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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Line

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great, her ivory-white silk gown billowing out behind her, sat at her desk transcribing a document regarding the annual pension her lover, Count Orlov, was supposed to receive. She felt languid after writing for hours in what seemed like a state of suspended animation. She yawned loudly, stood up, and walked around for a bit. She stepped into a vast, rectangular hall adjacent to her office. It was full of gilded carvings and stucco statues of military leaders, all of whom she admired and looked up to in her own haughty way.

The Empress walked out onto the loggia and inhaled the keen wind. Through it, she detected vestiges of rotting corpses and the unflagging pluck the Russians were showing in the Russo-Turkish war still raging to the South. Though she knew every inch of the palace like the back of her hand, and cherished it like a devout nun – her own personal consecrated ground, as it were – this sudden onset of listlessness seemed to augur grave repercussions: maybe the loss of the war, the loss of her sanity, maybe her whole empire.

She sighed deeply. She was troubled by the gung-ho, no-holds-barred approach her war councilors and political ministers had favored during their most recent conference. Would a sudden sally against Constantinople secure Russia’s victory and end the war once and for all, or would it in the long term cause England and France to double-cross Russia and join forces with the Ottoman Empire, once the latter recoup their losses? In fifty, or seventy years' time, the boot might be on the other foot. Russia could be in ruins. Catherine shook her head, dreading the possibility.

Pozhin, her faithful liveried servant, interrupted her brooding fantasy. “A man to see you, Your Imperial Majesty. Says it’s urgent.”

“Tell him to be admitted into the Great Hall. And do not bother with the hors d'oeuvres.”

A moment later, the man in question stood before the Empress – a raggedy, black-cloaked creature. He looked more like a living skeleton than a man. “What is it that you want?” the Empress demanded brusquely.

“It has been brought to my attention that the Ottomans are planning to imprison the Russian Ambassador, Yakov Bulgakov. Bulgakov is a pawn, but if we can use that pawn to our advantage, Russia will almost certainly win the war,” Bulgakov said, his voice soft and velvety.

The absence of the customary Your Imperial Majesty, combined with the man’s presumptuousness, intrigued the Empress.

“You are not supposed to know that,” Catherine replied. “A man like you – a lowly peasant, by the looks of it – is usually illiterate, pious, and avoids secular matters altogether.”

“I may look like a peasant, but I am experienced enough in martial matters to counsel even you.”

A visible look of distrust and umbrage spread across the Empress’s face, but the man seemed unfazed. She was tempted to have him killed on the spot for speaking to her like this.

“I was born 900 years ago,” the man continued. “I was present at the first Russian invasion of Constantinople; I witnessed Ivan IV’s fatal blow to his son; I was at the deathbed of Peter I. I swear by all that is blessed that this is the truth.”

The man’s enigmatic yet absurd conviction that he could help Catherine, coupled with his claim of biblical longevity, stirred all sorts of emotions in her. She was tempted to place her utmost confidence in this man – he might be a prophet, after all, she thought – but something told her he was disingenuous, an impostor. She turned away from the man. She felt she was about to swoon. She called for Pozhin, who advised her to unwind. She ordered her guards to escort the mysterious visitor to one of the numerous guest bedrooms in her palace. Not an hour had passed when Pozhin entered Catherine’s private chambers, just as she was on the verge of dozing off.

Pozhin apologized for disturbing her.

“The man who came to speak to you today turned out to be a mole for the Ottomans, Your Imperial Majesty,” he reported solemnly. “He was planning to assassinate you, and he probably would’ve, had he not overlooked one important fact: one of the tapestries in the Great Hall contains a tiny incision. I stumbled upon it the last time I dusted all of the tapestries, but I decided not to tell you then. I saw everything.”

“Where is he now?” asked Catherine groggily.

“In the belly of your greyhounds.”

Catherine felt as though a pall had been lifted from her. “You have done well, Pozhin. Very well indeed.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“Just one question – how did you know he was a mole?”

“Not at first, I did not know whether he was a mole or not, Your Imperial Majesty. But the incision in the tapestry happened to be angled such that I saw mostly the man’s back when he was addressing you. Well, as I was watching you two, I noticed something odd about the man’s apparel – he was cloaked in the front, to be sure, but he had omitted to cover up his calves. Well, my eyes are not quite as healthy as they used to be – old age and all that – but I believe I can recognize a tattoo of the Turkish standard when I see one, and this man had one of those just above his boots. That about sums it up, I suppose.”

Catherine laughed bitterly. “Yes, that does sum it up. A shame he was a fake. I could’ve used 900 years' worth of wisdom.”

Written by George Line.

Cover photo by Ivan Argunov published in Janina Ruszczycówna (1954). Galeria Malarstwa Rosyjskiego. Sztuka, Pic. III, cat. no. 5.


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