Acts of Kindness in a World Gone Crazy
"This meeting will come to order," Maria Feodorovna said loudly over the din of the other Romanovs in the Anichkov Palace's ballroom. Nearly three quarters of the family had heeded her call for a conference, and from their expressions appeared to already agree with her sentiments. "Now then," she told them all, "I suppose you all know what this meeting is about. It is up to us to force the removal from the palace of the charlatan Rasputin."
She got a strong applause. "In case some of you are still on the fence about this," she continued, "Allow some of us to change your minds in our favor. Duke Nikolaevich, you can speak first."
The former commander-in-chief strode up next to her. "I remember it just like it was yesterday," he began strongly, "Rasputin standing before the tsar insisting we absolutely had to go to war, and that we would win it in a month or two. Now look where we are: almost two years later, almost a million casualties, the tsar away from the capital fighting the war himself, and Rasputin himself essentially running the country in his absence. He swore the war would progress better under his watch, but clearly the opposite has happened, and we're losing more men every week. And I'm sure you've already heard of the people he has appointed to fill key posts?"
A strong indignant murmur suggested they had. "To leave these people to run our country under his missives would be a catastrophe beyond words," Nikolaevich proclaimed, "I suggest we take immediate steps to remove Rasputin from the palace before he gains even more dangerous levels of power and leads us right over a cliff."
He got a strong applause. "If that didn't sway you," the dowager spoke up again, "Count Vladimir also has a story to tell." Noticing the family's cool reaction to his name, she added, "He too has been harmed by this cunning fiend, as he will tell you."
Vladimir trudged to the front of the room, his shoulders drooping. "Fellow Romanovs," he said slowly, "Prince Mikhail Andronikov had been my friend since we had been boys. When this war broke out, it was only natural we start running an enterprise together for the war effort."
"Yeah, you two profiteer wonderfully," a prince in the back row cracked. Vladimir paid him no heed. "Then Mikhail fell in with Rasputin," he lamented, "The next thing I know, he was insulting me, shouting that I had held him back for years, that I was..." he cracked, almost ashamed with himself, "a fat fool, a waste of life. And then last month, I discovered he had squeezed me out of our business and taken all the funds. I have nothing now," he hung his head, "And I've lost a dear friend too. I used to like Rasputin when he first appeared, but to see him corrupt Mikhail against me-this hurts me, my friends. We must do something before this happens to the rest of us."
"I agree," Yusupov rose up, determination on his face, "I say we take care of Rasputin this very night! I say we take him to my palace on the Moika and poison him...!"
"I do not approve of murder, Felix," Maria Feodorovna glared him down, "I want no blood on Romanov hands. What I am proposing," she addressed the entire Romanov clan, "Is your names on a formal resolution to Alexandra demanding Rasputin's immediate and permanent banishment from the capital, if not the country. She cannot ignore the weight of all of us demanding this. Who agrees to this?"
Almost every hand in the room shot up. "Very well then," the dowager smiled softly, "The manifesto is up here with me; sign it before you leave, and I'll deliver it to the palace personally. Our voices will be heard."
"How...dare you!" Alexandra, however, was far from accommodating when her mother-in-law handed her the document, "Does your hate for him...know no bounds!?"
"Call Nicholas at once and tell him of our resolution, Alexandra," Maria Feodorovna demanded her, "He will have to know...!"
"He...needs not know," without changing what appeared to be a blank expression, the tsarina tore up the manifesto, "He...has heard enough hate towards Father Rasputin from you and them, so this...has no purpose being read by him."
"This is our entire family speaking through this!" the dowager roared at her, "We will not let you help him ruin Russia by blindly following his every demand!"
"He...is a good and holy man...not like you or them," Alexandra frowned blankly at her, "You will never understand..."
"Oh I understand perfectly. I've taken a look at the people this so-called holy man has asked you to appoint to high office. Beletsky to head the Department of Police again!?" she held the list right in Alexandra's face, "Haven't you forgotten that Nicholas dismissed him from that post for overstepping his bounds in that capacity!? Khvostov for Interior Minister!? The man is power-mad! Protopopov for Prime Minster!? He's mentally deranged!" Volzhin to head the Synod!? He's never even served as a priest! Komissarov for...are you even listening to me!?"
Alexandra continued to star blankly ahead into space, as if she really wasn't there. The dowager waved a hand in front of her face. The tsarina did not react at all. "Has he done something to you!?" she asked her daughter-in-law sharply, "Has he...!?"
"I have merely shown her the light," Rasputin stepped out from behind the throne, tapping at his robe for whatever reason, "Now she is in a higher state of pure bliss."
"You!" Maria Feodorovna could barely contain her rage, "We have decided, the entire Romanov family: get out! Out of the palace, out of St. Petersburg, out of...!"
"Temper, temper," Rasputin coolly patted her on the shoulder, "You know as well as I do the entire future of your empire depends on me taking care of your grandson. You wouldn't want to endanger his future because of some petty jealousies, would you, Madame?"
"You are already endangering his future, sir!" she snarled at him, "And I will not permit...!"
The phone next to the throne rang. Still looking blank, Alexandra picked it up. "Yes," she said distantly into the receiver, "I see. Father, Alexei needs you again," she told Rasputin, "He got a nosebleed on the train back from the front; he's very, very bad right now."
"Don't let him do anything!" the dowager warned her, "How do we know he didn't cause this in the first place!?"
"Tsk, tsk," Rasputin smiled smugly at her, "Woe to those who see but do not believe." He picked up the phone. "Alexei Nikolaevich, I tell you truly, your nose is not bleeding. Just hang up the phone and all will be well," he assured the heir, tapping at his robe again.
"What are you doing!?" Maria Feodorovna grabbed for the robe as he hung up, "What have you got under there...!?"
"Enough," frowning, Alexandra stepped between the two of them, "I have heard...enough slander from you. I will stand...for no more."
Before her mother-in-law could respond, the phone rang again. "Yes?" Alexandra picked it up. Very good. Yes indeed. Good work, Father; he is well again," she commended a smiling Rasputin.
"He caused this, I know he did!" the dowager shouted, "I demand...!"
"Demand, demand, always demanding I do nothing to help," Rasputin almost mocked her, "She wants to ban me from the palace, your Highness; I suggest we do the same to her," he told the tsarina.
"You will not!" the former empress shouted, "I refuse to abandon the children to you! And I don't care what you say!" she upbraided Alexandra, not caring to hear her words her daughter-in-law was saying about never setting foot in the Winter Palace again, "You're not speaking of your own free will, so your word is not binding to me! And don't think you're safe because you've taken over her mind!" she threatened Rasputin, "One way or another, we will remove you, with or without Nicholas's consent!"
She stormed out of the throne room. Inside her head her mind was racing. That had been the last option she could think of. And Nicholas wouldn't believe anything unless he saw it for himself, she knew. And Rasputin would probably make sure he stayed at the front, out of his way. And since they couldn't kill Rasputin-that would make the Romanovs no better than him, she knew-they were at a dead end.
She kept bustling until she reached the palace chapel. She sank slowly to her knees at the altar and stared up at the stained-glass window of Jesus above it. "Please Lord Jesus, help me," she prayed the glass window desperately, "The devil is taking over here, threatening to destroy everything my family has worked for for the last three hundred years. Show me the way to stop him, for I don't know how to any more."
There was no immediate answer from the Christ image. She hoped one would come soon, though-very soon. In the meantime, she knew she had to put together a contingency plan, and that meant calling Sophie in Paris once she was done praying, a call that could at least ensure the survival of at least one Romanov in case the worst came to pass.
LATER THAT EVENING...
"Alexei?" Anastasia called out, sticking her head in the throne room door with Joy in her arms. Her brother had been rather quiet getting off the train and had kept to himself since returning to the palace. In the darkened throne room, she could see him sitting on the throne, staring ahead. "Go on, go to him and cheer him up," she told Joy, lowering the dog to the ground. Joy eagerly took off towards Alexei, barking. The heir did in fact smile at the sight of the door and eager scooped him up. "He missed you almost as much as we did," Anastasia told him, following Joy to the throne.
"I missed him too," Alexei laughed as Joy licked his face, "I was just glad to see Papa, though, and I think he felt the same way; General Evert told me he'd been feeling kind of down without us around."
"I just wish the war could end so we could have him back here," Anastasia plopped down in her mother's throne next to his, "It's not the same without him. So is he holding up well?"
"He's trying, but I think the strain's starting to get to him," Alexei admitted, "In fact, earlier in the week, I heard him...crying when he thought I was asleep, asking God why all this was happening, why everything was being put on his shoulders. I mean, that's Papa; he's not...he's a tsar; tsar's aren't supposed to cry. I've never seen him that upset before."
"Will he consider looking for peace, then?"
"No," the heir shook his head, "He's sticking to his promise to Britain and France to fight till the end. I just hope General Brusilov's new offensive works, because I heard him tell the staff he can't think of anything else that will work."
He sighed and stared up at the brand new tricentennial chandeliers that had been hung recently in preparation for the grand celebration at the end of the year. "Three hundred years of history and heritage," he remarked, handing his sister her dog back, "Some day it's going to be all on my shoulders. Maybe I'll think differently then, but after having been at the front and seeing what's expected of a tsar, I'm not sure I'll be able to handle it. And I'd hate for everything to come to an end because of me..."
"It won't, Alexei," Anastasia patted him on the shoulder, "You're going to be the best tsar Russia ever had, I just know it. One day they're going to build monuments to you because you'll have done so well."
"I hope so," Alexei seemed somewhat more comforted. "And what about you, then?" he asked her, "Where will you be then? Married off to some prince in one of our allies' kingdoms? You say it's not the same around here without me; it certainly won't be the same without you. Just promise you'll never forget me or any of us if it comes to that."
"Forget you?" she almost laughed, "Alexei, how could I ever forget about you, or anyone else here?"
Before Alexei could say anything, there came a loud moan from under the floor. "The hospital," he remarked, sliding off the throne, "Aren't Olga and Tatiana taking care of them down there?"
"I don't think anyone looks after them down there after dark," Anastasia shook her head, "Come on, let's go down and see if anyone needs anything-wait," she broke off as her brother started for the door, "You go on; I've got something to get first."
She bustled back to her room, Joy ambling along at her feet. She opened her desk drawer and hesitantly took out several dozen more cards like the ones she'd given her father. "I hope these will work," she told her dog hesitantly, sweeping it up, "I hope Olga isn't right that this is silly and pointless."
She took a deep breath and headed for the hospital wing in the basement. No one was standing guard at the door, which Alexei was waiting patiently at for her. The two of them entered cautiously. Beds filled with wounded men stretched to the far wall, some of them groaning. One in particular, with his leg elevated in bandages near the door, was apparently having a particularly bad time of it. Anastasia approached him first. "How bad does it hurt?" she asked him hesitantly.
The man jumped in surprise. "Oh," he exclaimed upon seeing her, "I didn't expect to see you or...the heir," he noticed Alexei behind her, "Everyone, the heir is here," he called to the other soldiers in the infirmary, who all (or at least all with the ability to do so) rose up in rapt attention.
"We, uh, just heard everyone down here and thought you might need some help," Alexei shuffled about uncomfortably, "Well, actually, it was her idea," he pointed at his sister.
"If you don't mind, I've been making some of these; I hope you'll like them," Anastasia hesitantly handed the soldier with the broken leg a card. She sucked in a deep breath, hoping he would find it all right. In fact, though, a wide smile crossed his face. "Well, that's the nicest thing anyone's done for me since I was brought here," he told her warmly, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," she breathed a sigh of relief, "Where were you hurt at?"
"Lodz; rifle blast to the leg," he told her dismally, "I'll spare you what the doctors said about it. I just want it to heal up enough so I can go back home."
"Where are you from?"
"Tsarytsyn. Private Ivan Turganov, your Highness," he humbly bowed to her.
"Oh that's too formal; I'm just Anastasia," she said. She walked over to the next bed, where another soldier had bandages over his eyes. "Are you blinded?" she asked him, patting his hand to get his attention.
"Looks like he was in a gas attack," Alexei shook his head softly, "Some of the troops we sent forward last week were caught in one; a lot of them looked like this afterwards."
"Yeah, the Germans hit us with mustard gas at Lake Naroch," the man mumbled softly, "At least they say everything will be better in a little while. Somehow, this whole war's being run the wrong way," he grumbled, "We keep getting sent right into the German front lines to be shot up. Whoever the tsar's got in charge of the war effort should be thrown out immediately."
"That's Father Rasputin, but we can't get rid of him," Anastasia pressed another card into the man's hand; at least he'd have it when his sight returned, "He gets his information right from Heaven; he's indispensable."
"And he does miracles too; I know, I've been helped by a couple of them, mister," Alexei added, lifting Joy up off the floor into the man's arms after seeing the dog was scratching at the bed legs. Joy licked at the man's face, making him laugh. "I have a dog just like this back in Perm," he said, feeling for Joy's dimensions, "My children love it; even though it's older than I am in dog years, I can't very well get rid of it; it means too much to them."
"Joy bring us lots of happiness too, sir," Anastasia scooped the dog back up. Had she looked down the room to the very end at that moment, she might have seen a wall panel opening up and a small face of someone about her age looking out. As it was, though, her attention was caught by the strumming of a balalaika on the other side of the room-a balalaika strumming a familiar tune. "I love that song," she exclaimed, bustling over to the soldier with the broken arm casually strumming away, "My Grandmama sings it to me all the time. It's our special song, really."
"She's got good taste then, your Highness," the soldier smiled, "I play that to my precious Raisa back in Yalta; she's pretty much about your age, in fact. And she knows it line for line. So I play it as often as I can to help remind me of her, and that some day soon I'll be heading back there to see her again. It's been far too long since I have been able to hold her close."
"We know how you feel, sir," Alexei approached the bed, "We miss our father too."
"Sir? I'm just Basil Rodansky, your Highness," he laughed at the tsarevich's formality, "Well, that's encouraging to know the royal family isn't that different from us common folks after all; we both think the same way about being separated from each other. Well, since we both know the song well, let's chase those blues away for a moment."
He gave the balalaika a strong strum. "Dancing bears, painted wings, things I almost remember," he started singing, "And a song someone sings once upon a December."
"Someone holds me safe and warm," Anastasia eagerly took up the next verse, "Horses prance through a silver storm. Figures dancing gracefully, across my memory."
"Far away, long ago," every other soldier in the vicinity joined in as well, "glowing dim as an ember. Things my heart used to know, once upon a December."
There was widespread applause as the song finished, including from the figure looking out from behind the wall. "Yes, I like that one," Rodansky smiled, "But this is the one my Raisa likes the best. Maybe you know this one too."
He cleared his throat and strummed an opening chord on his balalaika. "We were strangers, starting out on a journey..." he began.
"...never dreaming what we'd have to go through," Anastasia smiled; she also knew this one by heart.
"...now here we are, and I'm suddenly standing at the beginning with you," they did the next line in unison.
"No one told me I was going to find you," Alexei jumped up onto the bed, "Unexpected what you did to my heart..."
"When I lost hope," the entire room joined in, "You were there to remind me this is the start..."
Before the song could go any further, though, there came unexpected clapping from the doorway. "Well done, well done indeed," smiling again, the dowager commended her grandchildren and the soldiers. "Well you two," she walked over and picked them up, "I hate to break up the moment for you two, but it is just about your bedtime, so I think maybe we should get the two of you to bed."
"First; here," Anastasia handed Rodansky the rest of her cards, pass these around to as many others as you can."
"I will, your Highness," he nodded, "Farewell for now."
"Everyone at ease," Alexei commanded the soldiers, who saluted him as he was carried gently out the door. "I think being at the front has given you too much of a military complex, Alexei," his grandmother teased him.
"If we weren't supposed to do this, Grandma, I'm..." he started to say.
"No need to be upset, Alexei," she was, on the contrary, quite proud, "You and your sister have been saying for so long how you've wanted to make a good contribution for the war. Tonight the two of you have, and you should be quite proud. You gave those men a great gift of company, something they don't get a lot here when wounded and on their own, and some day, you'll probably see how important your presence was to them."
"I would like to go back some time," Anastasia told her, "It did feel good to be with them. Maybe we can bring down Father Rasputin next time and see if he can heal them."
"No, I don't think that's a good idea at all," her grandmother shook her head.
"Why not? He helps me so many times, he's got to be able to help them get better the same way," Alexei argued. Maria Feodorovna sighed softly, coming to a stop in front of Alexei's room. She knew that if her suspicions about the self-proclaimed holy man were true, Alexei's heart would be broken. But on the other hand, he was owed the whole truth. "Alexei, you and I are going to have to have a long talk about Father Rasputin," she told him, setting him down to the floor, "But not tonight. You've had a long day, so you just rest up and have a peaceful night's sleep."
"I'll try, Grandma," the tsarevich blew her a parting kiss before he closed the door. "After all this time you still don't like Father Rasputin at all?" Anastasia seemed miffed as she and her grandmother continued up the hall to her room, "What's it going to take to warm you over to him?"
"I'm afraid, my dear, it's probably a lost cause between the two of us," the dowager told her, "And I'm finding there's more to him than you may realize. I suppose he hasn't told you yet how he said terrible things about the Jewish people in our empire, about how he thinks they should all be destroyed?"
"What!?" the girl's eyes went wide, "But he couldn't have! He's a holy man; holy men don't say things like that!"
"You're right, holy men don't, "Maria Feodorovna agreed softly, "I guess he's kept from you that he's taking in large sums of money and not giving it away like a holy man should as well? Or that it was him who lobbied for your uncle's banishment from Russia the hardest, pressing your father to do it without giving him even a trial? Before I let you go to bed, just promise me, if Father Rasputin asks anything of you, you'll just say no, OK?"
"I, I guess so, Grandmama," Anastasia nodded, looking rather confused. As she started to enter her room, she remarked, "I can't see why anyone has problems about the Jewish people. They're Russians like the rest of us, aren't they?"
"Of course they are," her grandmother bent down to kiss her, "That's why you're my favorite grandchild; you have a heart as big as Russia itself, as all those men in the hospital would tell you right now. "Have a good night's sleep, my precious Anastasia, and remember, if you need anything at all, I'm only a phone call away."
"Good night, Grandmama," her granddaughter closed the door behind her. As Marie was already asleep, she dressed for bed quietly and softly slipped under the covers. There was a small yip as Joy leaped up onto the bed next to her, looking, she thought, a bit melancholy. "It's got to be a mistake, Joy," she told the dog softly, "He's a holy man; he wouldn't say anything that bad...would he?"
Joy merely curled up into a ball, apparently bent on getting some sleep. Anastasia stroked her pet gently behind the ears. Her gaze fell out the window at the moon in the sky. At least, she thought, her father could probably see it just as well from wherever he was now. How much, though, did she wish at the moment he could come back to St. Petersburg. He could set everything straight, she knew. Softly, so not to wake Marie, another familiar Russian folk tune wafted from her lips: "Somewhere, out there, beneath the pale moonlight, someone's thinking of me, and loving me tonight..."
"Somewhere, out there, if love can see us through," down below in the bowels of the palace, Dmitry was in fact finishing the same song, "Then we'll be together, somewhere out there, out where dreams come true."
He stared up at the ceiling and sighed. He too was appreciative of how much she'd just done for all the wounded soldiers. Still, he was frustrated with himself. The chance had been there to come out and talk to her then, and he'd lost the nerve. But what good would it have been, he told himself sadly; he had nothing to give her, and thus she would have spurned him anyway.
There came the braying of horses from outside the palace gates. Although he knew what it was, he still crawled over to the narrow window in the sleeping quarters. To keep the public from panicking, the bodies of the war dead were now being returned at night so they wouldn't realize how terrible the battles at the front were. Dmitry had a good idea, though, and he had a feeling in his stomach the army couldn't keep taking the punishment it was taking right now. And that the people couldn't take much more of the war as it was currently being fought. There was, he knew from his trips to the market, a spark of unhappiness in Russia at the moment, and if it were fanned into a flame, what was to keep Artyom's terrible prophesy about the masses rising up and destroying the princess and her family from coming true...?