Annals of Public Justice
The Czar and Czarowitz
During the tumults in Russia, when the Princess Sophia’s intrigues to avail herself of Iwan’s imbecility were defeated by Peter the Great, several ancient Boyars withdrew to their country-houses in disgust or fear. Mierenhoff, one of this number, had a mansion about twelve versts from the metropolis, and resided in very strict retirement with his only daughter Feodorowna. But this beautiful young Muscovite had accompanied her father with more reluctance than he suspected, and contrived to solace her solitude by frequent visits from her affianced husband, Count Biron, one of the Czar’s body-guard. Though her lover laid claim to a title so sacred, his attachment to the imperial court and the kind of favoritism he enjoyed there, had created a jealousy not far from rancour in Mierenhoff. Mixing private feuds with political secrets, he devised a pretext to dismiss the young captain of the guard from all pretension to his daughter; but the young couple revenged themselves by clandestine disobedience. On one of the nights dedicated to their meetings, the Boyar chose to visit his daughter’s apartment with an affectation of kindness. She, apprised of his intention only a few moments before, conveyed her lover into a large chest or press in the corner of her room, and closing the lid, covered it with her mantle, that he might obtain air by lifting it occasionally. But the Boyar unhappily chose to take his seat upon it; and after a long stay, which cost his daughter inexpressible agonies, departed without intimating any suspicion. Feodorowna sprang to raise the lid of her coffer, and saw Biron entirely lifeless. What a spectacle for an affianced wife—but she had also the feelings of an erring daughter conscious that detection must be ruin. She had strength of mind enough to attempt every possible means of restoring life; and when all failed, to consider what might best conceal the terrible circumstances of his death. She could trust no one in her father’s household except his porter, an old half savage Tartar, to whom he had given the name of Usbeck, in allusion to his tribe. But this man had taught her to ride, reared her favourite wolf-dog, and shewn other traits of diligent affection which invited trust. Feodorowna descended from the lofty window of her room by the ladder Biron had left there; and creeping to the porter’s hut, awakened him to crave his help. It was a fearful hazard even to a Russian female little acquainted with the delicacies of more polished society; but the instinct of uncorrupted nature is itself delicate, and the Tartar manifested it by listening to his distressed mistress with an air of humbler respect. He followed to her chamber, removed the dead body from its untimely bier, and departed with it on his shoulder. In an hour he returned, but gave no answer to her questions except that “All was safe.” She put a ring containing a rich emerald on his finger, forgetting the hazard and unfitness of the gift. His eye flashed fire; and making a hasty step nearer, he seemed disposed to offer some reply; but as suddenly turning his back, and shewing only half his tiger-like profile over his left shoulder, he left Feodorowna in silence, and with a smile in which she imagined strange meaning.
The absence of the captain of the imperial guard could not be undiscovered long, and it was not difficult for his family to trace his nightly visits to his bride. But there all clue ceased; and after some mysterious hints at the secret animosity of her father, the search seemed to die away. An extraordinary circumstance renewed it. Biron’s body was found near the imperial city with a small poignard buried in it, bearing this label round the hilt —“The vengeance of a Strelitz.”— The sanguinary sacrifice of the Strelitz-regiment by Peter’s orders, for their adherence to his sister Sophia, appeared to explain this inscription; and the friends of Count Biron instantly ascribed his fate to the scattered banditti formed by the survivors of this proscribed regiment. Feodorowna, though not the least surprised at the incident, was the only one who rejoiced, as she felt the security it gave to her secret. Her father preserved an entire silence and impenetrable indifference on the subject. The Emperor, notwithstanding the eccentric zeal of his attachments, chose to leave his favorite’s fate in an obscurity he thought useful to his politics, and scandalous to his enemies.
Six months passed in secret mourning on Feodorowna’s part; and her father usually spent his evenings alone after his return from hunting. One night, as he sat half-dreaming over his solitary flaggon, he saw a man standing near his hearth wrapped in a dark red cloak, with a fur cap bordered with jewels, and black velvet mask over his face. The Boyar had as much good-sense as any Russian nobleman of that age, and as much courage as any man alone, or with only his flask by his side, can reasonably shew. And probably he owed to his flask the firmness of his voice when he asked this extraordinary visitor whence he came. The stranger familiarly replied, that he could not answer the question.—“Have you no name”—“None, Boyar, fitting you to know!—You have a daughter, I desire a wife; and you have only to name the price you claim for her.”—The Muscovite blood of Mierenhoff rose at this insolent appeal, and he snatched up the silver whistle by which he usually summoned his attendants. “Sound it, if you will,” said the strange visitor, “your servants will have no ears, and mine have more than an equal number of hands. Mierenhoff!—recollect this badge—”—and as he spoke, he raised his sleeve, and discovered the form of a poignard indented on his arm. At the sight of this brand, which he well knew to be the symbol of the Strelitz confederacy, Mierenhoff bowed his head in terror and silence. The unknown repeated his proposal for a wife, demanding an instant answer. The Boyar, full of astonishment and dismay, endeavoured to evade the demand, by alleging the impossibility of answering so promptly for his daughter. “I understand your fears, Mierenhoff:—your daughter herself shall determine, if I am allowed to speak with her alone one quarter of an hour.”—Some more conversation passed which determined Mierenhoff’s compliance. The Strelitz, for such he now considered his guest, rose suddenly from his chair. “I do not ask you,” he said, “to conduct me to your daughter’s apartment—I know where it is situated, and by what means to enter it. Neither do I ask you to wait here patiently till my return. You dare not follow me.”—He spoke truth; and had the Boyar dared to follow him, his surprise would not have been lessened by the unhesitating boldness of his steps through the avenues of his house, and the intricate stair-cases that led to Feodorowna’s chamber.
The young Countess was alone in sorrowful thought when her extraordinary visitor entered. His proposal was made to her in terms nearly as concise as to her father. When she started up to claim help from her servants, he informed her that her father’s life and reputation were at his mercy, not less than her own; adding—“You are no stranger to the vengeance of a Strelitz.” Feodorowna shuddered at this allusion to the fate of a man whose widow she considered herself, and his next words convinced her he not only knew the circumstances of Biron’s death, but all the secrets of their interviews. In little more than the time he mentioned, he returned to the Boyar’s presence, and announced his daughter’s assent. It was agreed that the unknown bridegroom should not remove his bride from her father’s roof, nor visit it oftener than once in every month, unless she voluntarily consented to accompany him. He farther conditioned, that the priest should be provided by himself, and the ceremony unwitnessed, except by the father of Feodorowna. To these and to any other conditions Mierenhoff would have acceded willingly, hoping to elude or resist them when the day arrived. When the stranger rose to depart, he pointed to a time-piece which ornamented the Boyar’s table. “I depend on your honour; and if I did not, I know my own power too well to doubt your obedience. Count twenty movements of this minute hand before you quit your seat after I am gone.”—So saying, he disappeared, and the father-in-law-elect of this mysterious man remained stupid with consternation and amaze till the period expired.
What passed between the father and daughter cannot be explained. If he was surprised at her ready acquiescence, she was no less indignant at his tame surrender of his only child to a ruffian who had demanded her, she supposed, as the seal of some guilty confederacy. But this supposition wronged her father. Cowardly yet not cruel, and ambitious without sufficient craft, the Boyar was only enough advanced into the mysteries of the Strelitz-faction to know that his own danger would be equally great, whether he betrayed the conspirators or the government. This man had passed unopposed among his servants, had learned all the secrets of his house, and must consequently possess means to purchase both. He felt himself surrounded by an invisible chain, and by a mist which magnified while it confused his fears. The Countess Feodorowna, from whom he had expected the most eager questions and piercing complaints, was silent, sullen, and entirely passive. When the next midnight arrived, she sat by her father’s side, with her arms folded in her fur pelisse, and her loose hair covered with a mourning veil, while the Strelitz entered with a Greek priest. The rites of the Muscovite church were performed without opposition; and the father, with a sudden pang of remorse and horror, as if till then he had believed the marriage would have been prevented by some unknown power, resigned Feodorowna to her husband. She clung to the Boyar, earnestly insisting on his part of the contract, while this mysterious son-in-law professed his faithful respect for all his promises. “Depend on my word,” he added: “you will never be removed from your father’s house, except to take your seat on the throne of all the Russias.”
This was the first intimation ever given by him of his expectations or his rank: and certain flattering hopes which had always clung to the Boyar’s fancy, seemed on the verge of probability. Perhaps this pretended Strelitz was the Czar himself, whose fondness for adventure and skill in political intrigue had induced him to assume the garb and stamp of the confederacy he meant to baffle. Feodorowna was not without ambition, and the diamond bracelet which her new husband placed on her wrist was worthy to bind an Empress’s hand. Every month, on the second day of the new moon, he appeared at her father’s supper table, and departed before daylight; but by what means he gained ingress and egress was not to be discovered. The servants of the Boyar professed entire ignorance, nor did he venture to prosecute his enquiries very strictly. But his daughter’s curiosity was more acute; and not withstanding the solemn oath imposed on her to forbear from questions, and to respect the mask which covered his face, she resolved on trying the effect of female blandishment. Gradually and by very cautious advances, she tempted the Strelitz to exceed his studied temperance at a supper prepared with unusual care. Her music and her smiles were not wholly without effect, and he suddenly said, “Do you know, Feodore, I had never seen or desired to see you if Biron had not talked of your beauty with such passionate fondness among my guards? He piqued my fancy, for he seemed to act the part of the English Athelwold to the island-king Edgar, and his fate was not far unlike.”—At this allusion to her first husband’s affection and tragic end, Feodorowna shrunk in horror, scarcely suppressed by the secret hope this speech justified. He spoke of his guards, and compared himself to a sovereign prince—The inference was natural, and the pride of her heart increased the beauty of her countenance. He filled another cup of cogniac to the brim, and holding it to her lips, bade her wish health to the Emperor of Russia at the same hour next night. There was a cold and stony dampness in his hand, which did not agree with the purple light in his eyes. He quitted her instantly, for the first cock had crown, and day was breaking: but she resolved that day should end her uncertainty. Dull in intellect and selfish in heart, her father had little claim to her confidence; but his life, perhaps her sovereign’s, might be involved in the desperate plots of the Strelitz-faction. She covered herself in a common woollen garment, and a peasant’s hood; determining to seek the Emperor in Moscow, and beg a pardon for her husband and her father as the price of her discovery. Thus resolved, and not without hope of a still higher price, she left her chamber unseen, and visited the hut of his Tartar-servant. She asked him whether he dared depart from her father’s house, and accompany her to Moscow on foot. The old man answered by filling a wallet with provisions; and digging up a square stone which lay under his pillow, took three roubles and the emerald ring from beneath it, and put them into his mistress’s hand. “This is all you have in the world, Usbeck!” said the young Countess, “and I may never repay you.”—“No, not all,” he answered; “I have still the axe which split the trees for you when you ate the wild bees’ honey.”—There needed no farther assurance of his faith to the child of his master.
The travellers entered Moscow before noon, but the Emperor was absent from his palace. “What is your business with him?” asked a man of meagre and muscular figure, who stood in a plain mechanic’s dress near one of the gates. Feodore answered, that she had a petition of great importance to present to him. The stranger perused her countenance, and advised her to wait till the captain of the guards appeared. “That would avail nothing,” said she “I must see him, and deliver this paper into his own hand.”—“Why not into mine?” returned the questioner, rudely snatching the paper, and thrusting himself behind the gates: but not so rapidly as to escape a blow levelled at his head by Usbeck. “Keep that blow in mind, my good friend,” said the thief, laughing—“I shall not forget my part of the debt.” And slily twitching the long lock which hung behind Usbeck’s ear in the Black Cossack’s fashion, he disappeared.
Feodorowna stood resolutely at the gateway of the palace, still expecting to see the Emperor, and determining to communicate all that had happened to herself, her first husband, and her father. Presently the artisan returned again, and laying his hand familiarly on her arm, whispered—“The Emperor is in the guard house, follow me!”—There was an expression, an ardent and full authority in his eye, which instantly announced his rank. She was going to kneel, but he prevented her. “Be of good cheer, Feodorowna!—your husband is greater and less than he appears. Return home, and drink the Eamperor of Russia’s health to-night, as he commanded.”
Usbeck stood listening anxiously near his mistress; and when she turned to him with a smiling countenance, beckoned her to follow him. But it was too late: a guard of twelve men had drawn up behind, and now surrounded them. They were forcibly separated, and each conveyed to prison, where sentinels, regularly changed, attended till about the eleventh hour of the next day, when two persons in the habit of Russian senators entered, and conducted Feodorowna to another room in the fortress. This room was filled with senators; and a bishop, whose face she recognized, stood near a couch on which a young man sat with silver fetters on his hands. His dress was slovenly and squalid, but his person tall, and well-made; his complexion healthfully brown, and his eyes and hair of a brilliant black. Another man, whose form and countenance were entirely muffled, stood behind the groupe, but sufficiently near to direct and observe them. Count Tolstoi, the chief senator, obeyed a glance from his eye; and addressing himself to the manacled prisoner, said, in a low and respectful voice, “Does your highness know this woman?”—He answered in German, and the muffled man gave a signal to the bishop, who approached the couch, and joining the hands of Feodorowna to the prisoner, declared their marriage lawful from that hour, but from that only. Though the face of her husband had been concealed from her during their mysterious intercourse, Feodorowna knew the strong stern voice, the dark hair and eyes, and the perfect symmetry of this unknown prisoner; and her heart smote itself when the letter she had written to the Emperor was read aloud to him. He made no reply, and the witnesses of this strange ceremony laid before him another paper, stating, that finding himself unqualified for government, he disclaimed all right of succession to the crown, acknowledging his brother Peter its lawful heir. He signed it with the same unbending countenance; and the standers-by having each repeated an oath of allegiance to the chosen successor, departed one by one, solemnly bowing their heads to the bishop and the muffled man who stood at his right hand. They with Feodorowna were then left alone in the room until a signal bell had sounded twice. A man whom she knew to be Field-Marshal Wreyde entered as it tolled the last time, bearing a silver cup and cover. His countenance was frightfully pale, and he staggered like one convulsed or intoxicated. The prisoner fixed his eyes sternly on Feodorowna, and bowing his head to the muffled stranger, took it with an unshaking hand, and emptied it to the last drop. While he held it to his lips, the Bishop opened a long official paper, but the prisoner interrupted him: “I have already heard my sentence of death, and know this is its execution.” Even as he spoke, the change in his complexion began, and Feodorowna, uttering dismal screams, was forced from his presence. Five days after, she was carried in a covered litter to the church of the Holy Trinity, where a coffin lay in state under a pall of rich gold tissue. Her conductor withdrew into the darkness of the outer aisle, leaving her to contemplate the terrible conclusion of her father’s ambitious dreams, and the last scene of human greatness. But she was yet uncertain how far the guilt of the detected faction had extended, and whether he who lay under the splendid pall, and had once called himself her husband, was the treacherous Governor of Siberia, Prince Gagarin, or a still more illustrious criminal. There was no name upon the velvet covering of the coffin, no banner, no armorial bearing; and the attendant, seeing the silent and stony stupor of the miserable widow, conducted her compassionately back to the covered litter. It conveyed her to a convent, where, a few hours after her arrival, a white veil was presented to her, with this mandate, bearing the imperial signet of Peter the Great.
“The widow of Alexis, Czarowitz of Russia, could enter no asylum less than the most sacred and distinguished convent of the empire. It is not her crime that he instigated foreign sovereigns and Russian renegades to assassinate his father, depose his mother-in-law, and expel his kindred. Neither is it her crime that her father was the dupe of a faction whose only purpose was to elevate a man fond of the vices of the lowest herd, and therefore fit to be their leader. Nor can a woman bold enough to risk the life of her husband, blame a father whose justice required him to sacrifice his son. He spared him the shame of a public execution, and gave him a title to the tears of a lawful widow.”
Thus perished Alexis, heir-apparent of the widest empire and the most celebrated sovereign then existing in Europe. The decree that consigned him to death was passed in the senate house of Moscow by all the chief nobility and clergy, the high officers of the army and navy, the governors of provinces and others of interior degree, unanimously, but referring the mode to his sovereign and father, whose extraordinary character, combining the sternness of a Junius Brutus with the romance of a Haroun Alraschid, enabled him to fulfil the terrible office of his son’s judge. But even Peter the Great had not hardihood enough to be a public executioner; and his unhappy son, though his sentence might have been justified by the baseness of his habits and associates, was never openly abandoned by his father. His death was ascribed to apoplexy, caused by shame and fear at the reading of his sentence; and the Czar with his Czarina Catherine attended the funeral. Feodorowna died in the convent of Susdale, of which the former Czarina, mother of the Czarowitz, was abbess when he perished; and Usbeck, her faithful servant, easily escaped from the prison of the Emperor, who did not forget his blow. Once on his way from Moscow to Novigorod, attended only by four servants, Peter was stopped by a party of Rasbonicks, and leaping from his sledge with a pistol cocked, demanded to know what they desired. One of the troop replied, he was their lord and master, and ought to supply the wants of his destitute subjects. The Emperor knew Usbeck’s voice, and giving him an order for a thousand rubles on the Governor of Novogorod, bade him go and remember how Peter of Russia paid his debts either of honour or of justice.
- Vide Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, captain in Peter’s service. ↩
- This unfortunate young prince abandoned himself to the lowest society and to brutal intemperance, not withstanding the careful education bestowed on him. By the intrigues of the Chancellor, Count Golofkin, and his son, he married a princess of Wolfenbuttle, sister to the Emperor of Germany. whose aid he sought in hostilities against his father. She died some time before him, and his body was placed in the royal vault near . The trial lasted from the 25th of June till the 6th of July. Alexis expired in convulsions, as an eye-witness has recorded, about five o'clock the next day. ↩