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Behind the Veil at the Russian Court

Catherine Radziwill

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Behind the Veil at the Russian Court, first published in 1913, is a book by Princess Catherine Radziwill, a Polish-Russian aristocrat, who was a prominent figure at the Imperial courts in Germany and Russia. The book covers the years 1855-1894, and 1894-1913.

This book has 251 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1913.

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Excerpt from 'Behind the Veil at the Russian Court'

IN the vast halls of the Winter Palace, on the 18th of February—the 2nd of March according to the Gregorian Calendar—of the year 1855, a great crowd was waiting amidst a profound silence and intense grief for news it expected as much as it dreaded.

In the large square in front of the big building which had seen enacted within its walls so many momentous events in the history of Russia and the life of its Tsars, another crowd was gathered. The whole of the long night it had stood there in the snow and cold, with its eyes fixed upon a corner window—that of the room where all knew their Sovereign lay dying. Women were seen weeping, for, in spite of what was said abroad, Nicholas was beloved by his people, and they felt that his demise, occurring as it did at a critical moment in the destinies of his Empire, was an event fraught with mighty consequences.

Inside the Palace all the dignitaries of the Court and the Military Authorities, as well as those of the Civil Service, also were keeping watch: a sad vigil, which already had lasted two days—days full of anxiety both for the present and for the future. From time to time a door was opened to let in a new arrival, or to give passage to a messenger from the sick-room. At once the messenger would be surrounded by eager questioners, but all that he could say was that, so far, there had been no change, though the doctors had not given up all hope.

Inside the dying monarch’s bedroom his family and a few trusted friends were gathered round the small camp bed upon which he was lying, fighting for breath. The Empress was sitting beside her Consort, holding his hand in hers. At the foot of the bed the Heir to the Throne was standing, his eyes fixed upon his father, and with tears slowly rolling down his cheeks. They all waited—waited for the last words of the mighty Sovereign for whom the gates of eternity were already opened. They all hoped for a sign, a farewell, a recommendation as to what was to be done when he would be no more; and in this sad watch they forgot time and aught else, even the news from the distant Crimea, where Russian soldiers were defending their country’s flag against an angry foe.

But the dying man had not forgotten. Slowly he raised himself upon his hard pillow and beckoned to him one of his trusted friends; with gasping breath he asked him: “Any news from Sebastopol?” and when answered that none had come, “A messenger must have arrived this morning; go and ask what news he has brought, and tell me—tell me everything.”

The friend went out; when he returned, his face was white, because he knew that the message which he brought was one of woe. But one thing he could tell, and that was that Sebastopol still held out, and that it could resist longer than the enemy expected. That he told. Nicholas listened in silence, and then in a clear voice, such as had not been heard since the beginning of his short illness, he said:

“I send them my thanks, my blessing, my gratitude; tell them so.”

The Heir to the Throne came closer to his father, and knelt beside him.

“Hear me, my son,” spoke the dying man. “You are going to be a great Emperor to-morrow. Love your people, do for them that which I was not able to do; conclude peace if you can, but an honourable peace. Do not trust to Austria, and do not forget its ingratitude for the help which I gave it in 1848. Austria is our enemy, I see it too late.... Love your mother, reverence her always, and do not allow your dreams to take the upper hand. A Sovereign has no right to dream. He can only work, and endure. I know you want to give the serfs their liberty; I have wished it too, and you will find among my papers documents concerning this subject; but, my son, take care: a nation easily abuses liberty if granted to it too soon. Do not estrange yourself from the nobility: it is the strength of Russia, together with our Holy Church; and remember that if you show yourself too great a Liberal, you will only create difficulties for yourself, and you will not die in your bed as I do; you will fall under an assassin’s knife.”

Profound silence reigned in the room after these solemn words had been spoken; the Empress was quietly crying, all the Imperial Family stood gathered round her. Nicholas I. scanned all these sorrowful faces, and sighed as if not seeing among them one whom he expected to be there, and from his parched lips came out one word, a single name: “Barbara.” Then the Empress got up, and going out of the room, returned soon in company with a woman whom she was holding by the hand. She led her to her husband’s bedside, saying softly: “Bid good-bye to him.”

Merci, madame,” was the broken reply, as, bending down, Mademoiselle Nélidoff kissed the Emperor’s hand, sobbing heartbrokenly as she did so; and he repeated the words after her, “Merci, Charlotte,” thus calling the wife of his youth by the name she bore in that past but not forgotten time when he first knew her, before the Crown of All the Russias had been put upon her head.

And that was all. The dying man only spoke to utter words of thanks to the faithful servants who surrounded him, and then his voice was heard no more, save to pray to the God to Whom he was about to give up his soul.

A priest was called, who gave him a last blessing, and then calmly, fearlessly, clinging to his wife’s hand and to a crucifix which he pressed upon his breast, Nicholas I. breathed his last.

The doors of the bedroom were thrown open, and Alexander II. appeared upon the threshold as he passed from the chamber of death into the Throne Room, where his courtiers were gathered. To them he said with a broken voice:

Au nom de mon père je vous remercie pour vos services, messieurs.” And later on, when the emotion of the first moment had passed, it was noticed and commented upon that the first words of the new Sovereign to his people had been uttered in French, as if to lay claim to the tendencies of which he had been suspected during his father’s reign.

At the same moment the large window opening on to the balcony overlooking the square in front of the Winter Palace was unclosed. An aide-de-camp general appeared, and addressing the crowd standing outside: “Our Most Gracious Sovereign the Emperor Nicholas Paulovitch is dead,” he said in a loud voice; “let us pray for his soul!”

The crowd fell upon their knees, and the chant of the solemn service rose and fell in harmonious cadence amidst the noises of the street, which were hushed as soon as the sad strains were heard.

So began a new reign.

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