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Catherine the Great
I-The Princess of Zerbst
BY KATHARINE ANTHONY
Number One in the Grosse Dom
N the year 1727 there stood at Number One in the Grosse Domstrasse of Stettin a substantial gray stone house owned by the president of the Handelskammer. A newly married pair took up their residence there in early winter. They were rather ill matched as to age, the husband being thirty-seven and the wife fifteen. They were poor, but pretentious, the kind of gilded paupers that heralded the decline of feudalism. Prince Christian August of Zerbst was the commander of a regiment of infantry quartered in Stettin. He was one of Frederick William's generals who had reached this degree of promotion only after many years of campaigning in the Prussian service. The general was a cousin of the reigning Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, who was growing old without an heir. It therefore fell to Christian August to go forth and seek a wife.
Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp was not yet sixteen when she married her Prussian general, yet she ruled the family from the first. The portraits of this lady and her spouse which hang in the Potsdam palace
reveal, even through the conventional art of Antoine Pesne, marked differences of temperament. The general has the dreamy eye that betrays the extreme idealist, while his wife wears the instant, alert expression of a real woman of action. "Apparently they got on excellently with each other," says their daughter in her memoirs, "in spite of the great difference in age and although their inclinations were so different. My father, for instance, was very saving; my mother, on the other hand, was quite extravagant and open-handed. My mother loved pleasure and fashionable society exceedingly; my father valued retirement. She was cheerful and wilful; he serious and austere in his morality."
Christian August had married his wife at the court of the Duchess of Brunswick, which was one of the most showy in Germany. It was far more elegant than the court of the parsimonious King of Prussia. Here Johanna Elisabeth seems to have grown up partly as a much spoiled favorite and partly as a poor relative. She brought nothing to her marriage but the bridal chest given her by her god515
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mother. The newly married pair started housekeeping in the Domstrasse house under the most frugal circumstances. Garrison life seemed narrow and sordid to her after the refinements of Brunswick. One hope at least she had: if she produced an heir, she might one day become the reigning Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst instead of being merely the wife of a Prussian general in a garrison town.
The ambitious lady encountered several discouragements before she realized her aspiration. Her first child, born May 2, 1729, in the Domstrasse house, was a girl. "It has been told me," wrote this girl, who was destined to become Catherine the Great, "that I was not so very joyfully welcomed when I first appeared, because a son was expected. My father, however, showed more satisfaction than his environment." The princess's chagrin can easily be imagined. The child had nearly cost the sixteen-year-old mother her life. We can picture the ordeal of her confinement in the small bedroom one flight above the noisy Domstrasse: the long Lutheran Sunday, which happened also to be May day; the morning and evening chiming of the church bells; the religious atmosphere of a prayerfully expectant household; the crude methods of the midwife; the waiting cradle, and the charcoal pan beside which the first-born son was presently to be swaddled. Finally, in the gray dawn of Monday morning, at the chill hour of half-past two, a daughter was born instead of the expected son.
As the new-born infant lay in her cradle, the charcoal pan set fire to the floor. The board was almost burned through before any one noticed it, so preoccupied was everybody with the condition of the mother. The new
baby was further overlooked in several ways. Neither her birth nor her baptism was registered in any Stettin church, an extraordinary omission for so pious a family. The only birth record in existence is a letter which Prince Christian August wrote to his uncle announcing that his consort had been delivered that morning of a princess-daughter who would be baptized the next day but one and would receive the name of Sophie Augusta Friedrike. The little girl was always called Fike.
This little princess really owed her education to her French governess, Elisabeth Cardel, and her German tutor, Pastor Wagner. With Mademoiselle Cardel she spent her days and nights in three small rooms beneath the bell-tower of the Stettin castle. They were Fike and Babet to each other. Babet must be the key to much that afterward astonished the world in the Empress of Russia. But what the French governess was like it would be difficult to say. She has vanished into the limbo which is reserved for the domestic servants of the famous.
Certainly Babet Cardel was no ordinary servant; perhaps no ordinary person. She may have been an extraordinary person. All we know of her is contained in the letters and memoirs of the pupil on whom she left her impress. She was a genteel spinster, but tougher-minded than the pious unmarried aunts and lady companions who figured largely in Fike's life. Without using flattery or caresses, she knew how to gain and keep the affections of her pupil. Fike was a secretive child, yet she had no secrets from Babet, and this was partly because Babet was clever. Her pupil had
a lifelong habit of ready, offhand scorn for stupidity.
The most valuable part of her education was incidental to her association with Babet, "who knew everything without having learned anything; she knew all the comedies and tragedies like her five fingers and was very amusing." Babet's vocabulary and phrases were drawn from her reading. Often she reminded her pupil that the word "Monsieur" "never broke any one's jaw-bone," a phrase which Fike assumed had been drawn from some old comedy. She read Corneille and Racine and was saturated with Molière, from whom she acquired a prejudice against doctors which she passed on to her pupil. Her favorite authority was "common sense," which she evoked habitually. "That is not common sense" represented a final judgment with the governess, as it eventually did with the Empress of Russia. Everybody else in Fike's early environment dealt in moral principles and religious dogmas; Babet seems to have been a realist.
Fike was aware of solid obstacles in her world. If she had been a boy, her life would have been different. She, instead of Fritz, would one day have ruled over Anhalt-Zerbst. But girls do not reign. At home, however, everything was ruled by women. The Princess Johanna Elisabeth managed her husband and smacked her daughter. As between Babet Cardel and Pastor Wagner, it was always Babet who decided things and gave orders to the pastor.
As a portionless daughter, the Princess of Zerbst considered before she was fifteen the alternative to marriage. The alternative was vivid enough. Both sides of her family
bristled with old maids. Two hundred years of protestantism had failed to abolish celibacy among the daughters of the German nobility. For, while Luther preached against celibacy, he also preached in favor of monogamy. The combination, however, was better adapted to the stable bourgeois class, which was just beginning to dominate society, than to the nomadic nobles of the Middle Ages. The feudal families who went over to the Reformation and the Lutheran idea of marriage were still obliged to dedicate as many surplus daughters as ever to the abbeys and priories.
The little Princess of Zerbst had several aunts who lived in abbeys. There was Great-aunt Marie Elisabeth, who was abbess of Quedlinburg, and Aunt Hedwig Sophie, who was provost in the same abbey. There was also Aunt Sophie Christine, who was canoness of Gandersheim. The princess often went with her mother to visit the aunts at Quedlinburg.
Her memories of her aunts remained ever vivid. A portrait which she penned after thirty years of life in Russia has the clearness of detail of a Dürer drawing. "The Princess-Provost Hedwig Sophie Augusta was a great friend of dogs and especially loved the so-called pugs. As a child, I have been amazed to see at one time in her chamber, which measured in size at most four cords of wood, as many as sixteen pugs. Many of the curs had young, which also lived in the same room with my aunt. They slept and ate there and attended to their necessities. A maid was employed to keep them clean, and this took her the whole day. A large number of parrots besides lived in the same room; one can imagine the fragrance which
reigned there! When the princess drove out, she had always in her carriage at least one parrot and half a dozen dogs; the latter even accompanied her to church. I have never seen any one who loved animals as much as she; she was wholly occupied with them the livelong day and only bestirred herself for their sakes. She had consequently grown quite stout, which, with her short stature, made her very ugly and even deformed. The princess might have had her talents had she taken any trouble. She wrote German and French in the most beautiful hand that I have ever seen written by a woman."
This dumpy old lady was an elder sister of Fike's mother, who was by contrast in her daughter's eyes the perfect pattern of beauty, grace, and fashion. Fike herself, who was not beautiful and had only her fine handwriting and good conduct to recommend her, might easily end her days at Quedlinburg in a room no bigger than four cords of wood, with a family of dogs. It was not as if her parents could dower her with influence or riches. There was, for instance, a distant cousin in Kiel, the grandson of Peter the Great, a peevish boy for whom no one had a good word. Fike's mother dangled the sickly Duke of Holstein before her daughter's eyes from time to time, only to withdraw him again with the remark: "Not him; he needs a wife who can support his rights and claims by the power and prestige of her family. My daughter will not be suitable for him." Presently they heard, however, that his aunt, the Empress of Russia, had named him her heir. His claims were acknowledged and no longer needed support from any quarter. As Grand
Duke of Russia he could afford to marry a poor, but worthy, wife.
Three years after the Empress Elisabeth had adopted her nephew Peter as her heir, she sent an envoy to Kiel to find out something about the lad. The results of the investigation were not what any modern childplacing agency would call encouraging.
Peter's mother had died three months after his birth. The boy's father, a cruel, sickly little man, neglected his son as he had neglected his wife. He died early, leaving Peter fully orphaned at the age of ten. The lad was brought up by a Swedish governor named Brümmer who achieved such bad results that he was accused of having intentionally destroyed the boy's character. The Russians, Bestushev and Panin, believed that Brümmer, after discovering that Peter was to be the heir to the Russian throne and not the Swedish, took pains to corrupt his mind and disposition. "But I have always doubted this abomination," says Catherine; "my opinion is that the unsuccessful education of Peter the Third is to be traced to a combination of unfortunate circumstances."
The boy's endowment was poor; there had been stupid Romanovs before him. Many excuses have been suggested for his inability to learn. He was taught Russian and Swedish alternately because he had pretensions to both crowns, and as a result he learned neither. But many children learn two languages whether alternately or simultaneously. Another excuse for his shortcomings relates that the rector of the Kiel Grammar School who undertook to teach him
Latin employed such tactless methods that Peter learned only to hate all study. When he arrived in Moscow at the age of fourteen he knew nothing at all. The empress, whose standards were certainly not very high, was much disturbed by his ignorance, and hastened to give him a tutor.
The mischief had been done long before she had a chance at him. Spoiled by his nurses, Peter had been handed over at the age of seven to brutal Holstein officers who subjected him to a military régime. Brümmer, his Swedish governor, was a hardboiled cavalry officer. It was said of Brümmer that he might be fit to train horses, but he was not fit to educate a human being. In order to harden his pupil, he tortured him. His favorite punishments were to deprive the boy of his meals, to beat him with a ridingwhip, to make him kneel with naked skin upon dry peas. The victim responded as might be expected. He was timid and antagonistic, cowardly and boastful. He only made friends with the meanest of the servants, those whom he was allowed to strike, and he tortured his pet animals. By the time he was brought to Russia to become its future czar he was an institution case.
Life had been made too hard for Peter. His instinct of survival had been undermined. He frequently fell ill, and with every attack it was thought that he was going to die. The grandson of Peter the Great, that miracle of human energy, had no energy at all. He was just a stupid little boy who was destined never to grow up.
Nevertheless, the empress had chosen a bride for him: it was the Princess Fike of Zerbst. Yet she hesitated
to proceed at once with the marriage because the physicians advised her to wait awhile. One of them suggested that the boy's marriage be postponed at least another year, and another advised her to wait until he was twentyone. It was plain to all observers that the boy was undersized and underdeveloped for his age. The English ambassador said of him, "He looks very puny and he is not taller at fourteen than the generality of children, not remarkably small, are at ten."
The grand duke's vitality was low. Whenever anything went wrong, he fell ill, and recovered but slowly. Just before Christmas, 1743, he had an unusually severe illness, and it was thought he might not live. His aunt was in a panic; death had robbed her so often. Were all her plans to be brought to naught on the eve of their bright fulfilment? She cast all caution to the winds, and decided to bring the German princess to Russia at once. Brümmer was sent to write the letter inviting the mother and daughter for a visit. Scarcely was this letter despatched than Brümmer was sent to write another, bidding the ladies to make haste. Elisabeth was off; nothing could stop her now. Her customary indolence laid aside, she summoned Brümmer again after a few days had elapsed and demanded to know whether the guests from Zerbst were not already on their way. Brümmer replied advisedly that the Princess of Zerbst wished only for wings to come flying to her Majesty.
Fike's preparations for the journey were simple. The trousseau of the German princess consisted of little more than a traveling apprentice might have carried in his bundle. Three dresses, a dozen chemises, and