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He went along the promenade, serious and sedate, as though to a battle.
When he had found Number 14, he entered at once, sure of finding his fifty men there. On the right hand ground-floor towards the courtyard, all the windows stood open. There he saw the conspirators sitting at a long table and drinking wine. He stepped into the room, saw many of his friends there, and felt a stab at his heart.
"Good-day, comrades!" was his cheery greeting.
The whole company rose like one man. They exchanged looks and put on faces for the occasion.
"Let us drink a gla.s.s together, friends!" Peter threw himself on a chair; then he looked at a clock in the room, and saw it was only half-past four. He had made a mistake of half an hour. Was it his own error, or was Menshikoff's clock wrong?
"Half an hour!" he thought to himself, but in the next second he had emptied a huge gla.s.s, and began to sing a very popular soldiers' song, keeping time by knocking the gla.s.s against the table.
The effect of the song was magical. They had sung it as victors at Pultowa; they had marched to the accompaniment of its strains; it carried their memories to better, happier times, and they all joined in.
Peter's strong personality, the winning amiable air he could a.s.sume when he liked, had an attractive power for all. One song led to another, and singing relieved the terrible embarra.s.sment. It was the only possible way of avoiding a conversation. Between the songs the Czar proposed a health, or drank to an old friend, reminding him of some experience which they had shared in common. He dared not look at the clock lest he should betray himself, but he found the half hour in this den of murderers intolerably long.
Several times he saw two exchanging glances, but then he threw in a jesting word and the thread was broken. He was playing for his life, and he played well, for he misled them with his cheerfulness and naivete, so that they could not tell whether he knew anything or not. He played with their irresolution.
At last he heard the rattle of arms in the courtyard, and with one bound he was out of the window.
"Ma.s.sacre!" was his only word of command, and then the blood-bath began.
He himself stood at the window, and when any one tried to jump out, the Czar struck off his head. "Alles tot!" he exclaimed in German, when it was all over. Then he went his way in the direction of the Peter-Paul Fortress.
He was received by the Commandant, and had himself conducted to Prince Alexis, his only surviving and eldest son, on whom he had built his hope and Russia's destiny.
With the key in his hand, he remained standing before the cell, made the sign of the cross and prayed half-aloud:--"O Eternal G.o.d of armies, Lord of Hosts, who hath put the sword into the hands of rulers that they may guide and protect, reward and punish, enlighten thy poor servant's understanding that he may deal righteously. Thou hast demanded from Abraham his son, and he obeyed. Thou hast crucified Thine own Son in order to redeem mankind. Take my sacrifice, O Terrible One, if Thou requirest it. Yet not my will be done, but Thine. May this cup pa.s.s if it be Thy will. Amen! in the name of Christ, Amen!"
He entered the cell, and remained there an hour. When he came out again, he looked as though he had been weeping; but he said nothing, handed the key to the Commandant, and departed. There are many varying rumours regarding what pa.s.sed that evening between father and son. But one thing is certain: Alexis was condemned to death by a hundred and twenty-seven judges, and the verdict was entered on the State records. But the Crown Prince died before the execution of the sentence.
The same evening, about eight o'clock, the Czar entered his country-house and sought Katherine. "The old has pa.s.sed away," he said.
"Now we will begin the new--you and I and our children."
The Czarina asked no questions, for she understood. But the Czar was so tired and exhausted, that she feared lest he should have one of the attacks which she knew so well. And the only way of quieting him was the old customary one.
She sat down in the corner of the sofa; he laid down resting his head on her capacious bosom; then she stroked his hair till he fell asleep. But she had to sit for three hours without moving.
A giant child on a giant bosom, the great champion of the Lord lay there, his face looked small, his high brow was hidden by his long hair; his mouth was open, and he snored like a little child asleep. When at last he awoke, he looked up at first astonished, to find himself where he was. Then he smiled, but did not say Thank you, and did not fondle her.
"Now we will have something to eat," was the first thing he said. "Then something to drink, and then a great firework. I will light it myself down on the sh.o.r.e. But Jaen Scheerborck must be present."
"You have thrown him out."
"Have I? He was drunk, the fellow. Send for him at once."
"You are so strange, Peter! Never the same for two minutes together."
"I will not be the same; it would be too monotonous. Always something new! And I am always new. What! I do not weary you with everlasting sameness."
His orders were carried out. Jaen was brought, but had to be bound first; he was angry with Peter because of his ducking at the pump, and refused to come. But when he landed, he was embraced and kissed on the mouth, and then his wrath blew over.
They ate and drank and had their firework display, which was a great pleasure for the Czar.
So ended the fateful day which secured the succession to the throne to the house of Romanoff. And such was the man who termed himself "the Great, the Self-ruler, the Emperor of All the Russias."
The Barbarian, who civilised his Russia; who built towns and did not dwell in them himself; who beat his wife, and allowed extensive liberty to women,--his life was great, copious, and useful on the public side of it; in private, as it might chance to be. But he had a beautiful death, for he died in consequence of an illness contracted when saving a life from shipwreck--he who, with his own hand, had taken the lives of so many!
THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS
Monsieur Voltaire, gentleman-in-waiting to Frederick the Great, possessor of the much prized Order Pour Le Merite, Academician, and many other things besides, had been for three years a guest at Sans-Souci, near Potsdam. He was sitting this beautiful evening in the wing of the castle where he lived, busy writing a letter. The air was still and warm, so that the sensitive Frenchman, who was always shivering, could leave the window open.
His letter, only half written, was directed to the Marquise, the friend of Cardinal Fleury, who carried on a sort of superior spy-service by means of correspondence with foreign countries.... "Everything is transitory," he wrote, "and it was plain that this would not last.
I have to act as a tutor and correct his bad verses, though he knows neither German nor French properly. Malicious as an ape he has written satires on all the ruling heads of Europe which are certainly not fit for printing, but are quite vulgar and unjust. With a view to the future dear friend, I have caused his pamphlet to be copied, and at the moment when he strikes, I shall strike back. If you only knew what this Prussia is, and threatens to become! It is an eagle sketched in outline with the tip of one wing resting on the Rhine, and the other on the Russian frontier. There are gaps here and there in the outline, but when they are filled up the whole of North Germany will hang like a vulture over Austria's two-headed imperial eagle. France must control her hatred against the House of Hapsburg, and not compromise with the Hohenzollerns, for you know not what you do. One hears much talk of plans here, but I dare not write them all down, for he is not to be jested with."
At this point there was heard from the castle the penetrating sound of a flute, which executed trills and shakes. The old man (for he was now in his sixtieth year) first put his fingers in his ears, but then continued to write.... "And then his confounded flute! He is playing on it just now ... that means we are all to dance to his piping. But still worse than the flute is something which they call a fugue; I do not know whether one can call it music, but yesterday Sebastian Bach was here--'the great Bach' of course--and had his son Philipp Emanuel with him. The whole afternoon they played so-called fugues, so that I had to go to bed and take medicine. As regards his plans, I will only indicate some of them. One plan is to divide Austria between France and Prussia, but he is too cunning to do so, for he needs Austria to help him against France. A second plan is, to divide Prussia between Russia and Austria, and I have heard rumours of a third to divide Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. (The flute is silent, and a heavenly stillness spreads over Sans-Souci, which for the future I shall write 'Cent-Soucis,' for a hundred petty vexations threaten to shorten my life here.) Our Round Table, which hitherto only consisted of men of talent, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Algarotti, D'Argens, and their like, is now recruited by guardsmen from Potsdam, and is in course of degenerating into a tobacco-club. Ziethen and his Dessauers wear greasy leather boots, and brag of their 'five victories.' The day before yesterday they took liberties, silenced all intelligent conversation, and finally tried to make me the b.u.t.t of their jests. What annoyed me the most was that _he_ could not hide his pleasure at it. Altogether, the procession of the leather boots means war--as might be expected--against the lady Maria Teresa. The other lady, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, he denotes by another uglier name.... He has become a women's hero, the nasty woman-hater. His wife, Elizabeth Christine, is still confined in Schonhausen."
A head looked in at the window, and the King greeted him, "Good evening, Monsieur; so busy?"
Like a boy surprised in cribbing, the writer threw his papers into disorder, and drew half a sheet of Dutch vellum over them.
"Yes, sire, I have just finished a poem to the Emperor Kian-Loung, which is an answer to his 'Eloge de Mukden.'"
"To the Emperor of China! You have grander acquaintances than I."
"But you have me, sire."
This he said with a superior air of satirising himself, as though he would make game of his own notorious vanity.
The King took the jest as it was intended. "Yes, Monsieur Voltaire belongs to my most honourable acquaintances, but I would not say to the grandest."
"May I now read my poem to the Chinese Emperor? Do you allow me, sire?"
"Would it be any use, if I did not allow it, you pushing man?"
"'Recois mes compliments, charmant roi de la Chine.'"
"But he is an Emperor."
"Yes, but that is a politeness towards you, sire, who are only a King!"
"'Ton trone est done place sur la double colline On sait dans l'Occident, que malgre mes travers J'ai toujours fort aime les rois qui font des vers!'"