As his train hurtled toward Latvia, Peter Carl Fabergé mustered an ounce of gratitude: for it was night. In this darkness, he would not see his beloved Russia disappear. They’d departed Saint Petersburg at dusk, and he’d been lucky to board. His feet guarded no briefcase, and no suitcase sat overhead. His person alone would make the trip. In that way, today’s trip felt no different than his empty-handed travels to Nice, where he’d strolled freely, eying collarbones and wrists, keeping tabs on the Riviera’s jewels. He was disappointed, always; contemporary jewelry bored him.
The Tsar had saved him from a life of boredom. And now, His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II was dead.
Mr. Fabergé retrieved a notebook from his breast pocket and steadied it against his knee. Years ago, he’d explained to his son that you never start by drawing an oval. The next morning, at breakfast, little Eugène lay an egg on his school book, and traced it over his arithmetic drills. “I start this way, Papa,” Eugène announced. Inside the oval, the boy’s chicken scratch looked purposeful, and by Easter the next, Mr. Fabergé had reworked the scratchings into flowers and vines, and overlay them with a lattice of diamonds. Mr. Fabergé knew then that his son would one day take over the family business, as he had done for his own father.
Today, he started with the oval. The train challenged his steady hand but he eked out an egg that then sprouted seven smaller eggs. At Saint Basil’s, the domes were onions, but here, they were egg-shaped. Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei: all dead. And now, the House of Fabergé belonged to the Committee of the Employees of the Company K Fabergé. The Bolsheviks had taken everything, including his name.
Darkness hugged the train, and Mr. Fabergé reached for his spectacles. He’d left his better pair in the shop the day he first heard the rumors. He’d sent everyone home and locked up, but three hours later, he returned for his invoice book. That night, he shut himself in his study and turned to the book’s last page. He’d made a mistake, and he wanted it gone. He lit a fire and collapsed to his knees, trembling. As the flames ate his careful ledger, Mr. Fabergé worried that his misstep, his attempt at self-preservation, had cost the Tsar his life.
Now, as Mr. Fabergé filled the first egg-shaped-dome with alternating rows of rubies and emeralds, he yearned for his pigments. Traveling empty handed had been foolish, but in the moment he had stared at his suitcase, he decided his possessions would remain, and he would someday return to Saint Petersburg. He would.
Next, he tackled the blue and white dome. In his workshop, he had tested how the colors played off one another, but now, he only reminded himself in words: sapphire, diamonds. Rumor said that his jewels had spared the Duchesses for an instant. They’d sewn diamonds into their corsets, planning to escape with part of their fortune. The bullets had ricocheted, and then—His graphite split against the page, and when the steward returned, Mr. Fabergé asked for another writing utensil—he received a pen—and ordered a vodka.
He pressed his cheek to the window. The glass was cool, and so was the vodka. It reminded him of the cool day, some thirty years before, that he’d been given access to the Hermitage. Its halls became his to roam freely, and the late Empress Catherine’s treasures became a playground for his mind. The Bolsheviks had taken all of it.
His grip firmed, fighting the sway of the train. He never designed in ink. But his pen danced, assigning jewels to the rest of the egg-domes: more emeralds, more rubies. Opal-laid-in-gold. Soon diamonds lined the crosses that jutted from every dome. His last egg had been fashioned out of birch. The peasants were starving, and the Great War ate up what resources could have quelled their riots. As austerity seeped into his workshop, he had chosen chestnut-colored wood. But he was the Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown, so he framed the birch in gold.
The birch had been his first mistake. The second was the invoice. Eighteen months ago, just after the Tsar was forced to abdicate, Mr. Fabergé invoiced a one Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich for the birch egg. Mr. Romanov dutifully paid the bill of 12,500 Roubles before fleeing to the Urals.
Mr. Fabergé crumpled his sketch, balling the inked Saint Basil’s into a fist. He imagined the birch egg alone in the palace, or worse, in the hands of scoundrels. He kicked the balled paper beneath his seat, suddenly frightened: what if, in that moment, his fist had brought down the domes of Saint Basil’s?
He would not cry. He had forfeited that right. The Tsar had given him everything, and Mr. Fabergé had done nothing but betray him. The Tsar was no Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, and Mr. Fabergé was a coward for capitulating to the Bolsheviks’ language.
For the second time in his life, as his train hurtled toward Latvia, Mr. Fabergé dated a page April 25, 1917. 12,500 Roubles were due, payable to the House of Fabergé.
Mr. Fabergé’s pen dug into the page. To: The Tsar of All Russians.
He wrote it again. And again, until he filled the page.
To: His Imperial Majesty, THE TSAR OF ALL RUSSIANS.