« PreviousContinue »
hands upon his whitening head. A shudder of indescribable agony passed through his frame, as though it would have fallen to pieces where he knelt.
“Have I not kept my word, Ralph ?”
“Too well, Sara.” What a voice was that I mighty, buman anguish wresting sound from feeble human organs.
Her head drooped forward from its stay upon my arm. I bent after it, I strove against terror, grief, weakness. I succeeded yet an instant in holding her up. Then she spoke :
“ Blessed-are-the-merciful-for-they-shall—obtain—mercy !"
I raised the head from the folded hands, I laid it back upon the pillows. She was with the God of mercy !
A MODEL WOMAN. 6. That is my model woman!” we once heard a friend say, with striking emphasis. • Who ?” we inquired eagerly :-“ Madame Swetchine, do you mean?” and remembering that this lady was not many years ago, the centre of a very distinguished Parisian circle, and exercised extraordinary influence over minds of the highest order, themselves leaders of opinion, it struck us that one of her famous contemporaries had somewhere said, that when the Lord desires anything great to be done he puts it into the heart of a Frenchman to do it; and we said to ourselves : Here then is another example! Our model woman, must be sought, it would appear, with various types of surpassing excellence in the bosam of that other family of Celts! Proceeding to read attentively the life * of the lady so honour ably referred to, we soon became exceedingly interested, and shared to the full, our friend's enthusiastic opinion. Will our readers say we are right, as they kindly follow the much abridged account we are about to give of Madame Swetchine's remarkable career? We shall presently see. In one particular, however, we had been mistaken. The subject of our notice was not a native of France, she was a Russian by birth.
Madame Swetchine was born in Moscow, in the year 1782. Her father, M. Soymonof, descended from an ancient Muscovite family, held a high position in the administration of the empire, and her mother belonged to a race equally distinguished in literature and in arms. The redoubtable Catherine II. reigned over all the Russias, and Prince Potemkin ruled the Empress and the Empire, when little Sophie Soymonof saw the light in the national capital of that vast dominion. Yet in spite of her infatuation for the favourite of the hour, the Czarina was wise enough to appreciate the faithful service and excellent qualities of M. Soymonof, and he was soon after summoned to St. Petersburg to occupy a post of great trust, near the person of his sovereign. He was appointed private secretary to Catherine, and allowed apartments in the imperial palace. The duties of his office,
* Vie de Madame Swetchine, par le Cte, de Falloux, Paris, Didier et Ce.
and the assiduous care he bestowed on the education of his little daughter, of whom he was exceedingly fond, and with good reason very proud, fully occupied the grave, cultivated, and handsome courtier, during the few fol. lowing years. Sophie showed great aptitude for languages, excellent taste for music and drawing, and above all, early displayed a steady determina. tion of character, and a highly poetic and imaginative turn of mind. Cultivation was not wanting for the artistic side of her character. Her father's apartments were richly decorated with choice works of art. The court was given up to a continual succession of fêtes, barbaric and splendid. The fantastic and fairy-like nature of the extravagant displays, which the Empress and Potemkin vied with one another in producing, powerfully impressed the fresh imagination of the child. At seven years of age she composed a ballet, and danced, and sang all the scenes, to the intense delight of her father; and returning home one evening, he found, to his great amazement, the vast gallery leading to the reception rooms, lighted up by his enthusiastic little daughter with innumerable wax-tapers, in commemoration of the taking of the Bastille!
Nothing was neglected in the education of the gifted child, but the one thing necessary :-the knowledge of the divine law, by which man’s conduct should be ruled. At fourteen years of age, Sophie was, in the ordinary sense, singularly accomplished; but of religion she knew absolutely nothing but the pompous ceremonials of the imperial Greek chapel ; her only guide was the true instinct of her heart, and her safety lay in her extraordinary devotion to her father, and the almost parental care which she lavished on a little sister, ten years her junior. About this time died Catherine II. The eccentricities and disasters of Paul's reign began forthwith. When sixteen years of age, Sophie Soymenof was appointed maid of honour to his sorely-tried wife, the beautiful and truly excellent Empress Marie. In this court she gained valuable experience, learning in the companionship of her sovereign, the secret of hollow prosperity and silent tears. The young maid of honour soon became in society the object of eager and multiplied attentions. Though not beautiful, she was very graceful, sweet, and attractive. Her father knowing not what disasters might fall on their house, owing to the caprice and folly of Paul, was most anxious to secure for his daughter a safe position, and a husband who would ensure her protection whatever might happen. His choice fell on a personal friend of his own, General Swetchine, a distinguished soldier, and a fine-looking estimable man, at that time forty-two years of age. Sophie yielded to her father's wishes, with the affectionate deference she invariably showed him, and was particularly pleased that in marrying the general she could take her little sister to live with her. The good father was not long left to enjoy the happiness he had so much desired; an attack of apoplexy carried him off soon after the marriage of his daughter. Madame Swetchine was quite overpowered by the greatness of her loss. For the first time in her life she truly turned her heart to God. Her first great sorrow dictated her first prayer; and with her father's death a new epoch of the inner life began for her.
At the moment so heavy an affliction fell upon her, and the need of serious religious meditation was most sensibly felt, Madame Swetchine found herself the mistress of a great mansion, in the enjoyment of perfect independence, and surrounded by the unavoidable engagements certain to complicate the daily life of so attractive a member of society. French emigrants of the highest rank had, on the breaking out of the revolution, repaired to St. Petersburg, to meet the warmest welcome, and to partake of the lavish munificence of the eccentric Czar, and share the magnificent hospitality of the princes of the empire. A sumptuous establishment was placed at the service of the Prince de Condé; the Duc de Richelieu, and other noble royalists received confidential posts-in the empire; the Princesse de Tarente was named to-a place in the household of the empress, while the salons of St. Petersburg, especially those of General Swetchine, were constantly crowded with illustrious foreigners. Meanwhile, the unhappy Paul I. came to an untimely end. The Grand Duke Alexander, carried on the shoulders of the soldiers to the cathedral in the dead of night, was amid the sombre glare of torches proclaimed in his stead. General Swetchine, no longer occupying the responsible military position assigned to him by the late emperor, continued, nevertheless, to reside in the capital; while his wife, in the midst of ber social engagements, and the distractions inseparable from ber high position, continued the habits of serious study and grave intellectual occupation which she had early acquired. To these her friend
. ship with the famous and estimable Comte de Maistre gave a new and still more valuable direction. The increasing earnestness of ber religious convictions, no doubt, received a sensible impetus from the companionship of the solidly orthodox author of the Soirées de Sainte Pétersbourg,. wbile at the same time, the light of faith was constantly nourished by the abounding spirit of charity in word and work, which, at this period, as in all other epochs of her life, distinguished this admirable woman.
Madame Swetchine's patriotism was thoroughly aroused by Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and she shared in full the enthusiasm excited in the minds of his subjects by the young Czar's military courage and pater. nal rule. A society was organised, under the patronage of the Empress Elizabeth, for the relief of the suffering caused by. the burning of Moscow, and Madame Swetchine was at once elected president. We must pass over the record of her friendship of many years with Malle. Roxandre Stourdza, afterwards Contesse Edling, maid of honour to the empress, of which an interesting and touching record survives in many carefully-preserved letters of Madame Swetchine. Neither can we refer to Madame Krudener, who occupied such a remarkable position in the councils of the ardent young emperor about this time,. nor pause to describe the edifying death of the Princesse de Tarente just as she was about to return from hér long exile. The example of the French emigrants, and her close intercourse with them, powerfully influenced Madame Swetchine, and helped to lead from the errors of the Greek schismatic communion into the bosom of the orthodox Roman Church. The time was now come when she resolved, by a course of profound study, to put an end to her doubts. She retired from
St. Petersburg to a country seat, pleasantly situated on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, taking with her Nadine, her adopted daughter, and a select library of theological works. The Comte de Maistre, who was in the secret, did not approve of this method of seeking truth, which appeared to him to savour too much of intellectual pride, and to suppose an exhausting strain of brain labour. However, as the sequel proved, Madame Swetchine was right in trusting to her instinct; or rather to the grace that led her by this difficult road to conviction. During the short days and the interminable nights of the Russian autumn and winter, a course of the severest study was pursued, earnest prayer was mingled with deep meditation, and the result was the gift of a faith which was never afterwards to be darkened with the faintest shadow of doubt.
Alexander returned to his dominions on the conclusion of the war, after a long absence in France and Germany. The Jesuits, who, since the banishment of the order from other European states, had been protected, and even in a certain measure patronised by preceding sovereigns of Russia, had had much to suffer lately from the prejudices and jealousy of the native clergy and educational bodies ;: and when the emperor came back, he found the society an object of national suspicion, their motives misinterpreted, and their actions closely scanned. Catholics, in fact, were for the time in more than ordinary disfavour. Under these circumstances, Madame Swetchine thought it due to those who were dear to her to avoid a public declaration of her change of faith, and she thought she would be obliged to maintain for a considerable time this painful sort of mystery. However, no sooner had the emperor, under the pernicious influence of evil councillors, issued an ukase, banishing the Jesuits from his dominions, than Madame Swetchine, whose love of justice revolted against such a proceeding, and whose sense of honour and feelings of sympathy with the much suffering society impelled her to avowed adherence to the persecuted religion, openly declared herself a Catholic. Not long after, when General Swetchine asked permission to visit Europe, the emperor consented, but expressed his regret at their departure to Madame Swetchine, and asked her to write to him during their travels. This was the commencement of a correspondence which lasted till the death of Alexander..
General Swetchine and his estimable wife arrived in Paris in the winter of 1816, she being at that time thirty-four years of age A warm welcome was accorded to her by many, now in high official position, whom she had known as exiles at an earlier date, and many new, and dear, and lasting friendships were formed with illustrious men and admirable women, to whom she was now for the first time introduced. M. de Maistre, in a letter to the Vicomte de Bonald, said that he would find in her the rarest combination of moral worth, intellectual endowments, great cultivation, and exceeding goodness. The Vicomte de Bonald replied, that his friend was worthy of him; adding: “She has one of the finest minds I have ever met; the effect or cause of a heart as richly endowed with noble qualities as any mortal could possess.” During the six months of this her first residence in Paris, Madame Swetchine enjoyed the intimacy of such men as the Baron va
Humbolt, the Comte Pozzo di Borgo, Châteaubriand, Cuvier, Abel Rémusat, and a host of others equally distinguished. The Duchesse de Duras became, from the first, one of her most valued and faithful friends. It was at the house of the latter that she first met Madame de Staël. The duchesse had invited a very select party to dinner, that the acquaintance might be made with ease. Madame Swetchine, however, who was always reserved in manner, was silent nearly all the time of the repast. After dinner, Madame de Staël, advancing to Madame Swetchine, thus addressed her :“ They told me, madame, that you were anxious to make my acquaintance ; but, probably, they were quite mistaken!” “Oh, certainly not, madame," was the answer; “ but, you know, it is always the sovereign who speaks first.”
After an interval passed in Russia arranging their affairs, Madame Swetchine and the general permanently fixed their abode in Paris, in 1818. No doubt, among all the attractions which led this remarkable woman to establish her home in France, the most powerful was the freedom, the dignity, and the charity of the Catholic Church. For the first time she was able to contemplate religion in all the greatness of its works and institu. tions; for the first time she came in contact with minds penetrated with its spirit, and felt that among them ber own was fully understood. The circle of Madame Swetchine's friends and admirers widened to admit all that was distinguished and excellent in Parisian society, and the, salon of the Russian traveller became transformed into the most attractive centre of that world of intelligence and worth. A journey through Italy, though undertaken from necessity, was a source of great enjoyment, and an opportunity of still more extended culture to Madame Swetchine. From Rome, especially, her letters are picturesque and interesting. The force and elegance of her style are, indeed, strikingly conspicuous in the notes and letters which illustrate this Italian tour.
Once more in Paris, Madame Swetchine arranged a permanent establishment in the Rue St. Dominique. The apartments she occupied looked out on green plots, gardens, and fine trees. From Russia had been brought some of the choicest works of art collected by her father, and with them she decorated her principal salon and an adjoining room, which had been transformed from a bed-room into a library. She slept in a little iron camp bed, stowed away into a back closet during the day, and brought at night, for the very short interval of repose she enjoyed, into the library or salon. The rooms occupied by the general were spacious, and arranged with every attention to his comfort and convenience. Such was the simple and elegant home that proved so singularly attractive to the most eminent members of the religious, literary, diplomatic, and fashionable worlds. Persons who never met elsewhere grouped themselves instinctively round one in whose inexhaustible goodness each was sure to find sympathy, help, or strength. Madame Swetchine's
was, in a remarkable degree, a well balanced nature : at once enthusiastic and sensible, gifted with strong reason and vivid imagination, masculine vigour of intelligence, and truly feminine softness of heart. Selfforgetting to a singular
degree, humility was in her a virtue neither studiep