Іван Корсак - The last lover of the Empress (сторінка 3)

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       Peter III was invited to the repast about an expected freedom. They all were joking, laughing, valet Bressan was outside the door at the moment, and insensibly for the emperor Orlov he poured poison, prepared before by their doctor, into a goblet.

       After the first goblet the second one was poured but Peter III began to guess because of a sudden, strong pain.

       The cramped emperor said, “They kept me out of Swedish throne, stole my Russian crown, in addition they want to take my life.”

       At that moment there wasn’t any need to play bo-peep: they all sprang at the emperor and began to strangle him with a pillow. He fought desperately, but poison was taking away his forces inexorably. Quickwitted Baratynskiy made a loop of napkins and slipped the noose around the emperor’s neck. Peter Fedorovich tried to free, but it was in vain, they firmly grabbed his arms and legs, and quard sergeant Engelgardt tightened the noose around Peter’s neck.

       Emperor’s body jerked several times, defying death, went limp immediately and was quiet for ever.

       “Horses!” Orlov cried, poured one fuller goblet and began to write on grey and dirty sheet of paper, which turned up, “Mother, Gracious Majesty! How can I explain, describe what happened. You won’t believe your faithful slave but I say as before God. Mother, prepare me to die. I can’t understand how this grief happened. We’ll die if you don’t have mercy on us. Mother, he isn’t alive. Nobody planned this, nobody thought to lay hands on the emperor, but it happened, we were drunk, he too, he began to argue with prince Fedor at the table, we couldn’t set them apart and it happened, we didn’t remember what we were doing but we all were quilty – all are worthy of punishment. Have mercy on me for the sake of brother; I confessed everything and there is nothing to find out – forgive or order to kill sooner, light is not nice, we angered you and destroyed our souls forever!”

       As a secretary of French enambassador Ryuler, a contemporary of those events wrote, on that very day Catherine II sat at the table with her approximate “in a merry pin”. Suddenly Orlov came running at the moment of animated talks: he was dishevelled sweaty and begrimed with dust, in lacerated clothes. The empress saw him, stood up silently and went to the cabinet, Orlov followed her. They called count Panin in some minutes too.

       “The emperor is dead. How to tell people about this?” Catherine II asked directly.

       “It’s nessesary to wait the night” – count considered, he wasn’t surprised very much, judging by his imperturbable face – “only in the morning.”

       Everybody returned to their places and gay and lively dinner continued.

       In the morning the capital was rocked by sad news – his Majesty Emperor died from “haemorrhoids colic”.

       Graph Orlov beared yellow and stormy malice against Arceniy Matsievich, not only for telling the secret of throne to successors aloud, but for ingratitude, the eruption even was out all over him. He and his brother were sure that if the life changed, Peter’s backing wouldn’t sleep. Peter managed to liquidate the Secret chancellery which was so necessary for the throne (thank God, the empress reestablished it, having given only new name, the Secret expedition), he allowed to go abroad, he promised to establish public trial (but hadn’t time)… Everything could happen, and in that case his and his brother’s heads would be cut and would roll hopping and splashing, with not roped blood, among cries and admiring hoots under foot of onlookers who were eager to circuses.

       …During the short break of trial Orlov said to the empress in a voice as cold as Epiphany ice, “He has deprived himself of life right.”

       “There he told Dimitriy about the tongue” – Glebov turned his head, loosing his collar because he felt it became tight – “but if his tongue can move, he will tell much more…”

       The empress kept silent – life taught her to be careful. She wanted to remember herself at last, to get peace of mind, because her heart was thumping from nerve-strain, temples roared like a long wistful rain…

 

7

      

       The Eempress Catherine II was not offended by the metropolitan for “lovers”, she even smiled proudly at her heart – old Matsievich would never dream of such pleasure and enjoyment. She couldn’t accuse herself of changing her relations with a husband, even not in the least. Bright love which flamed in the youth warmed them both, and the whole world seemed them to be rosy from that love and the years seemed rosy – Peter wasn’t crying, he was sobbing when she was ill, he didn’t hide, smearing the tears on the face with his hand. Eventually love was replaced by simple friendship, which turned into indifference, then into circumspection, then she took a fancy for other men, as if she desired fragrant, tender, melting roast so much after long eating tasteless and lean food.

       She became pregnant by Grigoriy Orlov by surprise, not even knowing it, but when understood it was already late. She hid the pregnancy with ease, under the magnificent gowns and fancy dresses with laces. The exposure tormented her more than labor pains.

       She was lucky, only faithful servant Vasiliy Sckurin heard the first cries, the pregnancy wasn’t a secret for him; he understood everything in Catherine’s eyes, because he saw not only birth pangs, but first of all a fear in the eyes, which was a  fear of frightened animal, back-breaking and terrible fear.

       “Don’t be afraid… Everything will be well-done” – an idea suddenly struck Sckurin and he darted to the door – “I’ll do my best, maybe you won’t forget me,” he said already at the doorstep…

        Catherine didn’t know where the servant ran, she didn’t care – labor pains alternated by burning heartache and fear before terrible near future. Catastrophe of her life was inexorably approaching: husband would make her take the veil because of his character; a child would be taken to a prison as Ivan Antonovich was taken, Grigoriy, her beloved and darling Orlov, would be put to death of a surety. And her body was flinching, labor pains again, terrible cramps were twisting and she tried to restrain a cry of mothers’ last legs.

       Suddenly something shone in the windows, red reflection was twinkling on the glass, and Catherine looked at unknown shine.

       The house of butler Sckurin, which was situated not very far from the palace, was burning. The fire burst out of the windows, climbed rapidly upward, as if trying to lick the roof several times, then the whole building was blazing and crackling, showered angry sparks into the sky…

       Alarming roar went up in the neighboring apartments, all were running out, one were hasting to save, others were on tiptoe with curiosity and no one cared about her – husband was hasting to the fire too, because half of Petersburg could turn into ashes from the fire.

       Soon Vasiliy Sckurin appeared at the doorstep again.

       “It’s clear where he ran” – happy conjecture flashed with lightning at the pregnant woman, which took off with the soul stone – “the butler burnt his house.”

       “Everything is good” – the teeth were shining on sooty face – “now I’m homeless…”

       Fortunately, she quickly gave birth, baby was washed with warm water and wrapped in beaver fur coat very quickly.

       “What about baby’s name?” unwashed and shining Sckurin asked.

       “Let he be count Bobrinskiy, then we’ll think about the name,” she joked, calm in the heart and body.

       When husband returned to the palace the baby was being brought to a reliable cache.

       It was differently with Ponyatovskiy. She liked count Ponyatovskiy at one of the balls, he was dancing with elegance and knowingly, the wave of music raised her with count and moved down fluently. Besides, Ponyatovskiy always was very witty, funny a little, always cheerful.

       In the evening Catherine secretly dressed in men’s clothing, and slipped to the back door of the palace gently, on tiptoe.

The coach of Ponyatovskiy’s friend, Naryshkin, prepared before, promptly yanked from the place and raced in the rattling pavement to the count’s apartment.

Next night secret procession in the apartments passed again insinuatingly, the silent servants turned aside and prefered not to see a rattling coach on sleeping empty streets again, otherwise no end of trouble.

Ultimately, the lovers stopped behaving in a cat-and-mouse way, Ponyatovskiy and Catherine began to meet in public, then he stayed at night in her bedroom in the Oraniembaum palace.

But one morning guardsmen stopped his way when he was leaving the bedroom.

       “You are arrested,” the officers reported without preambles and explanations, and they took him into the basement.

They managed to settle a scandal for a wonder. Catherine bore Ponyatovskiy a daughter Anna, as like her father as two peas. The baby was too weak, she had been living for two years and one night sobbed quietly and died.

       Mother was mourning briefly; a new passion captured her heart.

       … The empress wasn’t offended by the words of Arceniy Matsievich about lovers – what can you wait from an old man? And what can he know about love passions? There was another offence stinging her as if somebody threw a peace of coal into her collar, offence was burning and inexcusable.

 

8

 

       Arceniy tried to reproach himself with imprudence in the break, but he couldn’t. He told pastors bitter words not of despite, revenge or desires to frighten somebody, he wanted to keep them out of trouble, to admonish and anticipate. Because he really saw in his dream as quick horses were bringing Gedeon to Pskov so that even manes were flying in the wind; suddenly cabman stopped them and they stopped almost on end and limp Gedeon clutched his heart instantly. And he saw that furious men and women flocked him round and grabbed weak Amvrosiy, the knife shone over him avidly… Arceniy saw the fire, as through the window glass, forks of flame were licking the stones, and there was a face in the fire which looked like Misail’s face.

       No, he didn’t invent the story; he described only what he had seen without adding anything.

       He wanted to stop the way spreading the hands as for an easy-going child who was running and who didn’t see a gulf before him, he begged and asked – but in vain.

       And Arceniy had nothing to stop them, only the word.

       The metropolitan understood what his words would mean for him in the court. But he didn’t pity and reproach himself, because insincerity and archness (silence is often only a weak part of it) truly are born of the devil. And Arceniy wasn’t able to try on these weak clothes even when mortal danger was looming over him like a bluish thunder-cloud.

       Swearing underage emperor Ivan Antonovich in 1740, he refused flatly to swear his mother-regent. On formidable demands to explain the reason he answered openly by prayer, “I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins…”

       Mother-regent was a Protestant.

       But for the upheaval then scaffold would wait for him.

       Arceniy, as a participant of the second Bering’s expedition to Kamchatka, happened to deal with his captain who was stubborn and obstinate and didn’t accepted any disobedience. On that day they had to put out to sea at dawn, cloudless sky favoured, but vague anxiety seized him, something invisible restrained him.

       “We shouldn’t set sail now,” he said to the captain.

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