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Breaking up of the ice — Ice from the Ladoga - Placing a pillar in the
church of St. Isaac - Grand parade - Arrival of the Emperor; of the Empress — Review of the troops — Departure of the Court from St. Petersburg — Interview with the Empress.
Petersburg, May 9th, 1838. Ever since the conclusion of Easter-week, until yesterday, we have had delightful weather. On the morning of the twentyeighth of last month, eighteen days after the commencement of the thaw, the ice on the Neva broke up, the floating-bridge was removed to let it pass, and in the course of three or four hours the river was sufficiently free to allow the safe passage of boats; indeed, scarcely a piece of ice was to be seen. No boats, however, are allowed to ply until the following ceremony, which dates from the reign of Peter the Great, has been performed. The Commandant of the fortress, under a salute from its guns, crosses the river in his barge, and has an audience of the Emperor, to present him with a certain silver cup, filled with the water of the Neva; and his Majesty returns the cup filled, instead of water, with gold coins. After this the navigation of the Neva is considered as open.
We are still, however, reminded of our northern latitude. The ice in the Gulf of Finland is still firm; and since yesterday the Neva, which for ten days past had reflected nothing but blue sky and bright sun, has been nearly covered with floating ice, as white as snow, drifting rapidly down under the united influence of wind and current. This ice comes from the Ladoga, a lake more than two hundred miles long and a hundred and fifty broad, out of which the Neva issues forty or fifty miles above Petersburg. When the ice of the lake breaks up, and passes down the Neva, it produces for some days a return of winter here. The floating bridges are removed, and the river is encumbered with huge masses of ice, grinding and rashing in the strong current, so that the passage becomes
perilous for boats; while the air itself is chilled, and the bitter north wind brings driving storms of sleet and snow.
Some days ago I went to see a pillar placed in the new church of St. Isaac, which is now in progress. The operation was extremely interesting, from the size of the pillar and the height at which it was placed—it being the second tier or story of columns on which the workmen were engaged. The last pillar was erected yesterday, and the colonnade, which is circular, is now complete. Its base must be a hundred and thirty or forty feet from the ground, and each pillar is a solid block of granite, forty-two feet high, and weighing five thousand poods, or upwards of eighty tons. The columns on the ground-tier, each of which is also a monolith, are fifty-six feet high, and they weigh eleven thousand poods each.
When I reached the platform to which the pillar was to be raised, I had below me a panorama of Petersburg and of the country around for many a mile; the most interesting part of the prospect being the Gulf of Finland, down which I could see as far as Cronstadt. The day was warm and bright, and the air was free from cloud or smoke. From the platform down to the next stage, a depth of about eighty feet, was fixed a strong timber frame, covered with planks, so as to form a very steep inclined plane. At the bottom of this slide, when I first looked down, the column to be raised was lying horizontally on rollers; it was girthed round with very thick ropes drawn very tight, and was padded underneath. Other ropes, or rather cables, secured to these girths, passed along the column, crossing each other over its lower end, and it was lashed to strong planks which lay under it, that the polish of the stone might not be injured in ascending the slide. Over the base on which the column was to stand was placed a high framework of strong timbers. The cables, twelve in number, attached to the pillar, passed through blocks fixed in the frame, and, with the aid of one moveable pulley to each, were drawn by twelve capstans, each manned by fourteen or sixteen men. There were two extra capstans for the purpose of guiding the lower end of the pillar when suspended in the air. Altogether, upwards of two hundred men were employed in the operation.
When all was ready, the capstans began to turn, and by
degrees the column, instead of lying in a horizontal position, rested on the inclined plane, which was well greased. Up this it began slowly to ascend, two men standing on its upper end, to be ready in case of the cables becoming entangled. The capstans were all numbered, and the superintendent at the top, calling out sometimes to one gang and sometimes to another to move faster or slower, kept all the ropes drawing equally. The column at length reached the top of the inclined plane, and it was then raised until it was hanging in the high wooden frame exactly over the base on which it was to stand. A coin was dropped into a small hole in the centre of the base, which was then covered with a sheet of lead; and the tackling round the lower end of the pillar being cut and cleared away, it was lowered gently into its place. The whole operation, which was now complete, had occupied about two hours, from the time the capstans began to work until the pillar rested upon its base.
The church of St. Isaac will be an edifice not unworthy of Petersburg, and it will be a remarkable monument of a century which is not an age of cathedral building. About forty thousand pounds have been annually expended upon it for some years past, and the exterior will not be completed for at least two more. The church is to be a few feet higher than St. Paul's, with a dome, the roof of which will be gilt, of nearly the same size with the dome of our cathedral. No materials are employed in any part of the edifice but marble, stone, brick, and metal, so that the building will be fire-proof.
Four days ago we had the good fortune to witness in the Champ-de-Mars a splendid military spectacle. About forty thousand men were on the ground, including nine thousand cavalry, one hundred and twenty-eight pieces of artillery, and a pontoon-train. The whole belonged to the corps of the Imperial Guards, and formed, therefore, I presume, the finest body of troops in the empire. The day was lovely, and the coup-d'wil most superb. At twelve o'clock the Emperor arrived on the ground, followed by a numerous suite. The drums beat, and the troops cheered as he galloped down the line and through the ranks. By the time he had completed this rapid
inspection, his horse being already covered with foam, the Empress and the Grand Duchesses arrived on the ground in a carriage-and-four, with postilions in the English style, followed by four or five other court-carriages, some with four and some with six horses. The Emperor then mounted a fresh horse and rode through the ranks by the side of her Majesty's carriage, which was afterwards drawn up opposite the centre of the line. The Emperor took his station on horseback by her side, and the troops began to march past. The infantry passed first, preceded only by the mounted Circassians, or, as they are here termed, the Mamelukes of the Guard, in number about forty or fifty. These horsemen wear scarlet uniforms made after the fashion of their country, and are a wild and picturesque-looking body of men. Some are armed with carbines, and some have bows and arrows at their backs.
The infantry was followed by a train of foot-artillery ; after which there was a halt for a few minutes, and then the cavalry came up, led by the regiment of Chevaliers-gardes, with their Colonel, the Grand Duke Alexander, the Heir-apparent, at their head. The band of each regiment stationed itself oppo site the Emperor, and played while the regiment marched past, and each company or troop as it came up saluted the Emperor with a shout, according to the Russian custom. As soon as the regiment had been reviewed, the Colonel was called up and complimented by the Emperor.
There were four regiments of Cuirassiers, a portion of each being Lancers, a regiment of Horse Grenadiers, and a splendid regiment of Hussars of the Guard in scarlet uniforms, and mounted on greys. These were followed by Lancers, Cossacks, and a superb train of Horse Artillery ; the whole force being wound up by the Pontoon Train which I have mentioned.
After a halt for a few minutes the whole of the troops passed a second time before the Emperor, the infantry at double-quick, after which they marched off the ground, and the cavalry at a trot or hand-gallop. The review was to have concluded with a grand charge of cavalry, but this manoeuvre was countermanded in consequence of the number of accidents which had occurred at a sort of rehearsal a few days before, on which occasion fourteen officers got falls, and were more or less hurt;
and one of them, having been ridden over by a squadron, was so much injured as to render his recovery doubtful.*
The Emperor was highly pleased by this review, and a bounty was proclaimed to every soldier who had taken part in it of three roubles, three glasses of brandy, and three pounds of meat.
The immense plains in the south of Russia furnish most of the horses for the cavalry, which is exceedingly well mounted, and the horses of each corps beautifully matched. The price allowed for troopers does not exceed two or three hundred roubles per horse, but the commission to purchase them is given to officers of good fortune, who are glad to obtain leave of absence on this ground, and to purchase good horses ; making up out of their own pockets the difference between the Government allowance and the actual cost.
This review is the last act of the Petersburg season, as the Court will shortly be dispersed. The Empress starts in a few days for Germany, and the Emperor will soon follow her. The Grand Duchesses will spend the summer at Tzarsko Celo, or Peterhof, and the Heir-apparent will perform a foreign tour. In Easter-week M— had an interview at the palace with the Empress, who gave her, by appointment, a private audience, receiving her with great kindness and affability, and with a flattering recollection of former days at Berlin. A few days ago we both had the honour of a short conversation with Her Majesty, who met us casually in the Public Gardens, where she was walking with the Grand Duchess Mary. Recognizing M-, she stopped and accosted her, and she then addressed me in English, talking to us very graciously for a few minutes, until a small crowd of observers gathered near, when the Empress proceeded quietly on her walk.
* The Russian peasant drives his horse in a tilèga, but seldom rides him. Few Russian gentlemen ride for pleasure in private life, and many a cavalry officer never mounts a horse excepting in the riding-school or on duty. It would, therefore, hardly be expected that the Russian cavalry should as a body be first-rate horsemen, and this impression is quite correct as far as my observation goes. A civilian's opinion upon military matters is perhaps of little yalue, but most Englishmen have some eye for a good seat on a horse, and 'neither officer nor private here seems, as a rule, to possess it, if one may judge from seeing cavalry regiments march. The Cossacks, it must be owned, ride fearlessly and well.