AS children we thoroughly disliked London and each time it was a grief when the season came for leaving Eastwell and the joys of the country for Clarence House, for smuts and smoke and gloomy walks in the Green Park, which we abhorred.
Clarence House forms one block with St. James's Palace and shares with it a broad strip of garden overlooking the Mall.
One of the miseries of London was the mess one always got into because of the smuts. Any fall on London soil meant great black stains on clothes, knees or stockings. There was also about it a special greasiness I cannot forget.
We dearly loved, for instance, being taken to play about in Buckingham Palace gardens, instead of walking in the dreaded Green Park, but the mess we made of ourselves was so great that smocks were always taken with us and put on before our games began, and taken off when we recrossed the road on the way home.
Buckingham Palace gardens were huge and had delightful mysterious corners in them, besides quite a large lake.
One of our favourite haunts was the part where a big aviary stood on a sort of little hill overgrown with incredibly smutty bushes, which hid it from sight. This hill was the dirtiest, blackest part of the whole garden, the many birds living there adding greatly to its messiness.
But there was a charm that never palled about this grimy spot. We called the aviary hill the Alps, and blissfully imagined that we were mountaineering, which consisted of climbing its black greasy sides or sliding down them till we became filthy beyond description. Besides this it was the covert of birds of every kind, peacocks, silver and gold pheasants and every sort of duck and goose which used to swim about in the lake. Wonderful feathers were found upon our "Alps," enchanting treasures of indescribable colours, but none outshining the peacock's feathers, which always remained the most fairy-like and astounding, with their marvellous eye and divine colouring.
I have only a shadowy recollection of the games we played, but they were wonderful and exciting and had a whole story woven into them and each season they were taken up anew. We were imaginative children and each had a part which we played as conscientiously as possible. I must confess that I never accepted a minor part, I was always one of the principal if not the principal figure, and certainly if there was a queen in the plot I always played that rôle.
We loved dressing up and my idea of a queen was having a very long train dragging behind me over the floor. But here on the "Alps" other parts were played, trains being out of place. We were robbers and explorers, pirates and path-finders and what not else! But I remember my indignation which had specially to do with "trains" when I was told that the peacock, who strutted about so victoriously through our smutty domain, was the male, not the female. According to my imagination the peacock was the queen of the bird world and the beautiful tail he carried behind him was Her Majesty's court train; what use could a man, even a bird-king, have for such a magnificent train?
When, later, Rostand wrote his celebrated "Chantecler," I was much amused to see that, imbued with the same feeling about the logic of dress, he made his fésane wear her lord and master's plumes.
Clarence House garden was much smaller and far less interesting than Buckingham Palace garden. It was tidy and had no mysterious corners except quite at the far end where a certain old Prince of Leiningen and his daughter Feo had a studio for sculpture. This part of the garden belonged to St. James's Palace and not to Clarence House, but there was no division between the two except a few scraggy trees masking the wooden barraque of the studio.
This was a world for discoveries where you could pick up marvellous chips of marble that looked like hoar-frost covered snow, and where you could flatten and blacken your nose against large panes of glass, peeping in upon the mysterious work going on behind the windows.
Here we discovered extraordinary figures, some in clay, some in red terra-cotta, some in marble with little black spots all over them, and some swathed in dirty sheets or towels which made of them haunting apparitions. There was also a special smell of wet earth and plaster, not pleasant but irresistible, because we felt that it meant something, exactly what we did not know, but there was something of "creation" about it, something to do with the eternal "potter potting with his thumb."
Although we only realized this vaguely, subconsciously we felt that this "something" had to do with the clay which from all ages has been used for "creation," for modelling shapes which had secret life in them. Perhaps Pygmalion might have explained, but he, alas, was not of our times, and the old Prince of Leiningen, master of these premises, although some sort of uncle several times removed, was not a welcoming personality and did not encourage us to poke about in his field.
Clarence House was not without charm, though it was hopelessly smutty and everything you touched made your fingers black. It had an odour all its own, a mixture of fog, oakwood, cigarette smoke and a certain Russian scent Mamma used for burning in the rooms. There was also a particular perfume peculiar to Mamma's own apartment, a most satisfactory fragrance of Russian leather and cedar wood which had something to do with the furniture she had brought with her all the way from St. Petersburg.
The greatest attraction was a shadowy corner in Mamma's bedroom where she had hung all her holy images.
With the utmost reverence, not unmixed with curiosity, whenever we dared we would creep towards this corner of mystery and contemplate the many wonderful icons.
Three of the most venerated were crowned by diamond rays that were fixed above the heads of the saints like small suns. Each sun had a wonderful gem at its centre, a large sapphire, ruby or emerald. The glamour of these holy pictures cannot be described; all Russia's gorgeousness seemed to shine from these incredibly brilliant diamond rays, fixed above the saints' heads. The corner the shrine stood in, being dark, made it all the more thrilling.
And here a little lamp always burned beside the pictures of my mother's parents on their death-beds, burned like a steady eye watching over mysteries small children might feel but not fathom.
Besides the icons there were also two pictures in Mamma's bedroom that enthralled us; one was of a lovely woman, also evidently a saint, carrying a little catacomb lamp in her hand, the light of which was thrown up on her face from below making it look unearthly and transparent. The other, also hanging in a very shadowy nook, represented a corner of the San Giovanni degli Eremiti Cloister of Palermo. It was just a few columns with a pumpkin plant growing over one of them and a big pumpkin resting on part of the balustrade. The sunlight on the picture was wonderfully done, bringing out the difference between light and shade in an astonishing way. This picture had a special fascination for all of us children; there was something deeply mysterious and satisfactory about it. I think that it is my sister Ducky who to-day possesses this picture.
I have never forgotten certain pictures seen in childhood, they have remained for ever impressed upon my mind.
One I would like to speak about to-day as I can still see it as vividly as I did then when I was quite a small girl.
If I remember rightly it was in an annual picture exhibition at Berlin. Why we were at Berlin, a town we hardly ever went to, I cannot explain, and all the details have remained perfectly hazy. I cannot even recollect with whom I was, or who took me there, and I only remember two pictures.
One picture was of a small child in poor clothing, stroking with infinite compassion a dead deer hung up against a wall. On the child's face was an expression of loving pity and somehow I felt, when looking at that picture, exactly what the child was feeling.
But the other, the unforgettable picture, was a large-sized Italian water-colour with the title "Mia Povera Maria"—you see I even remember the title.
It represented a sort of bare chapel all in rough stone, perhaps the fore-part of a church, in which a flower-covered bier had been stood. A dead girl lay upon the bier. Her face was waxen, her hair black, and one could just see her folded hands amongst the flowers.
A young man in peasant dress lay, face hidden against the coffin, in an attitude of overwhelming distress. In the background crouched an old, witch-like woman warming her hands over a brazier, watching the man's grief with eyes too tired to express sorrow.
The picture took hold of me utterly. I could not be moved from before it. There was a world of grief in it which stirred me to my very depths; besides, it was certainly the painting of a great artist. It is a picture that has haunted me ever since. Many years later I found somewhere a photograph of this picture, but never, alas! did I see the original again.
There was never anything morbid in my nature, but all pictures of grief or of dead people moved me strangely, especially the pictures of silent grief, and I would always buy these pictures if I could.
I remember taking tickets for a lottery in that exhibition with the ardent hope of winning "Mia Povera Maria" although it was probably not in the lottery at all. But for years I dreamed of what would have been the joy of possessing that wonderful water-colour.
But now back again to Clarence House.
Over the principal staircase hung the large head of an elephant my father had shot, in India I think; his trunk almost touched one as one passed, and in the hall stood a bear on his hind legs, a huge, savage-looking beast holding a small tray between his front paws on which visitors left their cards for the gentlemen-in-waiting. All the corridors were full of trophies of different shoots in distant countries, and there was also a figure in Japanese armour, with a grinning mask. We did not like this ugly fellow with the empty eye-sockets. But what we dearly loved were the two official drawing-rooms which were not often used. One was called the Chinese drawing-room and was full of curios Papa had brought from China, beautiful old weapons and bronzes, ivories and embroideries, and also, as far as I can remember, a few precious jades.
Papa was a great collector of antiques and also quite a connoisseur. When he died, his collections unfortunately did not come to us, but for some reason were taken over by Uncle Bertie, then still Prince of Wales.
The second big salon was full of treasures Mamma had brought from Russia, all sorts of objects carved from the many semi-precious stones from the Urals: dishes and vases, bowls and cups, Easter eggs and whole writing-and toilet-table sets, in particular a valuable collection in the much-prized Orletz, an extremely hard stone, dark pink with streaks of grey.
We loved fingering these treasures, but it must be added that we were generally severally enjoined not to touch. I cannot, however, affirm that we always respected these orders, the temptation was too great.
Memories of London are of several periods. The Buckingham Palace garden times were when we were very small, and these glorious gambols were severely interrupted by days when stiff walks in the Green Park (which was quite near Clarence House) were de rigueur.
We loathed these walks with an absent-minded governess who was as bored as we were. Besides, what irony to call it the Green Park when we were severely kept off the grass which was railed off by a black iron paling a foot high. There was no virtue in the Green Park except the virtue of walking in it. No interesting people ever walked on its hard little paths, nothing ever happened, nothing was ever seen in that deadly dull place, only once, by a piece of unexpected good luck, I picked up a wee little bronze idol, about an inch high. That was a tremendous find, and is the only agreeable memory I have of the dreary Green Park. This absurd little idol is still in my possession. I wonder who could have dropped it there?
Outside, beyond the dreaded confines of this dreary park, almost opposite the entry to Buckingham Palace stood the balloon man. He was an everlasting hope. On days when Mademoiselle was in a good humour she would discover pennies in her pocket and then we would march triumphantly home with airballs of different hues, a small procession of happy little people crowned with globes of colour. But these were rare days, generally Mademoiselle's pockets were as empty of pennies as her heart was of mercy for our boredom.
What extraordinary joy these balloons gave. I loved the pink ones best. There was a delightfully nasty smell about airballs, irresistibly nasty, so that we were for ever rubbing our noses against them. And how curiously warm they were to the touch! And when you drew your fingers across their taut surface they gave out a peculiar sound, half squeak, half groan.
Of course we always dreamed that our balloons would be long-lived, but they were inevitably as ephemeral as butterflies. There were three mishaps peculiar to balloons; they would burst or die away gradually, becoming thin, limp and wrinkly, or they would escape out of your grasp and fly up to the ceiling where they would float, mocking you from their height, the symbol of happiness just beyond reach.
But blessed be the memory of these balloons! They only cost a penny, but there was a whole fortune of joy within their frail globes. Pink, blue, green, orange, red, violet, they were bubbles of enchantment, representing the summum of our desires, beckoning to us from just beyond the gates of the Green Park, the unloved.
Belonging to this period was also a curious fear we suffered from, for children have strange fears.
The Clarence House stairs were very steep, rather like the back-stairs at Eastwell. Papa and Mamma gave occasional dinners; many people came to these rather rare feasts which were an occasion of excitement to the nursery authorities.
We used to be packed off to bed, and then Nana would steal away to the head of the stairs and peer down upon the procession of guests going in or coming out of the dining-room, or climbing the stairs towards the drawing-room after the meal was over.
The beauty of the ladies' dresses and the magnificence of their jewels were a special source of interest, and were commented upon for days afterwards.
But we children, left in our white cots to go to sleep like good little girls, suffered tortures from some sort of cruel hallucination that Nana was going to fall over the banisters whilst looking down upon the guests.
This idea tortured us. It became indeed a veritable nightmare, till occasionally we would, like Wee Willie Winkie, steal out in our nightgowns to assure ourselves that the terrible disaster had not taken place.
When we caught a glimpse of her alive and well, looking down, deeply interested in what she saw beneath, we would scuttle back to our beds again like frightened white mice.
Nana was kind but severe. Her face was of the heroic type, with clear-cut rather hard features of a somewhat imperial cast. Like all self-respecting nurses of the old type, she ruled with a rod of iron and kept us in almost military subjection.
Nana had invented an instrument of torture called "the strap," which was nothing but a strip of leather the end of which was cut into many fingers. This strap was used for whipping, or was supposed to be used that way, but I cannot remember its ever having been really used, but it always hung on one or other of our beds as a warning to the unruly.
There were two "straps," a brown and a black one, and for some reason we decreed that the black strap was much the worse of the two; it was the chief bogy.
Nana was also of the days when medicines were not made pleasant to take. They had to be accepted in all their unalloyed nastiness and three of these have remained nightmare memories. There was, first and foremost, castor oil, which used to be taken out of a warmed silver tablespoon, for none of Mamma's castor-oil pills ever found their way to the nursery. Then there was Gregory powder, which was a gritty, orange-coloured rhubarb mixture and used to be stirred with horrible deliberation in a small wine-glass; it was a loathsome concoction and the imbibing thereof was a tragedy that never went off without scenes of revolt.
The third of those remedies was called "Grey powder," which was bad enough but all the same the least of the three evils and would be given in a spoon sweetened by red currant jelly, which has made that particular jelly impossible to me for all time.
Ah, but I was forgetting another gruesome mixture which was called Syrup of Squills, which was inflicted upon you when for some reason it was considered necessary that you should be sick. Syrup of Squills never failed to produce this probably salutary but certainly unpleasant effect.
Nana, presiding over the medicine chest, had the grimness of the Fates deciding over human destinies.
How clearly I still see her, and also the black and brown "straps" hanging as sinister warnings against any insubordination at the foot of our beds.
Outside our night nursery, in the corridor, stood an old grandfather clock which played a chime each time it struck; that, with Big Ben booming out into the night, are two sounds peculiar to nursery days, to its joys and fears, its hopes, tears and revolts.
And dear old Nana Pitcathly was the grim goddess of the nursery, as Mademoiselle was tyrant of the schoolroom, whom we loved less than Nana, though, looking back, I believe that Nana was much the severer of the two.
My memories of the Clarence House schoolroom are of several sorts. It was a long-shaped rather narrow room with a flat open fireplace at one end, and faced Stafford House, then inhabited by the Duke of Sutherland.
I do not remember much about our lessons, but I remember having experienced a real London fog in this particular room, a fog so thick that one could not even see the fire burning at the farther end of the not very large room.
Mademoiselle wore spectacles, she turned her feet out when she walked, she was highly religious and was too good friends with the lady-in-waiting, a certain Lady Emma Osborne; a super-refined, unmarried gentlewoman, prudish, protesting, and, I am afraid, in league with Mademoiselle to disapprove of the Duchess's foreign ways and ideas.
I remember two things about Lady Emma, her most exquisite hands, very pale and white, with tapering fingers, and a special dress she wore of violet velvet trimmed with swansdown of the same colour; we much admired this dress. Her greatest virtue was that she smelt deliciously of some excellent scent that was particularly agreeable to my fastidious nose; it had something to do with verbena, I think.
But Lady Emma, being a spinster, disapproved of children in general and of us in particular and was for ever coming out into the corridor to scold us for making such a noise. Unfortunately her room was on the same landing as the nurseries and schoolroom and she spoiled many of our games, especially as she and Mademoiselle were such strong allies.
One sad little schoolroom incident must be related as it has to do with education and has also a moral in it.
We each of us kept a so-called scrap-book in which we stuck our Christmas and Valentine cards (for in those days one still sent and received Valentine cards, nice shiny ones with pansies or forget-me-nots on them and with edges of paper perforated to look like lace), and a pot of paste was kept with which to stick in these cards.
There was something special about this paste. First of all it looked so appetizing that you felt inclined to eat it, but it was its delicious perfume that endeared it to me. There was an exquisite odour of bitter almonds about it that for some reason was infinitely satisfying to my nose. The fat pot with this treasured paste stood in a small cupboard.
There was a certain hour in the evening when we had to prepare our lessons for next day. Occasionally we were put into separate rooms so that we should not be tempted to talk instead of working.
One evening I was alone in the schoolroom puzzling over some dull problem, and ever and again my thoughts wandered towards the cupboard with the pot of paste. Ever greater became the attraction, it was like a magnet drawing me towards the cupboard. If only I could take one sniff at it, I was sure my brain would clear; besides it would be liberation from an obsession which left me no peace.
Children have curiously delicate consciences. After all, it was not such an awful misdeed to get up and take a sniff at a pot of glue, but somehow I felt that it belonged to those things that were "not done." But alas! after having manfully resisted for some time, I rose from my seat; the magnet was drawing me with a force I could no longer deny, so I crept like a thief towards the fatal cupboard, opened the door with trembling fingers and plunging the fat brush into the still fatter pot, I filled it with thick white paste, and, shutting my eyes so as to lose none of the ecstasy, I took a long, soul-satisfying breath of the perfume I so adored.
Steps in the corridor. . . . Mademoiselle! As one committing a crime or theft I hastily laid down the fatal brush and dashed back to my seat, putting on, as the door opened, as innocent a face as possible.
But I suppose I was a bad actress, sincerity, not ruse, was my speciality. Mademoiselle felt, guessed, smelt that something was wrong. She looked at me, she stared at me; I felt that I was blushing but I tried to go on with my work as unconcernedly as possible, my nose close to my book, as though nothing had happened. But in vain.
"Princesse, qu'avez vous fait?"
But Mademoiselle was not so easily put off. Her bespectacled eyes searched the room, up and down, the floor, the ceiling, the furniture, the walls . . . and suddenly with a pounce she was beside the cupboard, its door was ajar.
She pulled it open, and there, on the clean white paper of the shelf, lay the revealing brush, fat, heavy, sticky with paste. Not in its pot as it should have been, but, of all dreadful things, on the nice clean white paper. Ugh, what a mess!
Drama followed. I did not try to deny my misdeed. I had left my seat. I had sniffed at the precious paste, it was I who had laid the brush down in a hurry, yes, on the paper instead of in the pot. If only I had had the presence of mind ţo put it back into the pot there would have been no proof against me, but the world is full of ifs.
The long and the short of it was that the crime, for some reason that even to-day I cannot fathom, was considered great, and as punishment I had to stand before Mademoiselle with outstretched palm and was given three cuts with an ebony, brass-edged ruler, which was both painful and humiliating. It was in fact the only time in all my life that a rod was ever used in my education.
According to my ideas, the "punishment did not fit the crime" and the remembrance of this chastisement still rankles.
Probably Mademoiselle was in a bad temper that day. Moral: governesses must avoid being bad-tempered, but little girls must not care overmuch for sweet scents, there is the seed of perdition in this weakness, nor must they at the wrong moment lose their heads and deposit sticky paste brushes upon clean white paper, instead of back into the pot.
Anyhow it is a sad story and I hate the very memory of that black ruler with the four shiny edges.
But there are also pleasanter remembrances of the Clarence House schoolroom. It was there that I had my first taste of toffee, and it was there that "Les Malheurs de Sophie" and many another enchanting book was read to us.
It was also from this room that we used to hear the Life Guards or the "Blues" pass on their way to change guard.
They passed with a jingle of metal which could be heard even when the window was shut. But what a torture it was to remain glued to your chair instead of jumping up to look down upon their extraordinary perfection!
From afar one heard the tramp of horses' hoofs approaching. They were coming. Nearer, nearer, now one could hear the champing of bits, the sound of metal against metal, the clinking of chains, and by their very sound one visualized how bright and shiny they were. Nearer, nearer! Now they were just under our windows, the narrow street reverberated with their tread. Then fainter and fainter would the glorious tramp become, they were moving away . . . away . . . they had come, passed and gone.
To the later London period belonged the rides in Hyde Park, a wonderful advancement.
At Eastwell we had possessed one pony for all three of us, a fat, irresistible animal called Tommy. The three of us shared Tommy, taking him in turns.
Our rides on Tommy had been most unscientific, crudely instructed by a groom or coachman, but they had from the first taught us the "feel" of a horse, taught us to be fearless and above all given us the idea that we could ride, and this is half the battle.
In London an absurd old riding-master, called Mr. Lumley, had been excavated from somewhere and he it was who polished up our knowledge, first round and round Clarence House garden and finally, to our delight, we were allowed out into the field of our dearest ambitions, Rotten Row. It was old Lumley who provided the horses for these rides.
I cannot exactly remember what age we were then, anyhow we were small mites and our joy and excitement was huge.
Never shall I forget the sensation of gleeful enchantment it was starting off on these rides, accompanied by the careworn Mr. Lumley in top-hat, with something of the air of an anxious hen about him. A fearfully correct old hen, though, correct with the correctness that can be attained solely by riding- or dancing-masters.
First came the opening of Clarence House gateway, presided over by the dear old porter, Mallet, I think, was his name, and past our private policeman who was a great friend of ours (or was the policeman's name Mallet?). This was followed by the sound of our horses' hoofs on the wooden pavement of the street, luckily for us beginners a very quiet by-way; there was the turn into the riders' road leading down to the Mall, past the Green Park, and all along its hated paling opposite Buckingham Palace garden wall, through the archway at the end. Then came the most ticklish part of the whole business, the part which made old Lumley the most anxious, the safe steering across Hyde Park Corner into the Park itself, and finally the reaching of the precious Row with all its expanse of sand, opening out before you a real paradise of hope, an endless promise of gallops not unmixed with just a thrill of apprehension to make them more exciting.
Ducky and I had decided, so that there should never be any discussions or quarrels, that once and for all she, being the taller, would ride the bigger horse, I the smaller, never matter what their looks might be. In this way she sometimes had the better horse and sometimes I. As far as I can remember, Sandra, as we called our third sister Alexandra, used in those early days to ride Tommy, the safe, reliable, irresistible Tommy who also followed us later to Malta.
Those rides in Hyde Park were bliss. Old Lumley was sometimes cross and always absent-minded, but he could not damp our spirits. His legs were thin, his face looked mummified and his meagre grey hair was brushed forwards under his top-hat to hide his sunken temples. Old Lumley was in fact rather a pathetic figure.
I think he must have given lessons right into his ripest old age, for many years later, when quite emancipated from riding-lessons, I met him again in the Row and greeted him with a shout of recognition. He looked at me with a blank stare as though we had never shared the joys and the cares of the Row together. I suppose I was more changed than he was. In his days I was a wee girlie, now I do not know exactly what I was—Nicht Fisch und nicht Fleisch, as the Germans would have said. But I was sadly mortified to be cut dead by my old riding-master. His face was more careworn than ever, he had perhaps become just a little drier and thinner but otherwise he had not changed at all.
Into this period enters also a certain amount of theatre-going. This joy fell but seldom to our share but when it did it was a tremendously exciting event.
The very smell of a London theatre and of the beautiful bouquets we would find in our box when we arrived, what joy! There was a kind of dark velvety red rose very wide open, with rounded petals, specially characteristic of these bouquets. In Paris these roses are now sometimes given to me, but they immediately carry me back to the London theatres and to that glorious sensation of excited expectation before the curtain went up.
One of the plays I best remember is Macbeth, with Irving and Ellen Terry, a wonderful representation; but the apparition of Banquo's ghost was so appallingly well done that for nights afterwards we could not sleep without a light in our room.
Ellen Terry, with her long red plaits, was a lovely incarnation of Macbeth's fierce queen, especially in the scene when, all in white, she came down the stairs walking in her sleep and trying to wash the blood off her hands.
But my mother could not stand Henry Irving and my father disliked him still more and tried to make us see his affectations, especially his stage limp and his snarl in the scenes when he simulated anger or rage. In spite of these criticisms, we children had a sneaking liking for Irving, even at his worst.
I shall never forget what living interest the gallery in England took in any drama; the villain was always hissed or whistled at, whilst the hero was applauded not for his acting but for his actions.
We also saw Irving in a very sentimental piece about Charles I; all to the advantage of Charles I, of course, and we, naturally being stout Royalists, loathed Cromwell with all our souls.
But our hero of heroes on the stage was "Lord Harry," played by Wilson Barrett, who was, according to our ideas, the very incarnation of all that was most perfect, man and hero blending into one. Wilson Barrett was Lord Harry.
This piece was also of the sentimental kind. Lord Harry was a brave, virtuous, beautiful, self-sacrificing Cavalier, splendid enough to satisfy our dearest dreams of perfection. He ravished us so completely that for years we cherished the memory of this play, and whenever asked what we would like to see, it was always Lord Harry, till finally Mamma, although she too was an admirer of Wilson Barrett, sent us to see Charley's Aunt instead.
This gross farce made us laugh till our sides ached, but all the time we regretted Lord Harry. No allurement could drag us away from our ideal, and this no doubt was provoking to our elders who knew that there were plenty of other fascinating plays to be seen besides Lord Harry.
We infinitely preferred drama to comedy and although we laughed with all our hearts when taken to the latter, we considered it a waste of those rare and precious theatre treats, if we were taken to a funny play instead of to something heroic, in costume.
Shakespeare was appreciated and accepted from the first, as was in later years Schiller at the Coburg Theatre, both, I fear, more for the story and fine display than for any beauty of language or verse.
Later the opera cut out even the drama.
Before I leave London I want to mention some of the servants, for servants always play a big part in children's lives.
My mother had two, what in royal households are called "pages," one of whom was old Hutchins, an old-fashioned servant with clean-shaven chin and long whiskers. A pompous old fellow was Hutchins, but entirely our slave. The other was called William Smith. He was of the "Haw-haw" kind, clean-shaven, smart, over-good-looking in a massive, florid way, probably a lady-killer in the steward's room, and I should say inclined to be vulgar in private life, which we children instinctively felt, especially after having found a drawing made by William of a lady who showed more leg than was the fashion in those more ceremonial and polite days. This drawing gave us a shock and William was, I remember, much upset at its having fallen into the royal children's hands.
The butler, or steward as he was called in our house, was a gentle, soft-voiced man with the name of Gardener, but he has remained very shadowy in my mind; I only see him hovering in the background, pale and refined, holding the string of his pince-nez between his fingers, a pince-nez he only put on when reading small print.
William the hearty and Hutchins the bewhiskered were much the greatest realities in our lives.
When we were a little older, it was we who did the looking down over the banisters when there were big dinner-parties and Nana who held on to our dresses from the back for fear we should come to grief.
Hutchins looms large in my recollections of these occasions. When the guests had gone into the dining-room we would creep down into the two favourite and seldom-used drawing-rooms, where all the Chinese and Russian treasures were accumulated, and there, with impatience, we would await old Hutchins who stole up between the courses to bring us exquisite tit-bits from the feast downstairs. Mamma had instituted on these occasions the Russian "Zakuska," which was a great success. Delicious crumbs from the rich man's table found their way through Hutchins to our greedy little mouths. Once, however, he made the mistake of bringing us a little piece of toast with caviare. This was termed "disgusting stuff," and I regret to say was disposed of in a manner we afterwards never dared confess. We threw it down from the top of the back-stairs upon a cupboard which stood on the lowest landing! I do not know how long that piece of toast and caviare lay mouldering undiscovered on that cupboard top. We could not see it from so far up, especially as the cupboard had a sunken top.
Wonderful games were played in those two drawing-rooms before the guests came up. Here was a moment when I could be a queen to my heart's content. I would find some bright-coloured curtain or table-cover, which, fastened round my waist, would trail gorgeously behind me over the ground, and for some reason I liked to call myself the Queen of Spain: that name had about it something both historical and adventurous, which sounded well in my ears—it was grand and dignified, and had a smack of les châteaux en Espagne.
Ducky usually played the part of my husband, my son or my horse, or all three in turn, according to the necessities of the game.
Ducky always played the heroic, brave, self-sacrificing parts, and was almost always a male. There was something heroic about Ducky, even at that early age; something a little sombre. She was the one who espoused causes, she was the "fore-fighter," the one' who discussed and resented, who allowed no nonsense, and had no patience with frauds. She immediately spotted any insincerity and let nothing pass. Tall for her age, she was strong and rebellious, but like the strong she was also a defender of the weak and oppressed, and sometimes she even espoused lost causes with a bravery that we less heroic ones admired without imitating.
I on the contrary was always inclined to let well alone.
As for sister Sandra, she was in those days a fat, harmless child, sweet-tempered and fair-haired, who followed her elders' footsteps, eager mitzumachen, but humble before reproof.
We two elders treated her with a certain imperious off-handedness which had no unkindness in it, but which overruled her timid desires, offering her the parts she was to play in such wise that she could not but accept them. Later she chose her own parts, but not then. She was, however, also permitted to be a queen, and perhaps in self-defence, on those special evenings, married old Hutchins, which gave her a feeling of security and enabled her to hold her own against the Queen of Spain with her husband, her son and her horse!
It was a glorious game in which each played her part seriously, actually becoming the personage she was impersonating, but Sandra had often to relinquish the support of her "husband," who had to hurry down to serve the next course.
Well before the guests (ladies first) came up to the official drawing-rooms, we were hurried off to bed.
Music had no great part in our education. Mamma confessed to me later that her one desire had been to have a Wunderkind. Her ambition was that one or the other of us should have some startling talent, music, painting, singing, dancing, mathematics, anything, so long as it were tremendous. When none of us showed any disposition to become anything out of the ordinary she gave us up as lost causes and disappointments; it was no good, therefore, educating such little nonentities in any special way, so our ear was never formed and for a long time we had execrable taste in music.
But all the same I can remember the shiver of real joy that ran through me when Mamma sometimes sat down at the piano and played.
She had white, plump, short-fingered hands; her touch was exquisitely soft and velvety. Her playing was like running water. I remember especially a Romance of Rubinstein and a posthumous Prelude of Chopin which used to melt my heart within me. So I must all the same have "felt" music even at that early age.
Ducky, and later baby Bee, were the musical ones of the family. I had talent only for drawing and painting, a talent which my other sisters shared, but there was a time when I was first in this art.
It was Mamma who initiated us into the joys of Grimm and Andersen, especially Andersen, whose fairy-tales are the fairy-tales of the world.
Mamma read beautifully, and could read by the hour, but she never allowed us to sit with idle hands, we had always to be working at something or other, crochet, knitting or drawing.
We loved above all the story of "The Little Mermaid," we wept rivers of tears over that eternally pathetic tale, and no matter how often it was read (for children always want to hear stories over and over again), each time it moved us in the same way.
Andersen has remained my ideal for all time, and to-day, when I myself try my hand at fairy-stories, I always try to write them à la manière d'Andersen, who better than anyone else knew his art and can wring both smiles and tears from the stoniest heart.
Mamma always spoke English with us. She would never teach us Russian, declaring that she did not wish to hear her beloved mother-tongue mutilated by her own children. She adored us, gave up her life to us, but for all that she had little faith in us; that was the strange, strange thing.
We were not Wunderkinder, so, even in later years, when each developed some humble talent of her own, although she encouraged us, it was always patronizingly and with a touch of contempt. She never took us seriously, we were of a younger generation, nor had we been educated as perfectly as she had been; and above all we were Protestants, and therefore some parts of our souls were shut off from hers.
Beloved, big-hearted, generous Mamma, built on grand lines, but always a seeker, restless in her own soul: one who, in looking for complete perfection, often almost unjustly overlooked what might have been true sources of joy, had she not always been hankering after an ideal implanted in her by those who brought her up.
Like all human beings, she was full of Sehnsucht, but she need not have been so lonely had she only trusted her children a little more.
One summer was spent in Scotland instead of at Osborne. This was the only time I ever went to Scotland and my memory of it is full of enchantment.
Grandmamma Queen, the all-powerful, had lent us a wee house called Abergeldie Maines, where we spent the first part of the summer with our governess. Later, towards autumn, Mamma came and we moved to a rather bigger house or cottage called Birkhall. I have but a vague vision left of this house, but it cannot have been a very big one as we all three, Ducky, Sandra and I, slept in one huge bed. This was exciting if not particularly comfortable. Two slept with their heads towards the top of the bed, the other with her head against the foot, her feet separating the other two sleepers. Why this arrangement had been found necessary I cannot explain, as I have no vision of the inside of the house except of that one bedroom.
But all the "outside" impressions have remained clear and luminous. We simply adored Scotland, with its low, undulating, heather-covered hills, its moors and burns, its mists and lochs. There was something infinitely poetical and just a little mysterious about it which touched some special chord in me. Much, much later, having discovered the books of Fiona Macleod, I loved them with the same intensity as I loved Scotland the only time I was ever there. There was something enveloped and hazy about it, something legendary, which powerfully moved the soul within me, something kindred to my spirit, if I may so express myself.
Curiously enough, extremes draw me. I feel the almost mystical charm of Scotland and at the same time I simply adore the South with its profuse luxuriant "gloriousness," and its occasional aridity. My heart is, so to say, torn between the two; different currents in my nature are attracted. Malta and Scotland are most fundamentally different lands, and yet both are almost painfully kindred to my soul. I feel them both, they almost torture me with the love they inspire in me.
No striking event marks that summer in Scotland, everything in my memory is hazy with a haziness akin to the Highland mists. Half-tones; browns, buffs, purples, grey, every possible tint of these, and the hills in the distance blue, that special blue which distance alone can attain, the blue of dreams, the blue of hopes floating on the horizon of one's consciousness.
And into these half-tones long rambling voyages of discovery over moor and hill, along quiet dales and beside the brown burns, brown with the brownness of certain hazel eyes that have in them a green light, and these little burns were full of red-spotted trout. Underfoot, stones, heather or moss; great soft cushions, grey and elastic, forerunners of swampy places. How we loved these lichen-coloured mounds of moss; we would endeavour to uproot them without breaking them in two, but when the difficult feat was achieved they were always too heavy to carry home. But there was something quite special about that grey moss; there were wide and often boggy stretches of it which gave the soil an eerie look, as though it were coated with mildew in great lumps, and this mildew colour blended softly with the horizon; there was no line separating the two; the whole world was hazy, indefinite, nebulous, it was as though you were advancing into a grey dream.
But above all there was the heather, that wonderful rolling carpet of purple, with an undergrowth of rust, which added that warmth of colour which so completely satisfied the beauty-loving eye. Over hill and dale, as far as gaze could reach, purple; a grand spread of violet, a royal mantle extended over this northern world.
There were also foggy days that covered you with a million tears, weighing your eyelashes down with heavy moisture, spreading a haze of dew over whatever you wore. Then too were dream walks in a world that had no definite shape, no definite colour, just spheres of cold vapour, with an occasional lifting of the veil, revealing shadowy flocks of sheep, phantom shapes moving over phantom worlds, with a spectre going before them slowly leading them into the land of wraiths.
Wrapped in their grey plaids, their collies at their heels, those gaunt Highland shepherds were indeed the spirits of the mist.
Grandmamma came to Balmoral in the autumn, if I rightly remember. This was the home of her heart. She dearly loved her "Scotchies," almost every inhabitant was a personal acquaintance and even the royal apartments were hung and upholstered with Balmoral tartan; carpets, chairs, curtains, everything was striped with greys, reds and black. This form of decoration was more patriotic than artistic and had a way of flickering before your eyes and confusing your brain.
Here also, though the life led in the Highlands was more cosy and homelike, less official and severe, Grandmamma spread that atmosphere so peculiar to her, here too her presence was felt in all things, even when she was not actually seen.
Queen Victoria! Even then she was becoming an almost legendary figure; how much more so, therefore, to-day when looking back upon her! She had lasţed so long that one could hardly imagine the world continuing to turn without her.
In a way she was the arbiter of our different fates. For all members of her family her "yes" and her "no" counted tremendously. She was not averse from interfering in the most private questions. She was the central power directing things. Even Mamma, who, according to us, was omnipotent, had to count with Queen Victoria, had to listen to her, and if she had not exactly to obey, had anyhow to argue out all differences of opinion. But as she was strong-willed and autocratic, I can imagine that these arguments were tough.
The grand little old lady in her white widow's cap and her flounced black silk gown, who seldom raised her voice, except when accentuating certain words, was a tremendous, sometimes almost a fearful force.
Right into their ripe years her sons and daughters were in great awe of "dearest Mamma"; they avoided discussing her will, and her veto made them tremble. They spoke to her with bated breath, and even when not present she was never mentioned except with lowered voice.
Looking back upon Queen Victoria, especially from these days of negation, I cannot help marvelling at the prestige she possessed. There was something fetish-like about it. I sometimes wonder if she realized this tremendous effect she had upon others, if she was conscious of that atmosphere that emanated from her, if it was really due to her personality or to the religious "hush" others created around her.
It is natural that children should be awed in the presence of one who was like the earth around which satellites circled, but that this should affect great and small alike is wonderful. Was it the times she belonged to, was it because she had lasted so long? Was it because she lived so shut away from the world, surrounding herself with that atmosphere of mournful abstinence from all joys of life? I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions, I was too young then, and later, when grown up, I saw too little of her. The fact remains that she was a tremendous presence, if not personality, and her places, whilst she breathed within their walls, had something of shrines about them, which were approached with awe not unmixed with anxiety.
There was also a quite special thrill when from afar you saw Grandmamma's outrider come trotting down the road ahead of her carriage. Grandmamma never drove without an outrider.
Solemn-faced, in a livery as impeccably black and neat as the clothes of a bishop, mounted on a stolid dappled grey, groomed to the superlative perfection only English stables can attain, this forerunner of the Royal Presence would appear round the bend of the road. Trot, trot, trot, trot, the very sound made your heart beat with expectation. That black-coated rider with a face that never smiled, never in fact expressed anything but almost magnificent reliability, was more uniquely royal and effective than any flare of trumpets or bright-coated military escort could have been. Trot, trot, trot, trot, and here was her Majesty's carriage drawn by greys as superbly sleek and well-bred as the one who had heralded their coming; and seated within the open barouche, a wee little old lady with an exquisitely old-fashioned hat and antediluvian, sloping-shouldered mantle, black, with sometimes a touch of white. Nothing showy about her, no attempt at effect of any kind, the whole turn-out simple, unadorned, but what a thrill the passing of that simple carriage gave you.
Trot, trot, trot, trot, deep curtsies, the waving of hands and handkerchiefs, smiles on every face, a responding smile from the little old lady in the carriage—only just a glimpse—but how the memory remained with you. Trot, trot . . . a diminishing sound. You stood staring after the carriage, the horses, the outrider, trot, trot . . . fainter, fainter . . . till it died quite away. . . .
We did not see much of Grandmamma during that autumn, but I remember one drive with her to a far-off loch amongst the hills, called Due or Dhu Loch.
Grandmamma's drives were a very essential part of her well-regulated life. She drove out every single day, no matter what the weather and almost always in an open carriage. No rain, storm or cold stopped her, her drives were as inevitable as sunrise or sunset, no event good or bad, not even a catastrophe seemed to make any difference to Grandmamma's drives. And into the bargain they were exceedingly lengthy drives.
Round about Balmoral Queen Victoria had had small stone houses built at the different spots where she was most fond of driving, and tea was often taken at one or the other of these little houses. She then returned home, if possible by another route.
The only time in Scotland I remember having been honoured by an invitation to drive with Grandmamma was to this far-off Due Loch, and my excitement was great.
I have but a vague memory of the road leading to the Due Loch, but the loch itself I can still see perfectly well. A small, dark, rather sinister-looking loch, lying deep amongst more or less barren hills, stony and grim. Legend would have it that the sun never shone on the Due Loch: that was why it was so sombre, so sad-looking, like a face that never smiled. I stood before its gloomy waters and stared at it with awe. It fascinated me, I felt that all sorts of stories could be woven around its secretive-looking gloom.
"Due" means mournful, and certainly some sinister tale was attached to this lake, but no one told it to me then and now I have no one to ask; the grown-ups probably never realized how much I would have liked to know why the sun never shone into the Due Loch! It is also probable that I never asked; children are often curiously reticent in asking for explanations about things that interest them, particularly when they have only overheard a conversation, and its story had not been especially told to them. They are afraid of making fools of themselves, not quite sure if they had been supposed to listen or not.
All my English uncles and aunts were curiously absent-minded. They only occasionally seemed to wake up to the consciousness that you were there at all; they also had a disconcerting way of seeming to draw you into a conversation, and when you responded, their minds had already wandered far away, and your timid answer found itself lost on the air, a poor forlorn and ashamed thing, suddenly despised and homeless.
There was no intentional unkindness in this, it was simply that at one moment you existed for them and at the next their thoughts had already taken such an entirely different channel that they simply felt and saw you no more.
But children want to be very much seen, felt and heard, and those who make you feel thinner than air humiliate you terribly.
Even our father had this absent-mindedness, characteristic of the family; he sometimes simply looked through you.
Mamma had one great joy at Balmoral. There were quantities of mushrooms, or at least what Mamma called mushrooms, but which people in England contemptuously termed toadstools. All Russians are great connoisseurs of mushrooms and in their country exquisite dishes are made of them. There is an especial kind with thick, stony stems and brown-grey heads. In Germany these are called Steinpilze and are a great delicacy. The kind Mamma gathered in such quantities at Balmoral were second cousins to these, poorer relations, but just as delicious when well prepared with a cream sauce spiced with a certain herb. This species has a predilection for growing under birch trees.
Mamma would bring home basketfuls of these, but to her great mortification the royal cooks only admitted the well-known common white mushrooms which are pink inside; all others were suspicious and nothing would induce them to serve up that "Russian stuff" on the Queen of England's table.
It was on this occasion that I first heard the expression "toadstool," which was certainly a most disdainful way of denominating Mamma's precious gatherings. She had much fun with Grandmamma over this, and finally, I believe, the royal kitchen was prevailed upon to cook these uncertain-looking vegetables and everybody, even the most insular inhabitant of the court, thoroughly enjoyed them.
In Russia, mushroom-picking is à veritable science, there are no end of good mushrooms (or call them toadstools if you prefer), and at an early age Mamma had made real experts of her children. We could, without the slightest hesitation, distinguish the good from the bad, the harmless from the poisonous.
Mushroom-hunting is good fun, but it was never my speciality. Ducky had inherited Mamma's passion for this form of amusement, and my daughter Elisabeth in her turn has continued the tradition, she can spend hours hunting for mushrooms. Somehow I was awkward about finding mushrooms, which was a great humiliation to me. I would bring only three or four to Ducky's dozens, and this I felt as a really painful inferiority, an inferiority that was well rubbed into me. I even remember a comic-tragic scene in connexion with one of these mushroom-hunts; but this was at Coburg, not at Balmoral.
Mamma had a Russian diplomat friend called Count Lamsdorf (nephew of the famous Count Lamsdorf), an exceedingly well-mannered, pale, fair, nice-looking young man. We little girls were not quite sure if we liked Count Lamsdorf; over-correct and rather effeminate, he was a frequent guest in our house, but his correctness never melted into anything more than tepid joviality.
One day we had all gone mushroom-hunting in a wood well known as good ground for that special kind of sport. Elegant and polite to a degree even out in the woods, Count Lamsdorf had also been enlisted amongst the ranks of the mushroom-pickers.
Everybody had found quantities except me, who seemed to have no eyes in my head. It was quite like searching for Easter eggs and I positively seemed to have been smitten with blindness. At certain moments the searchers came together from the different ends of the forest to compare their finds, but each time my basket was empty.
By degrees I was growing exasperated, but was for a time able to mask my discomfiture with a smile on the wrong side of my mouth. Little knowing how near the end of my patience I was, everybody began to tease me and I felt deeply humiliated.
Finally a signal was given that the search was at an end and everybody flocked together to examine each other's harvest. Mine was poor—I had hardly anything to show and the teasing began anew. Count Lamsdorf, who had been lucky, added his few polite words of mockery to the louder raillery of the others. But this was just too much. His innocent words made the cup of my bitterness overflow and to the horror of my mother and the discomfiture of my sisters, like the real little fool that I was, I burst into tears.
Dismay on all sides! I even managed to bring out a few words laden with resentment which I hurled at the head of the much-abashed count who, for some reason, had become in my eyes the chief offender. I am afraid that I was even thoroughly rude, for I was no longer mistress of my emotions.
Mamma used all the tact she could trying to pooh-pooh the stupid fuss I was making. The much-puzzled guest, full of remorse, pronounced words of humblest repentance, but I stolidly maintained my absurd attitude of offence.
Finally, taking me kindly by the shoulders, Mamma pushed me towards the mortified gentleman:
"Va, ma chère, embrasse le Comte et que tout soit oublié." Embrasse le Comte! Kiss him! Consternation. He was not a cousin nor an uncle; he was only a disconcertingly ceremonious gentleman with pale cheeks and paler hair, and much too polite to be looked upon as a friend. Kiss him—I was dumbfounded,
"Child, go on, don't make a fuss!" And there, with the whole forest as witness, with my sisters gaping at me open-mouthed but full of pity, I actually had to kiss that pale and over-correct gentleman, who, almost as shy as I, took off his hat—(Oh, I well remember that taking off of his hat!)—so as to meet worthily this scene of reconciliation.
But was it reconciliation? Ah,—there's the rub. It was an unheard-of happening, but reconciliation?
I am afraid that from that day onwards, poor Count Lamsdorf was a thorn in my flesh, and each one of his visits was a torture to the foolish little girl who was never again able to forget that, one day, with all the trees of the wood looking on, she had had to kiss him, an over-polite gentleman who was neither uncle nor cousin. . .
In childhood your parents' friends play a great part. Some you admit directly, they know how to gain your confidence, they become your friends too. Against others for some reason you nurse a certain prejudice, probably most unfairly, but you simply cannot like them, ţhey do not fit in.
Then there are those precious few who, even if they pay no particular attention to you, are passionately admired and adored from the first moment, sometimes simply because you admire their looks, and sometimes just because there is that strange inexplicable affinity between you and them, that magnetism which attracts beings to each other for no apparent reason—it just is.
All through life I was inordinately attracted to a beautiful face, and I remember certain guests who were received at Eastwell that shone with a star-like radiance that I never again forgot. They were real events.
Two women, very different in type, belong to this category. One was Lady (Georgina) Dudley, the other was Lady Randolph Churchill.
Lady Dudley, as also Lady (Helen) Vincent, has always remained my ideal of typical English beauty. There was a perfection about Lady Dudley's loveliness which is unforgettable though I saw her but very seldom.
Lady Randolph was a more flashing beauty, and might almost be taken for an Italian or a Spaniard. Her eyes were large and dark, her mouth mobile with delicious, almost mischievous curves, her hair blue-black and glossy, she had something of a Creole about her. She was very animated and laughed a lot, showing beautiful white teeth, and always looked happy and amused.
For some reason she and my mother were very good friends: I was much too young to know what attracted them to each other, because they were certainly very different, but we used to see them often together, and we entirely approved of Lady Randolph.
Mamma would play duets with her on the piano in the big Eastwell library. We were often in the room during the time, occupied with our own games, the two ladies absorbed in their music quite forgetting our presence. It still makes me smile to remember how one day Ducky and I were amusing ourselves with a pair of mechanical frogs which had been given to us, green tin monsters that when wound up, crouched, hesitating awhile, then made sudden, most disconcerting leaps at the moment you least expected. These frogs were an endless source of amusement.
I cannot recollect which of us hit upon the idea of setting these springing creatures under the chairs of the two music enthusiasts, but what fun it would be!
We well realized that, carried away on the wings of melody, they were entirely oblivious of our existence. From time to time, one or the other would exclaim at the difficulty of certain passages, there would be a second's hesitation, a little apologetic laugh, and then they would be off again as though their lives depended upon their fingers.
Softly we two miscreants stole over the floor, as quiet as mice, no sound revealing our nearness, and set our jumping freaks under the chairs of our betters. No two Red Indians could have made a more wily approach.
The springing creatures crouched, hesitated and sprang, right upon the heels of the piano players! It had been superbly calculated, the effect was instantaneous and complete.
Shrieks, laughter! And of course a scolding. But the scolding was drowned by the laughter and I remember Lady Randolph's white teeth and Mamma's apology for her children's misbehaviour.
Another peculiarity of Lady Randolph's was a special sort of comb that she wore at the back of her chignon, a light tortoise-shell comb decorated with little round knobs. This comb I admired tremendously; it certainly added to that Spanish look she had and was just exactly the sort of comb she should have worn.
Certain details of dress used to strike me at an early age and they still remain sticking in my memory whilst more important facts have been entirely wiped out.
There was, for instance, a ruby-red bonnet, oh yes, a bonnet, because in those days that was both the smart and correct thing for married ladies to wear. There was a great difference in my childhood between what a young girl and a married lady wore. In our times, the Granny can easily be seen in the same dress, or almost, as her granddaughter, dancing at her first ball! If I am exaggerating, forgive me, but I do not think that I am far wrong.
This ruby-red velvet bonnet that I remember was worn by a certain Frau von Königseck (who shall be spoken of later) when one day she came to meet my parents at the Coburg station. It was a quite flat affair with a broad bow on the top and was fixed by a piece of red velvet ribbon under her chin. Queen Alexandra was photographed in bonnets of this shape.
Frau von Königseck was neither elegant nor pretty, but her bonnet was, according to my childish appreciation, lovely, and has remained unforgettable to this day.
But there was especially a certain dress worn by an aunt during the time of Queen Victoria's first Jubilee that I still have in mind. The aunt was Louisa of Coburg, wife of Uncle Philip of Coburg-Kohary, brother of King Ferdinand of Bulgaria. She was the eldest daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium and one of the Grandes Elégantes of her time. Her love for dress, in fact, was what the Puritans would have called sinful, and was certainly ruinous and did much to make of her a difficult wife.
Otherwise she was a good-natured if somewhat foolish lady who loved to be paid attention, even if it was only to be teased by others. In fact, she was very much disappointed when one forgot to tease her. She wanted to be teased about her clothes, her habits, her ideas, her flirtations. She loved to be considered somewhat eccentric, which she was in a way that was innocent enough, had it not been so expensive.
We children called her Aunt Philipa, which, according to us, cleverly united her and her husband's names, Philip and Louisa.
Aunt Philipa was, because of the exaggerated number of her clothes, a grand source of interest to us younger ones. It was like going to the theatre. Even when she only came for a few days, she would bring so many hats that no cupboards sufficed, so she generally pinned them all the way up the curtains, as far as her arms could reach.
There was a memorable occasion at Reinhardsbrunn when two of her hats were burnt on a stove and one was eaten up by the dogs! Aunt Philipa was very fair and had the small eyes and long nose of her father, but all the same she was a decorative person in a showy sort of way and dress helped her greatly, though Mamma of course thoroughly disapproved of the eccentricity of her fashions.
She had a killing way of laughing, her nose playing a great part and her eyes nearly disappearing during the process; it was besides a slow laugh which began gradually and went on for a long time increasing in volume, even after everybody else had finished their laugh. She seemed to relish, so to say, the physical pleasure of laughing.
My parents poked fun at her all the time and this used to make her expand with a sort of childish glee. Her absurdities were discussed and everybody made a point of inquiring with exaggerated interest how many dresses, hats, cloaks, tea-gowns, etc., she had brought with her. Clothes in fact were her very raison d'être.
She would change her attire at every hour of the day, and there was always a little bag, or so-called reticule, to match each dress, and goodness only knows with what these mysterious little bags were filled; powder and paint, mirror, scents and sachets, smoking pastilles, nail polish, cigarettes, and so on. She was always fiddling about in her little reticule.
During the Jubilee she was our parents' guest at Clarence House, and her toilettes were the excitement of the whole household from the scullery-maid to the lady-in-waiting. The memorable dress in question was an astonishing creation; one mass of small beads shimmering between fire-red and sapphire blue. I had never before seen anything like this dress nor perhaps since! It was a "stunner" as the schoolboy would have said; it knocked you down and, as it was in the time of the bustle, it was not only astonishing as to colour, but complicated as to shape. She received ovations from all sides and, much gratified, started one of her slow long laughs that went on and on increasing in volume, whilst she screwed up her small eyes till they almost vanished.
Later on Aunt Philip a disappeared out of our lives and her end was less gay and brilliant than her beginning. Poor Aunt Philipa!
Before I begin describing our time at Malta, which is the happiest memory of my fife, I would like you to follow me on a flying visit to Russia, that great, mysterious, stupendous Russia of the Tsars, now so tragically a thing of the past, but which was Mamma's Russia.
You must forgive me if at first I show it to you as I perceived it through my childish vision, with all its phenomenal prestige and grandeur. A formidable erection of power and splendour, comparable to nothing else except, no doubt, the Far East which I have never seen.
Russia! My astonished child's eyes see gigantic palaces, wonderful parks, fountains, gardens. They see astounding family gatherings, military displays, religious ceremonies in churches all glittering with gold. They see jewels so fantastic that you can hardly imagine that they are real, quick trotting horses with flowing manes and tails, and their flanks so shining that you could mirror your face in them. They see whole regiments of Cossacks, wild-looking, but so picturesque that they could fit into the most fantastic tales. And some of these same Cossacks, standing in long red coats, high fur caps and armed to the teeth before the doors of their masters; their breasts are barred with cartridges stuck into silver braid, their heelless black boots have many folds around the ankles and pervade the atmosphere with a pleasant fragrance of Russian leather. My eyes also see long corridors, and, so to say, over-life-sized halls and drawing-rooms, opening out one into the other, and our feet patter timidly over wide expanses of floors, so vast and so polished that we have the impression of walking on ice.
And everywhere a quite special odour; a mixture of turpentine, Russian leather, cigarette smoke and scent, uniquely characteristic of these Imperial palaces.
Imperial is indeed the word, fantastic, fairy-like, legendary, mille et une nuits; all superlatives are suitable and permissible in this Russia of the Tsars, this glamour-filled Russia that is no more.
And it is Mamma who is leading us little English girls by the hand, leading us into all this; Mamma who came out of it all, who belongs to it still, Mamma who makes the sign of the Cross in her own chapel of the many images, which is but a tiny reflection of the huge glory of Russia's churches which once were hers.
Because all this was hers, before she came to sober England. That giant with the grey hair and closely cut whiskers, with the rather forbidding face but kindly eyes and mouth, is her father, the Emperor, and those younger giants, so many of them that you get quite bewildered, are her brothers and cousins and the other older giants are her uncles. They all bend down to kiss you in turn, they have far to bend because they are tall like trees, and they all smell deliciously of Russian leather, cigarettes and the best sort of scent. I remember them always in uniform, and they are altogether wonderful and unbelievable, quite like people out of fairy-stories that you did not imagine really existed till you went to Russia, Mamma's Russia, the home from which she came.
And everybody loved you and spoilt you and gave you good things to eat or hung lovely little crosses or lockets set with precious stones round your neck. The servants kissed your hands, and at every corner there was some old friend of Mamma's who burst out on you and hugged you and made the sign of the Cross over your forehead. And when you finally reached your own rooms, there on the centre table stood two dishes, one with sweets, the other with biscuits. These biscuits and sweets were renewed each day. The sweets were varied and nowhere else in the wide world were they as good. Long-shaped fruit-drops wrapped in white paper with little fringed edges of blue, red or yellow, according to the sweet inside. Flat cream caramels too luscious for words, these also wrapped in thick white paper, double fondants of coffee, and also those little paper baskets of fresh strawberry sweets already described as one of the "ecstasies."
Then other sweets were brought in big boxes, round slabs of fruit paste, a speciality of Moscow, and dried fruit and berries preserved in white flour-like sugar, a speciality from Kiev.
And when you went out for walks in the park, there was a sailor or two who went with you, specially deputed to look after and amuse the royal and Imperial children during their walks. These sailors became your most cherished friends and companions. Each day when you stepped over the terrace down into the garden there they stood all smiles with some little surprise ready for you; a bunch of wild strawberries, a wonderful stick half peeled as though a white ribbon had been wound round it, a little wooden flute, a hoop and what not else. The youngest of us, not yet able to walk any distance, was solemnly pushed about in a perambulator in the shape of a silver swan. There were lakes and sand-heaps, wee Russian cottages, and a tiny farm with a real live cow, which belonged to Mamma as a child. (The farm, not the cow, which was certainly no longer the same.)
Those are my first visions of Russia. Emperor Alexander II's Russia, Grandpapa Emperor—Mamma's father. But in my earliest childhood he vanishes from the scene to give place to Alexander III, Uncle Sasha as we called him, Mamma's eldest brother.
It was in London that Mamma heard of her father's assassination. I remember quite well our being brought down to her room and the terrible shock it was to find Mamma in tears.
Mamma weeping, an overwhelming, unheard-of cataclysm. It was something which upset all our ideas about the natural order of things. Children wept, but grown-up people! That was something fundamentally unnatural, something that shook the very basis of our beliefs.
Of course there was consternation in our ranks and a hurried departure was arranged, Mamma, as far as I remember, taking us with her.
But this is all such a long, long time ago, and I was so very small then that I may be mixing things up. But curiously enough I still have a dim recollection of standing at a window of the Winter Palace and seeing an endless and gorgeous funeral procession pass by, but was it Grandpapa's or Grandmamma's funeral? I really do not know. All this is in a haze.
But I do still remember Grandpapa. There are three pictures which remain to me of him. One is of a family breakfast outside on a terrace at Tsarskoye Selo, Grandpapa at the head of the table, I think, and we, as tiny mites, running round from one guest to another with little sand-cakes on the palms of our hands and Grandpapa pretending to taste them.
A rather clearer picture is of Grandpapa coming into the big night-nursery (this was also at Tsarskoye), where we were down with measles. I was the last to catch the infection and Grandpapa was still able to kiss me.
I can still see through the mist that time is spreading over these remembrances, Grandpapa bending towards me, the tall, tall man to the wee little girl, and how absurdly proud I was that I could still be kissed. But when he came next day I too was amongst the invalids, and I no more than the others dared ask for a kiss.
The third picture is of Grandpapa in a small carriage driving a wonderful trotter, coal-black and as shiny as a shield. Mamma is seated beside him and I am standing between his knees. That is all, and even that is so blurred that it might have been only a dream.
Of Grandmamma Empress my recollections are still more vague. On a journey somewhere we were brought to her in the train. She was lying on a very low bed that was all draped in sky blue. I have the hazy vision of a pale emaciated woman with a thin, waxen face and long, white, beautiful hands. I remember we had been taken away from our tea which did not please us very much, and we stared "non-understandingly" at the very sad-looking woman in her blue-curtained bed.
I think that she was being transported somewhere to the South of France. She had already been an invalid for several years, and, as I have heard since, had more reasons than ill-health for being sad.
That is my only recollection of Grandmamma Empress, Mamma's Mamma.