I was in my dorm room studying for a Psych exam when the message arrived. I normally pick up my mail in the Student Union, but this came straight to me. I didn’t even have to get up from my bubble chair; the textbook never left my lap. I’m a senior Psych major at Webster State and had planned to go into Special Ed, but since that letter came I’ve been considering other paths.
It was from the Empress of Russia. I know, I know. Russia doesn’t have an Empress, and if it did she’d be a Tsarina, but this was from her, sealed with a dab of blue wax, and addressed by hand to:
Webster State University
Saint Petersburg no date
You have never met me or received a personal letter from me. In fact, you rarely receive any personal letters at all. This one, however, is for you alone, chosen from among other young women with advice from Imperial Secret Service agents, who have observed you, unseen, from all corners of your campus. They have reported your every activity and accomplishment. I understand, for example, that you are interested in theater. You have served as Costume Mistress for a production of “The Misanthrope” and played minor roles in several productions at your institution. This is fortunate in view of the future awaiting you, that is, if you accept my proposal.
As you may know, the Tsar and I have a son, an only son, dearest of all creatures in the world to us. Of course we love our daughters, but the Tsarevitch is the object of our fondest hopes. For his happiness and health we would gladly lay down our lives, and will do so in the not so distant future. But at this time we look to the moment when he ascends the throne. He is still too young to wield that great power, but he has reached the age when he can take an important step toward becoming ruler. He is ready to marry, and we seek a young woman worthy to be his consort, the future Tsarina.
Now you see why I am writing you. I am touched by your beauty and talent, confident of your good heart. True, the agents were taken aback when they saw on your shelves a volume entitled "What Is To Be Done?" by an infamous man whose name my pen refuses to set down. Your edition of the book is called a “Crofts Classic,” whatever that means. I assure you it is no sort of classic! You have it, I know, because it was assigned for “Introduction to Political Science,” a course required for your B.A. I have consulted your records. Congratulations on your 3.82 Grade Point Average. I am aware that you still need 4 credits to earn your degree. But I hope you will soon join us at court, leaving behind those insignificant requirements. Don’t stay to complete another semester. You will not need a B.A. when you become an Archduchess, consort to our beloved son.
If you accept the affection and honor I offer, I ask you to signify your assent in a letter addressed to me at the Palace, where I wait to embrace you with all the warmth of a mother and protectress.
It was signed “Alexandra, Empress of all the Russias.” I had the writing analyzed to make sure it was from her. I was told that the unvaried shadings, overly even spacing, and repetitive garlands were those of an androgynous, self-important perfectionist, but this proved nothing. The Empress might have dictated the letter to a lady-in-waiting.
Over the following days, I noticed men in sundry corners—lecture halls, Reference Room, even the pool—who looked as if they might be imperial agents. When I spotted someone in his twenties with a really good haircut, I knew it wasn’t a Webster student. A man in his forties with well-tailored trousers and faintly Asian eyes was not likely to be one of our professors. One day, as I was leaving the Poli Sci exam, a stranger took me aside and told me the Tsar was arriving and wanted to meet me. His Majesty planned to take me to a jewelry store to choose my engagement ring.
To prepare for his visit I went to the closet and pulled out a package that had been there since freshman year, probably left behind by some alum. It contained a crown I had never tried on, thinking it wouldn’t go with my other clothes. But now, in order to get an idea of how I might look in court apparel, I removed the tissue paper and set
the crown on my head, trying various angles, checking the mirror to see how it looked on me. It did fit, but that’s all I can say for it. It resembled something between a helmet and a bell, padded like a piece of soft sculpture. The hat and brim consisted of white satin panels stitched together with black embroidery thread. The lining was crimson
velvet. It looked lame no matter how I placed it—tipped with the brim over my forehead, cocked to one side, or back so the red velvet framed my face. Thank goodness I’d be wearing it only on state occasions. I took it off, rewrapped it, and stuck it back on the closet shelf with a note telling my roommate not to put her lacrosse shoes on top of it.
The Tsar arrived. What a nice man! In his early sixties, dressed in a modest Guards uniform with the ribbon of the Order of Saint George around his shoulders. He seemed to like me, didn’t sneer at my casual clothes or insist that I try on the crown.
At the jeweler’s, salespeople rushed forward to greet us and spread things out on the counter—not just rings, but headbands (the kind called “tiaras,”) necklaces (the kind called “stomachers”), wrist and ankle bracelets, all gold, and lots of diamonds, but not just diamonds. I told the Tsar I preferred colored gems, and we chose a deep green square-cut emerald for my engagement ring, and combinations of opals (my birthstone), pearls, amethysts, and aquamarines for the other pieces. We also looked at one of those jeweled Easter eggs invented at the imperial court, enameled ornaments inlaid with designs and opening with gold hinges to show a “surprise” inside. The first such egg, the Emperor told me, was the gift of a Tsar to his bride. When it was opened there was a gold yolk inside, and, inside that, nesting in gold straw, a gold hen with ruby eyes. And the hen herself had hinges hidden in the tail-feathers so if you opened her by pulling the beak apart you’d find another surprise inside that! a miniature imperial crown with (inside that!) a little ruby pendant. Once, an anarchist had infiltrated the palace, picked the lock on a display case, opened that egg and stolen the tiny crown. Even after the man was caught and deported, no one ever found out what happened to that surprise.
Anyway, I could understand why all the European royals were crazy about those eggs. The Tsar was amused to see one here in the Ordinary States of America, but we didn’t buy it. He said there would be plenty more when I arrived in Saint Petersburg—for instance, the Anniversary Egg he had given the Tsarina to commemorate the first fifteen years of their reign and the births of their five children: four girls and one boy, my intended. The Tsar said I would find my fiancé’s portrait on a panel of the eggshell, framed in rose diamonds.
We discussed the jewels and eggs for such a long time that we got hungry and two salespeople brought us a platter of pastries— éclairs made with light puff paste, frosted in dark chocolate. They brought diamond and heart-shaped petits-fours. They brought mille-feuilles (I called them Napoleons, but the Tsar corrected me), and
a pyramid of bite-sized cream-puffs. The custard fillings were delicious, some flavored with coffee liqueur, some with lemon. The Emperor and I devoured three sweets apiece, giggling, and, well, snuggling—nothing inappropriate for a man and his future daughter-in-law, but we hit it off really well, the Tsar and I.
After those contacts with my in-laws-to-be, it was time for me to get to know the Prince himself, who had stayed behind in the capital city where he was completing his studies at the School of Engineering. As an introduction, he’d sent me his own design for remodeling a bridge between the city’s two main public squares. This was my first communication from the man I was to marry, so I took the Emperor to a private conference room in the Student Union. The only one available was windowless and over-heated. There, under fluorescent lights, he spread out two sets of drawings, the original bridge and the extension proposed by the Prince, who would rename the structure in my honor: the Archduchess Emily Bridge.
I know a few things about bridges and traffic patterns. (My Dad is a city planner.) The first drawing so impressed me that I wondered why the bridge needed remodeling at all. Its graceful arc united two halves of the city: the North Bank, site of the Imperial Palace and attached museum, the Stock Exchange, State Theater, Opera House, Cathedral, Tourist Bureau, and luxury hotels; the South Bank with its University, Ecole des Beaux Arts, smaller galleries, shops, cafés, and remnants of an ancient monastery. The bridge, now bearing the name of a former Tsar, has a moral as well as structural role, furnishing a promenade along the downstream side, where financiers and nobles from the north met artisans, students, and merchants from the south and, in a row of elegant shops and stalls, engaged in the commerce whereby civilization blooms and prospers. If only people’s personalities were as well integrated as that city!
But in order to accommodate two additional lanes of automobile traffic, the Prince had drawn up a curious plan whose logic was not clear to me. It involved closing the southern entrance to the bridge and building a ramp about a quarter of a mile downriver. Northbound cars and buses would take this ramp, proceed on a diagonal, and converge with the original bridge on the widened north end.
Why hadn’t the Prince chosen to build a separate bridge, or widen
the old one all the way across? What would be the effect on shops at the north end, sandwiched between streams of traffic? These were queries any sensible planner would make. Nervously, I wondered if my fiancé was an astute engineer or—face it!—a loser. But the Tsar seemed so proud of his son’s scheme that I suppressed my doubts and declared myself thrilled.
When the Emperor left, I gave him a hug and promised to write. The Tsar, in turn, assured me it would not be long before I met the groom, not long before the entire court would convene to set a wedding date. The Empress had asked me to contact her directly and accept the marriage offer. I composed a letter expressing all the gratitude, affection, and respect that a Senior at Webster State owed to an Empress of Russia, especially one who had bothered to find my name on the Dean’s List and acknowledge my role as Costume Mistress for The Misanthrope.
After writing, I waited to hear from the royal family. Instead of going home for Winter Break, I told my parents I was stage managing a Webster Theater production scheduled to open in February. On campus, I kept seeing those Secret Service guys. Some were quite attractive. One had a suave Italian suit and a rosette in his buttonhole. I watched him and wondered if this could be my fiancé himself, watching me with his faintly Asian eyes.
My friends returned from Break, and the time came to register for
Spring Semester. I got a call from the prof teaching my senior seminar—“Approaches to Nervous Disturbance.” He asked what days and times would fit my schedule—asked ME, a student! So nice of him. I told him there were a few commitments I hadn’t worked out yet. I’d call him as soon as things cleared up.
I was no longer sure I wanted to move to Saint Petersburg. The crown looked so stupid on me. Worse, I knew those bridge plans were ridiculous. I remembered that the Emperor and Empress were first cousins. It could be that their son had genetic abnormalities. I went looking for the secret service guys to ask if any of them had seen me put that acceptance letter in the mail. Strange. I searched the whole campus and couldn’t find a single agent. But Jennifer my roommate told me that once, while I was out, two fellows had come by to pick up a package.
“They had strange eyes. One was wearing a pin-thing in his jacket collar. I’ve seen you with them outside the library. I figured you had sent friends to bring stuff to you at the theater.”
“Maybe a costume. They said there was a package in the closet with a note on it about my cleats. We looked, found the note, and the box, which I gave them. I hope that was O.K.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Jennifer that the men were imperial agents and that she shouldn’t have believed what they said about the package. They had lied to get into the dorm without Webster I.D.’s. They had lied, or threatened someone, just as they would have threatened her if she’d resisted. Of course, they had guns. With silencers. They were capable of taking a life, even risking their own, in order to restore a lost surprise to the imperial family.
I told Jennifer everything was fine. But to clear things up in my mind I checked the closet. No package. Too bad. Hideous as it was, the crown was mine. I could have shown it to my children some day. On the other hand, I can always make another one. I remember the pattern exactly. I closed the closet door, and scanned the bookshelves for "What Is To Be Done? " That was missing too.
A day later, I got my first semester grades. What a relief! Though the agents’ relentless surveillance had me seriously rattled, my performance in Pathological Systems
was better than average.