He died in front of my very eyes, this strange and disagreeable gentleman.
It all happened so quickly, so very quickly.
The very instant the shots roared out, he was flung back against the cable.
He dropped his little revolver, clutched at the shaky handrail and froze on the spot, with his head thrown back. I caught a momentary glimpse of a white face, bisected by a black strip of moustache, before it disappeared behind the black mantle.
‘Erast Petrovich!’ I shouted, calling him by his given name and patronymic for the first time.
Or did I only mean to shout?
The precarious decking swayed beneath his feet. His head suddenly bobbed forward as if from a powerful jolt, his body began slumping, chest forward, over the cable, then swung round grotesquely – and the next instant it was already hurtling down, down, down.
The precious casket fell from my hands, struck a rock and split open. There was a flash of blinding sparks from the multicoloured facets of the diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, but I did not even glance at these incalculable riches as they scattered into the grass.
From the ravine there came the soft crunch of an impact, and I gasped. The black bundle went tumbling down the steep slope, gathering speed along the way and only ceasing its nauseous whirling motion at the very edge of the stream. It dropped one lifeless hand into the water and lay there, face down in the gravel.
I had not liked this man. Perhaps I had even hated him. In any case, I had wanted him to disappear from our lives once and for all. But I had not wished for his death.
His trade was risk, he toyed with danger constantly, but somehow I had never thought he could be killed. He had seemed immortal to me.
I do not know how long I stood there like that, gazing stiffly down. It cannot have been very long. But time seemed to rupture, to split apart, and I fell into the rent – back into the old, serene life that had ended abruptly exactly two weeks earlier.
Yes, that was a Monday too, the sixth of May.
We arrived in the ancient capital of the Russian state in the morning. Owing to the imminent coronation festivities, the Nikolai I Station was congested with traffic and our train was sent off via a transfer line to the Brest Station, which seemed to me a rather ill-judged decision, to say the least, on the part of the local authorities. I can only assume that a certain coolness in relations between His Highness Georgii Alexandrovich and His Highness Simeon Alexandrovich, the governor-general of Moscow, must have played some part in it. I can think of no other way to explain the humiliating half-hour wait on the points at the marshalling yard and the subsequent diversion of our special express train from the main station to a secondary one.
And we were not met on the platform by Simeon Alexandrovich himself, as protocol, tradition, family connection and, ultimately, simple respect for an elder brother should have required, but only by a member of the reception committee, a minister of the imperial court who, incidentally, immediately departed for the Nikolai I station to receive the Prince of Prussia. But since when has the heir to the Prussian throne been accorded more attention in Moscow than the uncle of His Majesty, the admiral-general of the Russian fleet and the second most senior of the grand dukes of the imperial family? Georgii Alexandrovich did not show it, but I think he felt no less indignant than I did at such a clear affront.
It was a good thing at least that Her Highness, the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Ioannovna, had stayed in St Petersburg – she is so zealous about the subtle points of ritual and maintaining the dignity of the royal family. The epidemic of measles that had laid low the four middle sons – Alexei Georgievich, Sergei Georgievich, Dmitry Georgievich and Konstantin Georgievich – prevented Her Highness, an exemplary and loving mother, from taking part in the coronation, the supreme event in the life of the state and the imperial family. There were, it is true, venomous tongues who claimed that Her Highness’s absence at the celebrations in Moscow was to be explained less by maternal love than by a reluctance to play the part of a mere extra at the triumph of the young tsarina. There was also mention of last year’s incident at the Christmas Ball, when the new empress suggested that the ladies of the royal family should establish a handicraft society, and that each of the grand duchesses should knit a warm cap for the little orphans at the Mariinsky Orphanage. Perhaps Ekaterina Ioannovna’s reaction to this proposal was a little too severe. It is even quite possible that since then relations between Her Highness and Her Majesty had not been entirely good. However, no provocation was intended by My Lady’s not coming to the coronation, I can vouch for that. Whatever Ekaterina Ioannovna’s feelings towards Her Majesty may be, under no circumstances would she ever presume to neglect her dynastic duty without a very serious reason. Her Highness’s sons really were ill.Whatever Ekaterina Ioannovna’s feelings towards Her Majesty may be, under no circumstances would she ever presume to neglect her dynastic duty without a very serious reason.
That was sad of course but, as the common people say, every cloud has a silver lining, for the entire grand ducal court remained behind in St Petersburg with her, which significantly simplified the highly complex task facing me in connection with the temporary removal to the old capital. The court ladies were very upset that they would not see the festivities in Moscow and expressed their discontent – naturally, without transgressing the bounds of etiquette – but Ekaterina Ioannovna remained adamant: according to ceremonial procedure, a lesser court must remain where the majority of members of the grand ducal family are located, and the majority of the Georgieviches, as our branch of the imperial house is unofficially known, had stayed in St Petersburg.
Four members of the family made the journey to the coronation: Georgii Alexandrovich himself, his eldest and youngest sons and his only daughter, Xenia Georgievna.
As I have already said, I was only too pleased by the absence of the ladies and gentlemen of the court. The court steward, Prince Metitsky, and the manager of the court office, Privy Counsellor von Born, would only have hindered me in doing my job by sticking their noses into matters entirely beyond their comprehension. A good butler does not need nannies and overseers to help him cope with his responsibilities. And as for the ladies-in-waiting and maids of honour, I simply would not have known where to accommodate them, so wretchedly inadequate was the residence allocated by the coronation committee to the Green Court – as our household is known, from the colour of the grand duchess’s train. However, we will come to the matter of the residence later.
The removal from St Petersburg went smoothly. The train consisted of three carriages: the members of the royal family travelled in the first, the servants in the second, and all the necessary utensils and the luggage were transported in the third, so that I was constantly obliged to move from one carriage to another.
Immediately after our departure, His Highness Georgii Alexandrovich sat down to drink cognac with His Highness Pavel Georgievich and Gentleman of the Bedchamber Endlung. His Highness was pleased to drink eleven glasses, after which he felt tired and rested all the way to Moscow. Before he fell asleep, when he was already in his ‘cabin’, as he referred to his compartment, His Highness told me a little about a voyage to Sweden that had taken place twenty years earlier and made a great impression on him. The fact is, although Georgii Alexandrovich holds the rank of admiral-general, he has only ever been to sea on one occasion. The memories that he retains of this journey are most unpleasant, and he frequently refers to the French minister Colbert, who never sailed on a ship and yet transformed his country into a great maritime power. I have heard the story about the Swedish voyage many times, quite often enough to know it off by heart. The most dangerous part in it is the description of the storm off the coast of Gotland. Following the words ‘And then the captain yells out, “All hands to the pumps”’, His Highness is wont to roll his eyes up and swing his fist down hard onto the table. The same thing happened on this occasion, but there was no damage to the tablecloth and the tableware, since I had taken the timely measure of holding down the carafe and the glass.
When His Highness was quite worn out and began to lose the power of speech, I gave the sign to his valet to undress him and put him to bed, while I went to call on Pavel Georgievich and Lieutenant Endlung. As young men in the very pink of health, they were much less tired after the cognac. You might say, in fact, that they were not tired at all, so it was necessary to keep an eye on them, especially bearing in mind the particular temperament of the gentleman of the bedchamber.As young men in the very pink of health, they were much less tired after the cognac. You might say, in fact, that they were not tired at all, so it was necessary to keep an eye on them, especially bearing in mind the particular temperament of the gentleman of the bedchamber.
Oh my, that Endlung! I ought not to say so, but Ekaterina Ioannovna made a great mistake when she decided that this gentleman was a worthy mentor for her eldest son. The lieutenant, of course, is a handsome brute, with a clear gaze, a fresh complexion, a neat parting in his golden hair and an almost childishly pink bloom to his cheeks – a perfect angel. Respectful and fawning with older ladies, he can listen with an air of the greatest interest to talk of the preacher Ioann Kronshtatsky or a greyhound’s distemper. Yes, it is hardly surprising that Ekaterina Ioannovna’s heart warmed to Endlung. Such an agreeable and – most important – serious young man, nothing like those good-for-nothing cadets from the Naval Corps or those scapegraces from the Guards Company. A fine mentor she found for Pavel Georgievich’s guardian on his first long voyage! A guardian of whom I have seen more than enough.
In the very first port, Varna, Endlung dolled himself up like a peacock in a white suit with a scarlet waistcoat, a cravat studded with stars and a massive Panama hat, and set out for a house of ill-repute, taking His Highness, still a boy at the time, along with him. I tried to intervene, but the lieutenant told me, ‘I promised Ekaterina Ioannovna that I would not take my eyes off His Highness. Where I go, he goes.’
I said to him, ‘No, Lieutenant, Her Highness said, where he goes, you must go!’ But Endlung said, ‘That, Afanasii Stepanovich, is hair-splitting. The important thing is that we shall be as inseparable as the Ajaxes.’ And so he dragged the young midshipman round every den of iniquity as far as Gibraltar. But from Gibraltar back to Kronstadt both the lieutenant and midshipman behaved very quietly and didn’t even go ashore, although they went running to the doctor four times a day for irrigation treatments. What kind of mentor is that? His Highness has changed in the company of this Endlung – he is quite a different person. I have even hinted this to Georgii Alexandrovich, but he simply brushed it off, saying, ‘Never mind, that kind of experience can only be good for my Pauly, and Endlung may be a bit of a booby, but he is a good, open-hearted comrade; he won’t cause any serious harm.’ But in my view this is letting the goat into the garden, to use an expression from the common folk. I can see right through that Endlung – of course I can, since he is so very open. Thanks to his friendship with Pavel Georgievich, he has even been awarded a monogram for his shoulder straps, and now he has been made a gentleman of the bedchamber, which is quite unheard of – such an honourable title for a mere lieutenant!
Left alone together, the two young men had started a game of bezique for forfeits. When I glanced into the compartment, Pavel Georgievich called to me: ‘Sit down, Afanasii. Have a game of American roulette with us. If you lose, I’ll make you shave off those damn precious sideburns of yours.’
I thanked him and refused, saying that I was extremely busy, although I didn’t have anything in particular to do. That would have been the last straw, to play His Highness at American roulette. And Pavel Georgievich knew himself that I would make a hopeless partner in the game – he was simply joking. In recent months he has developed a dismaying habit of bantering with me, and all thanks to Endlung – this is his influence. Endlung himself, it is true, has recently stopped taunting me, but Pavel Georgievich persists in the habit. Never mind. His Highness may do as he pleases; I have no complaints.
For example, just now he told me with an absolutely straight face: ‘You know, Afanasii, that phenomenal growth on your face is provoking the envy of certain highly influential individuals. For instance, the day before yesterday at the ball, when you were standing by the door, looking so grand with your gold-plated mace and sideburns jutting out on both sides, all the ladies had eyes for no one but you, and no one even glanced at cousin Nicky, even though he is the emperor. You really, really must shave them off, or at the very least trim them.’
In actual fact, my ‘phenomenal growth’ is a perfectly ordinary full moustache with sideburns – sumptuous perhaps but by no means excessive, and at all events maintained in perfectly decent order. My father wore the same whiskers, and my grandfather before him, so I had no intention of either shaving them or trimming them.
‘Skip it, Pauly,’ Endlung intervened on my behalf. ‘Stop tormenting Afanasii Stepanovich. Come on, play. It’s your turn.’
I can see that I shall have to explain the relationship between the lieutenant and myself. There is a story to it.
On the very first day of the voyage on the corvette Mstislav, immediately after we left Sebastopol, Endlung ambushed me on deck, put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me with his eyes totally blank after all the wine he had drunk at the send-off party and said: ‘Well, Afon, my little flunkey soul, those mops of yours are looking a bit wild. Is it the breeze that has swept them out like that? (My sideburns had indeed been tousled somewhat by the fresh sea wind – later I would be obliged to shorten them a little for the duration of the voyage.) Will you do something for me, as a personal favour? Run round to that skinflint of a steward and say that His Highness orders him to send a bottle of rum – to help prevent seasickness.’
All the time we were travelling to Sebastopol in the train, Endlung had teased me and mocked me in the presence of His Highness, but I had tolerated it, waiting for an opportunity to clarify matters face to face. Now the opportunity had presented itself.
I delicately removed the lieutenant’s hand (at that time he was not yet a gentleman of the bedchamber) with my finger and thumb and said politely: ‘Mr Endlung, if you have been visited by the fancy to define my soul, then it would be more accurate to refer to it, not as the soul of a “flunkey”, but that of a “housemaster”, since for long and irreproachable service at His Highness’s court I have been awarded that title, which is a rank of the ninth level, corresponding to that of titular counsellor, staff captain in the army or lieutenant in the fleet.’ (I deliberately emphasised the latter title.)
Endlung exclaimed: ‘Lieutenants don’t wait on tables!’
And I said to him: ‘One waits on tables in restaurants, sir, but in the royal family one serves, each performing his duty as honourably as he can.’And I said to him: ‘One waits on tables in restaurants, sir, but in the royal family one serves, each performing his duty as honourably as he can.’
After that incident Endlung became as smooth as silk with me: he spoke politely, told no more jokes at my expense, addressed me by my name and patronymic and always spoke politely.
I must say that for a man in my position the question of degrees of politeness is particularly complicated, since we court servants have a quite distinctive status. It is hard to explain why it is insulting to be called by your first name by some people, and insulting to be addressed formally by others. But the latter are the only people that I can serve, if you take my meaning.
Let me try to explain. I can only tolerate being called by my first name by individuals of the royal family. Indeed, I do not tolerate it, but regard it as a privilege and a special distinction. I would simply be mortified if Georgii Alexandrovich, Her Highness or one of their children, even the very youngest, suddenly addressed me formally by my first name and patronymic. Two years ago I had a disagreement with Ekaterina Ioannovna concerning a maid who was unjustly accused of frivolous behaviour. I demonstrated firmness and stood my ground, and the grand duchess took offence and addressed me in strictly formal terms for an entire week. I suffered greatly, lost weight and could not sleep at night. And then we clarified matters. With her typical magnanimity, Ekaterina Ioannovna acknowledged her error. I also apologised and was allowed to kiss her hand, and she kissed me on the forehead.
But I digress.
The card players were being served by the junior footman Lipps, a novice whom I had brought with me especially to get a good look at him and see what he was worth. He had previously served at the Estonian estate of Count Beckendorf and had been recommended to me by His Excellency’s house steward, an old acquaintance of mine. He seems like quite an efficient young lad and doesn’t talk a lot, but it takes a while to recognise a good servant, unlike a bad one. In a new post everyone makes a great effort to do his best; you have to wait six months or a year, or even two, to know for certain. I observed how Lipps poured coffee, how deftly he changed a soiled napkin, how he stood in his position – that is very, very important. He stood correctly, without shifting from one foot to the other or turning his head. I decided he could probably be allowed to serve guests at small receptions.
From THE CORONATION. Used with the permission of the publisher, Mysterious Press. Copyright © 2019 by Boris Akunin. Translation copyright © 2019 by Andrew Bromfield.