The article below can be viewed here.
It is from The International magazine of literature, art, and science Volume 5, Issue 4, Stringer & Townsend, New York, April 1852.
It is chapter 11 of Maître d'armes.
From Sharpe's Magazine.
FÊTE DAYS AT ST. PETERSBURG.
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF ALEXANDER DUMAS
BY JANE STRICKLAND.
EW-YEAR'S day and the Benediction of the Waters provide the inhabitants of St. Petersburg with two great national festivals, in which all classes share in the pleasures and devotion of the sovereign. The first is an imperial fête, the second an imposing religious ceremony.
On New-Year's day, in virtue of an old and touching custom by which the Emperor and Empress of Russia are designated by their poorest subjects Father and Mother, these potentates at the commencement of the year receive their children as their own invited guests. Their family being too vast to invite by name, they adopt the simple but efficacious plan of scattering about the streets of their capital twenty-five thousand cards of invitation, indicative that they will be at home to such a number of their children. These cards bear no address, but they give admission to the bearers to the splendid saloons of the Winter Palace without the slightest distinction of rank or wealth.
It was thus that the Emperor Alexander, according to custom, kept the first day of the year 1825, the last he was ever destined to see. The rumor of the conspiracy that embittered the closing months of his life and reign, though it had reached his ears and troubled his repose, did not appear to him any reason for depriving his subjects of their annual visit to their sovereign. From these unknown guests the Russian Autocrat felt assured he had nothing to fear. With them he was not only popular but adored. He therefore directed the Master of the Police to order no alteration in the usual costume of the male part of the company, whom he was to admit in masks according to custom on these occasions. In the darkest annals of barbarism, despotic sovereigns dreaded and often found the dagger of the assassin in the hands of some member of their own family. Civilization, however limited, changes the objects of suspicion to the aristocracy, who are always, under these unfortunate constitutions, of the military profession. Now the want of the counterpoise of the middle classes creates this secret but perpetual warfare between the absolute monarch and the nobility—the nobility who in free countries are the natural bulwark of the throne. In Russia the Autocrat is never afraid of the multitude, with whom he holds a two-fold claim to their veneration, as supreme pontiff, or head of the Church, and Czar.
The cards of invitation, being transferable, are, as a matter of course, purchaseable; and among his masked guests who were privileged to shake hands with Alexander, some cowardly assassin might take that opportunity to murder the sovereign; yet he, with a firm but touching reliance on God, ordered at seven o'clock on the New-Year's evening, the gates of the Winter Palace to be thrown open as usual, to his motley company.
No extra precautions were taken by the police; the sentinels were on duty, according to custom, at the palace gates, but the Emperor was without any guards in the interior of the imperial residence, vast as the Tuileries. In the absence of all precaution or even regulations for the behavior of an undisciplined crowd, it was surprising what natural politeness effected. Veneration for the presence of the sovereign was alone sufficient to produce good breeding; there was no pushing nor striving, nor clamor, and the entrance was made with as little noise as if gratitude for the favor accorded to the guests had induced each to give a precautionary admonition to his neighbor.
While the thronging thousands were gaining admission to his palace, the Emperor Alexander was seated by the Empress in the Hall of St. George in the midst of the imperial family, when the door was opened to the sound of music, for the saloons were filled with his visitors, and a grand coup d'œil of grandees, peasants, princesses, and grisettes was discerned. At this moment the Emperor advanced.and gave his hand to the English, French, Spanish, and Austrian ambassadors, the representatives of their several sovereigns. He then moved alone to the door, that his guests might behold in their sovereign and host the father of his people. It was a moment anarchy was said to have dedicated to his assassination, and that parricidal and regicidal act could have been easily effected at such a juncture had it really been in contemplation. Alexander was no longer in appearance a melancholy and suffering invalid, he looked happy and smiling; and if his smile was counterfeited, he wore the mask ably and well. The instant the Autocrat appeared, the motley group made a forward movement, and then a precipitate retreat. The danger vanished with them. The Emperor regarded the retiring waves of this human sea with imperturbable serenity, a remarkable feature in his character, a moral re-action, which a courageous mind can alone bestow, and which he had shown on several trying occasions. One of these was at a ball given by M. Caulincourt, Duke of Vicenza, the French Ambassador; the other was at a fête at Zakret, near Wilna.
The ball was at its height, when the ambassador was informed that the house was on fire; fearful that the news of the conflagration might occasion more ill consequences than the fire itself he posted an aide-de-camp at every door, and ordered his people to keep the misfortune a profound secret, after which he communicated the accident in a low voice to the Emperor, and assured him that no one should be permitted to withdraw till he and the imperial family were in perfect safety; he was going to see the fire extinguished, and he hoped the efforts made to get it under would be successful; adding, that even if a report should circulate in the saloons as to this startling fact, no one would credit it while they saw the Emperor and his family still there.
"Very well, then, I will remain," coolly remarked the Emperor; and when Caulincourt returned some time after to announce the extinction of the fire, he found the Russian Autocrat dancing a polonaise.
The guests of the ambassador heard on the morrow that their festivities had been kept over the mouth of a volcano.
At the fête held at Zakret not only the life but the empire of Alexander was at stake. In the middle of the dance he was apprised that the advanced guard of a guest he had forgotten to invite had passed the Niemen. This was the Emperor Napoleon, his old host at Erfurth, who might momentarily be expected to enter the hall, followed by six hundred thousand dancers. Alexander gave his orders with great coolness, chatting while he issued them with his aide-de-camps. He walked about, praised the manner in which the saloons were lighted, which he declared was only second to the beautiful moonlight, supped, and remained till dawn. His gay manner and the serenity of his countenance prevented the guests from even suspecting the nature of the communication he had received, and the entrance of the French into the city was the first intimation the inhabitants had received of their approach.
He was in imminent peril in this Polish city, from which his great self-command delivered him. His retreat at early morning was made before the approach of an enemy he had hitherto found invincible. Very different might have been the result of Napoleon's campaign in Russia, if the inhabitants of Wilna had known during the fête of Zakret of his vicinity.
These incidents naturally occurred to the guests of the Emperor Alexander, during this New-Year's day festival, when they beheld him approach alone to show himself to the multitude, amongst whom he had reason to believe many conspirators, or even assassins lurked. If such indeed were there, the calm serenity of his countenance disarmed them, and none dared raise an arm against the life he fearlessly trusted, if not to their loyalty at least to their honor.
Indeed the suffering and melancholy Emperor, the last time he received his people, seemed to have shaken off his lassitude and depression, and appeared full of life and energy, traversing with rapidity the immense saloons of the Winter Palace. He led off the sort of galoppe peculiar to the Russian Court, which, however, terminated about nine o'clock.
At ten, the illuminations of the Hermitage being finished, those persons who had cards for the spectacle went there. Twelve negroes, superbly arrayed in rich oriental costumes, kept the doors of the theatre, to admit or restrain the crowd, and examine the authenticity of the vouchers of the guests. Here the admission was not promiscuous, a certain number alone being allowed to be present at the banquet.
Upon entering the theatre, the spectators found themselves in a land of enchantment—a vast hall encircled with tubes of crystal, bent in every possible way, meeting at top in order to form the ceiling, united by silver threads of imperceptible fineness, behind which hung 10,000 colored lamps, whose light, reflected and refracted by these transparent columns, illuminated the gardens, groves, flowers, cascades, and fountains, like an enchanted landscape, which seen across this veil of light resembled the poetical phantasm of a dream. The splendid illuminations cost twelve thousand roubles, and lasted two months.
At eleven a flourish of musical instruments announced the arrival of the Emperor, who entered with the Empress and the imperial family, the ambassadors, the amnbassadresses, the officers of the household, and the ladies in waiting, who all took their places at the middle supper-table; two other tables were filled by six hundred guests, mostly composed of the first-class nobility. The Emperor alone remained standing, moving about the tables, conversing by turns with his numerous guests.
Nothing could exceed the magnificent effect produced by the banquet, and the appearance of the court; the sovereign and his officers and nobility covered with gold and embroidery, the Empress and her ladies glittering: with diamonds and splendid velvets, tissues, and satins. No other fête in Europe could produce such a grand coup d'œil as the New-Year's fête at the Hermitage. At the conclusion of the banquet the Court returned to the Saloon of St. George, where the music struck up a polonaise, which was led off by the Emperor. This dance was his farewell to his guests, for as soon as it was finished he withdrew. The departure of their sovereign gave pleasure to those loyal subjects who trembled for his pesonal safety; but the courageous and ever paternal confidence reposed in his subjects by Alexander, turned away from him every murderous weapon. No one could resolve to assassinate a kind father in the midst of his children, for as such the Emperor had received his numerous guests.
The second annual fête was of a religious character, "The Benediction of the Waters," to which the recent disastrous calamity of the most terrible inundation on record in Russia, the preceding year, had given deeper solemnity. The preparations were made with an activity tempered by care, which denoted the national character to be essentially religious. Upon the Neva a great pavilion was erected of a circular form, pierced with eight openings, decorated by four paintings, crowned with a cross; to this pavilion access was given by a jetty forming the hermitage. The temporary edifice, on the morning of the ceremony, was to have its pavement of ice cut through in order to permit the Patriarch to reach the water. The cold was already twenty degrees below zero, when at nine o'clock in the morning the whole population of St. Petersburg assembled themselves on the frozen waters of the Neva, then a solid mass of crystal. At half-past eleven the Empress and Grand-Duchesses took their places in the glass balcony of the Hermitage, and their appearance announced to the crowd that the Te Deum was concluded. The whole corps of the Imperial Guards, amounting to forty thousand men, marched to the sound of martial music and formed in line of battle on the river, from the hotel of the French embassy to the fortress. The palace gates opened as soon as this military evolution was effected, and the banners, sacred pictures, and the choristers of the chapel, appeared preceding the Patriarch and his clergy; then came the pages and the colors of the different regiments of guards, borne by their proper officers; then the Emperor, supported by the Grand-Dukes Nicholas and Michael, followed by the officers of his household, his aide-de-camps and generals. As soon as the Einperor reached the door of the pavilion, which was nearly filled with priests and banners, the Patriarchs gave the signal, and the sweet solemn chant of more than a hundred voices rose to heaven, unaccompanied by music indeed, yet forming a divine harmony hardly to be surpassed on earth. During the prayer, which lasted twenty minutes, the Emperor stood bareheaded, dressed in his uniform, without fur or any defence from the piercing cold, running more risk by this disregard to climate, than if he had faced the fire of a hundred pieces of artillery in the front of battle. The spectators, enveloped in fur mantles and caps, presented a complete contrast to the religious imprudence of their rash sovereign, who had been bald from his early youth.
As soon as the second Te Deum was concluded, the Patriarch took a silver cross from the hand of the young chorister, and encircled by the kneeling crowd, plunged it through the opening made in the ice into the waters below. He then filled a vase up with the consecrated element, which he presented to the Emperor. After this ceremonial of blessing of the waters came the benediction of the standards, which were reverently inclined towards the Patriarch for that purpose. A sky-rocket was immediately let off from the pavilion, and its silvery smoke was answered by a terrible explosion, for the whole artillery of the fortress gave from their metallic throats a loud Te Deum, and these salvos were heard three times during the benediction of the standards; at the third, the Emperor commenced his return to the palace.
He was more melancholy than usual, for during this religious ceremony he felt no need of courage or presence of mind; he was secured by the natural veneration of a superstitious people. He knew it, and, therefore, wore no mask in the semblance of a joyless smile.
On the same day, this imposing ceremonial is used at Constantinople, only the winter is a mere name and the water has no ice. The Patriarch stands on the deck of a vessel, and drops his silver cross into the calm blue waves of the Bosphorus, which a skilful diver restores to him before it reaches the bottom. To these religious ceremonies succeed sports and pastimes of all kinds. Booths and barracks are erected on the frozen Neva from quay to quay, Russian mountains, down which sledges slide with inconceivable velocity, and the Carnival commences with as much zest as in cities enjoying a southern temperature. Plays are performed on the ice, and curious pantomimes, in which a marmot performs the part of a baby very cleverly, while the man who shows him off under the character of the good father of the family, finds resemblances in this black-nosed imp to all his supposed human relatives, to the infinite delight of the spectators.
Sleighing on the ice is, as in Canada, a favorite diversion with the Russians, whose sledges are lined with fur and ornamented with silver bells and ribbons of every color. Sometimes a wind loaded with vapor puts an end to these diversions by rendering the ice unsafe, in which case they are interdicted by the police, and the sports and pastimes of the people are transferred to terra firma; but the Carnival is considered to come to an abrupt conclusion if this misfortune occurs at its commencement, for the Neva is to the inhabitants of St. Petersburg what Vesuvius is to the Neapolitans, and the absence of the ice robs their Saturnalia of its greatest attraction. In countries where the Greek religion is the national standard of faith, Lent is preceded by the same unbounded festivity as in those which are Roman Catholic; but the Court does not display in these days so much barbarous magnificence as in those earlier times when civilization was unknown. The Carnival was, however, held during the last century by Anna Ivanovna, in a style surpassing that of her ancestors. This pleasure-loving princess, the daughter of the elder brother of Peter the Great, covered her usurpation of a throne she had snatched not only from the descendants of her mighty uncle, but also from her own elder sister and niece, by conducing to the popular amusements of her people, who in their turn forgot her defective title to the throne. This popular female sovereign founded the largest bell in the world, and gave the most magnificent Carnival ever held in Russia. Thus she maintained her sway by the aid of pleasure and devotion, a twofold cord her subjects never broke. In 1740 Anna Ivanovna resolved to surpass every preceding Carnival by her unique manner of providing her people with amusement during this merry season. It was customary for the sovereign of Russia to be attended by a dwarf; who united the privileged character of a jester to the tiny proportions of a little child. This empress possessed two of these diminutive personages, and she chose for her own amusement and that of her loving subjects, that they should be married during this Carnival, and "whether nature did this match contrive," or it was the consequence of her own despotic will, cannot be known without a peep into the jealously guarded archives of Russia; but the nuptials of these sports of nature was the ostensible cause of the fête. This the Autocrat gave on a new and splendid scale. She directed her governors to send her two natives of the hundred districts they ruled in her name, clothed in their national costume, and with the animals they were accustomed to use on their journeys. The idea was certainly a brilliant one, and worthy of the sovereign lady of so many nations, tongues, and languages.
Anna Ivanovna was punctually obeyed, and at the appointed time a motley procession, including the purest types of the Caucasian race and the ugliest of the Mongolian, astonished the eyes of the Empress, who had scarcely known the greater part of these distant tribes by name. There she beheld the Kamtchadale with his sledge drawn by dogs, the Russian Laplander with his reindeer, the Kalmuck with his cows, the Tartar on his horse, and the native of Bochara with his camel, the Ostiak on his clogs. Then for the first time, the beautiful Georgian and Circassian, with their dark ringlets and unrivalled features, looked with astonishment upon the red hair of the Finlander. The gigantic Cossack of the Ukraine eyed with contempt the pigmy Samoiede—and in fact, for the first time were brought into contact by the will of their sovereign lady, who classed each race under one of four banners, representing spring, summer, autumn, and winter; and these two hundred persons, during eight days, paraded the streets of St. Petersburg, to the infinite delight of the population, who had never seen the power of the throne displayed in a manner so agreeable to their taste before.
Upon the wedding day of her dwarfs, these important personages had been attended to the altar by this singular national procession, where they plighted their faith in the presence of the Empress and all her Court, after which they heard Mass, and then, accompanied by their numerous escort, took possession of the palace prepared for them by the direction of their imperial mistress. This palace was not the least fanciful part of the fête. It was entirely composed of ice, and resembled crystal in its brilliancy and fine cutting and polish. This beautiful fabric was fifty-two feet in length and twenty in width; the roof; the floor, the furniture, chandeliers, and even the nuptial bed, were formed of the same cold, glittering, and transparent materials. The doors, the galleries, and the fortifications,—even the, six pieces of cannon that guarded this magical palace, were of ice: one of these, charged with a single ice-bullet, and fired by the aid of a pound of powder, perforated at seventy paces a plank of twelve inches thickness. This was done to salute the bridal party, and welcome them home. The most curious piece of mechanism, and which pleased the Russians the most, was a colossal elephant, mounted by an armed Persian, and led by twelve slaves. This gigantic beast threw from his trunk a column of water by day, and at night a stream of fire, uttering from time to time roars which were heard from one end of St. Petersburg to the other. These noble roars were produced by twelve Russians concealed in the body and legs of the phantom elephant, whose costly housings hid the men whose noise so delighted their countrymen. This Carnival of the fête-loving fe[missing line of text] any male usurper has never been surpassed by Russian sovereign, though, with the exception of the assembly of her distant subjects, its taste was barbarous enough.