Thus it was that Gregory Potemkin held a place in the soul of this great woman such as no one else attained. He might be absent, heading armies or ruling provinces, and on his return he would be greeted with even greater fondness than before. And it was this rather than his victories over Turk and other oriental enemies that made Catharine trust him absolutely.
When he died, he died as the supreme master of her foreign policy and at a time when her word was powerful throughout all Europe. Death came upon him after he had fought against it with singular tenacity of purpose. Catharine had given him a magnificent triumph, and he had entertained her in his Taurian Palace with a splendor such as even Russia had never known before. Then he fell ill, though with high spirit he would not yield to illness. He ate rich meats and drank rich wines and bore himself as gallantly as ever. Yet all at once death came upon him while he was traveling in the south of Russia. His carriage was stopped, a rug was spread beneath a tree by the roadside, and there he died, in the country which he had added to the realms of Russia,
The great empress who loved him mourned him deeply during the five years of life that still remained to her. The names of other men for whom she had imagined that she cared were nothing to her. But this one man lived in her heart in death as he had done in life.
Many have written of Catharine as a great ruler, a wise diplomat, a creature of heroic mold. Others have depicted her as a royal wanton and have gathered together a mass of vicious tales, the gossip of the palace kitchens, of the clubs, and of the barrack-rooms. But perhaps one finds the chief interest of her story to lie in this—that besides being empress and diplomat and a lover of pleasure she was, beyond all else, at heart a woman.
The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view of Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one brilliant passage has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring picture of this unhappy queen.
When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France and gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Europe. And then there comes to us the reverse of the picture. We see her despised, insulted, and made the butt of brutal men and still more fiendish women; until at last the hideous tumbrel conveys her to the guillotine, where her head is severed from her body and her corpse is cast down into a bloody pool.
In these two pictures our emotions are played upon in turn— admiration, reverence, devotion, and then pity, indignation, and the shudderings of horror.
Probably in our own country and in England this will remain the historic Marie Antoinette. Whatever the impartial historian may write, he can never induce the people at large to understand that this queen was far from queenly, that the popular idea of her is almost wholly false, and that both in her domestic life and as the greatest lady in France she did much to bring on the terrors of that revolution which swept her to the guillotine.