Michael’s determination to be seen openly supporting her did not, however, greatly help matters, ‘for the whole of society turned its back on her as it had done before. To please the Court no one wanted either to recognise her or to receive her at their home.’8 St. Petersburg was always going to be a disaster for Michael and Natasha, which is why neither had wanted to be there. Moscow had been a different story, since that was Natasha’s home and she had family and a wide circle of supportive friends there; but she had never lived in St. Petersburg, and other than the few who stood by her, or rather stood by Michael, she knew almost no one.
Unfortunately, everyone knew her. Eyes stared through her when she walked in the street, and even in the Chevalier Gardes, Michael’s own regiment, the officers shunned Natasha; none would ever dine in her apartment, and none ‘would bow to her’ if they encountered her in public.9
In the hope of making her life more tolerable, Michael decided to move her back to Gatchina, the town where they had met, and which he preferred anyway. He bought her a villa at 24 Nikolaevskaya Street, ‘a charming, simple, pleasant two-storeyed wood house, sunk in a verdant garden’,10 but it was also an illusion of tranquillity. So long as the capital delighted in its slights and backbiting, there could be no hiding place in Gatchina, which took its lead from the capital and whose salons simply repeated what was being said there.
Moreover, the Blue Cuirassiers, which dominated local society, had neither forgotten nor forgiven that she had been the price of their losing Grand Duke Michael and the favour of their colonel-in-chief the Dowager Empress. The rule in the regiment — and obeyed by officers’ wives no less — was that no one who encountered Natasha in the street or elsewhere should acknowledge her, or even utter her name, and one young lieutenant who broke that commandment, was drummed out of the regiment. The charge against him, a meeting of senior officers was told, was that he had appeared in a theatre box ‘among a small company which included a certain lady who is well known to you’.11
The Blue Cuirassiers also took their war against Natasha into the capital. Remembering the fate of that young cashiered lieutenant, a drunken Cuirassier went up to Natasha during the interval in another theatre, and loudly berated her for having ‘compromised’ the Grand Duke.12 It was the worst kind of public scene, and Natasha, cheeks red, was left fighting back her tears.
She could not go on like that, and neither, when he found out about it, could Michael. Absent on manoeuvres he wrote to her immediately, telling her that he had reached the end of the road. He had given his word not to marry Natasha, but the quid pro quo was that she should be treated with respect, as the woman he loved, and as the mother of his son. In his mind therefore the contract had been broken. He would marry her, because he had been given no other choice.
ONE concession which had not been taken away from Michael was his right to go abroad with Natasha incognito. Nicholas had agreed to that in 1910, while insisting that Michael and Natasha did not appear together in public in Russia — for example, at a theatre. However, without telling his brother, Nicholas had ordered the secret police, the Okhrana, to trail them wherever they went, and to make sure that Michael did not sneak off and marry ‘that woman’. Alexandra was sure he would if he could; the Okhrana’s job was to make certain that even if he would, he couldn’t.
The Okhrana chief, Major-General Aleksandr Gerasimov, had been given a Top Secret order on the authority of Nicholas himself, charging him with the task ‘of taking all reasonable measures to prevent the marriage of Madame Brasova (Wulfert) to Grand Duke Michael abroad; all Russian embassies, missions and consulates shall render Major-General Gerasimov every reasonable assistance that he might need to accomplish the task and, should necessity arise, to put under arrest any persons at the discretion of Major-General Gerasimov’.13
A year earlier, when they had gone to Paris and Cannes, the Okhrana had followed them and watched them day and night. There had been nothing to arouse their suspicions, but their trail had been ludicrously obvious, their car blundering hopelessly in the wake of Michael’s grey open Opel tourer. The Okhrana therefore decided to change tactics: in future their agents were instructed to follow the baggage and Michael’s staff and servants as they journeyed from place to place by train, whether or not Michael was with them or travelling separately by car. Their purpose was to prevent a marriage, not watch them having a picnic.14
This year they were going first to Berlin. They set off on September 12, 1912, leaving two-year-old George and nine-year-old Tata to be looked after by their staff in Gatchina. In itself, that seemed evidence that they would be back, since they were hardly likely to run away without their children, and knowing the consequences of any marriage abroad.
Although the order authorised the ‘arrest of any persons’ the Okhrana thought complicit in any marriage attempt, in practical terms that was hardly feasible abroad where Russian law did not apply. However, what the Okhrana could do was to warn the priests in any Russian church — whether Berlin, Paris or Nice — that they faced serious punishment if they agreed to any marriage, and to intimidate the two formal witnesses required to make a marriage valid by threatening their interests in Russia. The Okhrana would have plenty of notice of any such attempted marriage since the banns would have to be called in the preceding three weeks.
Michael had no chance, it seemed. The Okhrana would always be one step ahead of him. Whatever ideas he might have, he would return to Russia a bachelor.
Senior Agent Bint, the man entrusted with the task of watching Michael, was satisfied that all was well in Berlin, for no banns were called there in the Russian church and in any case on September 23 Michael and Natasha left and took the train to Bad Kissingen, where both signed into to a health sanatorium, Michael ‘drinking the waters and taking baths’ as he jovially noted on a postcard to his brother.15 With Michael holed up in the sanatorium it would be three weeks before the bored Okhrana needed to stir themselves again.
Bint, a practised hand at bribing telegraph clerks and hotel porters, was quickly tipped off on Sunday October 14 that Michael and his staff were heading for Paris, and then almost immediately that he had cancelled his rail tickets and instead was going to Cannes, though he would be driving there separately via Switzerland and Italy, leaving his staff to take the train with the baggage.
There was no doubt about Michael’s intentions, for on that same Sunday he sent a second postcard to his brother telling him that ‘having now completed my treatment, I am setting out in the car towards Cannes, where I expect to be on Saturday’.16 Since the Okhrana read that postcard, having paid their informants to make sure they could, they duly boarded the train, following the baggage, but confident that Michael would turn up when he said he would — on Saturday, in Cannes.
What they did not know, however, was that Michael, wise to their ways, intended that they should read his postcard, as he had intended that they should read his first. Addressing them to ‘His Imperial Majesty,’ what he meant to do was to address them to the Okhrana.