Friday, January 20, 2006

Deaths of the Emperors Alexander and Paul

Florence: Dec. 24th, 1825.—We are all here full of speculations upon the subject of the death of Alexander, which this day's post has announced. Many are inclined to believe that his death has been occasioned by the hereditary complaint which proved fatal to his three predecessors. We had much conversation on the subject, and I heard for the first time that it is now universally believed that Catherine was strangled.

There is a species of poetical justice in this, which makes one more inclined to believe than one should otherwise be; it is even added that Marcoff on his death-bed confessed that he was the agent employed on this occasion. Lord
Dillon afterwards gave us the particulars of the death of Paul, derived from a Mrs. Browne and a Miss Kennedy, who were at that time in the nursery of the two younger princes, Nicholas and Michael.

It seems that the day before some rumour of the conspiracy reached the ears of Paul: he sent for Count Pannin, who was at that time his minister, and bitterly reproached him for his want of vigilance. Pannin, undismayed, professed his perfect acquaintance with all the designs of the conspirators; acknowledged himself as one of them, alleging as his motive that all other means of defeating their purpose would have proved vain; and added that now he had all the clue, and had the means of arresting the conspirators as soon as any overt act could be proved against them, which at present was not the case.

Paul burst into tears, embraced Pannin, called him his saviour, the guardian of his country, &c. &c. The Emperor continued oppressed and agitated all the evening, which he passed alone with the Empress; saw all his children, kissed and blessed them, and unable to shake off the agitation produced by the conversation with Pannin, retired at an earlier hour than usual.

Soon after the conspirators rushed into the room: they were Beningsen (the distinguished general); Ouwarow (the man whose tremendous black murderous countenance made such an impression on me when he was in London, as aide-de-camp to Alexander); Subow, a Georgian prince; Pannin, who remained behind a screen.*

Paul resisted stoutly, attempted to conceal himself, &c.; and they seem to have hacked him most cruelly. At last Beningsen and Ouwarow took the sash of one of the sentinels on duty and closed the scene by strangling him, but not till he had received some tremendous blows on the head, and not till one of them (Beningsen, I think) had trampled upon him, and had with his sharp spurs inflicted two wounds in his stomach.

Miss Kennedy with her young charge slept in the room immediately over that of the Emperor : she heard the violent uproar (' row,' Lord Dillon called it), trembled, quaked, got the infant out of its own bed into hers, and with him in her arms lay expecting some horrible event. This dreadful interval lasted more than an hour, when Madame de Lieven (the mother of the Prince Lieven who was ambassador in England, and then grande maitresse of the Empress) rushed half dressed into the room, and desired Miss Kennedy to bring the Grand Duke to his mother instantly, if she wished to save his life and her own.

By the time she reached the apartment of the Empress, all the children and their respective attendants were assembled there, half dressed and frightened out of their wits. Alexander and Constantine, who were both past twenty, were absent at Petersburg. The 'Empress, quite frantic, rushed out of the room, collecting her children round her; and followed by the troop of terrified, half-dressed women, went to the Emperor's room.

The sentinels, gained over or terrified by the conspirators, at first refused her admittance ; but she, partly by her commanding manner, beauty and dignity, and partly by literal strength of arm, overawed them, drove them back, and obtained admission for herself and her terrified train. She threw herself on the mangled body; would not for a long while believe that life was extinct; then poured forth the most bitter execrations against the murderers, and lamentations for her lost husband; who (strange to say) brute as he was to everybody else, was kind and still very dear to her.

At length, wearied out, she sank half exhausted and half choking: one of the ladies got her a glass of water ; the rough sentinel who had opposed her entrance, and who probably, at the orders of the conspirators, would have killed her, stopped her from drinking, and said to the attendant, ' Woman, what have you brought ? I insist upon your drinking half the contents of that glass before the Empress touches it.'

The feelings of the Empress were naturally most excited by her fears for her children, whom she expected to see murdered before her eyes. In vain the conspirators assured her that she and they were safe: then, with unparalleled brutality, in that chamber, in the presence of her murdered husband, told her all was over, and shouted in her ears, ' Long live Alexander.''

That he was privy to the murder there seems but too much reason to fear ; the apology made for him is that he was told by the conspirators that his father must be deposed; that all resistance was vain : that if he and Constantine wished to avoid sharing his fate, they would remain perfectly quiet, and appear ignorant of what was going on. I should have said before that this scene passed at the summer palace, out of Petersburg; and that the first object of the Empress, when she in any degree recovered her senses, was to get her children into the winter palace at Petersburg, where she felt that in the multitude she should find safety and protection. This was at first refused, but with the spirit of a heroine she rushed amongst the Guards, saying, ' Who will dare to stop a mother protecting her infant children?' In short, she once more prevailed, and they allowed her to go: two carriages were brought forward, but she would not hear of being separated from her children, and therefore waited till some old lumbering vehicle was found in which they could all go together.

I had always understood that Constantine was a horrible brute, but had not an idea of the extent of his cruelty till this event brought his character so much into discussion. I am told that a servant of his said, ' This has been a quieter journey than usual: we have killed only two postillions;' and declared that in the last journey Constantine had shot three with his own hand from the carriage.
With this ferocity he unites great cowardice.

An Englishman now here, a Mr. Aubyn, who has served with him, told me that he has seen him betray great personal fear in action. It was said by somebody that his character was softened, and that since he had been in Poland, where he is Viceroy, you did not hear of such horrid acts of barbarity; which was allowed. And yet, said some one, the following fact took place latterly in Poland : An officer married a young Jewess : he was punished for this crime, and Constantine sent for her to receive the punishment of the knout. Her beauty produced such an effect upon him that he doomed her to the severer penance of becoming his mistress. The husband was sent to Siberia: the wretched wife destroyed herself.**

People do not seem to rate the characters of the other brothers higher. Nicholas, they say, is more dangerous, inasmuch as he has the art to conceal his vices; Michael seems to be considered as a mere brute.

After all, horrible as all this is, it is impossible not to own that in the customs of that semi-barbarous nation, some little excuse is to be found. The person who from childhood has been accustomed to see, or at least hear, the knout administered for the most trivial faults, must in time become hardened in human suffering. I understand that the Russians resident in this town have been obliged to adopt some other means of punishment for their wretched servants. It was not unusual, on entering a house, to hear the most dreadful screams, and to be told by the lady of the house not to mind: it was only her maid who, having dressed her ill, was receiving so many strokes of the knout.***

Complaints were made : the police interfered, and the knout was strictly prohibited. The extremes of splendour and of misery seem to be their habitual modes of life. Demidoff, who in a state of representation lives more magnificently than any person I ever saw, keeping a company of French actors at his own expense, filling his rooms with every magnificence which money can buy—from chairs and tables up to diamonds and pearls, which are exhibited in large cases lined with velvet, and covered with plate glass, exactly like those in Rundell's shop— is living himself in dirt and misery, greater than that of any English cottage.

Lord Dillon gave an extraordinary instance of this mixture in Madame Gerebstoff, who passed many years in England. He had some business with her, and went one morning to her house in Harley Street at an hour rather earlier than that of visiting. The servant hesitated about letting him in; he rather insisted on the plea of business, and was taken up to the drawing- room, where he found Madame de G-. lying on the couch in a blue silk gown, her hair dishevelled, and a diamond tiara hanging down on one shoulder, the rouge on her cheeks streaked: her person and dress looked as dirty as possible. Seeing probably his amazement, she said: ' Ah! mon cher, je suis rentree si tard hier, que je me suis couchee a la Russe. Je vais prendre un bain, et puis je m'habillerai.' ****

Editor's Notes
* There were in all thirty conspirators, including' (besides those named above) two named Subow, Prince Jaschwill, Count Pahlen, Tatischen, &c. The circumstances are differently narrated in each of the best authenticated accounts.
** 'Revolting as this reads, the famous Marechal Saxe treated an actor and his wife much in the same fashion with the aid of a lettre de cachet..
*** Most probably of the whip. The knout is reserved for more serious occasions, which, I believe, are defined by law.
**** 'La superficie en tout offrait l'image de la civilisation, mais sous cette ecorce legere, l'observation retrouvait encore facilement cette vieille Muscovie.'—Segur.

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