Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A Constantine czarowicz in Warsaw - Part 1

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The treaties of 1815 were signed and sealed, the dancing attachés had bid adieu to Vienna, and England, after sacrificing thousands of lives and millions of money to humble Napoleon, had ratified some of his most unjust and impolitic acts. Venice, bartered by him to Austria, was to remain under the Hapsburgs, and Poland was still to be the doomed victim of the Holy Alliance. Russia held from the dismemberments of 1772 and 1795 the provinces of Lithuania, the Ukraine, &c., and to these the treaties of 1815 added the eight palatinates constituting the duchy of Warsaw, which was decorated with the title of the Kingdom of Poland. Alexander, with modest benignity, consented to accept the broken crown of the Jagellons, and govern his new monarchy under the most unimpeachable of constitutions.

Poland, exhausted by the struggles of the last fifty years, still more by the cruel disappointment which had followed her hopes in Napoleon, and for the moment almost despairing of herself, accepted the Imperial pacificator with resignation, if not gratitude. What might not a country hope from a sovereign whose patriotism was undoubted, whose intellect, though of no high order, was yet thoroughly capable of appreciating excellence, whose professed liberality was of the most advanced kind, and who had always expressed a chivalrous admiration for the character, and sympathy with the fate, of the greatest and the most unfortunate of the Sclavonic races!

The Poles had not been consulted by the British and Foreign “friends of humanity” at Vienna, who concocted their Constitution; but when they learnt its provisions, since restoration of the ancient Republic was impossible, the sanguine among them tried to forget the lessons of the past, and believe in the blessings to come.

Their own famous Constitution of May 1791 had provided for the emancipation of the serfs, the hereditary descent of the Crown, representation of the kingdom in an Upper and Lower Chamber, freedom of the press, &c., &c.; matters which, by exciting the autocratic jealousy of Catherine II., Frederick II. and Joseph, had brought on the dismemberment of 1795, and involved the last fragments of the old republic in ruin. Even that Constitution was not so broadly liberal as this which the Romanoff dynasty had to inaugurate. Gornicki, the famous Polish publicist of the sixteenth century, had declared, “no country could be lastingly prosperous and happy where either an absolute monarch, a single caste, or the mass of the democracy, direct the government; that it could only be so if king, nobles, and the representatives of the people, unite to make the laws and watch their administration.” The views of the great publicist were to be fulfilled. The Holy Alliance—“the bear, the wolf, and the fox, had long since announced ‘Nous gouvernerons nos peuples en pères de famille pour conserver la foi, la paix et la vérité.” And now the first of the benevolent triad, no rude obtuse bear, but a well combed, softly spoken, admirably tamed specimen, was going to carry out the programme for the benefit of the people, delivered into his gloved claws across a green table by the representatives of Christendom. He was to be constitutional King of Poland, assisted by an Administrative Council. The kingdom to be governed by the House of Nuncios and the Senate. The Constitution recognised the emancipation of the peasants; declared that no one could be legally kept in arrest over three days without being brought to trial; proclaimed the press free from government censorship and the inviolability of the national representatives; that a Polish standing army should be maintained in the country, and that none but Poles were eligible to any appointment, civil or military. A commander-in-chief of the National army to reside in the country, and a viceroy to be appointed in the king’s absence.

Yaiouzek, a feeble old man, a convert to the Greek Church, was appointed Viceroy; the Archduke Constantine, Commander-in-chief; an Administrative Council, chosen from men too weak to offer opposition, or too venal to dream of it, assisted the former, who, in fact, from the beginning was completely the tool of his imperial colleague.

A strange phenomenon in the pious turpitudes and decorous infamy of modern times was this wild Czarowicz: debauched as his grandmother Catherine, scarcely less mad than his father Paul, wicked without intellect, proud without self-respect, passionate without courage, weak without compassion, he was scarcely less despised by his enemies than feared by his friends. Kept studiously in idleness all the best years of his life, which were rendered still more irksome by the scanty maintenance doled out to him, his restless activity had found no vent but in the barrack-yard and the parade-ground. Some of his better moments gave glimpses of a character very different to that which he ordinarily exhibited,—of a frank good-nature, and jovial good-fellowship, which, though rarely shown, still endeared him to the Russian soldiers, who, accustomed as they were to contemptuous silence in their officers when best fulfilling their orders, or merciless punishments for the slightest neglect, regarded the rough familiarity of the Czarowicz as a phenomenon of benevolence. He was, too, one of the handsomest men in the. army, if immense height, fine limbs, broad shoulders, and the smallest possible waist, could make him so; though his countenance was strangely repulsive, wrinkled in deep crooked furrows, and lighted by eyes that glared so wildly when he fell into his paroxysms of rage, that even those who least feared or most despised him, could not meet them unmoved. His fits of mad fury seized him at the slightest provocation, and were succeeded by periods of complete physical exhaustion; though opposition was alike unendurable in the one or the other state, yet his passions soon made him the tool of men as unscrupulous but more cunning than himself.

Before Constantine’s arrival in Warsaw, a crowd of hirelings had been secured to vaunt the simplicity of his tastes, and of his manner of life, his activity, his military enthusiasm, and devotion to his adopted country. He had been so effectually kept in the background by father and brother that nothing was known of his real character,—the Poles could still hope, despite their misgivings.

The Viceregal Court at Warsaw was quickly thronged with a host of nobles, in great part of foreign extraction; the descendants of those who, following the elective kings into Poland, had generally repaid the hospitality they received by selling their influence and senatorial votes to the highest bidder. To these were added a multitude of others created by the new government, all needy men, all ready for any infamy that might bring them a few gold coins or a scrap of ribbon. The Senate, the Chamber of Nuncios, the Ministry, the Military and Civil Services, were soon filled by them, or by aspirants to their honours. Stars and cordons, reprobated by the old republic, were now the first requisites in a public servant; nor could admission be obtained to a levée at the Belvedere, unless he who sought the honour had at least one “decoration.”

Constantine found Warsaw with narrow tortuous streets, unsymmetrical mediæval houses, and palaces in which the means or taste of the owner had been more consulted than their external appearance. Constantine was charged to change all this; Warsaw must become a great and brilliant capital; therefore theatres, palaces, monuments, barracks, handsome squares, and light well-paved streets arose as if by enchantment. The rude city of the ancient republic vanished from fashionable eyes, and a graceful be-stuccoed imperial creation took its place. The squalid dwellings of the poor disappeared, and the poor were drafted off to build canals or make roads through the forests of the kingdom, and to die by hundreds of hunger and misery. The Vistula, one of the most rebellious of rivers, was tamed within stone dykes; manufacturers from Germany were invited to take up their abode in the capital, and the other cities of Poland; trade flourished; the royal revenues within a few years were raised to 10,000,000 Polish florins; the Bank contained 150,000,000, the Treasury a reserve of 30,000,000. The country was in successful process of civilisation; but it was civilisation filtered through a Russian medium—its material advantages without its better aspiration, luxury without refinement, wealth without public spirit or private charities.

The revenue had increased, because the people were so taxed that they would gladly have returned to serfage to secure themselves from dying of starvation; trade was actually in the hands of a few monopolists, who preyed on the necessities of the people, whilst they enriched themselves and bribed the Government. The brewers and distillers of Warsaw were obliged to sell all their produce at a fixed price to certain Jews, who alone were empowered to sell it again to the retail dealers; this regulation was subsequently found too favourable, so under pretence of the demoralising nature of their trade, they were prohibited from exercising it longer, and the whole business was transferred to the favoured monopolists: any person evading the monopoly laws was liable to forty years’ hard labour. Nor was this an exceptional instance; it was but part of the system.

The nobles of the kingdom formed far too numerous a class to constitute, generally speaking, a very wealthy body; many of them had in fact no other property than the home farm, the cultivation of which they and their sons superintended. Their patriarchal lives and simple tastes secured their independence; they formed the firmest bulwark of the nation, as the yeomen of old did in England. It was therefore the policy of the new Government to bring these men or their sons to Warsaw, to accustom them to habits and wants beyond their fortunes, and then, when the right moment came, to throw them the bait of some official employment, which, though wretchedly paid, offered a great many unofficial means of enriching its possessor.

To this end, the number of public offices was largely increased, while the salaries were considerably reduced.

The University of Warsaw had been spared, and was supposed to enjoy the peculiar favour of Alexander; but history and truth were banished from its walls. If any of the students had procured some book, perhaps by one of the greatest authors of England, France, or Germany, at the price of its weight in gold, they dared not read it, except in a place of secure concealment, and under mutual oath of secrecy. The debates in the Diet, formerly the scene of such turbulent eloquence, were now confined to the decorous discussion of local improvements, and were scarcely heard of beyond the walls. If one of the members, bolder than the rest, dared to transgress the tacit rules laid down by Constantine, it was at the risk of being dragged away as a felon to a secret dungeon, and to leave it only for exile or death. The Press soon discovered that the promised liberty could be indulged only at like risks, and took refuge in travels in Timbuctoo and French romances, or recounted viceregal levées, the virtues of Constantine, and the blessings of Russian rule.

Such were a few of the milder aspects of the new Government; but these things, though immediately inspired by Constantine, formed as yet but the amusement of his leisure; his real occupation was with the army,—the army that was to realise all his fondest dreams, his proudest ambition. On arriving at Warsaw, he soon collected 30,000 men, the remnants of the old legions, and had little difficulty in fast adding to their number. He devoted himself to the task of organising and drilling them with a patience and devotion truly Russian. For years, perhaps, he meditated an evolution to be carried out at a review: put 40,000 men in motion, to judge whether their coats answered better with nine or ten buttons: and would ransack all the military libraries in the kingdom, to learn the origin of the simplest manœuvre. He soon established a permanent camp at Provonski, close to Warsaw; there, dressed like a cuirassier, brushed, buttoned, and strapped—a model corporal—he passed day after day in marching his troops up and down through the soft sands of the Nola, to test their discipline. Perhaps after months of drilling to effect some particular manœuvre, a new fancy would seize the Czarowicz; then a council of war would be summoned, with all the solemnity as on the eve of a great battle, the old regulations would be altered, and all the drilling had to be recommenced. By tormenting his recruits in this manner, he at length produced a human machine, unsurpassed in flexibility and precision. The word of command passed down the hierarchy of officers: tramp, tramp, marched the men, as though moved by some strange spell, so unerring was each footfall, so accurate the most complicated evolution. The Czarowicz on each grand field-day fell into ecstacies of delight in his handiwork; he rushed about from rank to rank, distributing slaps on the shoulder here, oaths there, panted for breath, rubbed his hands, and, if everything went off well, would fall to beating his breast, until he had finally exhausted his strength, and was calm again.

These were his happy moments: and then there was no end to his activity. The army would, perhaps, be kept under arms for twenty hours in succession, quite motionless, that he might feast his eyes on its docility, though more frequently he kept it continually marching from place to place around the capital, regardless of the burning sun of July or the frosts of winter. In the latter case, and when the snow lay in drifts, or had been whirled into great hillocks, the inequality of the ground made no interruption to the symmetry of the column; if it did, woe to the offenders; to have their uniforms stripped off, and beaten by the flat of their comrades’ sabres until they fell fainting in their blood, was the mildest punishment they could anticipate.