Pushkin by Pushkin: Cloud 1
The Pushkin family tree. Six hundred years of nobility. Or monkeys hanging from it.
Naturally I’m not too proud that a Pushkin was amongst the savage nobles that put the Romanovs in power. It didn’t do the family much good. The new Czar, Ivan the Terrible, not wanting troublemakers around, rewarded the Pushkins with prison and poison.
It took the family some time to recover. The first Pushkin’s grandson took a potshot at Ivan’s grandson, Peter the Great, with a cross-bow, and had his head chopped off.
Of course he missed. A family trait, sadly. We tend to aim accurately enough, but the target moves.
The cross-bow incident drove the Pushkins into domestic crime. A terrible comedown. For example, the beheaded Pushkin’s son knifed his pregnant wife in the belly and ended up in a madhouse. His brother threw his spouse in a dungeon and hanged the family tutor on the bars outside.
My mother’s side of the family came from darkest Africa. Great Grandfather Hannibal is no stranger to readers of my story ‘The Czar’s Negro’. Peter the Great brought him back from Abyssinia. A slave. Once the ‘cannibal’ was broken in he was renamed Hannibal, and given his freedom and the run of the Court. Hannibal was one of nature’s gentleman who, nevertheless, mastered the arts and sciences. A veritable Othello in love and war, he died at a great age, loaded down with honours, three wives (the first was his Desdemona) and three volumes of memoirs in French (alas, lost).
How his great granddaughter married a Pushkin is beyond me. Speculation is that it was a shotgun affair: Sergi Pushkin pointed a gun at her and she was too scared or polite to move. Most certainly in society terms Sergi married her. My mother had some property, and the Pushkins were regarded as bounty-hunters. But who knows. Neither were particularly happy or unhappy.
Fat and sluggish. My wet-nurse had sugar in her blood. What’s more, my features strongly reminded my mother of the dark side of the family. A regular little pickaninny: crinkly hair, pug nose, poppy eyes, lozenge lips, not to mention a dusky complexion which augured ill in fashionable St Petersburg where pallor was all.
Still I was something of a chosen child. Czar Alexander, bless him, picked me out from the crowd on a Mayday parade. Kings and politicians are all the same. They can’t resist chubby cheeks orbed in a baby-bonnet. The Czar made his courtiers take down my name as a future page at Court. My family had great hopes for me. I was indulged by all with sweetmeats, and soon grew so obese that all I could do was wallow in the quagmire grunting and snoring while my parents dreamed.
Education Under The Table
My reign as the great (not so white) hope of the family fortunes did not last long. The downfall began when my mother, in preparation for life at Court, started teaching me French. I resisted the irregular verbs by throwing myself on the ground and kicking my feet in the air. She stuck pins in my plump bottom. Governesses and gruel followed. I lost my baby-fat, and became precocious.
Spicy novels left lying around by careless governesses, apart from improving my French, gave me ideas. I became the scourge of the servant quarters in search of low life in the raw. From under the table at my mother’s cultural At Homes I scampered between the legs of lady novelists, and disturbed the conversation by jabbering rude parodies of nursery rhymes. The consternation I took for admiration. My mother’s pin sticking afterwards was, I believed, pure jealousy.
Governesses were replaced by tutors, who were given a free hand with the whip. They came and went, poor fellows. I thwarted their professional sadism by getting through my lessons by the skin of my teeth, always my best feature. All left with bite-marks, and short-changed by my parents. Puskins don’t pay up. A French aristocrat on the run from the Terror, happy with bed and board, was found. Count Marcel got the message and left me to myself. The library was my main scavenging base. I was not so much a book worm as a book lizard, darting along the backs of the shelves and picking out hidden Ovids and other frivolities.
The new Czar honoured his brother’s promise, and at eleven I entered the boarding school for prospective pages. I settled in with a vengeance. School was just an extension of the kitchen and the library, only with victims of a more malleable size to deal with. I was in my element. In the dorms after lights out I recited bawdy doggerel, and gave bravado accounts of brothel excursions. My schoolmates were more frightened than amused. Though I should say, the verse was mostly cribbed from gentleman’s magazines found amongst my father’s papers, and my boudoir experience was limited to antics in the attics of screaming servant girls. Teachers found me a better classroom ventriloquist than Virgil scholar, but I escaped the force of their beatings by enjoying them. My wink to the boys as the stick came down maddened them even more.
My reputation as a wag and a card went beyond the school. Coevals in the town came to know my name. This stood me in good stead in future years. But my future as a Court page was less than assured. And I left before I was thrown out, and became a manikin about town.
I had no money but, coming from minor gentry, had free-loading rights in both fashionable and artistic circles. I was indulged as a poet manqué, an amusing fellow, two inches shorter than John Keats, but livelier on my feet than Lord Byron.
I cut a small dash. Flat nose, full mouth and, yes, excellent teeth. If not the perfect gentleman, the next best thing - the perfect idiot.
Mothers of debutante daughters did not feel threatened by me. I flirted shamelessly with all the old trouts, presenting myself as a connoisseur of fading charms. I soon became their little pet monkey, a dedicated purveyor of choice tittle-tattle. In return I could be trusted as their precious daughters’ dancing foil, or an extra hand at cards.
I made everybody laugh: dukes, dowagers, daughters and their serious suitors. ‘What a fellow!’. ‘My young friend’. ‘Dear chappie, could you pass this note to Natasha P, and don’t let her mother see it.’ Titter, titter! Pitter, patter! God, it was awful. At the theatre my ludicrous remarks from the stalls brought down the gallery. ‘Better than the play’, they would say. Still.
Years later one of my old dears observed in her memoirs that watching me pavane a sedate figure with her daughter she could see I was trembling and sweating with barely concealed lust. I never knew my feelings showed. I thought I was an igloo with a fire burning inside. If I had only known I could be seen as dangerous I would have taken advantage of it. But I played safe and silly, and flirted with politics.
All the young bucks at the time went to banquets in exclusive political clubs. They were lightly subversive. If you attended school with the bastards of Czar Nicholas you could afford to be ribald about him. I was so reckless, striving for the most outrageous jibe, that serious radicals avoided me. They were right. Although never a spy, I was careless with names in conversation. As a political animal I was never broken in.
But I learned something. Russia is no joke, but it has to be made into one to bear the seriousness, and keep one's beautiful temperament intact. However, if serious consequences are to be avoided, the joke must be seen to be merely amusing. The simplest way to do that is to make yourself a joke.
My predominant passion was feet. I really believed that moral character and aesthetic worth is expressed most subtly and accurately in the pedicle extremities. I was an extremist. I made a special study of them, not only in the street, cafes, ballrooms and Russian Baths, but in the Art Galleries of Moscow and St Petersburg, both private and Court. The Old Masters rarely left the painting of the feet to an assistant. The hands perhaps, even the face sometimes, but hardly ever the feet. In fact, Perugino with his Madonnas on several occasions painted the feet only. The rest he left to his studio lackeys. Save the foot-cushion if the feet were in repose. Christ’s feet washed by Mary Magdalene is his masterpiece. He knew what was important, where we touch the ground. The palms of the feet, the curlicues of the toes, the hearts of the ankles were his map of the world.
My political philandering interested the secret police. It was reciprocated. I was interested in secrets. And the police are interested in people who are interested in secrets. When tipped off by a friend that my arrest was imminent, I burned all my manuscripts. I couldn’t bare for anyone to look through my scribbles. It was a foolish act. The police saw the embers in the fireplace and assumed I had something to hide. So I offered to write out my manuscripts again for the Chief-of-Police. ‘Where you’re going’, he said, ‘you’ll have plenty of time on your hands’.
It was an opportunity not to be missed. My writing would get a close reading,
and possibly catch the eye of the Czar. I threw myself into it. Rolling out reams of rhyme on jail paper in best jail ink. Just when I was getting into my stride the warden claimed my notebooks for the authorities. The response was disappointing. I was promptly released.
But I was famous when I got out. My friend and idiot, F. Tolstoy, known as the Yank, sought to elicit sympathy for my cause by spreading the rumour that I was being flogged unmercifully in jail. He described the supposed beatings in loving detail. The ladies were moved (the men probably quite pleased). But when I turned up in drawing rooms again without a scratch the politicos were suspicious, and the ladies disappointed (they had expected at the very least a bloody bandage on my head).
The Yank to save face rumoured my scars were in unmentionable places. I was furious. I considered challenging him to a duel. I visited a fortune teller who told me beware of tall and fair-haired men. As the Yank was dark and squat I decided the challenge would be cowardly, akin to premeditated murder. I told everybody this.
I was avenged by default but, also, forewarned. My honour wouldn’t be so easily saved again. I took to the shooting range. I have the Yank to thank when five years later I was emboldened to challenge a tall and fair-haired man. But I mustn’t jump the gun.