Catharine, whom he seemed to love with all the fervor of youth, accompanied him on this expedition. Returning to St. Petersburg in 1724, Peter resolved to accomplish a design which he for some time had meditated, of placing the imperial crown upon the brow of his beloved wife. Their infant son had died. Their grandson, Peter, the son of Alexis, was still but a child, and the failing health of the tzar admonished him that he had not many years to live. Reposing great confidence in the goodness of Catharine and in the wisdom of those counselors whom, with his advice, she would select, he resolved to transmit the scepter, at his death, to her. In preparation for this event, Catharine was crowned Empress on the 18th of May, 1724, with all possible pomp.
The city of Petersburg had now become one of the most important capitals of Europe. Peter was not only the founder of this city, but, in a great measure, the architect. An observatory for astronomical purposes was reared, on the model of that in Paris. A valuable library was in the rapid progress of collection, and there were several cabinets formed, filled with the choicest treasures of nature and art. There were now in Russia a sufficient number of men of genius and of high literary and scientific attainment to form an academy of the arts and sciences, the rules and institutes of which the emperor drew up with his own hand.
While incessantly engaged in these arduous operations, the emperor was seized with a painful and dangerous sickness—a strangury—which confined him to his room for four months. Feeling a little better one day, he ordered his yacht to be brought up to the Neva, opposite his palace, and embarked to visit some of his works on Lake Ladoga. His physicians, vainly remonstrating against it, accompanied him. It was the middle of October. The weather continuing fine, the emperor remained upon the water, visiting his works upon the shore of the lake and of the Gulf of Finland, until the 5th of November. The exposures of the voyage proved too much for him, and he returned to Petersburg in a state of debility and pain which excited the greatest apprehensions.
The disease made rapid progress. The mind of the emperor, as he approached the dying hour, was clouded, and, with the inarticulate mutterings of delirium, he turned to and fro, restless, upon his bed. His devoted wife, for three days and three nights, did not leave his side, and, on the 28th of January, 1725, at four o’clock in the afternoon, he breathed his last, in her arms.