Now Sarai Abram's wife bore him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said until Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid, it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. (Genesis 16: 1-2, King James Version)
Tsarskoe Selo, Russia
As one of the youngest members of the court of Imperial Russia, I know that I owe my position as lady in waiting to Her Imperial Highness Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna to my mother's close friendship with the Dowager Empress, Maria Feodorovna. I certainly have no special talents or abilities that stand out, nor have I accomplished anything of any particular merit or virtue since arriving at court. Therefore I am genuinely surprised when I am told that the Dowager Empress has requested an audience with me.
"Yelizaveta Ivanovna," she greets me. Please have a seat."
I do as she asks, looking at her expectantly.
"I'll get right to the point," she begins. "Our beloved country has reached a crossroads, a point of crisis, a situation in which the outcome is uncertain. Mother Russia needs your help for her very survival."
"But what can I do?" I ask.
"I have had a great deal of investigation done into your family background," she continues. "There has been no trace of any hereditary diseases on either side of your family. All your brothers, all your uncles, and all your other male relatives are perfectly healthy."
I gasp, shocked. "But what has that to do with..."
"Let me explain." She almost smiles. "You see, my grandson, the Tsarevich, suffers from a grave disease, one which he inherited from his mother the Tsarina. He has hemophilia, which means that his blood does not clot normally. He must be very careful, as even the slightest injury could potentially kill him. My son and his wife are afraid to try for another child, as the idea of another hemophiliac son terrifies them. Yet our country needs a healthy heir, someone fit to rule her in the event of the deaths of both my son and grandson."
As the realization of what she seems to be implying sweeps over me, I feel myself go numb with shock. "But certainly you can't mean..."
"That's exactly what I mean." She is not smiling now.
"But...what about Alexandra?"
"I've discussed my proposition with her, and she's in full agreement with it. It's my son the Tsar who's been resistant. He believes that Alexei's condition is the will of God, that it was visited upon us, upon Russia, as a test of our faith. He also feels that, regardless of the motive, what I suggest would be a violation of the sacred vow he made to Alexandra on the day he wed her. It was Alexandra herself who finally convinced him to go along with the plan, and did so only by pointing out Biblical examples of similar situations such as those of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel."
"But Sarah and Rachel were both completely infertile," I remind her. "Her Highness the Tsarina is not. She's borne five children."
"She's borne four daughters and a hemophiliac son," the Dowager Empress emphasizes. "She has not produced a healthy son, and may never do so. Yet the necessity of providing Russia with a healthy heir remains."
"And it's expected of me to provide that heir," I conclude. "By...engaging in marital relations with His Imperial Highness." The words sound so utterly foreign to me that even after having said them, their meaning hasn't quite rung true for me.
"You're under no obligation to accept, of course," the Dowager Empress assures me. "This is only a request, not an order, and if you feel unable to comply, an alternative will be found. Only realize that should you agree, my son the Tsar and I, indeed Russia herself, will be eternally grateful to you."
"But certainly the illegitimate son of a lady in waiting would never be accepted as Tsar," I object.
"The people of Russia shall never know," she replies. "The Tsarina will never appear in public during the latter part of the pregnancy. The public will be told that she is experiencing pregnancy complications and has been ordered to remain on complete bed rest."
"So after the birth, everyone will think that it was she who delivered."
"And what about the royal children?" Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei. Five perfect, golden children, living in a fairy tale world of tea parties and dances, far removed from that of ordinary children. A world they could never hope to even visit, much less live in.
"They shall be sent to stay with relatives for a few months. A logical explanation will be given to them, one which they would never question. Upon the child's birth, they will return to the palace."
Indeed she has thought of everything.
"There's no rush," the Dowager Empress continues. "Take as much time as you need to consider my request, but do let me know if you are unable to go through with it, so that another can be found."
She dismisses me, and I am left alone with my thoughts. They twirl around and around in my head, threatening to drive me mad.