Gateway to the Classics: Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott
Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Flight of Alexis

W HEN Alexis received the letter from his father at Copenhagen, ordering him to proceed at once to that city and join his father there, or else to come to a definite and final conclusion in respect to the convent that he would join, he at once determined, as intimated in the last chapter, that he would avail himself of the opportunity to escape from his father's control altogether. Under pretense of obeying his father's orders that he should go to Copenhagen, he could make all the necessary preparations for leaving the country without suspicion, and then, when once across the frontier, he could go where he pleased. He determined to make his escape to a foreign court, with a view of putting himself under the protection there of some prince or potentate who, from feelings of rivalry toward his father, or from some other motive, might be disposed, he thought, to espouse his cause.

He immediately began to make arrangements for his flight. What the exact truth is in respect to the arrangements which he made could never be fully ascertained, for the chief source of information in respect to them is from confessions which Alexis made himself after he was brought back. But in these confessions he made such confusion, first confessing a little, then a little more, then contradicting himself, then admitting, when the thing had been proved against him, what he had before denied, that it was almost impossible to disentangle the truth from his confused and contradictory declarations. The substance of the case was, however, as follows:

In the first place, he determined carefully to conceal his design from all except the two or three intimate friends and advisers who originally counseled him to adopt it. He intended to take with him his concubine Afrosinia, and also a number of domestic servants and other attendants, but he did not allow any of them to know where he was going. He gave them to understand that he was going to Copenhagen to join his father. He was afraid that, if any of those persons were to know his real design, it would, in some way or other, be divulged.

As to Afrosinia, he was well aware that she would know that he could not intend to take her to Copenhagen into his father's presence, and so he deceived her as to his real design, and induced her to set out with him, without suspicion, by telling her that he was only going to take her with him a part of the way. She was only to go, he said, as far as Riga, a town on the shores of the Baltic, on the way toward Copenhagen. Alexis was the less inclined to make a confidante of Afrosinia from the fact that she had never been willingly his companion. She was a Finland girl, a captive taken in war, and preserved to be sold as a slave on account of her beauty. When she came into the possession of Alexis he forced her to submit to his will. She was a slave, and it was useless for her to resist or complain. It is said that Alexis only induced her to yield to him by drawing his knife and threatening to kill her on the spot if she made any difficulty. Thus, although he seems to have become, in the end, strongly attached to her, he never felt that she was really and cordially on his side. He accordingly, in this case, concealed from her his real designs, and told her he was only going to take her with him a little way. He would then send her back, he said, to Petersburg. So Afrosinia made arrangements to accompany him without feeling any concern.

Alexis obtained all the money that he required by borrowing considerable sums of the different members of the government and friends of his father, under pretense that he was going to his father at Copenhagen. He showed them the letter which his father had written him, and this, they thought, was sufficient authority for them to furnish him with the money. He borrowed in this way various sums of different persons, and thus obtained an abundant supply. The largest sum which he obtained from any one person was two thousand ducats, which were lent him by Prince Menzikoff, a noble who stood very high in Peter's confidence, and who had been left by him chief in command during his absence. The prince gave Alexis some advice, too, about the arrangements which he was to make for his journey, supposing all the time that he was really going to Copenhagen.

The chief instigator and adviser of Alexis in this affair was a man named Alexander Kikin. This Kikin was an officer of high rank in the navy department, under the government, and the Czar had placed great confidence in him. But he was inclined to espouse the cause of the old Muscovite party, and to hope for a revolution that would bring that party again into power. He was not at this time in St. Petersburg, but had gone forward to provide a place of retreat for Alexis. Alexis was to meet him at the town of Libau, which stands on the shores of the Baltic Sea, between St. Petersburg and Konigsberg, on the route which Alexis would have to take in going to Copenhagen. Alexis communicated with Kikin in writing, and Kikin arranged and directed all the details of the plan. He kept purposely at a distance from Alexis, to avoid suspicion.

At length, when all was ready, Alexis set out from St. Petersburg, taking with him Afrosinia and several other attendants, and journeyed to Libau. There he met Kikin, and each congratulated the other warmly on the success which had thus far attended their operations.

Alexis asked Kikin what place he had provided for him, and Kikin replied that he had made arrangements for him to go to Vienna. He had been to Vienna himself, he said, under pretense of public business committed to his charge by the Czar, and had seen and conferred with the Emperor of Germany there, and the emperor agreed to receive and protect him, and not to deliver him up to his father until some permanent and satisfactory arrangement should have been made.

"So you must go on," continued Kikin, "to Konigsberg and Dantzic; and then, instead of going forward toward Copenhagen; you will turn off on the road to Vienna, and when you get there the emperor will provide a safe place of retreat for you. When you arrive there, if your father should find out where you are, and send some one to try to persuade you to return home, you must not, on any account, listen to him; for, as certain as your father gets you again in his power, after your leaving the country in this way, he will have you beheaded."

Kikin contrived a number of very cunning devices for averting suspicion from himself and those really concerned in the plot, and throwing it upon innocent persons. Among other things; he induced Alexis to write several letters to different individuals in St. Petersburg—Prince Menzikoff among the rest—thanking them for the advice and assistance that they had rendered him in setting out upon his journey, which advice and assistance was given honestly, on the supposition that he was really going to his father at Copenhagen. The letters of thanks, however, which Kikin dictated were written in an ambiguous and mysterious manner, being adroitly connived to awaken suspicion in Peter's mind, if he were to see them, that these persons were in the secret of Alexis's plans, and really intended to assist him in his escape. When the letters were written Alexis delivered them to Kikin, who at some future time, in case of necessity, was to show them to Peter, and pretend that he had intercepted them. Thus he expected to avert suspicion from himself, and throw it upon innocent persons.

Kikin also helped Alexis about writing a letter to his father from Libau, saying to him that he left St. Petersburg, and had come so far on his way toward Copenhagen. This letter was, however, not dated at Libau, where Alexis then was, but at Konigsberg, which was some distance farther on, and it was sent forward to be transmitted from that place.

When Alexis had thus arranged every thing with Kikin, he prepared to set out on his journey again. He was to go on first to Konigsberg, then to Dantzic, and there, instead of embarking onboard a ship to go to Copenhagen, according to his father's plan, he was to turn off toward Vienna. It was at that point, accordingly, that his actual rebellion against his father's commands would begin. He had some misgivings about being able to reach that point. He asked Kikin what he should do in case his father should have sent somebody to meet him at Konigsberg or Dantzic.

"Why, you must join them in the first instanee," said Kikin, "and pretend to be much pleased to meet them; and then you must contrive to make your escape from them in the night, either entirely alone, or only with one servant. You must abandon your baggage and every thing else.

"Or, if you can not manage to do this," continued Kikin, "you must pretend to be sick; and if there are two persons sent to meet you, you can send one of them on before, with your baggage and attendants, promising yourself to come on quietly afterward with the other; and then you can contrive to bribe the other, or in some other way induce him to escape with you, and so go to Vienna."

Alexis did not have occasion to resort to either of these expedients, for nobody was sent to meet him. He journeyed on without any interruption till he came to Konigsberg, which was the place where the road turned off to Vienna. It was now necessary to say something to Afrosinia and his other attendants to account for the new direction which his journey was to take; so he told them that he had received a letter from his father, ordering him, before proceeding to Copenhagen, to go to Vienna on some public business which was to be done there. Accordingly, when he turned off, they accompanied him without any apparent suspicion.

Alexis proceeded in this way to Vienna, and there he appealed to the emperor for protection. The emperor received him, listened to the complaints which he made against the Czar—for Alexis, as might have been expected, cast all the blame of the quarrel upon his father—and, after entertaining him for a while in different places, he provided him at last with a secret retreat in a fortress in the Tyrol.

Here Alexis concealed himself, and it was a long time before his father could ascertain what had become of him. At length the Czar learned that he was in the emperor's dominions, and he wrote with his own hand a very urgent letter to the emperor, representing the misconduct of Alexis in its true light, and demanding that he should not harbor such an undutiful and rebellious son, but should send him home. He sent two envoys to act as the bearers of this letter, and to bring Alexis back to his father in case the emperor should conclude to surrender him.

The emperor communicated the contents of this letter to Alexis, but Alexis begged him not to comply with his father's demand. He said that the difficulty was owing altogether to his father's harshness and cruelty, and that, if he were to be sent back, he should be in danger of his life from his father's violence.

After long negotiations and delays, the emperor allowed the envoys to go and visit Alexis in the place of his retreat, with a view of seeing whether they could not prevail upon him to return home with them. The envoys carried a letter to Alexis which his father had written with his own hand, representing to him, in strong terms, the impropriety and wickedness of his conduct, and the enormity of the crime which he had committed against his father by his open rebellion against his authority, and denouncing against him, if he persisted in his wicked course, the judgment of God, who had threatened in his Word to punish disobedient children with eternal death.

But all these appeals had no effect upon the stubborn will of Alexis. He declared to the envoys that he would not return with them; and he said, moreover, that the emperor had promised to protect him, and that, if his father continued to persecute him in this way, he would resist by force, and, with the aid which the emperor would render him, he would make war upon his father, depose him from his power, and raise himself to the throne in his stead.

After this there followed a long period of negotiation and delay, during which many events occurred which it would be interesting to relate if time and space permitted. Alexis was transferred from one place to another, with a view of eluding any attempt which his father might make to get possession of him again, either by violence or stratagem, and at length was conveyed to Naples, in Italy, and was concealed in the castle of St. Elmo there.

In the mean time Peter grew more and more urgent in his demands upon the emperor to deliver up his son, and the emperor at last, finding that the quarrel was really becoming serious, and being convinced, moreover, by the representations which Peter caused to be made to him, that Alexis had been much more to blame than he had supposed, seemed disposed to change his ground, and began now to advise Alexis to return home. Alexis was quite alarmed when he found that, after all, he was not to be supported in his rebellion by the emperor, and at length, after a great many negotiations, difficulties, and delays, he determined to make a virtue of necessity and to go home. His father had written him repeated letters, promising him a free pardon if he would return, and threatening him in the most severe and decided manner if he did not. To the last of these letters, when Alexis had finally resolved to go back, he wrote the following very meek and submissive reply. It was written from Naples in October, 1717:

"My clement Lord and Father,—

"I have received your majesty's most gracious letter by Messrs. Tolstoi and Rumanrow, in which, as also by word of mouth, I am most graciously assured of pardon for having fled without your permission in case I return. I give you most hearty thanks with tears in my eyes, and own myself unworthy of all favor. I throw myself at your feet, and implore your clemency, and beseech you to pardon my crimes, for which I acknowledge that I deserve the severest punishment. But I rely on your gracious assurances, and, submitting to your pleasure, shall set out immediately from Naples to attend your majesty at Petersburg with those whom your majesty has sent. "Your most humble and unworthy servant, who deserves not to be called your son,

After having written and dispatched this letter, Alexis surrendered himself to Tolstoi and Rumanrow, and in their charge set out on his return to Russia, there to be delivered into his father's hands; for Peter was now in Russia, having returned there as soon as he heard of Alexis's flight.

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