I WAS born in Eastwell, Kent, in 1875.
A big grey house in a huge beautiful English park: woods, great stretches of grass, wide undulating horizons, not grand or austere, but lovely, quiet, noble—an English home.
I was my parents' second child. The first was a boy and he had been given the name of Alfred, after my father, who was Queen Victoria's second son and an officer in the British Navy.
My mother was delighted to have a little girl; she said she liked girls better than boys, and she called me Marie, which was her name and also her mother's. She loved and venerated her mother with all the strength of her soul.
In 1873, Marie Alexandrovna, only daughter of the Emperor Alexander II of Russia, had married Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and had come from far Russia to live in England.
Most people would imagine that it was a great piece of luck and happiness to come from Russia to England. But my mother dearly loved her native country, and she never really felt completely happy in England, though she had many dear friends there. We, her children, on the contrary, born in England, loved England deeply and clung with all our hearts to that love all through our lives, and it was a sadness to discover, later on, that never in her heart of hearts had our mother looked upon England as home, not as the home of homes that one passionately loves.
This is one of the sadnesses of mothers who are "exported," or should I rather say "imported"; when their own children become in their turn ardent patriots, they can never quite realize how their mothers also cling to the countries of their birth. To their minds their mother belongs to them and to the country her children were born in, and they cannot imagine any other love in their parent's heart. Certain things always remain difficult to understand and generations should be merciful towards each other, parents to their children, but also children to their parents, for who can fathom the depths, the longings, the struggles and disappointments of the human heart? And mothers must not imagine that they can implant their ideals, their loves and their passions, in the souls of those to whom they have given birth.
Times, circumstances, environment, influences, all go to make children different from their parents; besides, a mother often forgets, when her child astonishes or disappoints her, that she did not make it all by herself. There are always two streams of blood that run in one child, two long series of ancestors (illustrious or not, that has nothing to do with it), who go fundamentally to the making of the child each mother instinctively believes is hers, for did she not carry it for nine months and then through her own agony give it life?
My parents had three more daughters, Victoria Melita, born in Malta in 1876, Alexandra Victoria, born at Coburg two years later, and last of all Beatrice, born, like me, at Eastwell in 1883, who was the "Benjamin" of the family and well knew how to affirm that enviable position.
Our childhood was a happy, carefree one, the childhood of rich, healthy children protected from the buffets and hard realities of life.
Our mother played a greater part in our lives than our father did; he, being a sailor, was often away from home; he was even a little bit of a stranger to us, a rather wonderful stranger, exceedingly good-looking, sunburnt, blue-eyed, and I seem to remember that he had almost black hair, though later on in his portraits I remarked that his hair was less dark than it seemed to my childish eyes.
Were we in awe of him? A little perhaps; he was very wonderful, anyhow, and the days when he paid attention to us were red-letter days, but it was Mamma who was the great reality of our lives.
It was Mamma who settled things, Mamma to whom we turned, Mamma who came to kiss us good night, who took us out for walks or drives. It was Mamma who scolded or praised, who told us what we were or were not to do.
Mamma loved us passionately. Her whole life was given up to her children, we were the supreme and central interest of her existence, but she had her own ideas about education, and she never admitted any mixing of generations; she was never comrade nor companion, but always very definitely the parent; the one who represented authority as well as love, the ruling sovereign of her household, the one who held the sceptre and let you feel that the power over good and evil was hers.
Papa was a sailor; he was also a sportsman, a very good shot and, like all English gentlemen, he loved the shooting season, and in autumn many people were invited to come to Eastwell Park, gentlemen and ladies with high-sounding names and of many nationalities.
On these occasions before going to bed we children were dressed in our finest clothes and sent down to the big library to say good evening to our parents' friends. I still remember the, feeling of having my hair well brushed; I had a great mass of what my sisters called "yellow" but what I loved to think of as "golden" hair, of which old nurse Pitcathly, a splendid old Scotch woman, was tremendously proud. It would stand out in all its combed beauty, for indeed Nana groomed and cleaned and polished us up like pampered horses, and I can still feel in my shoulders the little twist I would give to be able to catch a glimpse of my own shining mane. But old Nana loved sister Ducky—as Victoria Melita was called in the family—best, and Ducky had brown corkscrew curls which Nana rolled over her finger with the aid of a comb. Ducky was my dearest chum, we were inseparable, though very different both in looks and character.
Ducky was dark and though a year younger was always taller than I, and was mostly taken for the elder, which annoyed us both. She was more serious than I and inclined to be resentful when reproved; she also loved jealously and was what our elders called a "difficult child."
I was more smiling, my hair was golden, I took things more easily than Ducky, and made friends more quickly, but Nana liked Ducky best because she imagined that the rather passionate child was often misunderstood, and perhaps she was.
Ducky and I were scrupulously fair towards each other: we always played the game and never wanted to have separate successes; we could not conceive of a life where we should not be side by side.
Later on our mother told us that she had never cared for these big shooting-parties: she said the gentlemen came home sleepy and had no conversation after a long day with their guns! Besides, she never cared for the damp English climate in winter.
Mamma was not fond of sport; she was highly cultured and liked to talk to clever, interesting people, and I remember my rather pained astonishment when one day she told us that she much preferred diplomats and politicians to soldiers, sailors or sportsmen; this as a child and even later as a girl and quite young woman seemed incomprehensible to me, for I and my sisters had a truly feminine love of uniform and of the strong, tanned, out-door man, even if he yawned in the evening after a long day's sport!
But these parties which bored our mother were full of interest and excitement to us. We immediately classed the guests as children always do, according to their likes or dislikes. Of course their looks played a great part, but also the way they treated us, for some grown-ups know better than others how to make themselves loved by children.
I was, even at the age of five, a real daughter of Eve in my love for beautiful dress; in fact, beauty in every form found in me an ardent, yea almost a pagan adorer.
It was at one of these Eastwell shooting-parties that I first remember seeing the lovely Princess of Wales. She came down one day at tea-time in a marvellous red velvet robe with long flowing train. She dazzled me utterly, I was speechless with adoration and my enchantment can be imagined when this velvet-clad apparition, who called herself Aunt Alix, volunteered to come up to the nursery to see us in our bath!
There she sat in her glorious crimson gown, and fascinated, I gazed at her over my sponge, spellbound, fearing that the enchanting vision might suddenly fade away.
I was always strangely moved by beauty. Any form of beauty, be it a lovely woman, flower, house or horse, be it a glorious landscape or picture; each time beauty came to me I felt as though it was a God-given pleasure, a gift He had especially allowed me to possess, with my eyes at least if not with my hands. And my joy was made keener by the faculty I had of enjoying beauty as a whole as well as in detail. The splendour of a wide-spreading view of sea or mountain did not hinder me from perceiving and loving the most humble flower in the ditch.
This faculty of enjoying beauty as a whole and in detail has followed me all through life. Line, colour, form and the sounds and scents belonging to each picture, have made life extraordinarily rich, and with every one of those unforgettable impressions comes always that feeling of gratitude for each new beauty revealed to my soul.
To-day I still feel grateful to beloved Queen Alexandra for the vision of beauty she was to me that evening in her ruby-red velvet gown, as I also remember, later in life, how another beautiful woman of our family moved me to such a degree of enchantment that I felt like falling down before her and worshipping her as the pagans of old worshipped their goddesses.
This other beautiful woman had a tragic and terrible fate. She was the Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Russia, my cousin, sister of the late Tsarina. She had married one of my mother's younger brothers, the Grand Duke Serge. He was blown up by Nihilists, long, long before the revolution, whilst Governor of Moscow. She then entered holy orders, building a convent in which she lived, but her holy life brought her no mercy from the Bolsheviks; she was abominably slaughtered in Siberia, but curiously enough her body was found and later on transported to Jerusalem, where it now lies in the Holy Land.
She was quite newly married when her beauty burst upon me as a marvellous revelation. Her loveliness was of what used to be called the "angelic" kind. Her eyes, her lips, her smile, her hands, the way she looked at you, the way she talked, the way she moved, all was exquisite beyond words, it almost brought tears to your eyes. Looking at her one felt like exclaiming with Heine:
But I seem to have wandered far from my subject; forgive me this digression, but let me warn you that there will be many another as we go along.
Our life at Eastwell is as a once vivid dream become just a little dim. It was mostly the winter months we spent there. I believe it was often cold and damp, but to me the remembrance is entirely lovely.
Certain pictures and feelings have remained specially imprinted upon my mind. I shall carry them with me to the end of my life, hoarded away with all the memories I love.
Certain scents belong specially to Eastwell. However old I may grow, the smell of dry or damp autumn leaves will ever bring the old English home before my eyes, the park with each tree standing well apart from its neighbour so that it could develop in unhindered beauty, every single one of giant growth, and we children shuffling through the dead leaves, sniffing in the pungent smell we delighted in, while wisps of mist, like smoke, played about the branches overhead. That scent of autumn leaves, no matter where I may be, still evokes the vision of Eastwell Park and its woodland paths that our childish feet once trod. And in the kitchen garden there was that perfume of violet leaves mingling with the mouldy smell of potatoes and old sacks hoarded up in the tool-house near by, and a little farther on the rather bitter scent of the high laurel hedges we would slip through, which seemed to us a darkly mysterious passage to dream places to which we must finally come.
And the huge cedar tree on the lawn in front of the house, with its lowest boughs sweeping the ground under which we would crawl. This tree was a wonderful cathedral-like mansion in which we children each possessed a room. Some brambles, having found their way beneath the old tree's shade, had climbed up its drooping branches, and swung down from them in long festoons. These hanging creepers gave a jungle-like appearance to our secret abode, and I imagined they were bell-ropes used by the fairies in the moonlight, during those enchanted hours when Nana would never let us creep out of our beds to explore the white world.
This curious sensation of mystery in all things is very characteristic of childhood. Children see things in other proportions, differently from their elders; in all things there are strange shapes, there are colours, secrets, scope for discovery, that big people are quite unaware of. There are pictures within pictures, depths within depths, in all things there are possibilities just out of reach.
I had an imaginative turn of mind. I was the one who could tell wonderful stories to my brother and sisters, romance lived in my soul and in all things I saw more than the naked eye could perceive.
This peculiarity has followed me through life, and now, at the age of fifty-two I still see visions and beauty in the most unexpected things and places.
At Eastwell there was a terrible unexplained mystery near the big lake. Our governess or nurse did not often take us that way as it was a long distance for short legs, but occasionally we would coax them to take that road which had, all unknown to those in authority, a gruesome attraction.
Hidden away in the bushes at the farther end of the lake was a well—at least, we imagined it to be a well—and from that well came an extraordinary sound. A deep, hollow, ghostly sound, as though desperate hands were thumping, thumping, eternally thumping against dungeon doors.
"Someone is down there!" we would whisper to each other, "a ghost, a prisoner, or a terrible ogre, or some fearful creature that has been walled up?" but we never dared ask who was shut up there in that well. I do not think we even wanted to know, the glorious terror of the thing was better left unexplained. Boom, boom, boom! and our hearts would beat excruciatingly; we would hold each other's hands and try not to hurry past or look afraid. Boom, boom!—what could it be?
To-day I know as little as I knew then what made that well, tank or reservoir, beat in that uncanny way, but in imagination I like to feel again those delicious shivers of fear we felt when we stole with hushed tread past the haunted place.
There was another corner which filled us with a feeling of dark mystery, but this was in the house itself.
I do not know if Eastwell House was as huge as it seemed to us children, but it had many unexplored parts and rooms into which we had never penetrated. Leading out of the marble-flagged hall was a broad, shallow front staircase of very dark wood, but there was also a back staircase. "No place for little girls," declared our governess, forthwith making of the back-stairs a place of burning interest, a land of discovery and dark possibilities we longed to explore.
It was a very terrifying place, that back staircase; it gave you the shivers as did the well near the lake, because it went deep, deep down, it seemed to descend into the very bowels of the earth. Looking over the railings, or rather, at that age, peeping through them, giddiness overcame you and you had to turn away. But as soon as you had looked away, something stronger than fear impelled you to look back again, to take another peep, because, half-way down was a mysterious corner which the servants called the "Glory Hole," and this of all places was a place "not for little girls." As far as I remember, the "Glory Hole" had a curtain before it instead of a door, which flapped backwards and forwards and there was always a light burning on the other side, so the "Glory Hole" must have been a very dark place. Like the well, even to-day I really have no clear idea what rites were perpetrated down in the "Glory Hole." Was it a pantry of sorts? I cannot say, but to our childish imagination it was a private little "Hell" peculiar to the back-stairs, and we even imagined that it had a particular smell. Probably it had, but it was too far down, I think, to reach up to our inquisitive noses!
If we were discovered by the authorities peeping down over the back-stair banisters towards the "Glory Hole" we were quickly driven back to regions more in keeping with "nice little girls" as we were reprovingly told.
Oh, there is so much that I remember, though it was all so long ago. The Highland cattle for instance, those wide- horned, large-eyed creatures sauntering placidly over the path that led through the park to church. Lovely creatures they were, all curly, sometimes sand-coloured, sometimes chestnut, sometimes black, and their coats were so long that the hair hung in fringes over their foreheads. This gave a rugged and at the same time an almost childish look to their faces and somehow it was those fuzzy fringes that reassured you; it made their expressions so kindly that you almost forgot the startling dimensions of their horns. They would stand as still as statues contemplating with raised heads and gentle eyes our goody-goody little procession, prayer-books in hand, winding its way to the House of God.
And the deer, whole herds of them grazing on the grass, or suddenly scared, scampering away into the woods. There was nothing more wonderful than to pick up during our rambles bits of their fallen horns, bleached by exposure to sun and wind; these were carried home and considered great treasures.
And one day we discovered a hollow tree with a big, big hole in it. It really must have been a very big tree because we three elder sisters as well as our brother could all four of us sit inside this hole. Of course we had to crawl into it on hands and knees, but inside there was room enough for the lot of us, and this hollow tree, for a long time, was the very centre of our games. Endless marvellous possibilities had arisen in our lives because of this wonderful refuge. We were Robinson Crusoe, we were Robin Hood and his followers, we were Red Indians or pirates and goodness knows what else.
In the middle of our round and rather dark retreat there was a lump of wood which hung down, disturbing our perfect comfort and we decided that to get rid of it we must either use an axe or a saw. Such implements were not to be had for the asking, so we had to plead with our father to procure us the tool needed, and I well remember his answering that we could take a saw if we liked, but that he absolutely forbade an axe. "An axe would take off a finger at one blow," he declared, "whilst you would soon enough stop sawing if you began sawing your finger!" How well I remember his saying this; some sentences remain with you all through life.
Papa was a "rare" person, by which I mean that he did not occupy himself actively with his children; he left that to Mamma, but occasionally he would, so to say, discover us and then he would invent some game or amusement that he seemed to enjoy as much as we did. He invented a thrilling game for the winter evenings; the lamps were all put out and Papa would hide in a dark corner pretending to be an ogre. We never knew in which room he was. With fearful trembling we would crawl through the ink- black chambers and suddenly, when all danger seemed over, he would spring out from somewhere and catch us whilst we screamed as though he were really going to eat us up. It was a gruesome game and gave us the real thrill that danger gives to adventurers.
One day, rare occurrence, there was a tremendous fall of snow and Papa took us out for some tobogganing down a hill near the dairy. That was wonderful. I think it was the first snow I ever saw, and what child can resist the fascination of snow? But in England snow never lasts—it came and went like a scarcely realized dream.
But I also remember some skating on the big lake, and although we were but wee wobbly beginners, I can still feel the rapturous ecstasy of launching forth upon the shiny surface. The keen winter air made your eyes water and painted your cheeks and nose fiery red, but it was beyond words glorious. How I remember, too, the crumply round black velvet caps, trimmed with dark Russian sable which we wore for this memorable occasion; these becoming little caps still further enhanced the pleasure of skating as did also the sip of the hot cinnamon-flavoured red wine which was given us as the sun sank in the West.
Likewise of delightful memory was the apple- and pear- house, and I can still almost taste the aromatic flavour of the huge golden pear the gardener selected for me off one of the shelves where the fruit stood in tempting lines of green, red and yellow. Last but not least there was the excitement of Christmas!
The Christmas tree was set up in the big library, whilst the presents were laid out on white-covered tables all round the walls of the room. But what mysteries went on beforehand! Papa, especially, became tremendously important at this season; he liked occasionally to take things in hand, and became himself as eager as a child. But like all men he was excessively meticulous and could get very angry if the smallest detail he had planned was not religiously adhered to.
One of the fore-thrills of Christmas was the stirring of the servants' plum pudding. This ceremony took place in the steward's room, and also in the official part of the stables, because house and stables were two separate realms and one never dared overlap the other. The etiquette amongst the servants of a well-organized English household is all-important. An enormous bowl was set upon the table and each child had to have a "go" at the stirring, which was a stiff job, but of immense consequence.
At last Christmas Eve was there, and the library doors, which had been kept closed for several days, were thrown open, and there stood the tree, a blaze of light, and all around upon the white-decked tables, one mass of gifts for everybody, no one ever being forgotten.
Oh, glorious moment of realization! And rather shyly, holding each other's hands, we children advanced towards all that light, till we stood in the very centre of it, were part of it ourselves.
For many, many a year the thrill of Christmas held good, the days of secret preparation beforehand, the mystery, the whispering, the hushed silence before the closed door and then the sudden fulfilment in a blaze of candlelight, accompanied by that delicious fragrance of singed fir-branches so inseparable from Christmas. Later the trouble and care of sorting, preparing, organizing became our share; the thrill, the ecstasy of fulfilment had passed over to the younger generation, but all through my life in the far land of my adoption I tried to make the Christmases I arranged as much as possible like the Eastwell, and later the Malta Christmases. For those will ever be the Christmases that remain most unforgettable to me.
I feel I dare not pause too long there where my recollections are enveloped in a haze of enchantment, due in a great part to distance and also to that wonder world in which children alone can dwell.
But something of that child-faculty of seeing pictures within pictures, depths within depths, mystery and romance in the every day, has been mine all along my road. It is the blessed faculty of beautifying things, of rendering more interesting events and people, of drawing out light rather than shade. It is the optimist's attitude, a bit trying to the pessimist, or so I have been told, but although I belong to those who see reality with "peeled" eyes, I nevertheless perceive in all things the possibility of beauty instead of the sordidness people to-day seem to delight in. I see the good in people rather than the bad, the pity and pathos in wickedness and sin, rather than the crime; far rather would I help with kind words than punish with a rod.
Weakness some may declare, but I would rather call it strength. Severity? Yes, when absolutely necessary, but seven times at least, if not seventy times seven, would I give my criminal the benefit of the doubt.
If this speciality of mine is going to be an irritation to you, then throw down my book straight off, because you will meet this spirit of optimistic tolerance all through its pages, till the very end, I hope!
Quite lately I met a delightful American who was already seventy years old; he came to Roumania to see me because he felt from afar in sympathy with me and my attitude towards life. I asked him what he was doing and he answered: "Travelling about from one country to another to know people, because all people are lovable if you really know them, be they English, American, Chinese, Hungarian, Hottentot or Zulu. I am going to spend what days are left to me in trying to make people at least like each other, if love is too big a word!"
And that old gentleman and I clasped hands. "I thank God," said I, "for sending me someone who put my own thoughts into words!"
And now back again to my childhood, for you must still patiently follow me along more than one road, and I suppose I had better introduce you to some members of my family if this is really to be the story of my life.
The most important person, of course, dwarfing all others, was Grandmamma, Queen Victoria, "Grandmamma Queen" as we called her, in contrast to "Grandmamma Empress," my mother's mother, after whom I was called, whilst Ducky had been called Victoria after Grandmamma Queen, the name of Melita being added as Ducky was born on the enchanted island of Malta; but more of Malta anon.
I believe that Grandmamma Queen had expected that I, as eldest daughter of the family, would be given her name, but Mamma felt that I must be called Marie, a name which, because it was her mother's, was dearer to her than all others, and I must say I love my name; Mary or Marie, there is something eternal about it, because is it not the name of the Mother of God?
I do not think that my mother always found it easy being Queen Victoria's daughter-in-law, though they had a great respect for each other. Mamma had been brought up at the most autocratic of courts, the splendour of which had to be seen to be realized. She had been the Emperor's only daughter and her position had therefore been exceptional. Now she was the wife of Queen Victoria's second son and all her sisters-in-law, even the unmarried ones, had precedence over her, having rights to the English throne. I believe my mother felt this rather sorely, but I was too much of a child then to know about any of those things which perplexed or upset grown-up people. My mother kept all worry and conflict from us, we lived in a real fool's paradise. It was perhaps not a very good training for the future battles of life, but I thank her for it, all the same, with every fibre of my heart do I thank her, because with that life which she helped us to lead, she sowed a seed of idealism in my soul which nothing, nay, neither conflict, disappointment, disillusion nor stern reality, was ever quite able to uproot.
My mother had been very severely brought up, and she herself had strict ideas upon education and behaviour, but there was at the same time a wideness of mind about her which made of her an exceptional woman, and above all her generosity was extraordinary. Of course she was wealthy, but she gave even beyond what it was reasonable to give, gave and gave, to big and small, to rich and poor; her very reason of existence was to be able to give.
She made us wonderfully happy, so of course we children imagined that she was perfectly happy herself. But later on I found out that she had never been really happy, or at peace with herself; many things tormented her, she did not take life easily. The tremendously severe upbringing she had received, the care expended upon her that her education and instruction should be in every way complete, the great and somewhat oppressive influence her own religion, which was the Orthodox, had upon her, all went to make her dissatisfied and critical with herself. Outwardly she may have appeared haughty, a stickler for form and proud of her rank, but inwardly she was humble, always tormenting herself, tortured with the idea that she had never lived up to the ideal set for her by her parents and those who had educated her.
But none of this did we notice as children; later on, however, when life little by little opened my eyes to most things I began to fathom my mother's real character and the moral conflicts that she had been through, and how she never really felt at peace with herself.
She clung to her Church with all her soul, and no matter in what house she lived, a little Orthodox chapel was erected in some corner of it, and she always kept in her service a Russian priest and two chanters who followed her wherever she went.
We children were brought up in the Anglican Church, and I believe it was a lifelong grief to my mother that we were Protestants. Sometimes, though, she would take us into her little chapel, where, awed by the mystery of rites foreign to us, we stood gazing as in a trance at the precious icons, at the wondrous three-doored screen which shut off the altar, inhaling the heady fragrance of the incense and listening with beating hearts to the grave, soul-stirring Russian chants. The Russian language is the language of languages for song, and Russia is the country for stupendous bass voices.
The mystical atmosphere of these little sanctuaries impressed me deeply. I never felt an urge to change my own religion for that of my mother; but standing beside her whilst she prayed and devoutly crossed herself in her own chapel, made me feel very near the Holy of Holies, and the ardent expression of belief lighting up my mother's face during these services, moved me in a way difficult to describe.
The fact that she worshipped God in a way different from us, surrounded her in my imagination with a special nimbus; it made her just a little unapproachable, strange, not quite belonging to the everyday world. Scrupulously respecting the faith we were christened in, she rather shunned speaking of religion with us, fearing perhaps to influence us in any way. But there was also, I think, a feeling that we might not understand the beauty of her cult, that we might not approach with sufficient reverence that which was so fundamentally part of her inner being. So a certain shyness always existed between us when discussing or referring to religious matters.
Curiously enough, fate was later on to put the same problems before me, only the other way round.
I always remained a staunch Protestant, but all my six children were christened in my mother's religion as it is the official religion of their country, and it was one of my mother's most excruciating anxieties to see if her daughter would be equal to the difficult task, always fearing that I might not feel sufficient reverence for her Church, which she instinctively considered superior to mine.
I shall return later to religious questions as I have pondered much over them, coming to my own conclusions. I would, however, like to say here that my children and I never had that same diffidence about discussing religious questions as my mother and I had, for nowadays children and parents speak more easily to each other.
My mother had been brought up with the conception that generations must be kept strictly apart, and any more familiar attitude of child towards parent was in her eyes a want of respect.
Even now, one of my deepest regrets is that because I was her daughter she never admitted, even when I was forty, that I should discuss things with her as though we were equals. She would not bridge the generations.
And yet I have the feeling that both of us would have found infinite comfort in discussing life's problems together, in mutually confessing to each other what we had found hard or perplexing on our so different roads, both of us having married into foreign lands.
Because of that attitude of hers I seldom dared approach her for advice, because I always to a certain degree had to keep on a mask whilst with her, because she never lifted hers.
Many a useless little comedy have we thus played to each other, she pretending not to know those things she knew as well as I did, and what was worse, knew that I knew that she knew! And yet our masks were on all the time.
Had she the same desire as I had to tear them off? This has remained unanswered. Yet I dare to say that had she only been able to treat me as a woman, forgetting that I was her daughter, I might at times even have been a help, because my none too easy apprenticeship in a far-off country had taught me much; but to the very end she would admit of no wisdom coming out of the mouth of the babe she had brought into the world.
Nowadays we talk freely with our children, we let them have ideas of their own, we will even occasionally allow them to give us a lead; we do not abuse our rights as elders, we have more sympathy with their struggles, conflicts and desires. Are we preparing a stronger and better generation? I wonder. Sometimes perhaps we swing too far round in the other direction, we recognize too many rights, too much freedom; but that may also come from the fact that parents themselves do not grow old as quickly as in our times; they feel themselves to be no more than middle-aged much longer than used to be the case.
About all these problems I have my ideas, and through having lived, seen and felt, I have come to many a conclusion, but I shall never in this one small book be able to relate, explain or argue out all that I have thought and learnt.
But suppose we now come back to Queen Victoria.
Many have already written about that great little woman, have described her, dissected her character, her reign, her personal value. Far be it from me to want to paint any other picture of her than the one that fitted into my life, the picture of her as my childish eyes saw her and in later years the eyes of a woman, young and far away from her native land. In these days she was following my career with grandmotherly affection, but also with the anxious severity of one who wished that those of her House should do it every honour, no matter where they were placed.
Dear old Grandmamma, with her crinoline-like black silk dresses, her white widow's cap, her shy little laugh and that little shrug of the shoulders which had become almost a trick, what a wonderful, unforgettable little lady she was.
The hush round Grandmamma's door was awe-inspiring, it was like approaching the mystery of some sanctuary.
Silent, soft-carpeted corridors led to Grandmamma's apartments which were somehow, always approached from afar off, and those that led the way towards them, were they servant, lady or maid, talked in hushed voices and trod softly as though with felt soles.
One door after another opened noiselessly, it was like passing through the forecourts of a temple, before approaching the final mystery to which only the initiated had access.
Wonderful little old Grandmamma, who though such a small, unimposing little woman to look at should have known so extraordinarily how to inspire reverential fear. Our nurses would drive us along before them like a troop of well- behaved little geese, they too having suddenly become soft- tongued and even their scoldings were as words breathed through a flannel so that all sharpness was taken out of their voices of reproof.
When finally the door was opened there sat Grandmamma not idol-like at all, not a bit frightening, smiling a kind little smile, almost as shy as us children, so that conversation was not very fluent on either side.
Inquiry as to our morals and general behaviour made up a great part of it, and I well remember Grandmamma's shocked and yet amused little exclamations of horror when it was reported that one or the other of us had not been good.
I have a sort of feeling that Grandmamma as well as ourselves was secretly relieved when the audience was over.
But there was a wonderful charm about Grandmamma's rooms which always smelt deliciously of orange-flowers, even when there were no orange-flowers about the place.
First and foremost there were portraits of Grandpapa, portraits of every kind. Pictures and prints, statues, statuettes and photographs. There was Grandpapa in full general's uniform. Grandpapa in his robes of the Order of the Garter, Grandpapa in kilt, in plain clothes, Grandpapa on horse-back, at his writing-table, Grandpapa with his dogs, with his children, in the garden, on the mountains. Grandpapa with important-looking papers in his hands, Grandpapa with his loving wife gazing enraptured up into his face. Grandpapa was certainly the first and foremost spirit of these rooms.
Then they were so excitingly full of every imaginable treasure, from the glass ball in which many colours could be seen, to the wonderful pictures by Landseer of dogs, ponies and deer. And so many photographs, amongst others mysterious photographs of dead people, even of dead little children which, although they made us feel creepy, we always furtively looked at again and again. Then there were all sorts of delicious queer little objects made of Scotch granite and cairngorm. And above all there was Grandmamma's bullfinch, such an angry little fellow, who became thin with rage, and screeched at you when you stuck your finger in between the bars of his cage; but when he liked someone, he puffed himself up till he looked like a round ball of fluff and then he piped softly and enchantingly a gay little tune he had been taught.
Once upon a time I had a little bullfinch like Grandmamma's, but that was much later and is a sad little story, oh, so sad, and does not fit in here.
These explorations round about Grandmamma's rooms could only take place if it was Mamma who went with us, because then Grandmamma talked with Mamma instead of with us, and their conversations were more lengthy and more substantial, giving us time for our voyages of discovery.
It is especially the Windsor rooms and corridors I remember; at Osborne and Balmoral Grandmamma generally used to be met outside.
Like all overworked people Grandmamma loved to escape at certain hours of the day from the hushed "royalness" of her apartments, so whenever weather permitted she would take her breakfast and tea out of doors.
It is principally at Frogmore and Osborne that I see Grandmamma at breakfast under a large écru green-lined and green-fringed parasol which had been fixed into the ground.
Here, too, everybody approaching her trod softly, but it was on emerald-green lawns instead of carpets, and in the open air one was less afraid of the sound of one's own voice.
A delicious fragrance of coffee and of a certain brown biscuit which came in flat round tins from Germany was characteristic of Grandmamma's breakfast. Our greedy little noses sniffed it in longingly, but it was not always that we were invited to have a taste.
Grey-kilted and green-kilted Highlanders or white-turbaned Indians mostly seemed to be attending to Grandmamma's wants, though the tall monumental footmen also had their place in the picture, I remember, as had also the numerous dogs: collies, Skye, Scotch and rough-haired terriers, and above all the adorable cream-coloured pony with pink nose and ruby-red eyes, harnessed to Grandmamma's pony carriage, the exact replica in miniature of the huge state horses that were harnessed to Grandmamma's golden coach when she drove to Parliament or to Westminster Abbey on days when great events took place.
Oh, that cream-coloured pony, he has haunted many of my childish visions. In dreamland I possessed him, I even rode him through marvellous countries, over the classical seven hills and seven dells in the land of fairies. Swift as the wind was his gallop, no noise did his four hoofs make, whilst mane and tail were real rivers of light.
The moment breakfast was over cups, plates, coffee and tea-pots were cleared away to make room for innumerable leather dispatch boxes. Each box had a protruding slip of paper, indicating the contents I suppose.
These dispatch boxes seemed almost a part of Grandmamma herself.
Osborne! The very name is still a joy. It meant summer holidays, it meant the sea and the seashore, it meant wonderful shells to be found when the tide was low, shells of every colour and shape. It meant glorious bathing when the tide was high, and drives in the big "wagonette," as we called our brake, through the sweet-smelling woods, past hedges full of honeysuckle.
And it meant dear old Grandmamma Queen in the background. Grandmamma Queen at breakfast under her écru green-fringed parasol, surrounded by dogs, Indians, Highlanders, and also an aunt or two in nervous attendance or occasionally a curtsying lady-in-waiting, in correct black, all smiles and with the mellowed voice usual to those who served or attended to the great little old lady.
It also meant the beautiful terraces in front of Osborne House where the big magnolias grew against the walls, those giant magnolias which had a lemon-like fragrance and into which you could bury your whole face, but which you never dared pick, because they were far too precious and exotic for childish plunder. Even when faded and their petals turned to a sort of leathery brown, they still kept their delicious scent and then their curious hard-pointed centres became very prominent; they really were mystery flowers, as also were the passion flowers with their cross in the centre and the many stamens laid flat in a perfect circle like the wheels of a watch. There was also jasmine on those terraces and jasmine has always filled me with a sort of ecstasy.
That feeling of ecstasy over flowers has always been one of the enchantments of life; I feel it to-day as I did then. It is a sort of rapture, a sort of prayer-like gratitude for something which delights soul as well as body, eyes as well as heart.
I must speak of that curious sensation of ecstasy that certain things always gave me. Once, much later, talking them over with my sister Ducky, I found that she had almost always felt the same raptures I had for exactly the same things.
It was a sort of tightening of the heartstrings, something that brought tears to your eyes and at the same time made you want to shout with joy or fall on your knees and worship or sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
The causes responsible for these ecstasies were manifold and varied. Some had to do entirely with the eyes, some with scent, some with sound, some entirely with feeling. These were more mysterious and less easy to fathom.
When I begin to sum up my childish ecstasies, many will make you smile, but thçy were so strong that even to-day I have only to shut my eyes and they still take hold of me with the same power as then.
There was for instance the indescribable thrill of reaching the Osborne beach at low tide; the stepping out of the wagonette before the coastguard's little castle, with the ever-renewed possibility before us of finding wonderful shells.
The sand lay white, damp and smooth beneath our bare feet and half buried in this sand were these treasures only waiting for discovery. It was always Ducky and I who shared these raptures.
Our hearts beat, our eyes glowed; each step might mean marvellous discovery. The fan shells were what we searched for especially, and one day I found a broad, pink fan shell, pale rose pink, with deeper markings; it was a stupendous find, much bigger than the fan shells generally picked up on the Osborne beach, more like shells found in the tropics. Ducky and I considered this find almost a miracle, it was a red-letter day, a date always to be remembered; and others envied my luck.
But now you may smile when I mention another of my several ecstasies, thrills you might almost call them.
Mamma had two pairs of magnificent coal-black Orloff trotters, which Prince Orloff himself had given her as a present when she was in Russia.
Their coats were incredibly shiny, like polished marble, and when they moved, blue lights played about on their glossy flanks. Our coachman was called Robert. He was a wizened little man with a thin set face that had a sort of frozen smile at one corner of his mouth. He drove with impeccable English correctness though he always leaned a wee bit towards the off-side; that was a characteristic of his; of course we children loved Robert.
The most beautiful of these Orloff trotters was called Viceroy, but in the stables he had the nickname of Skitty because he was skittish and difficult to handle. Skitty was the object of our deepest adoration. Everything was perfection in Skitty, the way he held his head, tossing the foam from his jingling bit, the way he lifted his knees, the marvellous line of his rounded flanks, but—and now comes my ecstasy—there was a wave in his mane as he curved his beautiful neck, a sort of ripple that ran over it whilst he trotted and that I could just see if I bent right out over the side of the wagonette to watch it.
No position was too dangerous if I could only catch a glimpse of Skitty's curved neck and that ripple in his mane as he trotted. It was a sort of rapture that cannot be described or explained, but only felt from the crown of your head to the tip of your toes. It was ecstasy in fact: that is the only word that describes it.
You can laugh to your heart's content; I am well aware that it is absurd, but that curve of Skitty's blue-black neck was and has remained in memory, one of my most exquisite ecstasies.
There was also the deep, soul-satisfying ecstasy of the wild rose, pink and frail, with a perfume so delicate that it might have been distilled by the Fairy Queen herself. In fact the wild rose was a fairy flower and has always remained so. And also the primroses in the copses, those rounded pale yellow bunches, nestling amongst last year's fallen rust-coloured leaves.
There are no primroses in Roumania, but a few years ago when my daughter married and went to Serbia, I found primroses in all the woods round about Belgrade.
My delight was so great that my children always invite me for the primrose season and those delicate pale bunches, rising from the rust-coloured ground, still ravish me to-day as they did in those far-off days of Eastwell, Windsor and Devonport, the three chief places where we used to pick primroses.
Blessed, blessed faculty that God has given me of being able to thrill with every drop of my blood, with heart, soul and senses, to feel, adore, rejoice and give thanks!
But now a humble confession! Although this sounds horribly material, I have also known ecstasy of taste!
I was never a specially greedy child, but all the same certain tastes could induce the same rapture as scents, sounds or sights, and these tastes have also remained unforgettable.
There were, for instance, certain little sweets only to be had at the Russian Court. These were wee double round fondants made of fresh strawberries and served up in tiny paper baskets. Their colour was as exquisite as their taste. The very moment when you lifted them off the dish on to your plate was one of enchantment, your mouth watered even before you tasted them. The "fore-pleasure," as the Germans would express it, was almost as wonderful as the actual eating of the sweets. This was fairy food, and whenever I told a story to myself or to my sisters, my imaginary personages always ate these super-exquisite sweets.
Two more "tastes" have remained with me as a delicious memory. One was at Queen Victoria's table.
Every Sunday Grandmamma had more or less the same menu served, which had roast beef as pièce de résistance, and "Mehlbrei" as sweet dish.
This was almost a nursery dish and when it had to receive an elegant French name the cooks would call it bouillie de farine à la vanille. But Grandmamma, who was sentimental about all things pertaining to Germany, admitted German names on her menu, so plain "Mehlbrei" was allowed.
The deliciousness of this "Mehlbrei" was heightened by little diamond-shaped pieces of brown skin which floated on the top. The taste of these little squares of skin, which was simply the top part of the bouillie slightly burnt, belonged to those things that for some reason gave my palate exquisite satisfaction. I would shut my eyes and let the wee morsel lie for a moment on my tongue so as to taste it to the utmost.
The tragedy was that there were very few of these floating little squares in each dish, and as I was very young I was of course served one of the last and it more than once happened that when my turn came, the little squares had all been already consumed by those luckier and more privileged than I. In fact, to be accurate, I think only once did I taste of this ambrosial food, but the memory has remained for ever, so it must have been specially exquisite.
And there is still one last "taste" I must mention.
This last was at Coburg where we had an old nursery footman named Wiener. Wiener was as excellent as he was undecorative. But he had a warm heart and he loved children, and like all people who have a soft spot in their hearts for the little ones, he liked to feed them on good food.
Now Wiener had a cousin who kept the restaurant at the Kalenberg (the Kalenberg being one of the royal castles beyond the town). Like all self-respecting German castles the Kalenberg stood on a hill, and at its foot, in accordance with Teutonic tradition, there was a restaurant where the worthy burghers made merry on high days and holidays, and Wiener's cousin ran this plebeian "Kaffee" as it was also called, and this cousin made a special sort of cake.
If you have never tasted the Kalenberg cake, it is no good trying to make you understand its perfection.
It was delicious beyond description and its rareness added to its value, for it was only occasionally that Wiener's Kalenberg cousin would send the little princesses one of these dream cakes.
To look at the Kalenberg cake was in no way wonderful. It was a plain brown cake, just like the cakes you see in the pictures in all German children's books, in "Struwwelpeter" for instance. The sort of cake that Fidgety Phil drags off the table with him when he collapses under the tablecloth, after a special fit of the fidgets and his mother, aghast, contemplates the disaster through her "lorgnon."
The Kalenberg cake had no raisins in it, and it was into the bargain called, I believe, "Gesundheitskuchen," which ought to have robbed it of all its charm, but its crust especially had just that something about it that made it more luscious than any other "living" cake.
I would eat my slice deliberately, with a slowness which was infinitely greedier than any gobbling, and I would nibble it away gradually to the top where resided the summum bonum of taste. This very last top bit of the Kalenberg cake belongs to the same category of "ecstasy" as did the strawberry fondants and the little squares of burnt skin on Grandmamma's Sunday "Mehlbrei." But they had also something of the thrill, though more material, I confess, that the primroses, the wild roses and Skitty's mane gave me, Skitty who was really called Viceroy according to the enamelled plaque over his box.
Those who have similar remembrances of their childhood will understand what I mean, those who have not must just forgive me my trivial digression and turn to another page.