The weather was blustery in St Petersburg
, clouds roiled in from the sea, and the air was heavy with the threat of rain. Anxious generals, princes, and ladies looked into the sky to assess the chance that their magnificent pageant
would last the day. They looked at each other for chat about the weather, they looked out to sea where the British warship bringing her King was now in the offing, they looked everywhere except towards the velvet-draped dais where their Emperor
stood in regal splendour, his medals dazzling to the eye, with his Empress
kneeling beside him in nothing but a studded collar and a cloth-of-gold
The Emperor Nicholas II was exquisitely well bred, but his eyes did stray very briefly down to his wife's crouching form. Something in his bones about the duties of a perfect host told him instinctively that King George's retinue would not all be familiar with the etiquette in situations such as this. He coughed very quietly, and the family doctor stepped forward one pace.
'Brother Grigori, I wonder if you could spare a moment... You seem to have a knack of dealing with Her Majesty's little heat-stroke problem even at the most difficult of times.'
Rasputin bowed, twirled his moustache, and hauled the Empress roughly to her feet. 'Dress! Now!' he hissed. She vanished into the curtains behind the dais and emerged a few minutes later as a maid. Rasputin nodded contentedly, then did a double-take. 'No, you fool, that's for after! No-one else sees you like that. Go and dress normally, like Slobberchops here.'
When she returned ten minutes later in a frothy imperial ball-gown, tiara, and bull-whip, Rasputin sighed and thought that was close enough, and he had no more time for trying to deal with the Empress's behavioural problems. He had office work to do. Seeing a gap in the parade of dignitaries advancing from the dock, he slipped through it, pinching Queen Mary's bum as he passed, and slithered to his private apartments in a nearby tavern.
Here he glanced over the accumulated paperwork. Well, it had to be done sometime. From a drawer he took several sheets of notepaper headed Mad Staring Eyes Club of All The Russias. After he sharpened his quill, he sucked its end as he concentrated on the photograph before him. At last he dipped in the inkwell and began to write in a small, crabbed hand.
Dear applicant, thank you for your photograph and the five roubles non-refundable fee. I regret to inform you that your eyes do not look very mad, and the staring effect you are trying to achieve comes out as more of a yearning vacancy. A mistake beginners often make is to stare out into the distance. Try staring at something close up, and imagine it has little gossamery wings and is arguing with you. For more tips you might like to try our inexpensive eight-part course, price twelve roubles, in convenient monthly parts.
To other correspondents he sent membership badges and green ribbons of proficiency
, then on hearing the church clock toll one he cursed and threw down his pen. The visit had to be paid. He snapped his fingers and called out, 'Cloak
! The hooded
cloak! And my sandal
'Which sandals, Brother?' asked Anastasia.
'My sparkly ones, of course, I'm visiting those blasted nuns.'
When she obeyed he snapped his fingers and told her she might now dress and join the rest of the family at the royal reception. 'Tell them you got lost in the corridors, or something,' he suggested as he stalked off.
The jailer at the nunnery recognized him from afar in his handsome black cloak with its crimson silk lining. A manly and earthy man himself, uneasy about the effete finery of the nobs, he saw in Brother Grigori Yefimovich both a threat and a model. On the whole he was thankful for the good brother's visits because of the unsatisfied desperation he left behind him.
'Nippy day,' Rasputin said, rubbing his fine artistic fingers that had slipped round many a pale neck.
'They'll be cold inside, Brother. Seeing as you were coming.'
'Why is that, do they scatter the fires, or use less blankets?'
'Oh no, sir, pardon me sir. Their special habits, Brother. For you.'
'Oh yes,' Rasputin recalled with a certain distaste. Whenever he had seen nuns' habits in storehouses and picture-books they always seemed demure and coarse. He had assumed that silk was used here in tribute to the capital of Imperial Russia, and that the thinness was a kind of winter mortification.
'It's him!' came a screech from the walls above.
'He's here!' echoed another.
Rasputin winced and strode in. The corridors resounded with his footsteps at first but a thrumming sound built up and began to dominate as he got near the parlour. The aged abbess was seated, but tried to stand as came in, fawning at him and giggling behind her hand and explaining at far too great a pace that she had baked him a cake. On the table before them was a glutinous-looking confection covered in pink icing and hundreds and thousands, with the letters RASP picked out in silver balls. He flashed a tight smile at the cake and thanked her. From behind her back she produced a box wrapped in pussycat paper and a violet ribbon. Trying to command his breath he undid it, finding a flat necklace case, with a beautiful string of pearls lying within.
'Delightful,' he said with a quick bow. 'Now, about the accounts. I haven't got that much time, because the English king is here, I'm sure you understand, woman of the world, I'd love to stay,' he explained, regretting that he had said 'woman of the world', as her colour rose and her tittering and coy denials made her look likely to burst. He looked around the crowded parlour table for the account book but if it was there it was hidden somewhere under the champagne and two glasses, box of sugared plums, parchment with a hand-penned poem and decorated with hearts and orange blossom, black peignoir, new golf club, and other such things as usually cluttered him up and delayed him on his journey home. As it was winter he might be delayed further because the Neva would be iced up and he'd have to chip a hole in it.
Then the thrumming, which had been growing ever stronger, mingled with screaming, burst in on him like a flood and the room was full of nuns: shrieking, weeping, clutching his black cloak, moaning his name, holding out autograph books. He signed a few, signed a few bare arms and midriffs, but this only encouraged them to press more closely and wail more pleadingly for his attention. Half panicking, he signed a nun's naked heaving bosom with the words 'Accounts complete and correct', and initialled and dated it then looked for an exit. There was none.
He tapped the heels of his sparkly sandals together. With a low fluttering, humming, whispering, the spangled butterflies on the sandals grew and grew till they were as large as his hands, and their combined wings began to lift him off the ground. He tottered unsteadily in mid air and batted nuns away from his cloak, but lost several pieces to those who had come forearmed with pinking shears.
Achieving an upper window, he floated out of the nunnery into the clear frozen air of St Petersburg, passing over the heads of the royal entourage. One or two looked up and noticed him but most of the attention was on Queen Mary's tarantella.
Inspired by my dear arcanamundi, though I think Stephen Leacock and Nigel Molesworth got a look in too.