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CAUSASUS: AN EXCERPT

In the middle of such strained circumstance, when most sensible travellers were heading far from the Alazin river, a man arrived at their gates begging for permission to spend the night, claiming to be an Armenian merchant. He was soaked to the skin and claimed to have swam the Alazin river in an attempt to evade the mounting Lesgien forces. The Princess’s state of mind can be guessed at. Madame Drancy always calls her the kindest of women, yet the Governess heard her issue the order, “Disarm him and if he tries to escape, shoot him.”

That night, all the women slept in the same room upstairs, the children curled on carpets, all the fires and lamps extinguished before the sun died, hoping to hide themselves in darkness and silence. Unfortunately, the moon was full and the white washed house must have stood out against the night like a burning star. At four in the morning, they heard a shot ring out. They looked at one another. No other shots followed. Drancy could not return to sleep but crept about the garden, noting how calm everything was, how the ceaseless tone of the cicadas seemed to pause that night. Looking over an embankment, behind the house, she saw two Murid scouts picking a path over a small stream. She ran back the bedroom where she related what she had seen. The Princesses knew that it was too late to leave the estate, but hoped that by moving to the attic, they might not be discovered by the marauders.

At eight in the morning, the first men arrived in the house, a small advance party whose intrusion must have increased the levels of fear of those hiding above. The women could not stop the children crying, nor the nursemaids from weeping in fear. Then came a thunderous approach of hooves, and peeking from the attic window, Madame Drancy noticed that the entire courtyard was filled with ‘horses and turbans’. She continued to write, “We heard their terrible cries, the sound of glass breaking, of furniture being demolished, of silverware falling from smashed cabinets.”

More peculiarly, it seemed that every Lezgin and Avar who entered Tsinandali could not resist slamming their hands down on one of the two pianos. The women sank to their knees and prayed to God that they would not be found. Half an hour passed in looting before they heard footsteps come to their door. Princess Orbeliani stood closest to the door. She had lost a child and husband in the last six months and refused to see another person die. If they were intent on murder, then at least she would spared the anguish of seeing others suffer. There was more shouting, then the gathering of a small force and once, twice, three times the door held before breaking, sending a wave of raiders spilling into the room of terrified women. The raiders paused in shock, then to the women’s surprise, burst into laughter. Not knowing what lay behind the locked door, they had presumed that it was an armed force, not a gathering of defenceless women. Their laughter was muffled by the screams of the terrified children. Each woman and child was grabbed by a man and they turned, dragging their prisoners downstairs.

The staircase was a sea of confusion, men carrying children and women down, men holding silverware and swords rushing up. What none of them could know was that without the Princesses’ permission, the last of her husband’s peasants, before fleeing to the woods, had taken it upon himself to saw down the staircase, believing he would then make it impossible for a raiding party to reach the attic. When the Princess Anna Chechavardze had discovered him at work with his saw, she had stopped him, fearing that they would burn them out should they hear the children and not be able to reach them.

Now, under such pressure, the weakened staircase snapped. Madame Drancy remembered a sharp crack and then falling the two floors, held in her captor’s arms, her skirts grasped by a screaming lady’s maid. They were stunned, but otherwise unharmed, pulled roughly upright and out to the courtyard. Drancy looked about her for the Princesses and her young charges but saw no one until she came into the bright sunlight. There, amid hundreds of circling horses, screaming men, upturned carts, Drancy was stripped of her clothes, til she was wearing only her petticoat and boots. She saw her two students strapped to the flanks of a large horse. The Princess Anna was lying prostate on the ground, her foot badly gashed, her youngest child clasped to her. When Drancy tried to move to her, she was cut across the shoulders by a whip. In the middle of the cries and confusion, sat the youngest Princess, the eighteen year old Nina Baratoff, who had been placed on a fine roan horse, apparently untouched, still fully clothed and in possession of all her jewels. She was being led through the chaos by a young Chechen and noone sought to stop him.

Once all the captives were secured, the house was pillaged by two hundred pairs of hands at once. It took little time, the spoils brought to the courtyard and fought over, the most prized possessions, after silver, being sugar and tea. Once all the local cattle and buffalo had been herded towards the main house, the decision was made to leave. The absurd train of Chechens, Lezgins and Avars, draped in French cloths, children’s hats, riding with captives on the backs of their horses amid a trail of bellowing cows, arced out of Tsinandali and headed towards the foothills.