by Wilkie Collins
A REMARKABLE REVOLUTION.
A REVOLUTION which is serious enough to overthrow a reigning sovereign--which is short enough to last only nine hours--and which is peaceable enough to begin and end without the taking of a single life or the shedding of a drop of blood, is certainly a phenomenon in the history of human affairs which is worth being carefully investigated. Such a revolution actually happened, in the empire of Russia, little more than a century and a quarter ago. The narrative here attempted of its rise, its progress, and its end may be trusted throughout as faithful to the truth. Extraordinary as they may appear, the events described in this fragment of history are matters of fact from first to last.
We start with a famous Russian character-- Peter the Great. His son, who may be not unfairly distinguished as Peter the Small, died in the year seventeen hundred and thirty. With the death of this last personage the political difficulties arose which ended in the easy pulling down of one sovereign ruler at midnight, and the easy setting up of another by nine o'clock the next morning.
Besides the son whom he left to succeed him, Peter the Great had a daughter, whose title was princess, and whose name was Elizabeth. Peter's widow, the famous Empress Catherine, being a far-seeing woman, made a will which contained the expression of her wishes in regard to the succession to the throne, and which plainly and properly designated the Princess Elizabeth (there being no Salic law in Russia) as the reigning sovereign to be chosen after the death of her brother, Peter the Small. Nothing, apparently, could be more straightforward than the course to be followed at that time in appointing a new ruler over the Russian people.
But there happened to be living at Court two noblemen--Prince D'Olgorowki and Count Osterman--who had an interest of their own in complicating the affairs connected with the succession.
These two distinguished personages had possessed considerable power and authority under the feeble reign of Peter the Small, and they knew enough of his sister's resolute and self-reliant character to doubt what might become of their court position and their political privileges after the Princess Elizabeth was seated on the throne. Accordingly they lost no time in nominating a rival candidate of their own choosing, whom they dexterously raised to the imperial dignity, before there was time for the partisans of the Princess Elizabeth to dispute the authority under which they acted. The new sovereign, thus unjustly invested with power, was a woman--Anne, Dowager Duchess of Courland--and the pretense under which Prince D'Olgorowki and Count Osterman proclaimed her Empress of Russia was that Peter the Small had confidentially communicated to them, on his death-bed, a desire that the Dowager Duchess should be chosen as the sovereign to succeed him.
The main result of the Dowager Duchess's occupation of the throne was the additional complication of the confused political affairs of Russia. The new Empress had an eye to the advancement of her family; and among the other relatives for whom she provided was a niece, named Catherine, whom she married to the Prince of Brunswick, brother-in-law of the King of Prussia. The first child born of the marriage was a boy, named Ivan. Before he had reached the age of two years, the new Empress died; and, when her will was opened, it was discovered, to the amazement of every one, that she had appointed this child to succeed her on the throne of Russia. The private motive which led the Empress to take this extraordinary course was her desire to place the sovereign power in the hands of one of her favorites, the Duke De Biren, by nominating that nobleman as the guardian of the infant Ivan. To accomplish this purpose, she had not only slighted the legitimate claims of Peter the Great's daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, but had also entirely overlooked the interests of Ivan's mother, who naturally felt that she had a right to ascend the throne, as the nearest relation of the deceased empress, and the mother of the child who was designated to be the future emperor. To the bewilderment and dissatisfaction thus produced, a further element of confusion was added by the total incapacity of the Duke De Biren to occupy creditably the post of authority which had been assigned to him. Before he had been long in office, he gave way altogether under the double responsibility of guiding the affairs of Russia and directing the education of the future emperor. Ivan's mother saw the chance of asserting her rights which the weakness of the duke afforded to her. She was a resolute woman; and she seized her opportunity by banishing Biren to Siberia, and taking his place as regent of the empire and guardian of her infant son.
Such was the result, thus far, of the great scramble for the crown which began with the death of the son of Peter the Great. Such was the position of affairs in Russia at the time when the revolution broke out.
Through all the contentions which distracted the country, the Princess Elizabeth lived, in the retirement of her own palace, waiting secretly, patiently, and vigilantly for the fit opportunity of asserting her rights. She was, in every sense of the word, a remarkable woman, and she numbered two remarkable men among the adherents of her cause. One was the French ambassador at the court of Russia, the Marquis De la Chetardie. The other was the surgeon of Elizabeth's household, a German, named Lestoc. The Frenchman had money to spend; the German had brains to plot. Both were men of tried courage and resolute will; and both were destined to take the foremost places in the coming struggle. It is certainly not the least curious circumstance in the extraordinary revolution which we are now about to describe, that it was planned and carried out by two foreigners. In the struggle for the Russian throne, the natives of the Russian soil were used only as instruments to be handled and directed at the pleasure of the French ambassador and the German surgeon.
The Marquis and Lestoc, watching the signs of the times, arrived at the conclusion that the period of the banishment of the Duke De Biren and of the assumption of the supreme power by the mother of Ivan, was also the period for effecting the revolution which was to place the Princess Elizabeth on the throne of her ancestors. The dissatisfaction in Russia had, by this time, spread widely among all classes. The people chafed under a despotism inflicted on them by foreigners. The native nobility felt outraged by their exclusion from privileges which had been conceded to their order under former reigns, before the aliens from Courland had seized on power. The army was for the most part to be depended on to answer any bold appeal that might be made to it in favor of the daughter of Peter the Great. With these chances in their favor, the Frenchman and the German set themselves to the work of organizing the scattered elements of discontent. The Marquis opened his well-filled purse; and Surgeon Lestoc prowled about the city and the palace with watchful eyes, with persuasive tongue, with delicately bribing hands. The great point to be achieved was to tamper successfully with the regiment on duty at the palace; and this was skillfully and quickly accomplished by Lestoc. In the course of a few days only, he contrived to make sure of all the considerable officers of the regiment, and of certain picked men from the ranks besides. On counting heads, the members of the military conspiracy thus organized came to thirty-three. Exactly the same number of men had once plotted the overthrow of Julius Cæsar, and had succeeded in the attempt.
Matters had proceeded thus far when the suspicions of the Duchess Regent (that being the title which Ivan's mother had now assumed) were suddenly excited, without the slightest apparent cause to arouse them. Nothing dangerous had been openly attempted as yet, and not one of the conspirators had betrayed the secret. Nevertheless, the Duchess Regent began to doubt; and one morning she astonished and alarmed the Marquis and Lestoc by sending, without any previous warning, for the Princess Elizabeth, and by addressing a series of searching questions to her at a private interview. Fortunately for the success of the plot, the daughter of Peter the Great was more than a match for the Duchess Regent. From first to last Elizabeth proved herself equal to the dangerous situation in which she was placed. The Duchess discovered nothing; and the heads of the thirty-three conspirators remained safe on their shoulders.
This piece of good fortune operated on the cunning and resolute Lestoc as a warning to make haste. Between the danger of waiting to mature the conspiracy and the risk of letting it break out abruptly before the organization of it was complete, he chose the latter alternative. The Marquis agreed with him that it was best to venture everything before there was time for the suspicions of the Duchess to be renewed; and the Princess Elizabeth, on her part, was perfectly ready to be guided by the advice of her two trusty adherents. The fifteenth of January, seventeen hundred and forty-one, had been the day originally fixed for the breaking out of the revolution. Lestoc now advanced the period for making the great attempt by nine days. On the night of the sixth of January the Duchess Regent and the Princess Elizabeth were to change places, and the throne of Russia was to become once more the inheritance of the family of Peter the Great.
Between nine and ten o'clock, on the night of the sixth, Surgeon Lestoc strolled out, with careless serenity on his face, and devouring anxiety at his heart, to play his accustomed game of billiards at a French coffee-house. The stakes were ten ducats, and Lestoc did not play quite so well as usual that evening. When the clock of the coffee-house struck ten, he stopped, in the middle of the game, and drew out his watch.
"I beg ten thousand pardons," he said to the gentleman with whom he was playing; "but I am afraid I must ask you to let me go before the game is done. I have a patient to see at ten o'clock, and the hour has just struck. Here is a friend of mine," he continued, bringing forward one of the by-standers by the arm, "who will, with your permission, play in my place. It is quite immaterial to me whether he loses or whether he wins; I am merely anxious that your game should not be interrupted. Ten thousand pardons again. Nothing but the necessity of seeing a patient could have induced me to be guilty of this apparent rudeness. I wish you much pleasure, gentlemen, and I most unwillingly bid you good-night."
With that polite farewell he departed. The patient whom he was going to cure was the sick Russian empire.
He got into his sledge, and drove off to the palace of the Princess Elizabeth. She trembled a little when he told her quietly that the hour had come for possessing herself of the throne; but, soon recovering her spirits, dressed to go out, concealed a knife about her in case of emergency, and took her place by the side of Lestoc in the sledge. The two then set forth together for the French embassy to pick up the second leader of the conspiracy.
They found the Marquis alone, cool, smiling, humming a gay French tune and quietly amusing himself by making a drawing. Elizabeth and Lestoc looked over his shoulder, and the former started a little when she saw what the subject of the drawing was. In the background appeared a large monastery, a grim, prison-like building, with barred windows and jealously closed gates; in the foreground were two high gibbets, and two wheels of the sort used to break criminals on. The drawing was touched in with extraordinary neatness and steadiness of hand; and the Marquis laughed gayly when he saw how seriously the subject represented had startled and amazed the Princess Elizabeth.
"Courage, madam!" he said. "I was only amusing myself by making a sketch illustrative of the future which we may all three expect if we fail in our enterprise. In an hour from this time you will be on the throne, or on your way to this ugly building." (He touched the monastery in the background of the drawing lightly with the point of his pencil.) "In an hour from this time, also, our worthy Lestoc and myself will either be the two luckiest men in Russia, or the two miserable criminals who are bound on these" (he touched the wheels) "and hung up afterward on those" (he touched the gibbets). "You will pardon me, madam, for indulging in this ghastly fancy! I was always eccentric from childhood. My good Lestoc, as we seem to be quite ready, perhaps you will kindly precede us to the door, and allow me the honor of handing the Princess to the sledge?"
They left the house, laughing and chatting as carelessly as if they were a party going to the theater. Lestoc took the reins. "To the palace of the Duchess Regent, coachman!" said the Marquis, pleasantly. And to the palace they went.
They made no attempt to slip in by back doors, but boldly drove up to the grand entrance, inside of which the guard-house was situated.
"Who goes there?" cried the sentinel, as they left the sledge and passed in.
The Marquis took a pinch of snuff.
"Don't you see, my good fellow?" he said. "A lady and two gentlemen."
The slightest irregularity was serious enough to alarm the guard at the imperial palace in those critical times. The sentinel presented his musket at the Marquis, and a drummer-boy who was standing near, ran to his instrument and caught up his drum-sticks to beat the alarm.
Before the sentinel could fire he was surrounded by the thirty-three conspirators, and was disarmed in an instant. Before the drummer-boy could beat the alarm, the Princess Elizabeth had drawn out her knife, and had stabbed --not the boy, but--the drum! These slight preliminary obstacles being thus disposed of, Lestoc and the Marquis, having the Princess between them, and being followed by their thirty-three adherents, marched resolutely into the great hall of the palace, and there confronted the entire guard.
"Gentlemen," said the Marquis, "I have the honor of presenting you to your future Empress, the daughter of Peter the Great."
Half the guard had been bribed by the cunning Lestoc. The other half, seeing their comrades advance and pay homage to the Princess, followed the example of loyalty. Elizabeth was escorted into a room on the ground-floor by a military court formed in the course of five minutes. The Marquis and the faithful thirty-three went upstairs to the sleeping apartments of the palace. Lestoc ran out and ordered a carriage to be got ready--then joined the Marquis and the conspirators. The Duchess Regent and her child were just retiring for the night, when the German surgeon and the French ambassador politely informed them that they were prisoners. Entreaties were of no avail, resistance was out of the question. Both mother and son were led down to the carriage that Lestoc had ordered, and were driven off, under a strong guard, to the fortress of Riga.
The palace was secured, and the Duchess was imprisoned, but Lestoc and the Marquis had not done their night's work yet. It was necessary to make sure of three powerful personages connected with the Government. Three more carriages were ordered out when the Duchess's carriage had been driven off; and three noblemen--among them Count Osterman, the original cause of the troubles in Russia--were woke out of their first sleep with the information that they were State prisoners, and were started before daylight on their way to Siberia. At the same time, the thirty-three conspirators were scattered about in every barrack-room in St. Petersburg, proclaiming Elizabeth Empress, in right of her illustrious parentage, and in the name of the Russian people. Soon after daylight, the moment the working population was beginning to be astir, the churches were occupied by trusty men under Lestoc's orders, and the oaths of fidelity to Elizabeth were administered to the willing populace as fast as they came in to morning prayers. By nine o'clock the work was done; the people were satisfied; the army was gained over; Elizabeth sat on her father's throne, unopposed, unquestioned, unstained by the shedding of a drop of blood; and Lestoc and the Marquis could rest from their labors at last, and could say to each other with literal truth, "The Government of Russia has been changed in nine hours, and we two foreigners are the men who have worked the miracle!"
This was the Russian revolution of seventeen hundred and forty-one. It was not the less effectual because it had lasted but a few hours, and had been accomplished without the sacrifice of a single life. The imperial inheritance which it had placed in the hands of Elizabeth was not snatched from them again. The daughter of the great Czar lived and died Empress of Russia.
And what became of the two men who had won the throne for her? The story of the after-conduct of the Marquis and Lestoc must answer that question. The events of the revolution itself are hardly more strange than the events in the lives of the French ambassador and the German surgeon, when the brief struggle was over, and the change in the dynasty was accomplished.
To begin with the Marquis. He had laid the Princess Elizabeth under serious obligations to his courage and fidelity; and his services were repaid by such a reward as, in his vainest moments, he could never have dared to hope for. His fidelity had excited Elizabeth's gratitude, but his personal qualities had done more--they had touched her heart. As soon as she was settled quietly on the throne, she proved her admiration of his merits, his services, and himself by offering to marry him.
This proposal, which conferred on the Marquis the highest distinction in Russia, fairly turned his brain. The imperturbable man, who had preserved his coolness in a situation of the deadliest danger, lost all control over himself the moment he rose to the climax of prosperity. Having obtained leave of absence from his imperial mistress, he returned to France to ask leave from his own sovereign to marry the Empress. This permission was readily granted. After receiving it, any man of ordinary discretion would have kept the fact of the Empress's partiality for him as strictly secret as possible, until it could be openly avowed on the marriage-day. Far from this, the Marquis's vanity led him to proclaim the brilliant destiny in store for him all over Paris. He commissioned the king's genealogist to construct a pedigree which should be made to show that he was not unworthy to contract a royal alliance. When the pedigree was completed, he had the incredible folly to exhibit it publicly, along with the keepsakes which the Empress had given to him, and the rich presents which he intended to bestow as marks of his favor on the lords and ladies of the Russian court. Nor did his imprudence end even here. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he took back with him, among the other persons comprising his train, a woman of loose character, dressed in the disguise of a page. The persons about the Russian court, whose prejudices he had never attempted to conciliate--whose envy at his success waited only for the slightest opportunity to effect his ruin--suspected the sex of the pretended page, and took good care that the report of their suspicions should penetrate gradually to the foot of the throne. It seems barely credible, but it is, nevertheless, unquestionably the fact that the infatuated Marquis absolutely allowed the Empress an opportunity of seeing his page. Elizabeth's eye, sharpened by jealousy, penetrated instantly to the truth. Any less disgraceful insult she would probably have forgiven, but such an outrage as this no woman--especially no woman in her position--could pardon. With one momentary glance of anger and disdain, she dismissed the Marquis from her presence, and never, from that moment, saw him again.
The same evening his papers were seized, all the presents that he had received from the Empress were taken from him, and he was ordered to leave the Russian dominions forever, within eight days' time. He was not allowed to write, or take any other means of attempting to justify himself; and, on his way back to his native country, he was followed to the frontier by certain officers of the Russian army, and there stripped, with every mark of ignominy, of all the orders of nobility which he had received from the imperial court. He returned to Paris a disgraced man, lived there in solitude, obscurity, and neglect for some years, and died in a state of positive want --the unknown inhabitant of one of the meanest dwellings in the whole city.
The end of Lestoc is hardly less remarkable than, the end of the Marquis.
In their weak points, as in their strong, the characters of these two men seem to have been singularly alike. Making due allowance for the difference in station between the German surgeon and the French ambassador, it is undeniable that Elizabeth showed her sense of the services of Lestoc as gratefully and generously as she had shown her sense of the services of the Marquis. The ex-surgeon was raised at once to the position of the chief favorite and the most powerful man about the court. Besides the privileges which he shared equally with the highest nobles of the period, he was allowed access to the Empress on all private as well as on all public occasions. He had a perpetual right of entry into her domestic circle, which was conceded to no one else; and he held a place, on days of public reception, that placed him on an eminence to which no other man in Russia could hope to attain. Such was his position; and, strange to say, it had precisely the same maddening effect on his vanity which the prospect of an imperial alliance had exercised over the vanity of the Marquis. Lestoc's audacity became ungovernable, his insolence knew no bounds. He abused the privileges conferred upon him by Elizabeth's grateful regard, with such baseness and such indelicacy, that the Empress, after repeatedly cautioning him in the friendliest possible terms, found herself obliged, out of regard to her own reputation and to the remonstrances which assailed her from all the persons of her court, to deprive him of the privilege of entry into her private apartments.
This check, instead of operating as a timely warning to Lestoc, irritated him into the commission of fresh acts of insolence, so wanton in their nature that Elizabeth at last lost all patience, and angrily reproached him with the audacious ingratitude of his behavior. The reproach was retorted by Lestoc, who fiercely accused the Empress of forgetting the great services that he had rendered her, and declared that he would turn his back on her and her dominions, after first resenting the contumely with which he had been treated by an act of revenge that she would remember to the day of her death. The vengeance which he had threatened proved to be the vengeance of a forger and a cheat. The banker in St. Petersburg who was charged with the duty of disbursing the sums of State money which were set apart for the Empress's use, received an order, one day, to pay four hundred thousand ducats to a certain person who was not mentioned by name, but who, it was stated, would call with the proper credentials, to receive the money. The banker was struck by this irregular method of performing the preliminaries of an important matter of business, and he considered it to be his duty to show the document which he had received to one of the ministers. Secret inquiries were immediately set on foot, and they ended in the discovery that the order was a false one, and that the man who had forged it was no other than Lestoc.
For a crime of this kind the punishment was death. But the Empress had declared on her accession that she would sign no warrant for the taking away of life during her reign, and, moreover, she still generously remembered what she had owed in former times to Lestoc. Accordingly, she changed his punishment to a sentence of exile to Siberia, with special orders that the life of the banished man should be made as easy to him as possible. He had not passed many years in the wildernesses of Siberia before Elizabeth's strong sense of past obligation to him induced her still further to lighten his punishment by ordering that he should be brought back to St. Petersburg, and confined in the fortress there, where her own eyes might assure her that he was treated with mercy and consideration. It is probable that she only intended this change as a prelude to the restoration of his liberty; but the future occasion for pardoning him never came. Shortly after his return to St. Petersburg, Lestoc ended his days in the prison of the fortress.
So the two leaders of the Russian revolution lived, and so they died. It has been said, and said well, that the only sure proof of a man's strength of mind is to be discovered by observing the manner in which he bears success. History shows few such remarkable examples of the truth of this axiom as are afforded by the lives of the Marquis De la Chetardie and the German surgeon, Lestoc. Two stronger men in the hour of peril, and two weaker men in the hour of security, have not often appeared in this world to vanquish adverse circumstances like heroes, and to be conquered like cowards afterward by nothing but success.
[Return to My Miscellanies]