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CHAPTER IX
Dresden—St. Petersburg—The Empress Catherine II.—Orloff—Potemkin—Russian hospitality—Magnificence of society at St. Petersburg—Mme. Le Brun is robbed—Slanders against her—The Russian Imperial family—Popularity and success of Mme. Le Brun—Death of the Empress Catherine.
Capital letter T

TWO years and a half had passed and Mme. Le Brun had no desire to leave Vienna, when the Russian Ambassador and several of his compatriots urged her strongly to go to St. Petersburg, where they said the Empress Catherine II. would be extremely pleased to have her.

She had a great wish to see this Empress, whose strange and commanding personality impressed her, besides which she was convinced that in Russia she would soon gain enough to complete the fortune she had resolved to make before returning to France.

On Sunday, April 19, 1795, therefore, she left Vienna and went by Prague to Dresden, where she was of course enraptured with the world-famed gallery, and above all with the chef d’?uvre of Raffaelle, the Madonna di San Sisto—that vision of beauty before which every other seems dim and pale. She spent five days at Berlin, stayed a few [123] days more at the castle of her old friend Prince Henry of Prussia, and arrived at St. Petersburg late in July, very tired and exhausted with the journey in an uncomfortable carriage over roads so bad that she was jolted and flung about from one great stone to another from Riga to St. Petersburg, until her only longing was to be quiet and rest.

But she had not been more than twenty-four hours in the Russian capital when the French Ambassador was announced; his visit was succeeded by others, and that evening the Empress sent to say that she would receive Mme. Le Brun at Czarskoiesolo [42] the next day at one o’clock.

The French Ambassador, Count d’Esterhazy, said that he would come at ten and take her to déjeuner with his wife, who was just then living at Czarskoiesolo. For the first time during her wandering life from court to court, Lisette felt intimidated, and trembled. This was so different from any of her former experiences. At every other court she had been en pays de connaissance. Austrian society was very like Parisian, Rome was the centre of Christendom, the sovereigns of the lesser Italian states were the near relations of her own King and Queen, their religion was the same.

But here, in this half-barbarous country, at an immense distance from everywhere she had ever been before, with a different church, a language incomprehensible to her and a sovereign mysterious, powerful, autocratic, whose reputation was sinister, and to whose private character were attached the darkest suspicions, an additional uneasiness was [124] added to her reflections owing entirely to her habitual careless absence of mind in not having provided herself with a proper toilette for the occasion.

Accustomed all her life to be surrounded by friends, to be made much of and allowed to do as she liked wherever she went, she had followed her own fashion of wearing a certain style of dress, artistic, characteristic, but inexpensive. Nobody had objected to the simple toilettes of soft muslin, gracefully arranged, nor to the scarves and handkerchiefs she twisted in her hair. But she became suddenly conscious that they were by no means suitable to appear before the formidable personage, whom she pictured to herself as tall, dark, gloomy, and terrible, moreover the Countess Esterhazy looked at her in astonishment, and with much hesitation said—

“Madame, have you not brought any other dress?”

With much confusion she replied that she had not had time to have a proper dress made, but she was aware of the impossibility of explaining why, coming straight from Vienna, she had not brought one with her; and the dissatisfied looks of the Ambassadress increased her alarm when it was time to go to the Empress.

The Ambassador gave her his arm, told her to be sure to kiss the hand of the Empress, and they walked across the park to the palace, where, through a window on the ground floor, they saw a girl of about seventeen watering a pot of pinks. Slight and delicate, with an oval face, regular features, [125] pale complexion, and fair hair curling round her forehead and neck, she wore a loose white tunic tied with a sash round her waist, and against the background of marble columns and hangings of pink and silver, looked like a fairy.

It was the Grand-Duchess Elizabeth, wife of Alexander, eldest grandson of Catherine II., and as Mme. Le Brun muttered, “It is Psyche!” she came to meet her, and with the most charming courtesy said that she had so longed to see her that she had even dreamed of her, and detained her talking for some time. A few moments afterwards Lisette found herself alone with the Empress Catherine.
CATHERINE II., EMPRESS OF RUSSIA

The Semiramis of the North, as she was called, received her so graciously, that all her fears and embarrassments disappeared.

She took no notice of her toilette, expressed her deep satisfaction at her arrival in Russia, hoped she would be happy and stay there a long time, and ordered an apartment in the palace to be prepared for her during the rest of the summer.

This, however, was not done, owing to some palace intrigue, and greatly to the relief of Mme. Le Brun, who much preferred to live by herself in her own way.

The Empress was not in the least like what she had imagined. Short and stout, though exceedingly dignified, her white hair was raised high above her forehead, her face, still handsome, expressed the power and genius which characterised her commanding personality, her eyes and her voice were gentle, and her hands extremely beautiful. She had taken off one of her gloves, expecting the usual [126] salute, but Lisette had forgotten all about it till afterwards when the Ambassador asked, to her dismay, if she had remembered to kiss the hand of the Empress.

Whatever might be her private character, Catherine II. was a great sovereign, a wise ruler, and beloved by the Russian people. In her reign Tartary, Lithuania, the Caucasus, Courland, and part of Poland were added to the vast Muscovite Empire; the Russian share of Poland alone added six millions to her subjects. Every branch of the service, every corner of the empire, canals, mines, agriculture, commerce, received her consideration and supervision; art and literature were encouraged and advanced; the progress made by Russia under her rule was enormous.

Catherine was the daughter of Prince Christian of Anhalt-Zerbst, and was sixteen years old when she was brought from the old castle among the lakes and forests of Germany to be married to Peter, son of Charles Frederic, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and Anne, eldest daughter of Peter the Great; [43] who had been adopted as heir by the Empress Elizabeth, his aunt, youngest daughter of Peter the Great, with whose grandson, Peter II., [44] the male line had ended.

Peter of Holstein-Gottorp was seventeen; and [127] was no attractive husband for a young girl with an impetuous nature, strong passions, and an enthusiastic love of pleasure and magnificence. He was sullen, tyrannical, violent-tempered, brutal, often intoxicated, and besides terribly disfigured by the small-pox.

He carried on an open liaison with the Countess Woronsoff, while Catherine, who regarded him with dislike and repugnance, consoled herself with Prince Soltikoff, the hero of Russia from his victory over Frederic the Great, King of Prussia, and then with Prince Stanislas Poniatowski.

The Empress Elizabeth, whose own life was a constant succession of love intrigues, disapproved nevertheless of this open and public scandal, particularly when her nephew was reported to be about to divorce his wife in order to marry his mistress.

She sent the Countess Woronsoff to her father’s estates in the country, dismissed Poniatowski from St. Petersburg, and tried to reconcile the ill-matched couple; but in vain. She died soon afterwards, and Peter III., a German at heart, proceeded on his accession to make himself hated in Russia by his infatuation for everything Prussian; Prussia being the nation of all others disliked by his subjects. He discarded the French and Austrian alliance, attached himself to Frederic, King of Prussia, and besides all the unpopular changes he made in his own army, accepted the rank of an officer in that of Prussia, wore the Prussian uniform, and declared that he preferred the title of a Prussian Major-General to any other he possessed!

[128]

He quarrelled with the clergy and the nobles, and tried to re-model everything after the German fashion. Even such changes as were beneficial he carried out in a manner so intolerable that very soon a powerful party was formed against him, of which Catherine was the head.

For she was as much loved as he was detested. German though she was she identified herself with the nation whose crown she wore, she carried on the traditions of Peter the Great and Elizabeth; made friends of the church, the army, and the nobles, and yet had prudence enough to avoid by any open defiance hastening the vengeance of Peter, who, in spite of the warnings of the King of Prussia, despised his enemies, disbelieved in his unpopularity, and occupied himself with projects for adopting as his heir the unfortunate Ivan VI., whom Elizabeth had dethroned and imprisoned, disowning his son, divorcing his wife, and marrying the Countess Woronsoff. Whilst he loitered away his time with the latter at Oranienbaum, the conspiracy broke forth; headed by the brothers Orloff, five men of gigantic stature, powerful and capable in mind and body. They were all in the Guards, and succeeded in bringing over that and six other regiments. Catherine and one of her ladies left the palace in a cart disguised as peasants, then, changing into officers’ uniforms, arrived at the barracks, where Catherine was hailed with enthusiasm by soldiers, clergy, and people as Catherine II., Empress of all the Russias. [45]

[129]

The troops marched to Oranienbaum, the Emperor fled and proposed to abdicate and retire to Holstein with the Countess Woronsoff, but he was persuaded to go to Peterhoff in order to make arrangements, was seized by the conspirators, thrown into prison, where six days afterwards he was murdered by the Orloff, who held the supreme power in their hands. [46] Whether or not Catherine was consenting to this is not certain, though very probable. She hated Peter, by whom she had been oppressed, threatened, and ill-treated, and who had purposed to divorce her and disinherit her son.

Gregory Orloff became her all-powerful favourite, and although she would never agree to his preposterous ambition and allow him to be married to her and crowned Emperor, she loaded the Orloff family with riches and honours, which they retained after other favourites had succeeded the gigantic guardsman in her affections.

Of all of them the greatest was Potemkin, a Polish officer, to whom it was rumoured that she was secretly married, and whom she made Generalissimo of the Armies of Russia, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and supreme Hetman of the Cossacks.

Potemkin cannot be judged as a commonplace favourite, exalted or destroyed by a caprice; he represented the ambition of Russia in the eighteenth century; after his death Catherine could never replace that splendid and supple intelligence. [47]

[130]

He had been dead about four years when Mme. Le Brun arrived in Russia, but was still talked of as a sort of magician. His niece, the Countess Scawronska, said to her—

“If my uncle had known you, he would have overwhelmed you with honours and riches.”

Amongst Lisette’s new Russian friends was the beautiful Princesse Dolgorouki, with whom Count Cobentzel was hopelessly in love; but as Lisette observed, her indifference was not to be wondered at, for Cobentzel was fifty and very ugly; and Potemkin had been in love with her. Besides all his other gifts he was extremely handsome and charming, and his generosity and magnificence were unparalleled.

When on the fête Sainte Catherine he gave a great banquet supposed to be in honour of the Empress, crystal cups full of diamonds were brought in at dessert, the diamonds being served in spoonsful to the ladies.

The Princess remarking on this extravagance, he said in a low voice—

“Puisque c’est vous que je fête, comment vous étonnez-vous de quelque chose?” [48]

For her name also was Catherine.

Another time, hearing that the Princess wanted some shoes for a ball, he sent an express which travelled night and day to Paris to get them.

And it was well-known that he had ordered the assault upon the fortress of Otshakoff to be prematurely made because she wished to see it.

The lavish, almost barbaric hospitality of the [131] great Russian nobles both at St. Petersburg and Moscow astonished Mme. Le Brun. Many of them possessed colossal fortunes and kept open house. Prince Narischkin, Grand Equerry, had always a table to sit five-and-twenty or thirty guests.

Mme. Le Brun found society at the Russian capital extremely amusing, and was, if possible, received with even more enthusiasm than in the other countries in which she had sojourned. She went to balls, dinners, suppers, or theatricals every night, and when she could manage to spare the time from the numerous portraits she painted, she went to stay in the country houses and palaces near, where in addition to other festivities they had fêtes on the Neva by night, in gorgeously fitted up boats with crimson and gold curtains, accompanied by musicians.

Financially, in spite of the large sums she gained, Lisette was at first unfortunate. She placed 45,000 francs in a bank which broke immediately afterwards.

Returning at one o’clock one morning from some theatricals at the Princess Menzikoff, she was met by Mme. Charot in consternation announcing that she had been robbed by her German servant of 35,000 francs, that the lad had tried to throw suspicion upon a Russian, but the money having been found upon him he had been arrested by the police, who had taken all the money as a proof, having first counted the gold pieces.

Mme. Le Brun blamed her for having let the gold go, and just as she said, she never got its value again, for although the same number of pieces were [132] returned, instead of the Austrian gold coins they only gave her ducats, worth so much less that she lost 15,000 francs by them. Then she heard that the boy was sentenced to be hanged, and as he was the son of a concierge and his wife belonging to the Prince de Ligne, excellent people who had served her in Vienna with attention and civility, she was in despair, hurried to the governor to obtain his pardon, and with much difficulty succeeded in getting him sent away by sea; for the Empress had heard of it, and was very angry.

To her joy she met her old friend Doyen, the painter. He had emigrated two years after her, and arrived at St. Petersburg with no money. The Empress came to his assistance and offered him the directorship of the Academy of Arts. He settled in the Russian capital, where he got plenty of employment, painting both pictures and ceilings for the Empress, who liked him, and for the Russian nobles. The Empress gave him a place near her own box at the theatre, and used often to talk to him.

While she was still in Vienna, Lisette had been told by the Baronne de Strogonoff of the Greek supper at Paris, which she said she knew cost 80,000 francs.

“You astonish me!” said the Baronne, when the affair was explained to her; “for at St. Petersburg we were told about it by one of your countrymen, M. L——, who said he knew you very well, and was present at the supper.”

To which Lisette replied that she did not know M. L—— at all except by name; and the matter ended.

[133]

A few days after her arrival at St. Petersburg, where M. L—— did not suppose she would ever come, Mme. Le Brun went to see Mme. de Strogonoff, and as she was not well, went into her bedroom and sat down by the bed.

Presently M. L—— was announced, and Mme. Le Brun having hidden herself behind the curtains, Mme. de Strogonoff ordered him to be shown in, and said to him—

“Well, you must be very glad, for Mme. Le Brun has just arrived.”

M. L—— began to hesitate and stammer, while his hostess continued to question him; and Mme. Le Brun, coming out from behind the curtain, said—

“Then you know Mme. Le Brun very well, Monsieur?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Well, that is very strange,” she observed; “because I am Mme. Le Brun, whom you have calumniated, and I now see you for the first time in my life.”

At this he rose, his legs seeming to tremble under him, and taking his hat he left the room and was seen no more, for in consequence of this he was excluded from all the best houses.

When the Empress returned from Czarskoiesolo she desired Mme. Le Brun to paint the portraits of the Grand Duchesses Alexandrine and Helena, daughters of the Tsarevitch, then fourteen and thirteen years old, and afterwards that of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, wife of Alexander, eldest grandson of the Empress, the young girl she had [134] seen on her first visit to Czarskoiesolo, by whom she was completely fascinated.

The Imperial family, with whom she soon became well acquainted, consisted of the Tsarevitch, afterwards Paul I., his wife, Marie of Wurtemburg, a tall, fair, noble-looking woman, whom every one liked and respected, their sons, the wives of the two elder ones, and their daughters.

They were all entirely under the domination of the Empress, against whose will nobody dared to rebel, though Paul as a child used to ask his tutor why his father had been killed and why his mother wore the crown which ought to have been his.

He was the only one of the Imperial family Lisette was at all afraid of, for the Empress was unceasingly good to her, and the princes and princesses were all very young.

Alexander, afterwards Alexander I., resembled his mother in beauty and charm of character; but Constantine was like his father, whose eccentric, gloomy disposition seemed to foreshadow the fate which lay before him. His strange, unbalanced nature alternated between good and evil; capricious and violent, he was yet capable of kindness and generosity.

Constantine, although very young, was married to the Princess Anne of Coburg, of whom Mme. Le Brun remarked that without being so lovely as the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, she was still very pretty, very lively, and only sixteen years old. She was not happy with Constantine, from whom she separated after a time and went back to her own family.

[135]

Neither of the young wives were altogether fortunate, for some years later two beautiful Polish girls, whose father had been killed in the Polish war, were brought by their mother to the Russian court. The eldest and prettiest was only sixteen, and was married to Prince Narischkin, but the overpowering passion which she inspired in the Emperor Alexander is well known; whilst her sister captivated the terrible Constantine.

Mme. Le Brun saw Mme. de Narischkin and her sister before she left Russia, for though she only intended to be there for a short time, she remained for six years, making an immense number of friends, and apparently no enemy but Zuboff, the last favourite of the Empress Catherine, an arrogant, conceited young man of two-and-twenty, whom she supposed she had offended by not paying court to him; and therefore he tried all he could to injure her with the Empress.

She lived opposite the palace, and could see the Empress open a window and throw food to flocks of crows that always came for it; and in the evenings when the salons were lighted up she could watch her playing hide-and-seek and other games with her grandchildren and some of the court.

For she adored her grandchildren, whom she kept entirely under her own control, allowing their parents to have no voice in their education, which she certainly directed with great care and wisdom.

Every one crowded to the studio of Mme. Le Brun on Sundays to see the portraits of the Grand Duchesses. Zuboff, seeing the crowd of [136] carriages which, after leaving the palace, stopped before her house, remarked to the Empress—

“See Madame, people go also to pay their court to Mme. Le Brun. They must certainly be rendezvous which they have at her house.”

But his insinuations made no impression upon the Empress. She liked Mme. Le Brun and paid no attention to him.

The climate of Russia Lisette became gradually accustomed to. The absence of spring and autumn, the short, hot summer, not beginning until June and ending in August, were at first very strange to her. The first May she spent there the half-melted snow was on the ground and the windows still closed up, while enormous blocks of ice came crashing down the Neva with a noise like thunder.

The splendid ceremony of the benediction of the Neva by the Archimandrite, in the presence of the Empress, the Imperial family, and all the great dignitaries, deeply impressed her.

One day at the end of May when she and her daughter were walking in the summer gardens, they noticed that all the shrubs were covered only with buds. Taking a long walk round the gardens and returning to the same place, they found all the buds had burst into leaf.

The cold of the long winters she found, as every one says, much more supportable than in other countries whilst indoors, the heating of the houses being so perfect. And sledging parties were added to the other amusements of her life.

The hot weather she used to spend at some house [137] she took or had lent to her in the country near St. Petersburg.

One Sunday in October, 1796, Lisette went, after mass, to the palace to present the portrait she had just finished of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.

After expressing her satisfaction, the Empress said—

“They are absolutely resolved that you shall do my portrait. I am very old, but still, as they all wish it, I will give you the first sitting this day week.”

The following Thursday morning the Empress did not ring as usual at nine o’clock. They waited till after ten, and then the first femme de chambre went in and found her lying on the floor struck by apoplexy.

Lisette was at home with her daughter, who was just recovering from an illness, when the news was brought to her.

Filled with alarm and sorrow, she hurried to the Princess Dolgorouki, where Count Cobentzel brought them constant news from the palace, where desperate but fruitless efforts were being made to revive the Empress.

Everywhere was nothing but consternation, grief, and alarm; for all ranks and classes not only adored Catherine, but were terrified at the advent of Paul.

In the evening Catherine II. died and Paul arrived. Lisette hardly dared leave the Princess Dolgorouki’s, to go home, as every one was saying there would be a revolution against Paul. The streets were filled with people, but there was no [138] disorder. The crowds reassembled next day before the palace of Catherine, calling her their mother, with cries and tears.

For six weeks she lay in state in a great room in the palace, which was illuminated day and night. The Emperor had his father, Peter III., brought from the convent where he was buried to be taken at the same time as Catherine to the fortress where all the Russian monarchs are interred. He obliged the assassins of his father to carry the corners of the funeral pall, and himself, bareheaded, with the Empress and all the ladies of the court, with long trains and veils, walked through the snow and fearful cold in the procession from the palace to the fortress.


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