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Thursday, 30 October 2008

Excerpt from "Most Beautiful Princess"

As the train drew into Varshavskiy Station, Konstantin Konstantinovich gazed through the steam in awe. The deafening cheer of the crowd almost drowned out the welcome of the military band as Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine stepped from the carriage and, shyly holding her father’s arm, floated like an apparition of light across the platform. Whether dazzled by the glare of the sunlight on the swords and medals of the Imperial Guard, or overwhelmed by the radiance of her features, Konstantin could hardly tell but, raising his hand to shield his eyes, he murmured, “My God, Serge! She is…”
“Now, you believe me, Kostia,” Serge smiled, his grey eyes shining with pride. “The most beautiful princess in Europe.”
Smiling timidly, she moved towards the waiting dignitaries and, with the grace of a dancer, curtseyed before the imposing figure of Alexander III, Tsar of all the Russias. Huge, bearded and slightly balding, his firm features softened to a welcoming smile.
“Your Highness, we are honoured to welcome you to Russia!”
The formality complete, he took both her hands in his and laughed loudly, “Ella, we’re delighted to see you! My brother’s a fortunate man.”
“No, Sasha,” she said softly, “I am the fortunate one.”
He turned and gesticulated, “Come on, Serge, welcome your bride!”
Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, tall and erect in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, strode across the platform and, though his smile was as nervous as hers, the flicker of his lips revealed his pride in the impression she had made on the crowd. He greeted her with a brief, courteous embrace and, with one hand clutching the hilt of his sword, formally introduced her to the rest of the family.
“Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Marie Feodorovna.”
Konstantin’s eyes followed her every step of the way and, as the beautiful and bejewelled Empress embraced her warmly, he couldn’t help but think that until now he had never seen any woman whose radiance could compete with Marie Feodorovna’s sparkle and vivacity.
“His Imperial Highness, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. His Imperial Highness, Grand Duke…”
The nearer she came, the more clearly Konstantin observed the perfect symmetry of her features: her blue, naïve eyes, her soft, tender smile, the faint blush on her fair complexion. It seemed that every line, every curve had been sculptured by some divine hand intent on bringing beauty into creation.
“His Imperial Highness, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich.”
He bowed and his lips brushed her fingers, “Your Highness, we had heard that we were to welcome the most beautiful princess in Europe but, as you can see from the adulation of the crowd, your beauty far exceeds our expectations.”
She smiled coyly and Serge, laughing, slapped him heartily on the back, “Ella, you must make allowance for my cousin. He’s an aesthete and a poet, constantly overwhelmed in the presence of beauty.”
Her eyes widened with interest, “A poet?”
“A very poor one, I’m afraid,” Konstantin said. “My words seldom capture what my heart really feels or my eyes truly see.”
She smiled pensively, “Sometimes we feel things so deeply and cannot find words to express them. For that we’re grateful to the poets who express them for us.”
Serge mused for a moment, gazing at her with a wonder that Konstantin had never seen in his eyes before.
“I trust,” Konstantin said, “that you will be very happy in Russia.”
“I’m sure, I shall.”
Serge guided her further along the line and when she had faded into the distance like the amber glow of the fading beams at sunset, Konstantin turned to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich.
“Well, Sandro, I have to admit I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. In spite of all the descriptions, I never believed that a German princess could be so beautiful. Of course, she’s half-English but even so I…”
“Damn it, Kostia!” Sandro turned abruptly, stamping like an angry child against the platform, “How can they let this happen?”
Konstantin shook his head, confused as much by the vehemence of his tone, as the question.
“How can they let her marry him? Didn’t you see the way he looked at her with that haughty expression, showing her off like some prize trophy?”
“Wouldn’t you be proud if she were your bride?”
“Yes, I’d be proud but not in the way that he is!”
Konstantin laughed, “There are different forms of pride?”
“I would be proud to serve her, love her, take care of her. But him? He’s proud like a Philistine with a work of art, proud to possess it as a show of his wealth with no idea of its value or beauty.”
“You don’t think Serge appreciates her beauty? You don’t think he knows what a treasure he has found?”
“Oh yes, he knows but he values her like a miser values his money. You must have seen how his hand rested on her shoulder? That wasn’t love or passion, Kostia. That was possession. That’s all she is to him - a possession. Something he owns and can show off to the boys in his precious regiment!”
Konstantin looked up at the sky in sham contemplation, “How old are you, Sandro? Sixteen, seventeen?”
“Eighteen,” he nodded sagely. “That’s very young to claim such an insight into men’s hearts.”
“Hearts?” Sandro’s lip curled in disgust, “Serge has a stone in place of a heart. I tell you, Kostia, he’ll destroy her. I’d give ten years of my life to stop her walking down the aisle on his arm.”
Konstantin frowned, vaguely discomfited by rumours he had tried to ignore, and, as he shrugged to shake away the unwelcome thoughts, he was deeply aware that Sandro was not the only one who would like to prevent this marriage.

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