schools), which received from the outset a high standard of organization and a truly democratic character. Her friendly relations with Ushínsky, a great pedagogist, saved him from sharing the fate of all men of mark of that time, --- that is, exile.
Being very well educated herself, Marie Alexándrovna did her best to give a good education to her eldest son. The best men in all branches of knowledge were sought as teachers, and she even invited for that purpose Kavélin, although she knew well his friendly relations with Hérzen. When he mentioned to her that friendship, she replied that she had no grudge against Hérzen, except for his violent language about the Empress dowager.
The heir apparent was extremely handsome, --- perhaps, even too femininely handsome. He was not proud in the least, and during the levees he used to chatter in the most comrade-like way with the pages de chambre. (I even remember, at the reception of the diplomatic corps on New Year's Day, trying to make him appreciate the simplicity of the uniform of the ambassador of the United States as compared with the parrot-colored uniforms of the other ambassadors.) However, those who knew him well described him as profoundly egoistic, a man absolutely incapable of contracting an attachment to any one. This feature was prominent in him, even more than it was in his father. As to his education, all the pains taken by his mother were of no avail. In August, 1861, his examinations, which were made in the presence of his father, proved to be a dead failure, and I remember Alexander II., at a parade of which the heir apparent was the commander, and during which he made some mistake, loudly shouting out, so that every one would hear it, "Even that you could not learn!" He died, as is known, at the age of twenty-two, from some disease of the spinal cord.
His brother, Alexander, who became the heir apparent in 1865, and later on was Alexander III., was a decided contrast to Nicholas Alexándrovich. He reminded me so much of Paul I., by his face, his figure, and his contemplation of his own grandeur, that I used to say, "If he ever reigns, he will be another Paul I. in the Gátchina palace, and will have the same end as his great-grandfather had at the hands of his own courtiers." He obstinately refused to learn. It was rumored that Alexander II., having had so many difficulties with his brother Constantine, who was better educated than himself, adopted the policy of concentrating all his attention on the heir apparent, and neglecting the education of his other sons; however, I doubt if such was the case: Alexander Alexándrovich must have been averse to any education from childhood; in fact, his spelling, which I saw in the telegrams he addressed to his bride at Copenhagen, was unimaginably bad. I cannot render here his Russian spelling, but in French he wrote, "Ecri à oncle à propos parade . . . les nouvelles sont mauvaisent," and so on.
He is said to have improved in his manners toward the end of his life, but in 1870, and also much later, he was a true descendant of Paul I. I knew at St. Petersburg an officer, of Swedish origin (from Finland), who had been sent to the United States to order rifles for the Russian army. On his return he had to report about his mission to Alexander Alexándrovich, who had been appointed to superintend the re-arming of the army. During this interview, the Tsarevich, giving full vent to his violent temper, began to scold the officer, who probably replied with dignity, whereupon the prince fell into a real fit of rage, insulting the officer in bad language. The officer, who belonged to that type of self-respecting but very loyal men who are frequently met with among the Swedish nobility in Russia, left at once, and wrote a letter in which he asked the heir apparent to apologize within twenty-four hours, adding that if the apology did not come, he would shoot himself. It was a sort of Japanese duel. Alexander Alexándrovich sent no excuses, and the officer kept his word. I saw him at the house of a warm friend of mine, his intimate friend, when he was expecting every minute to receive the apology. Next morning he was dead. The Czar was very angry with his son, and ordered him to follow the hearse of the officer to the grave. But even this terrible lesson did not cure the young man of his Romànoff haughtiness and impetuosity.
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