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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFred Markham In Russia - Chapter 3
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Fred Markham In Russia - Chapter 3 Post by :Gregrey Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3015

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Fred Markham In Russia - Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE

Distant View of Saint Petersburg--How it is built--Enter the City of the Czar--Its Appearance at First Sight--Mount a Drosky--The Travellers reach their Hotel--Outline Sketch of Saint Petersburg--A Tour round the City--Its Palaces and Public Buildings.


"There it is! There it is! There's the city--Saint Petersburg itself!" exclaimed the young travellers, as, directly ahead, appeared rising out of the water a line of golden domes, and tall spires and towers, glittering brightly in the sun, like some magic city of ancient romance. Conspicuous above all was the superb pile of the Isaac Church, the most modern sacred edifice in the city, and by far the finest; and near it was seen the graceful tower of the Admiralty, tapering up like a golden needle into the blue sky. Soon other buildings--hospitals, and palaces, and houses, and towers, either not so lofty or farther off--rose to view; but no land could be discovered on which their bases might rest. This vast city, they learned, was built by the imperial will of Peter the Great on a marsh, he hoping to make it a great maritime port. Every house in it stands on a platform of piles, driven far down into the soft ground. Before a building can be erected, it is necessary thus to prepare its foundations, often at an enormous expense.

The shores of the lake-like expanse along which they were steering were covered with woods, from among which peeped the gilt domes of the Imperial Palace of Peterhoff, and many other golden cupolas and spires, and marble-white towers, and walls of churches and monasteries, and palaces and villas, and also some stables, larger than any other edifice in the neighbourhood, belonging to the Grand Duke Michael. On a hill above them, a little distance to the west, appeared the unpretending villa of the late Emperor. It is exactly like a second-class country house. Here he used to delight to retire with his family from the cares of state, and to throw aside completely all imperial grandeur.

"Ah! Notwithstanding his overpowering ambition, his towering pride and haughtiness, that villa alone shows that he was a man after all," observed a fellow-passenger to Cousin Giles.

The head of the gulf narrowed a little, but very little, as they advanced. A few buildings now appeared ahead, and their friend was pointing out to the young travellers the walls of some barracks burnt long ago, and the ancient galley mole which sheltered the Russian galleys in the war with the Swedes, when on a sudden they found themselves among vast warehouses and manufactories, and tanneries and granaries, and the magnificent foundry and private residence of Baron Baird, who is by birth and education an Englishman. All the buildings are on the banks of the Neva, close to its very mouth. The steamer making several sharp turns among crowds of steamers and shipping of all sorts, they speedily found themselves in a region of colleges, and palaces, and churches, and other public buildings, the houses, which anywhere else would be palaces, each vying with the other in size and magnificence, and forming a vast street, the clear, rapid Neva flowing down the centre, with superb granite quays on each side of it. Nowhere in the world is there a finer street, though the height of the houses is lost from its great expanse. Along the line on either side arise marble columns and golden spires and domes innumerable, the two sides being connected by one bridge of iron--massive it must be to stand the ice-- and several bridges of boats, which can be removed at the approach of winter; while in the centre of the stream were men-of-war and other steamers, and numerous vessels which had brought articles for the Saint Petersburg market. On the right side was the English quay, with a handsome building at one end, used as an English hotel. Farther on was the English church; and extending far away beyond it was palace after palace, many in the Italian style, the mighty pile of the Winter Palace being conspicuous above all, though in the far distance; and yet numberless other proud edifices were to be seen reaching to the same distance from it on one side as they do on the other. The travellers had little time to observe these wonders before the steamer brought up at a floating white and gold temple-looking building mooted at a granite quay. Elegant as it looked, it was only the custom-house examining shed. Under a graceful arch, which united a little office on either side, the luggage was arranged, and bearded heroes in military costume dipped their hands amid the clean linen and clothes. Their behaviour, however, was civil; and, having taken possession of all the books they found, with the exception of Bibles, which they gave back, they made a sign that the boxes might be closed. The luggage was then turned out through a gateway into the clean wide road, where there stood, as eager and vociferous as any Irish carmen, ready to seize on it, a number of drosky drivers. There are two sorts of hack droskies in Saint Petersburg. One is somewhat like a small phaeton with wide wings; the other has what Cousin Giles called a fore-and-aft seat, on which people sit with their legs astraddle, the driver sitting perched on the end of it. The horses, which are harnessed with ropes in shafts, are wiry, shaggy-looking animals, and have high wooden bows arched over their heads, with the idea of keeping them from stumbling. The drivers are no less strange to English eyes than their vehicles. They are long-bearded, shaggy-haired, keen-eyed men, with low-crowned, broad-curling brimmed hats, wider at the top than at the head. They wear long blue cloth coats, crossed at the breast, and fastened round the waist with a red cotton sash. Their wide trousers are tucked into high boots, and at their back hangs a square brass plate with their number on it, serving the purpose of the London cabman's badge. They are, indeed, under very similar regulations.

Cousin Giles chartered three of these vehicles to carry themselves and their luggage, and the lads laughed heartily as they found themselves seated astride on one of them, rattling along the quays and over the bridge to the English hotel, among hundreds of similar vehicles and long-coated, bearded people, who looked as if they did not think there was anything strange in the matter at all.

The Miss Bensons, the kind-hearted landladies of the hotel, could just manage to accommodate the travellers; and they soon found themselves lodged in very clean rooms, and as comfortable as at any hotel in England. After the fresh sea air they found the heat very great, and the houses felt like stoves; indeed, they heard that the weather had been excessively hot for some days. They, however, had come up with a fresh breeze, which increased almost to a gale, and effectually cooled the air.

Cousin Giles was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet; so, as soon as dinner was over, he and his young companions sauntered out to take in, as he said, as much of Saint Petersburg as they could that evening. Just above the city the Neva divides itself into several branches, which form a number of marshy islands, on which islands Saint Petersburg is built. The streets have been laid out to accommodate themselves somewhat to the turnings of the river; so that they are not at right angles to each other, as might have been expected, though as much regularity as possible has been observed. The most central spot is the Admiralty Square, a vast, irregular, open space, with the river on one side of it; and near the river stands, on a vast block of granite, a colossal equestrian statue of Peter the Great, with his arm stretched out in an attitude of command. Forming the different sides of this vast open space are some of the finest public buildings in the city: the Admiralty with its golden spire, the beautiful Isaac Church with its superb granite columns, the Winter Palace with its long rows of richly ornamented windows, the War Office, the Senate House, and many others. At one end, with a crescent of fine buildings before it, which contain the War Office, stands a lofty column of polished granite, consisting only of two blocks of stone, it is said. It is called the Alexander Column, and is dedicated to him as "the Restorer of Peace to the World." He is so called by the Russians in consequence of the part he took in the overthrow of Napoleon. On its summit stands a green bronze statue of the Archangel Michael, holding the cross of peace in his hand. From the space before the Admiralty radiate off the three longest and widest streets in that city of wide and long streets. The centre one and longest is called the Nevkoi Prospekt, or the Neva Perspective. The names of other two may be translated Resurrection Perspective and Peas Street. The larger streets in the city are called Perspectives. Even the cross streets in Saint Petersburg are mostly wider than Bond Street, and often as wide and long as Regent Street. Many canals intersect the city, and enable bulky goods to be brought to within a short distance of all the houses by water; so that heavily-laden waggons are never seen ploughing their way through the streets, as in most cities. There are no narrow lanes or blind alleys either, the abode of poverty and pestilence, within the precincts of the palaces of the wealthy and great. Here, truly, poverty and rags are removed out of sight; but still they do not cease to dwell in the land. While our young travellers were standing looking at the Alexander Column, their fellow-voyager, Mr Henshaw, joined them. As he had been much in all parts of Russia, he was able to give them a great deal of interesting information.

"I would advise you first to get a general view of the city, and then study details," said he. "Get a knowledge of the plan of the city, and the mode in which it is constructed; then examine the outside of the more important buildings; and, lastly, visit their interiors when they contain anything worth seeing. The first thing you should do to-morrow morning is to ascend the Admiralty tower; the scene from thence, as you look down into the streets, teeming with their countless multitudes, is very interesting, while you will also obtain a perfect bird's-eye view of the whole city and surrounding land and water. We will now, if you please, take a stroll along the quay beyond the Winter Palace. There are many objects in that direction worth remarking."

Cousin Giles gladly assented to the proposal, and, returning to the river, they continued eastward along its banks, passing the front of the Winter Palace. Near to it they stopped to look at a magnificent pile, called the Hermitage, which is about as unlike the residence of a dweller in the wilderness as anything in nature can well be. Mr Henshaw promised them a sight of the interior another day, and told them it contained some of the most magnificent rooms in the world, and was full of fine pictures, rich articles of _vertu_, and numberless valuable curiosities.

"It was called the Hermitage by the Empress Catherine," said he, "because she, purposed to retire thither from the cares of state--not, however, to live the life of an anchorite, but to revel in that indulgence of all the objects of sense to which her inclinations prompted her."

"But come along," said Cousin Giles; "we agreed not to spend our time on details till we had mastered the geography of the city."

So they continued their walk along the quays. Next to the Hermitage, and joined to it by a passage over an arch which spans a canal,--like the Bridge of Sighs at Venice, only smaller,--they passed the Imperial Theatre, and then a succession of fine residences of nobles and private persons, and lastly the Marble Palace of the Grand Duke Michael. It is so called not because it is built of marble, but because it has marble pillars. Across a street, on the same line, stands a fine pile, which looks like another palace, but in reality contains only the stables and offices, residences of servants, etcetera, belonging to the Marble Palace. Among the palaces they passed was a huge white one, with a very ugly portico.

"That," said Mr Henshaw, "was presented by the Emperor Alexander to the Duke of Wellington, when he became a Russian field-marshal, that he might have a house to inhabit should he ever visit Russia. On his death it reverted to the Russian Government. Opposite to this row of palaces the Neva is very wide. A branch of it runs away in a more northerly direction, forming an island which has been covered with fortifications, and is called the citadel. In the centre stands a church with a lofty golden pinnacle. Beneath it lie buried the Russian Czars. Here is also a cottage, built by Peter the Great, where he used to reside while watching the progress of his navy and the uprearing of the now mighty city, called after his patron saint."

"From a history I have been reading, I find that Peter was not nearly so great a man as I fancied," observed Fred.

"Hush! Hush! That is treason here," answered Cousin Giles. "To his valet he certainly was not great, as Carlyle would say, though he was a very uncommon man. But we should not judge of people by what they appear, or even by what they are doing, so much as by the results produced by their doings. Now Peter contrived, certainly by no very romantic or refined means, to produce a great number of very wonderful results. He caused this great city to be erected, he built a large navy, he taught people to navigate it who had scarcely before seen a vessel bigger than a Finnish schooner, and he contributed to imbue a population sunk in barbarism with a desire to assimilate to the civilised nations of Europe, while he introduced many arts and sciences before unknown into his country. Considering his powers and the little support he could obtain from his countrymen, I must say I think he worked wonders. He was, therefore, certainly what the world calls a great man, though he had great faults, and many littlenesses and contemptibilities. I acknowledge, also, that many far greater men have lived, and are at present alive, and that there will be many more."

"You have defended Peter, and I think on the only grounds on which he can be defended," said Mr Henshaw; "his private character will not for a moment bear discussion."

"Certainly not," answered Cousin Giles; "remember, Fred, and Harry also, that I do not say that he ought properly to be called great, if he is to be judged by the law of Scripture, nor do I wish you to consider him so. Who is there, indeed, who can be so called? But he was great according to the received maxims of the world, by which maxims other men with as little desert have received the same title."

"Before we return, I must take you to the Summer Gardens, where you see the trees beyond the Marble Palace," said Mr Henshaw. "I wish to show you the statue of Kryloff, the Russian Aesop, as he is called."

The Summer Gardens are surrounded by an iron railing, and contain long rows of fine trees, and gravel walks, and seats, and statues, generally of a very antique form and taste, happily now exploded, with heathen deities' hideous faces, such as are to be seen in old prints. In the centre of a small open space, surrounded by trees, stands the statue of Kryloff, a fine, bronze, Johnsonian-looking, sitting figure, much larger than life, with a book and pencil in his hand. The pedestal on which he is placed has on each side figures of animals, in deep relief, illustrating his fables. There is the stork and the wolf, and there are bears and apes, and cats and dogs playing violins and violoncellos and other musical instruments. Several mujicks (peasants) were gazing at the figures with intense interest, apparently entering fully into the spirit of the artist.

On their return along the quays, they stopped to look at the long bridges of boats which cross the Neva in the summer. A portion of each can be removed to allow vessels to pass up or down the stream; but by a police regulation this can be only done with one bridge at a time, and at a certain fixed hour of the day, so that the traffic across the river receives no very material interruption. Near the end of one of them, on the opposite side of the river, they observed a handsome edifice with a fine portico before it, and two granite columns, ornamented with galleys carved in white stone. This building they found was the Exchange. Farther westward of it they observed other magnificent buildings, which they learned were the Corps of Cadets,--the name is applied to the building itself,--the Academy of Sciences, the University, the Academy of Arts, and several others,--all covering a vast extent of ground nearer the mouth of the river. By the time they reached their hotel they were tolerably tired, and, to their surprise, they found that it was nearly ten o'clock. Even then there was a bright twilight, though it was too dark to enable them to distinguish more than the grand outlines of the city.

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