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C H A P T E R X I I I
The Czar on his Knees
ON that dark, stormy day when the Czar's English nurse died in the Winter Palace, I was in St. Petersburg, and I remember well how the wet snow fell from the blotched sky, and the wind whistled up the frozen Neva.
Wherever I went in Russia there was always present in my mind the figure of Alexander III., as I once saw him riding at the head of his cuirassiers -- an arrogant giant on a great black horse, towering above his soldiers, the incarnation of brute force, splendid and terrible. But I was yet to see the human nature hidden under that glittering helmet and breastplate.
The Czar was with his ministers when a messenger went to the Anitchkoff Palace to tell him that his nurse was dead and that her last words were of him.
Through the dull, harsh nature of Alexander there ran one stream of tenderness -- love for his English nurse, "Kitty," she who had mothered his boyhood. A more unimaginative monarch never sat on a throne. Lacking the sensitiveness of his father, he governed Russia pitilessly, although with a sense of honesty. But in the sternest hours of his iron reign his sluggish heart melted at the sound of one voice.
And she was dead. The autocrat of all the Russias went alone through the storm to the darkened room in the Winter Palace where his dead nurse lay awaiting the grave with peaceful upturned face and folded hands. The giant threw himself upon her body with a great cry, and, as he laid his head upon the cold bosom, the attendants withdrew and left him alone with his woe.
He lifted the frail form in his arms and carried it tenderly to the coffin. No hands should touch her but his. Then he arranged flowers about her head and kissed the still, white face until it was wet with his tears. For a long time he knelt there with bowed head, and when he came out of the hushed chamber there was a look in his face that no one had ever seen there before.
A whisper went about St. Petersburg that the Czar had ordered that none but himself and his brothers should keep watch over "Kitty's" coffin.
For the next two days the dashboards of the sleighs in the Russian capital dripped with slush. It rained and snowed alternately. While I sat one afternoon in the American Legation overlooking the river, with Mr. Charles Emory Smith, the American minister, -- looking through wreaths of tobacco smoke at a rude family of Laplanders, exhibiting their reindeer on the ice of the Neva, -- I heard more about the burly Czar and his sweet-faced English nurse.
Alexander was the second son; and, while his elder brother, the heir to the throne, was alive, the big, awkward boy was neglected. Little attention was paid to his mind. He was trained as a soldier, so that he might some day command the Imperial Guard. Even then he was the favorite child of the English nurse, and his sullen nature responded to her touch.
While the favored brother prepared himself to reign over Russia, and studied the principles of law and government, Alexander studied the soldier's task -- to destroy. He was known as the most powerful Russian of his age. His strength and his dull, overbearing manner inspired fear. None of his companions dared to challenge that rough temper and heavy hand. He was the natural soldier -- silent, domineering, fearless; quick to obey established authority, and harsh in command. In time he grew to be a giant, and it was said that he could kill a man by a single blow of his fist.
But to the dear little Englishwoman who taught him how to walk and how to pray, he was always "Sarsha," -- the Russian diminutive of Alexander, -- and to him she was always "Kitty." Even when he came home from the Turkish war, a successful general, he sought her out before all others. Lifting her up in his arms, he looked down into the pale face that had smiled upon him through all the loneliness of his gloomy boyhood, and then he passionately kissed her.
"What do you think of me now, Kitty?" he cried. "Have I satisfied you? Are you ashamed of your boy?"
"Ashamed? Ah!" -- and she leaned her head on his mighty breast, shedding tears for pure joy -- "you are a brave soldier, Sarsha, and a good son of your father. God be praised for all our victories! I am proud of you."
The burly soldier gave her a hug that she often spoke about, for even then he was known as one of the strongest men in Europe, and his hug was not always a joke. So great was the strength of his hands that he one day rolled up a silver plate and gave it as a souvenir to the German Emperor, who had begged him to display his muscles.
And when he learned, long after his brother's death, that his father had been assassinated, he went straight to his nurse and laid his head upon her shoulder like a child.
"Oh, Kitty! dear Kitty!" he sobbed, "they have killed my father! They have killed my father!"
She put her arm about his neck and talked to him in the old nursery tone, and presently he was comforted.
"Your Majesty must trust in God," she said gently.
"Your Majesty?" -- and he stroked her head tenderly -- "I am not an Emperor to you, Kitty. I am simply Sarsha, your boy Sarsha; always Sarsha. And you are Kitty, always, always Kitty. I will have it so, and I have now the right to command, you know."
Ah! would that her influence had followed and controlled him in the cruel years that were to come! How many homes might have been saved from ruin, how many lives might have been spared, how many hearts remained unbroken! Would that she had stood beside him, with her simple virtues and quick sympathy, when Loris Melikoff appealed to him to grant a constitution to the people of Russia! The history of Europe might have been changed. But it was not to be.
There was little to be known about the life of the Czar's nurse. She was a quiet, shy woman, rarely seen outside of the magnificent Winter Palace where she lived -- a patient, soft-voiced subject of Queen Victoria, modifying and subduing the hard nature of the man who lived to be her country's most dreaded enemy. But although her name is not enrolled among the Czar's advisers, she was one of the hidden forces that swayed the man whose lightest breath meant war or peace for the whole world. How many such influences lie concealed along the track of human progress, beyond the ken of history? How many loving women have spun their kindness and mercy into the mantles of majesty, unwept and unsung of the world?
While I sat there looking out over the dismal snows of the Neva and listening to tales of the autocrat and his nurse, there was a sudden stir in the street below the window, and excited men and women began to swarm along the edges of the road. A mounted cossack in a streaming crimson mantle galloped along the way, shouting directions to the policemen who kept the crowd back. His swarthy face was full of emotion. Evidently something extraordinary was about to happen. Even the Laps on the river ice left their reindeer and ran to join the multitude.
Just then the chasseur of the legation -- a blond whiskerando in gold lace and gorgeous plumes -- hurried into the room, in a state of agitation unprecedented in the history of that august person, and saluted the American minister.
"Your Excellency," he exclaimed, with rolling eyes and upraised hands, "the Emperor is coming along the quay on foot. He is actually walking behind the hearse. It is true. He will not ride. He is on foot -- the Emperor himself."
Then turning to me: --
"Now you can see for yourself whether the Czar can go out among his people or not."
I fear that the desire to see the curious spectacle made me forget my host. I rushed downstairs only to find that the crowd in the street had grown so great that nothing could be seen from the rear but a flashing crucifix swaying above the murmuring people and the fluttering plumes of the hearse.
"You must go in a sleigh to another street," said the chasseur. "You must not miss the sight, or you will never believe it." He seemed to be overcome with anxiety lest the American writer should lose the chance of seeing the master of the mighty Russian Empire trudging along on foot behind the coffin of his nurse.
"Hurry! please hurry!" he urged. "The Emperor carried the coffin to the hearse with his own hands. You will see, to-day, what a true man sits on the throne of Russia."
Calling an istvostchik, I jumped into his battered sleigh and promised him two rubles if he would get me around through a back street in time to see the head of the cortège.
Presently I stood in the crowd on the slush-covered quay and saw the solemn procession pass slowly on. First came the bearded Greek priest and the crucifix; and behind him walked several black-robed men carrying lighted lanterns on poles. Then came the little hearse. Behind it strode Alexander and his two brothers through the sodden snow, while the crowd made the sign of the cross. A few knelt down and touched the snow with their foreheads in the Eastern fashion.
The Czar towered above his brothers, a heavy gray coat buttoned closely about his giant figure, and his cloak flapping in the cold wind. A turban of gray astrakhan wool with a white aigrette covered his great head, and spurs jingled on his heavy boots. The three brothers walked side by side, the Czar in the middle. His face was pale, and his eyes showed that he had been weeping. Several times he seemed to stumble. I stood within ten feet of him, and could see that he was profoundly moved. Not once did he look away from the hearse which was carrying his English foster-mother to the grave.
Behind the Czar walked a group of Kitty's personal friends, mostly women, and among them -- so some one said -- several members of the imperial family. After them came a line of carriages with the well-known imperial livery. Every carriage was empty. The mourners were all on foot. A few mounted soldiers closed up the train.
Not a note of pomp violated the simple pathos of the scene. The autocrat was simply a man walking humbly and reverently after the corpse of the serene little woman who loved him. The sound of a tolling bell came faintly through the white drizzle. The Czar bowed his head. My rough istvostchik leaped from his seat and, kneeling in the snow, began to pray. A hoarse murmur ran from mouth to mouth: "The Emperor!" "Sarsha!" "It is he! It is he!" But the sorrowful monarch looked neither to the right nor the left. The blurred heavens grew darker, and the wind sifted the snow over the plumed hearse. The voice of the priest could be heard.
Oh, little gray English nurse! God has given it to some women to level all things by love!
It was a long way to the cemetery, but the Czar walked the whole distance. He sat in a pew of the Church of England for the first time, and watched the coffin at the altar railing.
"I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die."
The autocrat was on his knees, crying like a child. Kitty! Kitty! dost thou hear? dost thou see? Tears! tears for thee, Kitty!
I saw him again just before he entered the cemetery, his great face wet with weeping, and his head bowed. And while they lowered the coffin into a gap in the frozen ground, the keeper of the cemetery laid a piece of carpet -- the only thing of luxury in his house -- at the feet of his imperial lord, and the Czar sank to his knees.
"Catherine, servant of God --"
The Czar could go no farther. He crouched there with the snow falling on his bare head until the grave was filled up. As he turned away he looked back at the little mound and crossed himself. The lamp that lit his early feet was extinguished.
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