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Love affairs of the courts of Europe by Thornton Hall - HTML preview

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CHAPTER I

A COMEDY QUEEN

"It was to a noise like thunder, and close clasped in a soldier's embrace, that Catherine I. made her first appearance in Russian history."

History, indeed, contains few chapters more strange, more seemingly impossible, than this which tel s the story of the maid-of-al -work--the red-armed, illiterate peasant-girl who, without any dower of beauty or charm, won the idolatry of an Emperor and succeeded him on the greatest throne of Europe. So obscure was Catherine's origin that no records reveal either her true name or the year or place of her birth. Al that we know is that she was cradled in some Livonian village, either in Sweden or Poland, about the year 1685, the reputed daughter of a serf-mother and a peasant-father; and that her numerous brothers and sisters were known in later years by the name Skovoroshtchenko or Skovronski. The very Christian name by which she is known to history was not hers until it was given to her by her Imperial lover.

It is not until the year 1702, when the future Empress of the Russias was a girl of seventeen, that she makes her first dramatic appearance on the stage on which she was to play so remarkable a part. Then we find her acting as maid-servant to the Lutheran pastor of Marienburg, scrubbing his floors, nursing his children, and waiting on his resident pupils, in the midst of al the perils of warfare. The Russian hosts had for weeks been laying siege to Marienburg; and the Commandant, unable to defend the town any longer against such overwhelming odds, had announced his intention to blow up the fortress, and had warned the inhabitants to leave the town.

Between the alternatives of death within the wal s and the enemy without, Pastor Glueck chose the latter; and sallying forth with his family and maid-servant, threw himself on the mercy of the Russians who promptly packed him off to Moscow a prisoner. For Martha (as she seems to have been known in those days) a different fate was reserved. Her red lips, saucy eyes, and opulent figure were too seductive a spoil to part with, General Sheremetief decided, and she was left behind, a by no means reluctant hostage.

Peter's soldiers, now that victory was assured, were holding high revel of feasting and song and dancing. They received the new prisoner literal y with open arms, and almost before she had wiped the tears from her eyes, at parting from her nurslings, she was capering gaily to the music of hautboy and fiddle, with the arm of a stalwart soldier round her waist.

"Suddenly," says Waliszewski, "a fearful explosion overthrew the dancers, cut the music short, and left the servant-maid, fainting with terror, in the arms of a dragoon."

Thus did Martha, the "Siren of the Kitchen," dance her way into Russian history, little dreaming, we may be sure, to what dizzy heights her nimble feet were to carry her. For a time she found her pleasure in the attentions of a non-commissioned officer, sharing the life of camp and barracks and making friends by the good-nature which bubbled in her, and which was always her chief charm. When her sergeant began to weary of her, she found a humble place as laundry-maid in the household of Menshikoff, the Tsar's favourite, whose shirts, we are told, it was her privilege to wash; and who, it seems, was by no means insensible to the buxom charms of this maid of the laundry. At any rate we find Menshikoff, when he was spending the Easter of 1706 at Witebsk, writing to his sister to send her to him.

But a greater than Menshikoff was soon to appear on the scene--none other than the Emperor Peter himself. One day the Tsar, cal ing on his favourite, was astonished to see the cleanliness of his surroundings and his person. "How do you contrive," he asked, "to have your house so wel kept, and to wear such fresh and dainty linen?" Menshikoff's answer was

"to open a door, through which the sovereign perceived a handsome girl, aproned, and sponge in hand, bustling from chair to chair, and going from window to window, scrubbing the window-panes"--a vision of industry which made such a powerful appeal to His Majesty that he begged an introduction on the spot to the lady of the sponge.

The most daring writer of fiction could scarcely devise a more romantic meeting than this between the autocrat of Russia and the red-armed, bustling cleaner of the window-panes, and he would certainly never have ventured to build on it the romance of which it was the prelude. What it was in the young peasant-woman that attracted the Emperor it is impossible to say. Of beauty she seems to have had none--save perhaps such as lies in youth and rude health.

We look at her portraits in vain to discover a trace of any charm that might appeal to man. Her pictures in the Romanof Gallery at St Petersburg show a singularly plain woman with a large, round peasant-face, the most conspicuous feature of which is a hideously turned-up nose. Large, protruding eyes and an opulent bust complete a presentment of the typical household drudge--"a servant-girl in a German inn." But Peter the Great, who was ever abnormal in all his tastes and appetites, was always more ready to make love to a woman of the people than to the most beautiful and refined of his Court ladies. His standard of taste, as of manners, has not inaptly been likened to that of a Dutch sailor.

But whatever it was in the low-born laundry-woman that attracted the Tsar of Russia, we know that this first unconventional meeting led to many others, and that before long Catherine (for we may now call her by the name she made so famous) was removed from his favourite's household and instal ed in the Imperial harem where, for a time at least, she seems to have shared her favours indiscriminately between her old master and her new--"an obscure and complaisant mistress"--until Menshikoff final y resigned al rights in her to his sovereign.

When Catherine took up her residence in her new home, Waliszewski tel s us, "her eye shortly fel on certain magnificent jewels. Forthwith, bursting into tears, she addressed her new protector: 'Who put these ornaments here? If they come from the other one, I will keep nothing but this little ring; but if they come from you, how could you think I needed them to make me love you?'"

If Catherine lacked physical graces, this and many another story prove that she had a rare gift of diplomacy. She had, moreover, an unfailing cheerfulness and goodness of heart which quickly endeared her to the moody and capricious Peter. In his frequent fits of nervous irritability which verged on madness, she alone had the power to soothe him and restore him to sanity. Her very voice had a magic to arrest him in his worst rages, and when the fit of madness (for such it undoubtedly was) was passing away she would "take his head and caress it tenderly, passing her fingers through his hair. Soon he grew drowsy and slept, leaning against her breast. For two or three hours she would sit motionless, waiting for the cure slumber always brought him, until at last he awoke cheerful and refreshed."

Thus each day the Livonian peasant-woman took deeper root in the heart of the Emperor, until she became indispensable to him. Wherever he went she was his constant companion--in camp or on visits to foreign Courts, where she was received with the honours due to a Queen. And not only were her presence and her ministrations infinitely pleasant to him; her prudent counsel saved him from many a blunder and mad excess, and on at least one occasion rescued his army from destruction.

So strong was the hold she soon won on his affection and gratitude that he is said to have married her secretly within three years of first setting eyes on her. Her future and that of the children she had borne to him became his chief concern; and as early as 1708, when he was leaving Moscow to join his army, he left behind him a note: "If, by God's will, anything should happen to me, let the 3000 roubles which will be found in Menshikoff's house be given to Catherine Vassilevska and her daughter."

But whatever the truth may be about the alleged secret marriage, we know that early in 1712, Peter, in his Admiral's uniform, stood at the altar with the Livonian maid-servant, in the presence of his Court officials, and with two of her own little daughters as bridesmaids. The wedding, we are told, was performed in a little chapel belonging to Prince Menshikoff, and was preceded by an interview with the Dowager-Empress and his Princess sisters, in which Peter declared his intention to make Catherine his wife and commanded them to pay her the respect due to her new rank. Then fol owed, in brilliant sequence, State dinners, receptions, and balls, at al of which the laundress-bride sat at her husband's right hand and received the homage of his subjects as his Queen.

Picture now the woman who but a few years earlier had scrubbed Pastor Glueck's floors and cleaned Menshikoff's window-panes, in al her new splendours as Empress of Russia. The portraits of her, in her unaccustomed glories, are far from flattering and by no means consistent. "She showed no sign of ever having possessed beauty," says Baron von Poel nitz; "she was tall and strong and very dark, and would have seemed darker but for the rouge and whitening with which she plastered her face."

The picture drawn by the Margravine of Baireuth is still less attractive: "She was short and huddled up, much tanned, and utterly devoid of dignity or grace. Muffled up in her clothes, she looked like a German comedy-actress. Her old-fashioned gown, heavily embroidered with silver, and covered with dirt, had been bought in some old-clothes shop.

The front of her skirt was adorned with jewels, and she had a dozen orders and as many portraits of saints fastened al along the facings of her dress, so that when she walked she jingled like a mule."

But in the eyes of one man at least--and he the greatest in al Russia--she was beautiful. His al egiance never wavered, nor indeed did that of his army, which idolised her to a man. She might have no boudoir graces, but at least she was the typical soldier's wife, and cut a brave figure, as she reviewed the troops or rode at their head in her uniform and grenadier cap. She shared al the hardships and dangers of campaigns with a smile on her lips, sleeping on the hard ground, and standing in the trenches with the bul ets whistling about her ears, and men dropping to right and left of her.

Nor was there ever a trace of vanity in her. She was as proud of her humble origin as if she had been cradled in a palace. To princes and ambassadors she would talk freely of the days when she was a household drudge, and loved to remind her husband of the time when his Empress used to wash shirts for his favourite. "Though, no doubt, you have other laundresses about you," she wrote to him once, "the old one never forgets you."

The letters that passed between this oddly assorted couple, if couched in terms which could scarcely see print in our more restrained age, are eloquent of affection and devotion. To Peter his kitchen-Queen was

"friend of my Heart," "dearest Heart," and "dear little Mother." He complains pathetical y, when away with his army, "I am dul without you--and there is nobody to take care of my shirts." When Catherine once left him on a round of visits, he grew so impatient at her absence that he sent a yacht to bring her back, and with it a note: "When I go into my rooms and find them deserted, I feel as if I must rush away at once.

It is all so empty without thee."

And each letter is accompanied by a present--now a watch, now some costly lace, and again a lock of his hair, or a simple bunch of dried flowers, while she returns some such homely gift as a little fruit or a fur-lined waistcoat. On both sides, too, a vein of jocularity runs through the letters, as when Catherine addresses him as "Your Excel ency, the very illustrious and eminent Prince-General and Knight of the crowned Compass and Axe"; and when Peter, after the Peace of Nystadt, writes: "According to the Treaty I am obliged to return all Livonian prisoners to the King of Sweden. What is to become of thee, I don't know." To which she answers, with true wifely (if affected) humility: "I am your servant; do with me as you will; yet I venture to think you won't send _me_ back."

Quite idyllic, this post-nuptial love-making between the great Emperor and his low-born Queen, who has so possessed his heart that no other woman, however fair, could wrest it from her. And in her exalted position of Empress she practised the same diplomatic arts by which she had won Peter's devotion. Politics she left severely alone; she turned a forbidding back on all attempts to involve her in State intrigues, but she was ever ready to protect those who appealed to her for help, and to use her influence with her husband to procure pardon or lighter punishment for those who had fal en under his displeasure.

Nor did she forget her poor relations in Livonia. One brother, a postillion, she openly acknowledged, introduced to her husband, and obtained a liberal pension for him; and to her other brothers and sisters she sent frequent presents and sums of money. More she could not wel do during her husband's lifetime, but when she in turn came to the throne, she brought the whole family--postillion, shoemaker, farm-labourer and serf, their wives and families--to her capital, instal ed them in sumptuous apartments in her palaces, decked them in the finest Court feathers, and gave them large fortunes and titles of nobility.

When the Tsar's quarrel with his eldest son came to its tragic _denouement_ in Alexis' death, her own son became heir presumptive to the throne of Russia. And thus the chain that bound Peter to his Empress received its completing link. It only remained now to place the crown formally on the head of the mother of the new heir, and this supreme honour was hers in the month of May, 1729.

Wonderful tales are told of the splendours of Catherine's coronation. No existing crown was good enough for the ex-maid-of-all-work, so one of special magnificence was made by the Court jewel ers--a miracle of diamonds and pearls, crowned by a monster ruby--at a cost of a million and a half roubles. The Coronation gown, which cost four thousand roubles, was made at Paris; and from Paris, too, came the gorgeous coach with its blaze of gold and heraldry, in which the Tsarina made her triumphal progress through the streets of the capital from the Winter Palace. The culminating point of this remarkable ceremony came when, after Peter had placed the crown on his wife's head, she sank weeping at his feet and embraced his knees.

Catherine, however, had not worn her crown many months when she found herself in considerable danger of losing not only her dignities but even her liberty. For some time, it is said, she had been engaged in a liaison with William Mons, a handsome, gay young courtier, brother to a former mistress of the Tsar. The love affair had been common knowledge at the Court--to all but Peter himself, and it was accident that at last opened his eyes to his wife's dishonour. One moonlight night, so the story is told, he chanced to enter an arbour in the palace gardens, and there discovered her in the arms of her lover.

His vengeance was swift and terrible. Mons was arrested the same night in his rooms, and dragged fainting into the Tsar's presence, where he confessed his disloyalty. A few days later he was beheaded, at the very moment when the Empress was dancing a minuet with her ladies, a smile on her lips, whatever grief was in her heart. The fol owing day she was driven by her husband past the scaffold where her lover's dead body was exposed to public view--so close, in fact, that her dress brushed against it; but, without turning her head, she kept up a smiling conversation with the perpetrator of this outrage on her feelings.

Still not content with his revenge, Peter next placed the dead man's head, enclosed in a bottle of spirits of wine, in a prominent place in the Empress's apartments; and when she still smilingly ignored its horrible proximity, his anger, hitherto repressed, blazed forth fiercely. With a blow of his strong fist he shattered a priceless Venetian vase, shouting, "Thus will I treat thee and thine"--to which she calmly responded, "You have broken one of the chief ornaments of your palace; do you think you have increased its charm?"

For a time Peter refused to be propitiated; he would not speak to his wife, or share her meals or her room. But she had "tamed the tiger" many a time before, and she was able to do it again. Within two months she had won her way back into full favour, and was once more the Tsar's dearest _Katierinoushka._

A month later Peter was dead, carrying his love for his peasant-Empress to the grave, and Catherine was reigning in his stead, able at last to conduct her amours openly--spending her nights in shameless orgies with her lovers, and leaving the rascally Menshikoff to do the ruling, until death brought her amazing career to an end within sixteen months of mounting her throne.