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St. PetersburgJanuary 1900
From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder. Upon closer approach, however, the broken body, delicate and graceful, revealed the truth of the scene in its full horror. The victim’s pale skin, almost translucent, had been slashed and desecrated in an act of inhumane violence. But even so, her beauty could not be denied. Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.
Peter the Great’s city, on the banks of the Neva River, was purpose built to impress, not with the heavy, fortified architecture one might expect from an all-powerful tsar, but instead with its refined civility. After traveling through Western Europe, he rejected Moscow and the Kremlin, with its citadel-like walls, and sent an army of serfs to dig canals that would remind him of Amsterdam. Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s favorite poet, wrote “his will was fate.” For a hundred thousand of those serfs, fate meant death, a price Peter did not hesitate to pay for his new imperial capital.
Historian Nikolai Karamzin said the city was founded on tears and corpses, but one would never guess that from its wide boulevards, gilded steeples, and sprawling palaces. The feathery snow that blanketed the city in the winter served as a scrim curtain through which peeked the bright walls of neoclassical buildings, painted in shades of pale blue, pink, coral, and pistachio. Sleek sledges, their runners gleaming, pulled occupants wrapped in sumptuous furs along icy white streets. To an outsider, it seemed more fairy tale than imperial seat.
And a fairy tale was precisely what had enchanted me that evening in the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Imperial Ballet. Seated in its gilded perfection in a box adjacent to that of Tsar Nicholas II’s, I felt the world around me fade into nothing as I watched the story of a princess turned into a swan and of the prince whose love might have saved her. The impossibly graceful dancers, standing en pointe, mesmerized. At least they mesmerized me. As for my husband, Colin Hargreaves, I could not be sure.
He had come to Russia for his work, having been summoned there with increasing frequency over the past few years. As one of the Crown’s most trusted agents, his familiarity with the intrigues of the Romanov court proved invaluable to Queen Victoria, whose granddaughter, Alix of Hesse and by Rhine—now called Alexandra Feodorovna—had married the tsar. Not only could Her Majesty count on Colin to handle any political situations that might impact Britain, she could also trust him to take note of anything potentially threatening to Alexandra’s happiness. St. Petersburg might be considered a beacon of culture and society by some, but to the queen it was little more than a thuggish backwater.
I do not mean to suggest Her Majesty was prepared to intervene on behalf of her granddaughter. She felt herself above petty court controversies, but this did not dissuade her from wanting to hear all about them. Although my husband would never comment on her motives, I remain skeptical that they went beyond a desire for base gossip.
Regardless, Colin spent a great deal of time in Petersburg. Our century had proved difficult for the Romanovs. Alexander I may have emerged victorious over Napoleon in 1812, but this was not the beginning of a glorious period for his family. His grandson Alexander II survived five assassination attempts before being murdered in 1881. The martyred tsar’s son Alexander III responded by refusing to continue his father’s liberal policies, and in 1887 police arrested a group of conspirators plotting to bomb the emperor’s carriage. Nicholas II, his successor, bore a long scar on his forehead, the memento of an unsuccessful attack by a sword-wielding man who had been part of Nicholas’s protection detail during a trip to Japan.
Safety was not something a Romanov could take for granted.
I knew little of Colin’s precise responsibilities in the city. Covert activity, alas, must remain covert, even from one’s spouse. I had long ago abandoned any attempt to persuade him to confide in me, although I am quite certain he enjoyed my efforts in that direction. He admitted to me, on more than one occasion, that they provided some of his most treasured memories from the early days of our marriage.
Accompanying him while he worked was ordinarily—and necessarily—out of the question, and I had begrudgingly grown accustomed to waiting—and worrying—at home in England. This time, however, an irresistible opportunity presented itself. My dear friend, Cécile du Lac, had invited me to join her on a visit to Princess Mariya Alekseyevna Bolkonskaya. Masha, Cécile promised, would show us that the season in St. Petersburg made London’s attempts at high society seem the work of rank amateurs. Who could refuse such an offer?
Colin might have insisted I do just that, but he was already away, having left for Russia on Boxing Day. Our twin boys, Henry and Richard, and our ward, Tom, as dear to us as any son could be, lamented his absence even before his departure. He loved to indulge them and had constructed an elaborate zoo out of blocks on the floor of the library at Anglemore Park three days before Christmas. The boys had populated the enclosures with the small animal figurines their father brought them from Hamleys every time he went to London. Tom would turn four in another month, and the twins would follow suit in the spring. No sooner had they learned Colin would be away from home immediately after the holiday than they started to keen and wail like small Vikings mourning the loss of a beloved leader.
Colin informs me that Vikings neither keened nor wailed. I assume the astute reader understands my choice of the Viking analogy for its romantic yet masculine qualities and will not insist on a pedantic adherence to nothing but facts.
When Cécile’s telegram arrived (mere hours after Colin had left), inviting me to join her for the New Year celebrations in St. Petersburg—the highlight of the Russian year—my excitement faded as I realized it would be impossible to make the trip in time to usher out 1899. Then I remembered that the Russians still used the old Gregorian calendar. Their January 1 was our January 14. I booked a sleeping compartment on the Nord Express via Berlin and Warsaw, delighted to find the entire trip would take only two days. Thus, I was able to welcome 1900 twice: once in England, and once in Russia. Furthermore, as the Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, I would be present for those festivities as well.
Often when he was working, Colin stayed in neighborhoods that could be described, at best, as dubious. I had visions of him taking rooms in a building much like that of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, skulking up filthy, narrow staircases and arguing with a conniving landlady. On this trip, there was to be no such adventure. He had booked an extremely comfortable suite at the Hôtel de l’Europe on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Mikhaylovskaya ulitsa. Fearing he might try to convince me to stay home if I gave him the chance, I delayed to the last minute the sending of a telegram of my own, informing him of my impending arrival and suggesting that I could stay with Cécile in the princess’s palace if my presence proved inconvenient. The affectionate manner of his greeting when I arrived in his rooms told me there was no need to consider alternate accommodations.
And so he worked, disappearing for hours, and sometimes days, while Cécile and I went to the opera, balls, soirees, and other elegant gatherings. St. Petersburg charmed me thoroughly, and I was convinced no other city was so perfectly beautiful.
Until I stepped out of the lobby of the Mariinsky Theatre to see blood splattered like rose petals on the snow and the broken body of a slim dancer, still wearing the costume of the Swan Queen.
Copyright © 2017 by Tasha Alexander