Chapter One My story begins
at the extreme edge of memory, on a snowy January afternoon when I was six years old, and it seemed as if all the bells in all the churches of St. Petersburg were ringing at once.
I remember my father lifted me up so I could see over the top of the balcony railing, and I felt the freezing wind on my face and saw, through the greenish-yellow fog, a crowd of people such as I had never seen before.
The mass of people, all singing and shouting and waving flags and banners, seemed to stretch as far as I could see, all across the Palace Square and beyond, out toward the corners of the avenues and even along the bridge across the river.
"Batiushka! Batiushka!" they were shouting. "Little Father!" Though the noise of their shouting seemed to dissolve into the resonant clanging of the bells and the singing of "God Save the Tsar."
It was my name day, or near it, the Feast of the Holy Martyr Tatiana of Rome who lived in the time of the Caesars, and at first I thought they were all shouting and singing to celebrate my name day feast, so I waved and smiled and thought, how kind they all are, to show such joy at my feast day.
But of course it was not my name day that they were celebrating, it was something much more important, as I found out later.
My father put me down but I could still see through the open stonework of the balustrade and I could still hear the tremendous commotion. People began singing "Holy Russia" and chanting "Hail to the Russian army and fleet" and clapping as they chanted, though their poor hands must have been raw from the cold. Mother led us back through the glass doors into the White Hall and we thawed ourselves in front of the fire.
She smiled at us and gave us hot milk and plates of warm buns with honey and icing. We were all happy that day because she had just told us a wonderful secret: that we would soon have a baby brother.
There were four of us girls in the family, in that winter of l904. I was six, as I have already said, Olga had just turned eight, fat little Marie was four and the baby, Anastasia, was two and a half. Everybody said we needed a brother and mama assured us that we would soon have one, no matter what stories our Grandma Minnie told. (Grandma Minnie was unkind to mama, and always said she could only have girls.)
"Is it because our little brother is coming that all the people are shouting and all the bells are ringing?" I asked.
"No, Tania. It is because they love Russia and they love us, especially your dear papa."
"I heard Chemodurov say it was because of the war," Olga said, in her most grown-up, know-it-all voice. Chemodurov was my father’s valet and the source of all Olga’s information at that time.
"Hush! We leave such things to your father." Mama spoke crisply, and gave Olga a look that made her frown and sulk, though she did obey and said nothing more.
"How was your dancing lesson, Tania?" mama asked, changing the subject. "Did you manage to avoid stepping on Olga’s feet?"
"Professor Leitfelter says I am a good dancer," I said proudly. "I keep good time with my feet."
Olga and I went to dancing class twice a week at the Vorontzov Institute for Young Noblewomen. With forty other girls, all of us dressed in identical long white pinafores and pink linen underskirts, we stepped and twirled, promenaded and bowed to the music of a grand piano, while our dancing master walked up and down, correcting our form and clapping his hands irritably when we failed to keep in step.
I loved dancing class. Everything about it pleased me, from the beautiful high-ceilinged immaculately white ballroom in which it was held, with its grand marble columns and its immense chandeliers, to the gold-framed portraits that looked down on us from the walls while we danced, to the grace of the best dancers and the carefree feeling the movements brought out in me.
Among those other girls I was no longer a grand duchess, fussed over by nursemaids and servants. I was just one of forty identical girls, treated no differently from the others just because I was the emperor’s daughter. (Professor Leitfelter was equally strict with us all.) For as long as the class lasted I yielded, happily, to the flow of the music and drifted away.
On the following day the immense crowds formed again in Palace Square and out beyond it. Once again the church bells rang and the people sang and shouted, and my father led us all out onto the balcony to receive their tribute.
"I’ve never seen anything like it," my father said to us all at tea that afternoon. "Such huge demonstrations of support, such outpourings of love and affection for the nation—"
"And the dynasty. Don’t forget that," my mother interrupted. "It is for the house of Romanov, and for you, Nicky."
My father smiled gently, as he always did when reminded that he, the emperor, was the focus of veneration.
"My people are loyal," he said. "They may complain, they may go on strike and march in protest and even throw bombs, but when the nation needs them, they respond. I’m told there are crowds like this in ever town," he went on. "Men are rushing to volunteer for army service. Contributions are pouring in, tens of thousands of rubles. And all because we are at war with Japan."
"We will win, won’t we, papa?" I asked.
"Of course, Tania. Only the British have a finer navy than we do. Though Cousin Willy has many fine ships as well." Mama’s cousin Willy was Kaiser Wilhelm, ruler of Germany. I had seen pictures of him in mama’s study, a burly, angry-looking man. Mama didn’t like him.
For many days the crowds came to cheer and sing, and we all went out on the balcony to smile and wave. But papa, who always looked a little sad except when he was taking a long walk or riding his bicycle or chopping wood, began to look very sad, and before long the noise and the singing stopped, though there were still many people in Palace Square, looking up toward the balcony or talking among themselves.
Olga told me that some of our big Russian ships had been sunk by the Japanese. A lot of men had drowned, she said, and I thought, no wonder papa looks sad.
"There is a war. A terrible war. And we are losing. Chemodurov says so."
I remember being confused, and being sorry to see my father’s sad face (for he could be very jolly), and the next thing I remember was the day my baby brother was born.
On that day, in the morning, we children were sent upstairs to the nursery, out of the way, and were told that mama had gone into Grandma Minnie’s bedroom, to lie in her bed.
"All the tsars of Russia have been born in that bed," our nursemaid told us. "Your father, and your grandfather, who was strong as an ox, and your sainted great-grandfather, the one who was blown all to pieces by that awful man."
It was not long before the guns in the Peter and Paul Fortress began going off and we knew that our little brother had come into the world. We were allowed to go downstairs to see mama and the little baby. Mama was lying back on the soft pillows of the bed and looking very tired, the way she looked when her head hurt. Yet she looked beautiful, with her lovely face softened by fatigue and her rich dark blond hair spread out all over the lace-trimmed pillow. She smiled at us and held out her hands.
Beside the bed a golden cradle flamed in the sunlight. Next to the cradle sat one of the nursery maids, gently rocking it with her foot. I remember peering down into the cradle and seeing there, beneath a purple velvet coverlet embroidered in gold, our new brother, asleep.
"Alexei," mama said quietly. "We are going to call him Alexei. The eighth Romanov to sit on the throne of all the Russias. Now, that is something to celebrate."
Excerpted from The Book of The Tsarina's Daughter by Carolly Erichson
Copyright © 2008 by Carolly Erickson
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher