To most of us a queen is solely a queen. A vague, aloof person who rides in state and is concerned only with crowns, ermine robes and palaces filled with servants in plum-colored livery. . . But to Marie, now Queen of Roumania, her grandmother, the famous Queen Victoria, was simply—"Grand-Mama," and just as much to be loved and caressed as that little white-haired lady, who used to delight in making you ginger cookies. Here, then, is Queen Marie's intimate story of Victoria, "Grand-mama Queen," whose reign marks one of the most brilliant periods in English history, told as only a granddaughter who worshipped her as "grand-ma" and not as Queen, could tell it.
WHEN we look back upon our childhood, all memories come to us through a haze of mystery. Everything seems larger, deeper, further off, full of unrevealed possibilities, unexplained.
In later life things never come to us quite in this way.
And looking back I see Queen Victoria, or Grand-Mama—"Grand-Mama Queen," as we used to call her to distinguish her from that other Grand-Mama in far-off Russia who was "Grand-Mama Empress"—and I see "Grand-Mama Queen" come towards me down the long, long corridor leaning on her stick. She is all in pouchy black silk, with a white widow's cap on her head, and she is a tiny, weeny, old lady, quite, quite small and very sweet and demure in her manner.
Tap-tap goes her stick—and as the long Windsor corridor has a bend in it, I hear the tap-tap long before I see her herself. It is extraordinary how the tap-tap of that stick could make our children's hearts beat. Then she was there before us, and though she was tiny, we were in those days tinier still, and she bent towards us to kiss our foreheads whilst we kissed her hand. She was being helped along by an Indian dressed in scarlet, or was it by a Scotchman in kilts? No, that was still longer ago—in later years she always leaned upon the arm of one of her Indians. "They have such a soft touch" she used to say.
Grand-Mama! . . . . and her voice was shy when she talked to us, even her smile was shy, for strange as it may seem, Queen Victoria had something shy about her till the last days of her life. She had tiny, even, white teeth and just a wee foreign accent when she spoke; and she filled us with awe.
Yes, awe! That is the only word that adequately expresses it. She was like a living legend; all around her was a halo of royalty that made you feel her presence even a long way off.
She was not an imposing figure; she was not beautiful to look at, nor haughty, nor gorgeously dressed, but she was "royal" through and through—astoundingly, fearfully royal. Old and young felt it; her family, her servants, her subjects and, so to say, even "the stranger within her gates." Her personality must have been tremendous because all that had to do with her was imbued with that awe-inspiring feeling.
Her ways were simple; she herself was simpler still, and yet what a thrill it gave us to see Queen Victoria's outrider come trotting down the "Long Walk" or turning out of one of the hedged lanes on the Isle of Wight, just an oldish man in plain black livery on a sleek, grey horse. Trot-trot he came, at a sober, equal pace. There was about the sound of that trotting horse something which reminded us of the tap-tap of that stick heard before Queen Victoria herself appeared round the bend in the corridor.
The Queen's carriage passed, and in it a simple old lady, quite small, who smiled kindly right and left upon those bowing or courtesying to her; and yet about the graciousness of those smiles there was something that put miles of distance between her and those lesser mortals who trod the ways of this earth.
That sober, unshowy dignity was the tone of all her court. Everything was slightly hushed, all colors were subdued, no one talked loudly; all things seemed padded, to run smoothly, noiselessly like the rubber wheels of her soft-springed barouche.
You never saw very much of her, yet her personality filled everything. She was the spirit around which all revolved, the very heart-beat of her house, and when her already aging sons and daughters whispered the name of "dearest Mama," it had in it the sound of a belief before which one and all uncovered their heads.
Her shut door was like the entry to some temple. You felt that behind that closed door breathed something of tremendous importance, something one dared only to approach with bated breath and deadened tread.
And yet when once over the threshold, there was nothing frightening about her room at all. It was large and sunny with big windows looking out upon the greenest of green lawns, and the light streamed into the spacious room unhindered by curtains or blinds.
For us children that room was a regular Treasure Island of discovery. According to the taste of the day it was a very full room, crowded with tables, pictures, photographs, portraits and a thousand and one souvenirs stood row upon row in every corner, treasures collected during a very long life full of honors, events, griefs and joys. Perhaps it was not a very beautiful room—the Victorian age is not noted for the excellence of its taste—but seeing it still through childhood's eyes, I see it fearfully and excitingly interesting, especially the corner where the bullfinch throned in its shining cage, and another infinitely more mysterious corner where there were pictures and photographs of all the dead Uncles and Aunts, and even of little children with withered flowers under the glass which protected them, and sad colorless little curls of hair.
We were a little afraid of that particular corner; it gave us pleasant little shivers and its fascination was much heightened by the agreeably nervous feeling of having penetrated into a place not really meant for us. And Grand-Mama's room always smelt deliriously of orange-blossoms even at seasons when no orange-blossoms could possibly be in bloom.
We would crawl about between the furniture and from time to time Grand-Mama's high-pitched little voice would call out to us not to tease the bird! The bullfinch was a tempery little fellow and always again our children's fingers had to be stuck through the bars of its cage to make it rage. It would swell out its feathers till it became a fat red and grey ball and it would really screech. Yes, really screech! This screech was irresistible, but at the same time it gave us away to Grand-Mama who did not wish her favorite's peace to be disturbed. Grand-Mama also had wonderful collies, old and young ones, and there was a special Highlander with a kind face who looked after their weal and woe.
In the dining-room when Grand-Mama and the grown-up members of the family were at lunch, we were allowed to play on the floor with a huge box of bricks. I have a grateful remembrance of those bricks.
They were oblong slabs of wood, all exactly of one size and we used to stand them up in long curving lines just as many as we had, then when the row was long, long as several trains joined together, we would tip the first and . . . .rrrr. . . . with a quite special sound down they would go one after another, each brick knocking over the one before it. Still, today, I can feel the delicious thrill of that moment when . . . rrrr. . . . they all fell in quick succession like a regiment of tiny little men running very quickly along . . .rrrr. . . . and there they lay quite flat, waiting to be stood up again. With a child's love for repetition we played this game endlessly, over and over again—which to our nurses' relief kept us quiet and good during all the meal.
Nurses played a great part at Grand-Mama's court; there were so many grandchildren! Their white pique dresses bristled with starch; they made deep courtesies and generally their necks or bosoms were decorated with large golden lockets or brooches given to them by "the Queen." Their smiles were genuine or anxious according to the behavior of the royal children they were anxiously herding like faithful collie-dogs.
Queen Victoria was very fond of fresh air; she was fundamentally healthy and thrived in draughts that made the most intrepid shiver.
I have inherited Grand-Mama's profound contempt for draughts and when reproved for this disagreeable superiority I proudly beg people to remember that it is a direct throw-back to one greater than I! No weather could keep Queen Victoria at home. In rain, wind, sleet and snow she would drive out, each day at the same hour, and in an open if you please!—with a shivering member of the family or a respectful lady-in-waiting sitting at her side. And those drives were several hours long. Trot-trot would go the grey mounted out-rider and trot-trot, the sturdy, sober greys of the carriage would follow at an even pace.
Personally, probably because they fell but seldom to my lot, I thoroughly enjoyed these drives, especially in Scotland when Grand-Mama took tea out with her in the carriage and we used to go to some far-off place amongst, the hills, to some dark-watered "loch," or to some little forlorn stone house she had had built on the edge of a heather-covered hill-side.
After I married I saw Queen Victoria less often. My destiny had taken me far away, but as long as she lived she followed up my career with never-failing interest, and with a watchful eye.
She was keenly interested with all that had to do with the home of my adoption, and when we did come together, she would ask many a searching question as to my behavior "down there," and I thought I detected in these questions a keen desire that I should be worthy of the royal traditions she had endeavored to implant into her descendants scattered far and wide over the earth.
And when, many years later, on the day of my own coronation, a modest one compared to hers, in a small new country in comparison with her mighty Dominions which she had ruled over for more than sixty years in her own right, I kept thinking of her, of Grand-Mama Queen!
Would she have approved of me? Would she have said: "Well done, thou faithful servant"? Would she have smiled over me her shy little smile and given that well remembered little shrug of her shoulders? Would she have acknowledged that I had done my best, that I had been faithful, patient, long-suffering, a builder, one who carries on a fine old tradition of which she was the most luminous example, and in which she believed?
And if she had seen my two little Queen-daughters standing beside me would she have been pleased?Grand-Mama Queen, would you have been pleased?