To other men she made munificent gifts, either because they pleased her for the moment or because they served her on one occasion or another; but to Potemkin she opened wide the whole treasury of her vast realm. There was no limit to what she would do for him. When he first knew her he was a man of very moderate fortune. Within two years after their intimate acquaintance had begun she had given him nine million rubles, while afterward he accepted almost limitless estates in Poland and in every province of Greater Russia.
He was a man of sumptuous tastes, and yet he cared but little for mere wealth. What he had, he used to please or gratify or surprise the woman whom he loved. He built himself a great palace in St. Petersburg, usually known as the Taurian Palace, and there he gave the most sumptuous entertainments, reversing the story of Antony and Cleopatra.
In a superb library there stood one case containing volumes bound with unusual richness. When the empress, attracted by the bindings, drew forth a book she found to her surprise that its pages were English bank-notes. The pages of another proved to be Dutch bank-notes, and, of another, notes on the Bank of Venice. Of the remaining volumes some were of solid gold, while others had pages of fine leather in which were set emeralds and rubies and diamonds and other gems. The story reads like a bit of fiction from the Arabian Nights. Yet, after all, this was only a small affair compared with other undertakings with which Potemkin sought to please her.
Thus, after Taurida and the Crimea had been added to the empire by Potemkin’s agency, Catharine set out with him to view her new possessions. A great fleet of magnificently decorated galleys bore her down the river Dnieper. The country through which she passed had been a year before an unoccupied waste. Now, by Potemkin’s extraordinary efforts, the empress found it dotted thick with towns and cities which had been erected for the occasion, filled with a busy population which swarmed along the riverside to greet the sovereign with applause. It was only a chain of fantom towns and cities, made of painted wood and canvas; but while Catharine was there they were very real, seeming to have solid buildings, magnificent arches, bustling industries, and beautiful stretches of fertile country. No human being ever wrought on so great a scale so marvelous a miracle of stage-management.
Potemkin was, in fact, the one man who could appeal with unfailing success to so versatile and powerful a spirit as Catharine’s. He was handsome of person, graceful of manner, and with an intellect which matched her own. He never tried to force her inclination, and, on the other hand, he never strove to thwart it. To him, as to no other man, she could turn at any moment and feel that, no matter what her mood, he could understand her fully. And this, according to Balzac, is the thing that woman yearns for most—a kindred spirit that can understand without the slightest need of explanation.