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ward claimed to be, is one of the minor enigma?
of history. But her belief in a secret that en-
veloped her, became the tragedy of her tragic
life. On the sheer red peaks of torture, peaks
that are the summits of human agony, she clung
to it, refusing to retract, asking only that there
be said over her a prayer for the dead.

In Paris, years ago, Flavinski, a Russian
artist, exhibited a painting of which the horror
and the execution detained. It showed this girl
standing on a cot in a vault into which water
poured through a grating. Her back against
the wall, her head bent by the low roof, her
hands clasped in terror, it was obvious that in a
moment the water would reach and claim her.

The vault w r as a subterranean cell of a Peters-
burg prison which the Neva, rising, had flooded.
Before Petersburg became Petrograd the cell
was shown. Given the money and the guide
and one can be shown anything. What the pic-
ture represented never occurred. The Princess
Tarakanov was not drowned, she was murdered.

The story of the girl is brief, simple, bizarre
and horrible. Her first memories were of a Rus-



The Northern Messalina 121

sian convent from which, while still a child, she
was taken endlessly to Baghdad, thence on to
Isfahan, where she grew up in the palace of a
prince who treated her with a respect invariable
and profound. Later she went with him to Lon-
don. There he left her, supplying her before-
hand with money and an entourage and reveal-
ing to her a secret, of which long since whispers
had reached her, and concerning which docu-
mentary evidence would in time, he said, be pro-
duced.

It was in these circumstances that, vacating
London, she went to Paris, afterward to Vienna,
then to Venice, where the polite world was in-
trigued by this exotic princess who looked like a
houri and who lived like a vestal.

In that she reversed the order of things. To
look like a vestal is always permissible, but to
live like one was not fashionable then. At the
time, the fervours of Cyprus were forgotten.
The altars to Eros and Aphrodite were dust.
From the crystal parapets where they leaned
and laughed, the immortals had gone. But not
very high, nor yet very far. Over the eighteenth-
century metropoles of pleasure, they leaned and
laughed as before. Their shrines had crumbled,
their temples had fallen, but their worship en-
dured. They were the immortals. Modernity



122 The Imperial Orgy

could not touch them, time could not reach them,
only their names had changed. Instead of Eros
was Temptation; in place of Aphrodite, De-
light. In the current literature were their rit-
uals; in paintings and statues, their images; in
opera, their hymns. The contagion of their rites
fevered and depraved.

In the amorality of the neo-pagan atmosphere,
the princess really loved. She loved in an epoch
when no one loved at all. It was very eccentric
of her. To be eccentric is always hazardous.
The danger was there. She mistook it for bliss.
In that disguise it caught and killed her.

A prince asked her hand. The prince was
Radziwill, a Polish refugee, who travelled about
with the twelve apostles, life-size, in massivei
gold, which, in accordance with his needs, he
melted.

In considering the proposal, which she pres-
ently rejected, she told him the secret. It was
so inspiring that with it he planned to have the
Sultan put them both on the throne of the Jagel-
lons. Whether he were suited for it is unim-
portant. But she looked the queen which she
might have been, though not perhaps in Po-
land. Apparently, too, the time had come.
From Isfahan the other prince, the Persian, sent
her the promised papers.



The Northern Messalina 123

Among them was Elisabeth's will. Elisabeth
then was dead. Catherine II. had succeeded her.
According to the documents, the accession was
illegal. In the will, Elisabeth appointed her
daughter to succeed her and that daughter, issue
of her marriage with Razoumovski, was Aly
Emettee de Vlodomir.

At the time, she was in the ideal city of the
material world. Venice should have detained
this girl who embodied its charm. But the
dream that always had been with her and which,
it may be, had given her the look, enigmatically
triste, which they alone display whom destiny
has marked for some fate, supreme or tragic,
that dream, or that destiny, held her and led
her and hid her away.

Then, too, a rumour of the will, the report
that she was granddaughter of Peter the Great,
the evocation of power absolute, these things
and her presence, sovereign, gracious, sad,
stirred Venice. Along the liquid streets ran
the ripple of the cry, "Viva I'imperatrice!"

That also may have been coercive. Presently,
in addition, there was love.

Radziwill, meanwhile, more enthusiastic,
more enamoured and more absurd than ever,
melted his last apostle. Clearly the Sultan, Per-
fume of Paradise, Shadow of God on Earth,



124 The Imperial Orgy

could refuse nothing to a descendant of the
Porte's arch-foe. The plan was magnificent, it
was also insane. The princess, disassociating
herself from him and from it, went to Ragusa,
where she sent the admiral of a Russian squad-
ron, then at Leghorn, a copy of her mother's
will.

The admiral, Alexis Orlov, had been Cath-
erine's lover. He referred the matter to her.
In reply he was commanded to seize the claim-
ant at any cost, even though he had to bombard
the coast to get her.

That order, if executed, meant war. It is per-
haps obvious that Catherine, in giving it, knew
the facts and preferred war to their recognition.

Historians generally have ignored that point.
Generally they have ignored the princess. Other-
wise they have derided her. To some, her Per-
sian was a fabulous being. To others, her purity
was as mythical. Challemel-Lacour described
her as an adventuress. She may have been. But
some time later, de Verac, the French minister
at Petersburg, received a bill which he was
asked to collect. The bill was from a Paris
merchant who claimed that the Princess Tara-
kanov owed him fifty thousand francs. De Verac
had never heard of the lady. At headquarters
he asked about her. He was requested not to



The Northern Messalina 125

ask again, but he was told that the bill would be
paid, which it was, although bills incurred by
the Russian squadron in French waters were
protested and payment refused. Privately, his
enquiries continued. From the secret service
he learned that the princess was Elisabeth II.

In those days communication was very lei-
surely. When Orlov received Catherine's com-
mands, the course he adopted was characteristic-
ally that of the average Russian of whom it
is characteristic not to have any character at all.
He prostrated himself before the girl whom he
called his empress and to whom he swore the
fealty of a knight. The sad girl listened, lis-
tened longer, listened as she had listened to no
man before. Orlov was a giant and an athlete.
Because of a fight in which he had sunk the
Turkish fleet, he was called a hero. He looked
it. He was superiorly handsome. Though a
ruffian, he, too, could charm. That charm en-
circled her. Italy and youth and love! Love
in the land where, said Owen Meredith, "love
most lovely seems!"

In the girl's entourage there were those who
doubted, who warned, who perhaps foresaw.
But the girl who had never yet loved, then loved
wholly. The man, his splendid vigour, his
knightly allegiance, enthralled. Then too there



126 The Imperial Orgy

was the dream into which he entered with her.
He told her, what was true, that he and his
brothers had put Catherine on the throne. He
added, what was false, that he and his brothers
would take it from her. Then, if his lady but
deigned, she and he could share it.

In the passionate wooing the impassioned girl
was won. She became his wife and, amid the
boom of guns and acclaiming cries, went with
him to the flagship, where instantly he disap-
peared. About her were marines. She was a
prisoner. A prisoner she remained until she
reached Petersburg where Catherine had her
put to the question, tortured to death.

The throne then was secure. From it Cath-
erine had torn an emperor whom she murdered.
From it she had held another emperor whom
she killed. There were no more claimants. The
last of the Romanovs was dead, and at her latest
lover the empress leered.



VII

VENUS VICTRIX

FROM the cupboard of yawns that history
is, Catherine the Greater emerges in
spangles. Her life was an opera com-
posed by Chance. Musicians do not know him;
mythographers do not mention him, mathema-
ticians deny that he is. Yet, drawn in a chariot
of jewels by horses of flame, those whom he
favours are raised to the sky. Chance carried
her portrait from a tinpot principality to the
great Peter's grandson and herself to the throne.

That grandson, a poodle-faced boy, pock-
marked, witless, neurotically unable to be still,
and whose tongue, when not wagging with in-
anities, hung like a hound's from his mouth,
was the son of the Duchess of Holstein-Gottorp,
Elisabeth's sister. Appointed tsarevitch, he was
given for bride the Princess Sophia Augusta of
Anhalt-Zerbst, whom the Church christened
Catherine; and Voltaire, Semiramis.

The name rolls; it is empty as sound. Semi-
ramis never existed. But the name subsists. It

127



128 The Imperial Orgy-

means the One who Loves. As such it fitted this
girl who was to become the grande amou reuse
and whose dramatic entrance into history was
effected with a swoon. At sight of the whelp
she fainted.

A virgin and — in appearance — very ethereal,
she had two ambitions. She wanted the mantle
of glory. She wanted the perfume of Eros. She
wanted to be Venus Victrix.

At the time, a Psyche on a fan, slight and
very fair, her mouth was red as sealing-wax,
her hair an auburn turban. Her eyes, sometimes
heliotrope, were sometimes green, sometimes
grey. In later years, dignity replaced the de-
liciousness that had been. In lieu of Psyche,
there was Juno. With age came the sibyl, a
sybil obese, dropsical, sinister. But when she
left Stettin, where she had played with raga-
muffins in the sullen streets, and journeyed to
Russia and the throne, it was endearing to see
the blushes, the ingenuousness, the modesty that
she displayed. She looked precisely what she
was, fresh from school, pretty enough to eat —
while preparing to devour an empire.

In her memoirs she says that already she had
determined to have it and have it alone. By
way of preparation for the meal, she sharpened
her teeth on Machiavelli, taught herself Rus-



Venus Victrix 129

sian and meditated the mosaics of the Greek
faith. In marrying the whelp that faith would
have to be hers. But she had no inconvenient
scruples. She would have become Mormon if
necessary and though it was not, she did. That,
though, was later. Meanwhile, from the swoon
into which the prospective delights of marriage
with the poodle-faced boy had thrown her, she
got herself together, got the whelp and, when
the throne was his, put him from it as a child
is put to sleep. For soothing syrup he had
poison; for lullaby, contempt; for cradle, a
grave.

The whelp — historically Peter III. — was a
German. He was born a German, died a Ger-
man. Frederick, at the time, was on his knees.
This imbecile first raised him up, then knelt
before him. From that day, Prussia began an
ascent that culminated at the Marne. The origi-
nal Romanov was a Prussian. Peter III. was
a Hun.

Among other children of Catherine was Paul,
who succeeded her. In her memoirs she says
that Peter the Little was not Paul's father. His-
torians who know more about it than she did,
insist that he was. In listening to them, one
might mistake the lady for an austere matron.
The error would have annoyed her. She had



130 The Imperial Orgy

no false pride. On the other hand, she did have
a few lovers. Among them was Saltykov, who
may have been Paul's father. But, as Voltaire
said, and said too very reasonably: — "These are
family matters."

All that was later. At the start, Catherine,
who had determined to be first, began by being
last. Before commanding, she obeyed; before
usurping, she effaced herself. To Elisabeth, she
was adorably subservient; to Peter, unutterably
considerate; to the court — amazed at such guile-
lessness — she was delightfully ingenue. To no
one, however obscure, was she negligent. She
importuned no one, however great. She gave
everything and asked nothing. The rose was
her model. She charmed and was silent. Yet,
without seeming to listen, she heard everything.
Apparently ethereal, she was preparing to gob-
ble a throne.

Hunger appeased, Cinderbritch vanished.
The swooning virgin had gone. To the court's
astonishment, an ingenue became a general; a
girl, a despot. Peter the Great made Russia
recognise Europe. Catherine the Greater made
Russia recognised by the world. That is his-
tory. When enemies were arming, concerning
their number she never enquired. What she
asked was: — ''Where are they?" That is Ro-




CATHERIN] II



Venus Victrix 131

man. When she learned that Diderot was poor,
she bought his library, made him its custodian
and paid him a salary for fifteen years in ad-
vance. That is delightful. When her purse
was empty she evoked the ghost of gold that
paper money is and saddled her country with
debt. Had she wished she could have manufac-
tured money out of leather, out of blades of
grass and given it any value she liked. She
could do anything and did almost everything.
She cowered but once. That was at the sight
of the French revolution. Immediately she
straightened. Her little household, as she called
Russia, was not France. Moreover, she com-
manded an army that fought without pay, with-
out rest, often without food and always with-
out complaint. Against that army no revolu-
tion could prevail. No, nor Asia either. Had
she lived, she would have owned it.

Beside her, Peter, her lord, looked exactly
what he was and nothing worse can be said of
him — an imbecile who drilled tin soldiers,
dressed wax dolls, trained terriers in his bed-
room, occupied his absence of mind with gro-
tesque puerilities, worshipped Frederick, made
peace with Prussia, prussianised the army, got
drunk with his lackeys and foisted on the court
a band of Holsteiners as ignoble — if that be pos-



132 The Imperial Orgy

sible — as himself. Catherine, meanwhile, belle
comme le jour, to employ her own description
of herself, was dreaming of grandeur absolute.
By way of practise, she managed the idiot's
duchy. Later, when the dream came true, she
found it quite as easy to manage his empire.
She was a born administrator and yet a woman.
But what a woman! Caesar and Faustine com-
bined.

Faustine had many lovers. Catherine had
more. But before she was empress only a few,
just enough to hand her up on the throne from
which they pulled her husband off. In tsaral
annals, the modus of the elimination, then
unique, was to become common. Peter III. was
murdered. He was given arsenic in vodka. The
poison being ineffective, Alexis Orlov knocked
him down, held him down and strangled him
with a napkin. Orlov's punishment, highly dra-
matic, and equally delayed, will be told later
on. For the murder itself, Catherine has been
rebuked. Perhaps it had its excuse. Prior to
Elisabeth's death, Peter the Small had made it
clear to Semiramis that once tsar he would di-
vorce and replace her, as Peter the Great's wife
had been replaced, by a scullion. Catherine had
therefore the choice between immolating and



Venus Victrix 133

being immolated. It was at dinner that she de-
cided.

Tacitus tells of a supper, given by Nero to
Britannicus, who died of it. "After a moment
of silence," the historian noted, "gaiety re-
turned." Post breve silentium, repetitia convivit
Icetltia. The dinner resembled that supper.

The dinner was held in a high hall, hung
with Asiatic splendour, flooded with European
light. The foreign ministers were there, the
great nobles, the ladies of honour, a swarm of
princes and peris perfumed with lies, starred
with diamonds, radiant as rainbows.

Peter, rising, proposed the health of the im-
perial family. Catherine remained seated. Why
not? The imperial family consisted of herself;
of Paul, who was a child; of Peter, who was
her husband.

"Doura!" Peter the Small bawled at her.
"Fool!"

Everybody heard, except Catherine. With a
smile she turned to one of her gentlemen. With
a fresher smile she turned to another. A mo-
ment merely. But in that moment a grave had
been dug. Then she looked at Peter. So must
Nero have looked at Britannicus.

Peter counted for little. What he did count
for was German. Petersburg had an indiges-



134 The Imperial Orgy

tion of Teuton customs, Teuton manners, Teu-
ton touts. Catherine was not Teuton. She had
begun by being German but the taint had been
drained. She had become wholly Russian prior
to becoming entirely French. The versatility
of her universality enthralled prelates and pre-
torians, the boiars and the army. When the
time came, she but lifted her finger. They rose
to her.

The dinner was in celebration of peace with
Prussia whom Elisabeth, had she lived, would
have knifed. A few days later, Peter celebrated
the peace again, but on this occasion at Oranien-
baum, a plaisance where Catherine omitted to
accompany him.

Incidentally the Orlovs were at work, five of
them, five brothers, five men with one head,
each of whom commanded a regiment, in one of
which Potemkin was lieutenant. Gregori Or-
lov, the eldest of the brothers, but though the
eldest still very young, had so charmed Cath-
erine that familiarly she was called Madame
Gregori. He was one of the men to whom she
had turned and smiled on the night of the din-
ner. The other man was Alexis Orlov, who
had charmed her also.

Early one morning, shortly after, Alexis Or-
lov brought her, dressed as a general, to the bar-



Venus Victrix 135

racks. There, a priest, raising a cross, recited
an oath. The soldiers repeated it. A cry went
up, "Live the empress!" In that cry Peters-
burg joined.

To the blare of brass, the regiments started,
Catherine on horseback leading. Peter got
wind of it. He fled to a fortress. The wind
had preceded him.

From a rampart a sentry called: — "Who goes
there?"

"The emperor."

"There is no emperor. Move on!"

Peter turned and, whimpering like a beaten
cur, offered to share the sceptre. Catherine
declined. He begged for mercy. Officially, his
death was ascribed to apoplexy. Cretinism were
more exact.

Peter had many defects. The gravest was an
inability to appreciate a Tiberius in skirts. That
fault official Russia did not share. It rose to
her and it knelt. Then, presently, about the
throne, the perfume of Eros mounted.

In the ballroom of her heart, the Orlovs were
not her first partners, nor were they the last.
Their predecessors were not numerous, but their
successors were without number. Moralists
have blamed her for that and no doubt very
justly. None the less, her cotillon favours repre-



136 The Imperial Orgy

sented something else than the caprices of an
empress autocratically privileged to do as she
liked. Catherine elevated her men Pompadours
to the dignity of a state institution. They had
appointments, prerogatives, and a position that
was exceeded only by her own and which fre-
quently was on an equality with it. Several of-
fended her greatly, successively she wearied of
each, yet to all she was decent, none incurred
her dislike. One, whom she surprised with her
nearest friend, she dismissed, but not to Siberia.
Another she relinquished to a rival, without
chopping his head off first. Christine of Swe-
den had a faithless du Barry killed in her pres-
ence. Queen Elisabeth was as bloody. Lovers
of whom Catherine wearied or who wearied of
her, preserved her friendship, enjoyed her pro-
tection. When their intimacy with her ended,
their service to the state began. Or, if they
lacked the ability, they lived semi-royally on
her royal largesse.

The first to gather her handkerchief was Sal-
tykov, a young assembly of brilliant vices whose
assiduities, favoured for reasons dynastic, were
interrupted. He was given an honorific exile
and sent as minister to Sweden. Catherine, who
was not then Semiramis, but grand-duchess
merely, shed no tears. The lustre of his bril-



Venus Victrix 137

liance had been already dimmed. Into her ken
another partner had swum. The new planet
was Poniatowski, a tourist from Poland who
returned there as king.

The kingship had been predicted. When but
a child an astrologer drew his horoscope. In
it was a throne. What throne? Nobody knew,
but he was trained for it as a colt is trained for
a race. In the training he acquired the atti-
tude and strut of a king on the stage. That was
mere facade. Back of it was the ingenuousness
of a young lady, and fronting it was a smile in
which there was Chateau Yquem. Such a smile
is heady. It captivated Catherine. But though
he had a languorous eye on her, he had another
and a very timorous one on Siberia. In Russia,
one never knew! Besides, he barely escaped it.

Late one night he reached the grand-ducal
residence where Catherine awaited him. While
effecting a surreptitious entrance, he was sur-
prised by the guard and taken to Peter. At
the moment, the future monarch was guzzling
with his lady, a very elegant young person,
squint-eyed, stupid, malodorous, who, Masson
says, spat when she talked.

Peter grinned. "Come to assassinate me?"

Poniatowski, his facade crumbling, stam-
mered a protest.



138 The Imperial Orgy

Peter giggled. "He, he! You're after the
grand-duchess. Well, run along. I, too, have a
girl."

Subsequently, Catherine gave him a crown.
That bit of jewellry was his walking-stick. She
made him king to be rid of him. Poland, the
mad nation, a nation chivalrous, heroic, insane,
removed it. Poland that had withstood the Ta-
tars and was to withstand everything, could not
stand a young lady, though recently she listened
to a pianist. From the Slav Valhalla, with what
fierce surprise, the Jagellons, her warrior kings,
must have looked down at that!

Catherine's handkerchief passed from Ponia-
towski to the Orlovs, from them to Potemkin,
from him to Zubov. Saltykov and Poniatowski
were her maitres de danse. In the great cotillon
that followed, the Orlovs mark the beginning,
Potemkin the height, Zubov the end. Interme-
diately were other partners, though how many,
history, her hostess, fatigued by the task of enu-
merating them, neglected to count. But in the
long bacchanal, Gregori Orlov detained her
most.

Vigorous, violent, fearless, a giant in stat-
ure, Gregori Orlov was the handsomest man of
his day. After the manner of giants he was
dull. But he looked every inch the sultan that



Venus Victrix 139

he became. He not only looked the sultan, he
filled the role. To him, Semiramis was but an-
other odalisque in the seraglio which he main-
tained. Catherine tolerated his impertinences,
ignored his infidelities, forgave whatever he did.
Catherine loved him. More exactly, like every
grande amoureuse, and of them all she was the
greatest, when she said je t'aime she meant je
m'aime and failed to see the difference. Nor
did Orlov see it. He thought of marrying her.
It seemed the simplest thing in the world. She
had given him honours, titles, palaces, serfs by
the thousand, domains by the league. She shared
the treasury with him. But the throne, no.
There pride interfered, the consciousness that
however she might condescend, the sceptre must
remain indivisibly hers. Then also, while Orlov
had practically put the sceptre in her hand,
while, too, he was a sort of Greek god, yet the
coup d'etat had been to him merely an adven-
ture, and his divinity was of the early and very
primitive type. The god was null. Presently
the nullity was revealed. To have an empress
at his feet was insufficient. He ran off with a
chit of a girl, who died, and the pulp behind
his forehead deglutinised. He went mad, cov-
ering his face with offal which, like Ezechiel,
he ate.



140 The Imperial Orgy

At the time, the madness was said to have
been caused not at all by grief, but by an herb
with which Potemkin poisoned him.

Potemkin too was mad, not from an herb, but
with genius. One of the many who handed
Catherine up on the throne, he began, on the
morning of the coup d'etat, by offering her a
silver feather for her uniform and might have


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