Monday 19th December

Carry us up over some assassin (7)

“That may be the last squash game for a little while,” Phil tells me as we knock back a second pint of Purple Moose in the Beer Cellar. “As a hen-pecked husband, I won’t be able to get out so much and something has got to give.”

The news is no more unexpected than the result of tonight’s game.

“I’m sorry, Phil. It wasn’t much of a challenge this evening.”

“Have you won any games this year? Just asking …” he winks.

“There was a straight sets win in May, wasn’t there?”

“I was on one leg that night. Since the ankle got better, it’s been, well, a bit too easy.”

“It’ll be even easier when I’m dead,” I point out.

Phil yawns.

“Dead? Yeah, right. Have you booked the crematorium? Might be worth it at this time of year.”

“Your sympathy has been greatly appreciated. Actually, do you mind if I ask you something, Phil?”

“Ask away.”

“Have you ever noticed any similarities between your life and that of Percy Bysshe Shelley?”

Phil looks at me quizzically for a moment and then laughs heartily.

“Shelley? I wish. I haven’t written a poem since I was thirteen.”

“You’ve got the same initials. You both grew up in Sussex and went to the same college.”

“But Shelley was thrown out!”

“OK, it’s not an exact match. But your love life has been decidedly Shelleyan …”

It takes me a couple of pints to lay out my case. Phil fights me all the way but even he is forced to concede that there are some odd similarities.

“It’s bizarre,” he concludes. “Almost as bonkers as your theory that you are going to die on Friday week.”

“The two things are connected, don’t you see?” I insist. “I seem destined to repeat most of the mistakes of my ancestor, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and you are getting married two hundred years to the day after Shelley married Mary!”

“I’ll be straight with you, Alex. We fixed that date precisely because you had told me how significant it was for you. It’s not random. I hoped it would make you focus your mind on something more positive. But I do see now why you were so concerned about Hattie’s disappearance.”

I tell him about the trip to Hyde Park and the sense of déjà vu I felt there. Phil has a simpler explanation, that I am over-thinking the Bill Wyman role and I’ve appropriated too many of the stories of the Stones’ 1969 gig.

“So we’re all living through some kind of weird Groundhog Day,” he concludes, sceptically. “With me in the Phil Connors role?”

“Punks’ attorney Phil, that’s you.”

“Actually, there is one odd parallel you may not have considered. Does the name Benjamin Haydon mean anything to you?”

“You mean Ben Haydon from the Hogacre Eco Park, the guy who’s been bugging you for years?”

“There was another Benjamin Haydon. He was in the Mike Leigh film,  Mr Turner.”

“Remind me.”

“Haydon was the painter with delusions of grandeur that Turner lent money to,” Phil explains. “Haydon couldn’t pay him back because everyone hated his art.”

“Ah, yes. I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, in fact.”

“What a film it is! Anyway, I already knew about Haydon because he was best mates with John Keats. Keats even dedicated a couple of sonnets to him.”

“So he did.” I make a mental note to check this out when I get home.

“Haydon did a life mask of Keats exactly two hundred years ago, December 1816. It’s in the National Portrait Gallery.”

“But Keats and Shelley didn’t mix that much,” I say – it’s my turn to play the sceptic.

“They were both on the invite list for Leigh Hunt’s dinner parties in Hampstead. As was Haydon. If I remember right, the first such soirée was in January 1817, a few weeks after Shelley married Mary. Maybe Hogg was there too? But Shelley and Haydon were chalk and cheese. Shelley, the militant atheist, spent the whole meal making fun of Haydon’s Christian beliefs. Haydon scribbled all the nasty details down in his diary and vowed revenge.”

“A dish best served cold?”

“Indeed. And twenty years after Shelley drowned, Haydon published those diaries to raise some much-needed cash. Not long before he shot himself.”

“This doesn’t sound a lot like the Ben Haydon we know from Hogacre.”

“Well, I haven’t checked his TwitterFeed, if he has one. But what’s in a name, eh?”

This does not seem like the right time to tell Phil about my recent encounter in the Hogacre café.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be inviting him to your wedding bash, will you? It would be a shame if someone scuppered the Folly Bargères!”

We both laugh heartily at the idea. Some of Phil’s healthy scepticism has rubbed off on me. How else can I deal with the suspicion that my own paltry life is, in some respects, a comical replay of the events of 1816? And then there’s all that Russian stuff to deal with as well …

What would it have been like in the basement room of the Moika Palace, St Petersburg, December 29-30 1916?

There the hapless five-man death-squad would have assembled – the fey plutocrat, Yusupov, and his childhood pash, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, together with the cyanide-bearing Dr Lazovert, the token politician, Vladimir Purishkevich, and the hapless Sergei Sukhotin, whom no one can remember asking along. Of these, only one, Sukhotin, has seen military action and I picture him arriving back from the front, swathed in bandages, here to do his imperial duty in a different way.

Did each man bring his own weapon to the party? A blunderbuss here, a musket there? I doubt it. Grand Duke Dmitri might have had a weapon or two. He had been enrolled in the Horse Guards at birth and, as an equestrian, finished 7th in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, but his experience with firearms was probably rather more limited.

It is also hard to envisage Dr Lazovert unearthing an arquebus or a flintlock to defend himself against the devil incarnate’s laser-eyes. Given how the night panned out, it appears that his skills as a poisoner were roughly on a par with his efforts to cure Prince Alexy’s haemophilia with aspirin.

Was it Lazovert alone who concocted the famous cakes and doctored the Madeira? Or did all five men make a symbolic contribution to the preparations, wearing pinnies and wielding rolling pins as if in an unconvincing episode of Celebrity Bake-Off for Comic Relief? Yusupov’s Lost Splendor is far from clear on this point, as indeed on most others. How many people in St Petersburg did not know what was cooking in the Moika Palace that night? Possibly just Rasputin himself. Even the reclusive Tsaritsa Alexandra had got wind of it, it seems. Did she make a last-ditch effort to put the frighteners on this mötley crüe? Had anyone tipped off the local constabulary? Did the fragrant Irina, safely despatched to the Yusupovs’ winter palace at Yalta, know of her decoy role in the conspiracy?

And, of course, the million rouble question, why on earth did the cassocked cleric go alone at midnight to the home of his most outspoken critic? Did he believe his own PR (“no bullet can kill me …”)? Did he anticipate some kind of threesome with the porcelain princess and her closeted, corseted husband? Was it the promise of a ride in FY’s Silver Ghost that clinched the deal? Why did he give his tainiks the night off?

But perhaps we are giving Felix’s beguiling tale too much credence? Maybe Rasputin did not come to the Moika of his own free-will but was frog-marched there or beaten senseless in his own apartment? There may have been no cakes and Madeira at all. The autopsy found no poison in Rasputin’s stomach, instead recording evidence of a severe beating, garrotting and slashing. Felix’s version is far less cruel.

Who knows, Oswald Rayner, Stephen Alley and their cronies may have done the deed quietly and efficiently and delivered a stiff to the Moika, enabling the Russians to take the credit with as big a splash as possible. But this was a conspiracy that has produced surprisingly few conspiracy theories.

In Yusupov’s account, the unkillable starets is poisoned several times over and then shot in the heart at point-blank range, only to rise again from the dead and escape through a locked door into the snowy grounds of the palace, pursued by the feckless fivesome trying to find the firing mechanism on their rusty flintlocks.  Enough shots are fired to wake the city and by the time old laser-eyes is shot and killed a second time, the Keystone Cops have arrived to ask what all the fuss is about. Just high spirits, they are told. Suitably reassured, the constabulary leaves them to it. Yes, that seems pretty plausible.

Even with the bullet from an English service revolver lodged in his brain, Rasputin seems to have moved yet again from his resting place in the snow (despite being pronounced dead a second time). A larger contingent of cops comes and goes, presumably blindfolded. Yusupov later hams it up for all it is worth:

‘As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Rasputin stretched out on the landing, blood flowing from his many wounds. It was a loathsome sight. Suddenly, everything went black, I felt the ground slipping from under my feet and I fell headlong down the stairs.

‘Purichkevich and Ivan found me, a few minutes later, lying side by side with Rasputin; the murderer and his victim. I was unconscious and he and Ivan had to carry me to my bedroom.’ (Lost Splendor, ch. xxiii)

There Felix is, the sleeping Bride of Frankenstein, like Elsa Lanchester in the 1935 film.

Eventually, Rasputin is bundled into the boot of the Roller and carted off to the Petrovski bridge. The tyre tracks in the snow, there and back, leave incontrovertible evidence of what has occurred so no one will feign surprise when the icy corpse is washed up on the banks of the Neva a day or so later.

In the early hours of December 30th, there is a second or third visitation of the forces of Law and Order and Purishkevitch makes an unprompted confession:“The shots you heard killed Rasputin. If you love your country and your Tsar, you’ll keep your mouth shut” – Yusupov’s dialogue needs a little more work, I feel.

But it is unlikely that anyone apart from the police keeps their mouth shut in Petersburg that day. Even the tsar, cowering under his bunk-bed 400 miles away in Moghilev, would have heard the word. His wife is having fainting fits at the news in her boudoir at the Alexander Palace, begging the police to arrest the villains. But they do the sensible thing and dither. Rasputin has been murdered and everyone knows whodunnit. But there is no will to arrest and prosecute the culprits. If Felix and his friends gambled on that, they judged the public mood well.

That mood would have been very different had the populace known that the assassination was really the work of some opportunistic English spies. Having stage-directed the whole farce and administered the necessary coup-de-grâce, Oswald and his friends melt away into the night and (no doubt) leave town on the next available train, happy to return to lives of relative obscurity in England. A brief report appears in the Times a couple of days later, courtesy of Reuters:

A NOTORIOUS RUSSIAN MONK

Petrograd, Jan 1: the body of the notorious monk Rasputin was found on the bank of one of the branches of the River Neva this morning. An inquiry has been opened.

It is almost as brief and neutral as the report of Harriet Westbrook’s washed-up body a hundred years before.

The champagne corks will have been popping in the War Office but there is one English reader in less jubilant mood. Gerard Shelley, enjoying a quiet New Year with his parents in Sidcup, must have choked on his egg soldiers. This Shelley, no relation to Percy Bysshe or his family, has been Rasputin’s one true advocate on these shores, defending the so-called Mad Monk from a wide variety of calumnious attacks. The young Jesuit first meets and befriends Rasputin while staying with friends near St Petersburg in 1915 during his gap year. He returns to Russia the following summer and hooks up with Rasputin for boating trips on Lake Ladoga (exactly a hundred years after Shelley, Byron & co had been boating on Lake Geneva, dreaming of monsters and unkillable vampires). Young Gerard warns Rasputin that the English are out to get him, but evidently to no avail.

To Gerard Shelley, the Russian with the floating hair and the wild, staring eyes is an Old Testament prophet, a mystic, a noble savage, not the foul-mouthed peasant of popular repute. On hearing the news of his death, Gerard rushes back to St Petersburg in time for the February Revolution and the chaos that ensues. In the end, he escapes on a train from Moscow to Finland, hiding under the seat in women’s clothing while his fellow travellers sweet-talk the Red Guard.

Eight years later, Gerard Shelley publishes not one but two books on his travels to exotic lands, The Blue Steppes and The Speckled Domes. The latter is not a critique of the star-spangled design of Univ’s Shelley Memorial but it paints a very different picture of Rasputin from the one peddled by Yusupov and dutifully translated by Rayner himself. By 1952, while Yusupov is composing Lost Splendor, Shelley has become the third Archbishop of the Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain – not quite the Illuminati or Opus Dei, but not so far removed either.

If the murder of Rasputin was intended to prop up the Romanov dynasty, it had precisely the opposite effect. It failed as comprehensively as the pantomime wedding on December 30th 1816. Alexandra lost her confidant, then her freedom and very soon her life. She was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, an honour not bestowed on Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Her reliance on the peasant-mystic with the questionable hygiene has often been compared to her grandmother, Queen Victoria’s, dependency on her ghillie, John Brown, also the victim of a whispering campaign in court circles and beyond. This is far from accidental. Alix’s mother, Princess Alice, died when she was six and Victoria then took responsibility for her upbringing as a future queen at a time when she was leaning ever more heavily on her own noble savage. Losing her chosen mentor and spiritual guide, Rasputin, in the early hours of December 30th 1916 was a blow from which the Empress Alexandra never had a chance to recover.

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