The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 43
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Chapter XLIII: His King Speaks to the Czar Once More
|Chapter XLIV: "Christohs Voskress"→|
HIS KING SPEAKS TO THE CZAR ONCE MORE.
"The King hath laid his hand
ALTHOUGH the fast of Easter eve is the strictest known in the Greek Church, yet on this occasion willing hands quickly prepared a meal for the travellers, since, as Pope Yefim observed, "Mercy is better than sacrifice." Whilst Ivan's retainers took care of the companions of Henri, he himself was waited upon like a prince by Clémence and Ivan in person, with the assistance of Pope Yefim and little Alexander. In reply to their eager inquiries, he told them the incidents of his journey, which had not been without its dangers and vicissitudes. But, through all that he said, Clémence thought she perceived the shadow of some great sorrow. Her foreboding heart turned at once to what was to both of them equally and intensely dear. Three times she tried to shape the inquiry, "Henri, how is our mother?"and three times the words died upon her lips. But at last she summoned courage to ask the question.
His answer relieved her at once: "Never better, thank God. Such at least is her own report. I bring you letters from her, which she enclosed to me."
Then her anxious thoughts turned to his betrothed, the bright, brave-hearted Stéphanie; but she shrank from uttering her name, lest haply it might have become, for him, the saddest sound upon earth. Ivan, however, had no such misgivings, and approached the subject gaily. "Remember, mon ami," he said, "we are all impatience to hear of la fiancée, la belle Stéphanie."
"I wish you could see her," answered Henri brightening. "I do not think any one could deny now that she is surpassingly beautiful and good. She finds all her recreation, all her delight in works of love and mercy. Wherever she goes, her energy and vivacity open the doors wide before her. And then her sound practical sense and loving spirit make her more than welcome."
"I knew it would be so," said Clémence. "I knew my little friend Stéphanie would grow into a noble woman."
"You are a fortunate man, Henri," Ivan added. "How happy we shall be together when you bring your bride and settle amongst us! You must always spend your summers at Nicolofsky. But now it is my turn," he said lightly, as he rose and stood beside him, laying his hand on his shoulder. "You must tell me the last tidings of my Czar. I am thirsting to hear of him, and not once have you named him yet."
Henri paused a moment; then he said, in a low, quiet voice, "He is well—very."
Clémence looked up surprised, but Ivan observed nothing. "Tell me more," he went on eagerly. "Where was he when you heard last? What has he been doing?—There is one thing I long, yet scarcely hope, to hear. Has he won the desire of his heart? Are the serfs free yet?"
"The serfs are not free;—but, dear Ivan, your Czar has won the desire of his heart."
Now first his tone arrested Ivan, who looked at him amazed. "How?" he faltered, with a face growing rapidly white.
"Be calm, dear friend. Alexander has but exchanged the crown of Russia for one more glorious."
At that moment little Alexander rushed in weeping. "Father, mother," he sobbed, "they are all saying the Czar is dead the dear, good Czar, my godfather. Father, is it true?"
Ivan did not answer. No word passed his lips, no cry; he only tottered and sank as one struck by a fatal bullet. From Clémence just then his white death-like face shut out all sorrows, all losses far away.
But the strong man wrestled with his agony and overcame. After a few terrible moments, during which life changed its aspect to Ivan Pojarsky, he regained a measure of outward calmness.
"Tell me all you know, Henri," he said at last,—"all, from the beginning."
The sorrow-stricken group drew close together. Clémence had placed her hand in that of her husband, and was watching him with anxious eyes. The weeping child stood beside his father's knee; and the aged priest covered his face to hide the emotion he could not restrain.
"I have one fear, too dreadful to utter," said Ivan with pale lips. "Can you guess, and remove it, Henri?"
"I can. No hand touched him, except the hand of God. It will be written in history that the Emperor Alexander died of fever, at Taganrog in the Crimea."
"Will it not be true?" asked Clemence.
"Not all the truth. Before the fiery shaft of the fever smote him he was already stricken, I think to death."
"Ever fearless, he was wont to brave the danger of infection as readily as other dangers," Pope Yefim said.
"My life witnesses to that," returned Henri, almost losing his self-control. After a pause he resumed: "Before I left Tobolsk, I met an Englishman who had seen his physician, Dr. Wylie, and heard from his lips a full account of every particular. He told me all, And this, indeed, is what has brought me here."
"It was so good of you to come," said Clemence tearfully.
"He was looking ill when we parted," Ivan said. "Ill and worn. But he was so strong, and only forty-three. I never dreamed of death for him—never once."
Henri answered sadly: "During the years that passed since then, those who loved him have thought of it often—have sometimes almost wished"—but his voice failed; to end that sentence was beyond his power. After a pause he resumed: "Repeated attacks of erysipelas wore out his strength,—especially one, desperately severe, two years before the end. He never fully recovered from its effects. His nerves were shattered; sleep forsook him; he could not bear light or noise, even the taper which burned all day on his table to seal his never-ending despatches, had to be carefully shaded. Still he toiled on, rising sometimes as early as half-past three, and allowing himself no time for rest, except such as he could snatch in his rapid journeys, often over rough roads and in bad vehicles. One who had a post in his household, said to my English friend, 'After two or three days passed in a carriage the uncrowned traveller gives himself up to rest and refreshment, but the Emperor relaxes himself from one fatigue by another. A regiment is reviewed, government officials received, military colonies visited, an establishment created, plans examined, and so forth. Sleep and food have great trouble to glide into the leisure of so busy a life.' Yet, after all, it is not toil which usually strikes at the roots of a strong man's life. Nor is bodily suffering the hardest thing to endure. 'The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity, but a wounded spirit who can bear?' Again to use words other than my own, and all too sadly true, 'He saw his noble desires abandoned to ridicule, and those to whom he devoted himself rewarded him with ingratitude; until at last the silent but unceasing struggle he had to maintain against those who pretended to second him only to paralyze his action, and to enter into his views only that they might the better betray them, filled his days with bitterness, and eventually shortened their course.'"
"Ah!" said Ivan with a shuddering sigh that was more than half a groan of pain.
"The shadows fell ever dark and darker over that grand, silent, solitary life—how dark those who stood outside could only guess," Henri went on. "He bore his burden alone. Now and then a few sad words falling from his lips almost unawares, or perhaps a look, showed what was passing within. Once a valued friend, a lady, asked of him a favour which in justice to others he could not grant. He couched his refusal, as he was wont to do, in terms so gentle that she was greatly touched; and when they parted she expressed her earnest wishes for his happiness. At the word 'happiness' a change passed over his face, and he turned away with a sorrowful gesture. In one of his rapid journeys, his favourite aide-de-camp, Volkonski, was his companion. The road was bad; and in ascending a steep hill the carriage stopped, the horses being unable to draw it. Instead of awakening Volkonski, who had fallen asleep, the Emperor himself got out and gave the coachman the necessary assistance, helping to push the carriage up the hill. As he resumed his place, Volkonski awoke. 'Ah, sire, why did you not call me?' he said. 'It is all right,' returned the Czar. 'You were asleep, and sleep is too precious to be disturbed,'—adding in a lower tone, as if to himself, 'It brings forgetfulness."
"How like him!" said Clémence.
"Too sadly like him," resumed Henri. "It was all Alexander—the unselfishness, the profound melancholy, the reserve that only betrayed it unconsciously in taking thought for another. But I suppose the most direct disclosure he ever made was in a few words spoken to an old and intimate friend who asked about his health. 'In body, I am well,' he answered; 'but in mind I suffer always, and my suffering is the greater because I cannot speak of it.'"
There was a pause. Clémence bent down over the fair head of her little son to hide the tears which were dropping slowly. "My child had better go to his rest," she said.
The child's eager face was upturned, and the request to stay was on his trembling lips, when Ivan interposed. "No," he said. "Let him hear all, Clémence. He has the right.—But, Henri, was there no one near to ask whence all this anguish and sorrow of heart?"
"Some at least of its hidden sources were not hard to guess. Had he not tasted all the bitterness of failure worse a thousand times than the bitterness of death? Which of all the plans, the hopes that his soul hung upon, had found its fulfilment? Which had not disappointed him? The Holy Alliance had become the tool of selfish politicians, perhaps even the instrument of tyrants. The dissemination of the Holy Scriptures, from which he hoped so much, had proved, apparently, a cause of discord and confusion; his people, so loved and toiled for, had 'shown themselves insensible to the benefits he sought to confer upon them;' and secret societies and plots for his assassination had answered his unceasing efforts to do them good. Well might he say, with one of old, 'I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nought and in vain.' And with another, 'Now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.'"
"But oh, Henri," asked Clémence, struggling with her tears, "did he not know, all through, in whom he had believed? Did not Christ, in the darkest hour, stand beside his suffering servant?"
Henri's face grew sadder still. "Clémence—Ivan, must I tell you all I think?" he asked.
"All," said Ivan. "Keep nothing back."
"Then I think the face of his Lord was hid from him. Wherefore I cannot tell. There are secrets in His dealings with His own with which a stranger may not intermeddle."
"The evil one has fearful power," Pope Yefim said. "How would the great adversary, the accuser of the brethren, assault such a noble foe, and wound and harass, since he knew he could not destroy him!"
"There is no doubt he used for the purpose," Henri continued, "that strain of hereditary melancholy which flows through the life-current of his race, and which might—might have— God dealt tenderly with him, after all, though it is hard to see it now." After a long pause he resumed: "Even when he walked in darkness and had no light he ceased not to trust in the Lord, and to stay himself upon his God. In the darkest hours his word was his comfort; and those who feared his name, however poor or lowly, were the men he delighted to honour. You remember doubtless, before you left St. Petersburg, the visit of those noble-hearted philanthropists, Grellet and Allen; and you may have heard of their interview with the Emperor;—how the three, the great monarch and the two obscure travellers, knelt side by side, and poured out their full hearts to God, feeling themselves truly one in that love of Christ which passeth knowledge. Allen saw him once more, at Verona, when the shadows of the grave had already begun to deepen over him. Finding him weary and oppressed with work, the Englishman spoke of mental prayer, and said that even in the midst of engrossing occupations a man might lift up his heart to God. 'It is my constant practice, and I know not what I should do without it,' was Alexander's answer. To an appeal made to him by the same friend on behalf of the suffering and indigent Waldenses, he responded with a prompt and sympathetic munificence which evidently had its root in the sense that they were his brethren in Christ Jesus.
"The last year of his life was marked by peculiar sorrows. A terrible inundation of the Neva destroyed a great part of St. Petersburg, and brought death and desolation to thousands of families. While the inundation continued, he spared no effort to rescue the perishing; and for weeks afterwards he went every day to the homes of those who had lost their relatives, relieving their necessities, and speaking words of hope and comfort about the 'city which cannot be moved.' Then another and a deeper sorrow came to him—but of that I will not speak."
Here the child's clear voice broke in. "Oh, father," he asked wondering, "why did not God comfort him?"
Ivan could not answer, nor could he meet the searching gaze of the boy's young eyes. In broken-hearted silence he turned away. But Henri put his arm around the child and drew him close to him. "God did comfort him, at last," he said. The way was rough, rough and long, but the end was peace.—That journey to the south, from which he returned no more, was undertaken partly for the benefit of the Empress Elizabeth, whose health for some time had been failing. Her physicians had recommended her to pass the winter in Germany, but she entreated them not to separate her from her husband; and, to avoid this separation, he fixed upon a residence for her at Taganrog, in the Crimea, the climate being accounted favourable, resolving to make it his own headquarters for the season. There they spent a few quiet, restful weeks together. Elizabeth wrote to her own family that she had never been so happy in all her life. She drove and walked with the Emperor, who watched over her with all the care and tenderness of which he was so capable. Whenever he walked alone, he visited the poor in their humble homes; and many a touching memory of his kindness will linger long on their lips and in their hearts.
"But that peaceful breathing space had an end too soon. During a toilsome journey through the Crimea, filled with the usual details of business, the deadly fever and ague smote his frame; while, just at the same time, tidings no less deadly reached his heart. The vaguely treasonable projects of the secret societies had ended in a desperate and deliberate plot, of which his own assassination was a leading feature."
"His assassination!" cried Ivan. "Impossible! They could never have done it."
"So it seemed," Henri answered. "For the deed was often purposed, never once attempted. Still the shaft struck home. Many of those who plotted to take his life owed all that made their own precious to his bounty; every one of them had received favours at his hands. 'But what could I expect? It is a just retribution,' he cried, unconscious in his deafness that he spoke aloud. 'Almighty God, let thy judgments fall on me alone, and not on my people!'"
"A just retribution?" Clémence repeated. "How was it possible to him, even for a moment, to imagine that?"
"It could only have been possible to shattered nerves and a mind unstrung by suffering. The remembrance of the dark tragedy that began his reign—the thought of his father's horrible fate, perhaps soon to be his own—came back upon him in the hours of pain and weakness. Moreover, a stern duty was laid upon him. Before treason such as had been now disclosed to him no monarch on earth could remain passive. The ruler 'beareth not the sword in vain.' But to Alexander it was easier to suffer than to strike.
"So he returned to Taganrog with fever in his veins and the bitterness of death in his heart. For some days he struggled on, refusing to yield to his ever increasing malady, and rejecting the severe remedies his physicians pressed upon him. They thought he wished to die; and so it may have been, still I am persuaded he would not have thrust the cup of life aside by any act of his own. He really believed their treatment mistaken. 'My malady is beyond your skill,' he said to them; and again to Wylie, 'Ah, my friend, I think you are deceived as to the nature of my illness; it is my nerves that need a cure.' Wylie bore witness afterwards that throughout those days, so sad for the watchers, and to the very end, he 'continued to rest upon Christ as his only hope. His greatest pleasure was to have the Scriptures read to him; and he often requested his attendants to leave him alone, doubtless that he might hold communion with God in prayer.'
"One loving, tireless watcher scarcely quitted him night or day. New strength seemed poured upon the feeble frame and timid spirit of the gentle Elizabeth. Rising almost from her own bed of sickness to watch beside his, yet she never failed, never faltered; even in the most terrible hours of agony no entreaties could win her from his side. And strength was given her to the end. His last word, his last look was for her. She had her reward."
"Thank God!" murmured Clémence—"thank God!"
"When at last Wylie told him his danger,—'Then you really believe I am dying?' he said, looking him earnestly in the face. Wylie assented. 'The best news I have heard for many years,' returned he, pressing Wylie's hand. The Archimandrite Fedotof was summoned to act as his confessor. Their interview was very brief; but the priest said that 'he had never seen more Christian humility, or a dying man more thoroughly prepared.' Afterwards, with Elizabeth, he partook for the last time of the memorials of his Saviour's love. No doubt Christ drew very near him then; for a look of exceeding peace and rest came over his worn, suffering face, and he said to Elizabeth that he had never been so happy in all his life. Summoning the physicians again, he gently told them to do what they pleased, he would no longer object to anything. But their treatment, if ever it would have availed, was worse than useless now. Increased suffering and violent delirium were the result. Still there were intervals of consciousness, in which he thanked those around him for their services, spoke to Elizabeth with the warmest gratitude and affection, and earnestly commended her to the care of his friend Volkonski, entreating him not to leave her until he had brought her to his mother at St. Petersburg.
"Calm returned at length. It was early in the morning. He opened his eyes, fixed them with full recognition on the face of Elizabeth; took her hand, pressed it to his lips and his heart; and then greeted Volkonski, who stood beside him, with a smile. Overjoyed at the recognition, the faithful servant bent down over the hand of his beloved master and tried to kiss it; but Alexander had long ago forbidden him this act of homage as too ceremonious for so dear a friend, and now he drew his hand away with a slight, loving gesture of reproach. The curtains had been pushed aside from a window near the sofa where he lay, and the morning sun was streaming brightly in. 'Ah, le beau jour!' he murmured with a look of pleasure. Then looking anxiously and tenderly at Elizabeth, 'Que vous devez être fatiguée!' he said. They were his last words, although for another day and night of weakness and suffering life lingered on. The following morning he again knew those around him, pressed once more the hand of Elizabeth, looked at her with expressive eyes full of affection, and tried to speak—but in vain. Then, at last, Christ took his weary servant home.—So you see, my child," said Henri to the little Alexander as he drew him closer still, "God comforted him."
There was a long silence. The aged priest and the little child were weeping bitterly, and the quiet tears of Clémence were falling. She was the first to speak. "And Elizabeth?" she asked softly.
"Elizabeth closed his eyes, knelt down beside him, and in a few words of prayer gave him up to God. Then she added to a letter she had already begun to the Empress Mother, 'Our angel is gone from us into heaven. My only comfort is that I shall not long survive him. I hope soon to be reunited to him.' And I think her hope will not be disappointed."
Another silence, then Ivan rose slowly, as if to leave the room. "Stay, dear Ivan," Henri said. "I think it will comfort you to know with what a passion of grief he is lamented."
"Scarcely," Ivan answered in a trembling voice. "In this world love and understanding always come too late."
"The long journey from Taganrog to St. Petersburg was made amidst the tears of a sorrowing people, who paid the precious dust every tribute of love and reverence their grateful hearts could devise," said Henri. "The honours the living would never accept were heaped upon the dead. In many places the crowds drew the funeral carriage themselves, forgetting how he who lay there used to say he 'could never endure to see men doing the work of beasts of burden.' The faithful heart of Ilya was well-nigh broken, because, on account of his original rank, which was that of a mujik, he who had driven his lord for eight-and-twenty years would not be permitted to drive him now. Nothing could separate him from the hearse; by day he walked beside it, at night he slept beneath it, wrapped in furs. But when he came to the capital the Grand-Duke Nicholas allowed him once more to take the reins.
"In St. Petersburg, his own bright city of the Neva, the sorrow is profound and universal. There is scarcely a family, from the highest to the lowest, of which he has not been personally the benefactor. The first three days after the tidings came seemed like the three days' darkness of Egypt. A deep, silent gloom brooded over all. To some true hearts that loved him the grief has proved too heavy to be borne. One such I know of—a merchant of retired habits, noted for his munificent charities. He heard the tidings when walking on the Neva Prospekt, reached his home with difficulty, uttered no words but these, 'The Emperor is dead,' and expired in the midst of his family. Nor is it in St. Petersburg alone that he is missed and mourned. There is weeping in the vine-clad valleys of France as well as on the frozen plains of Russia. Wherever his armies trod he has left behind him a track of blessing.
"Of funeral pomp and splendour, of the outward, visible signs of a great nation's pride and sorrow, I have no heart to speak. The priceless jewels of the seven crowns of Russia which were laid upon his bier could be scarcely less to the senseless dust than they had been to the living man."
"What need of them?" Pope Yefim said. "Now he wears the crown of glory that fadeth not away, he walks amidst the splendours of the New Jerusalem, with its streets of gold and gates of pearl, its walls of jasper and foundation-stones of living fire."
"He sees the face of Christ," Henri answered; "for it is written, 'His servants shall serve him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads.'"
- Dupré de St. Maure.
- "Vie de Madame de Krudeuer." Par M. Eynard.
- The death of his only child, Sophie Narischkin, a beautiful and most amiable girl, about to be married to one of his aides-de-camp. The whole story is deeply touching.
- "His face showed care and sorrow, but the remembrance of these walks, and the acts of benevolence resulting from them, is the most touching of my recollections in Russia," writes a Frenchman who happened to be at Taganrog at the time.
- Life of William Allen.
- Nor was it. Alexander died on the 1st of December 1825, Elizabeth on the 16th of the following May.
- "He was said to be no solitary example of a broken heart for the loss of Alexander. Many were mentioned both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow; and a Russian assured me that he would venture any wager that if all the deaths from this cause throughout the empire were reckoned together, they would amount to above a hundred."—Kohl.
- "J'aimais à voir partager ma tristesse jusque par les habitans de cette Champagne où Alexandre était entré en vainqueur. Il n'y eut pas un pauvre vigneron d'Epernay ou de Vertus qui ne se fut écrié en apprenant la mort d'Alexandre, 'Ah, quel malheur; il avait sauvé la France!' Une paysanne me disait un jour, 'Hélas, madame, il était aussi aimable qu'il était beau!'"—Madame de Choiseul-Gouffier.