BUT I am not yet finished with Osborne, for there is real relish in bringing to light these dear buried memories which are such a happy background to a life which was destined to be lived in a country so far from the land of my birth.
We inhabited Osborne Cottage, a delightful little house just beyond the royal park which Grandmamma Queen lent us occasionally for the summer months.
Mamma loved the Isle of Wight, whilst other members of the Royal Family declared that the climate of Osborne was too relaxing. I particularly remember the word "relaxing," which I did not like because it had a sound of pills and medicine about it, a sound as of doses given by Nana of an evening when your inside was upset.
Evidently Mamma liked a relaxing climate, declaring that she did not care to be blown to pieces in what English people called "bracing" places, where you could not keep a hat upon your head.
Mamma was very funny about her hats. Altogether, indeed, she had strange ideas about clothes because, it must be confessed, Mamma was always just a little in opposition to the times. It seemed to give her a particular satisfaction to consider yesterday much better than to-day, and I have known her bitterly regret a fashion of yesterday, which she had loudly denounced with hoots of disapproval when it had been the fashion of to-day!
Mamma had, for instance, a strange idea that she could only stick a pin into her hat on the right side. She had never, she said, learned in her youth how to put in a pin with the left hand, she had never done it in Russia and she was not going to try and do it either in England, Germany or Malta. For such was my Mamma, and no one could more persistently stick to her convictions and principles even when they made her thoroughly uncomfortable.
In later years these little idiosyncrasies narrowed her life down most unnecessarily till she became something of an original.
Anyhow, because Mamma had never learnt in Russia how to put two pins into her hat, she hated the wind with the healthy hate she put into all her hatreds through life. There was nothing half-hearted about Mamma; what she liked she liked, innovations were abhorrent to her, and she preferred places where she had not to "dress up," as she called it.
She wore practical skirts, jackets and hats, though she always stuck to funny-shaped boots with little leather bows on their tips, boots that were ordered in St. Petersburg, and she had them specially made the same for each foot, declaring that it was nonsense to imagine that you needed a left and right shoe, it was much more rational to have them both alike.
It was only much later that I understood that Mamma was really somewhat of a character, to use a literary expression. As a child I imagined that everybody had those ideas, and those strong likes and dislikes which often isolated her from her neighbours.
No one could tell a story better than Mamma. She was a wonderful conversationalist and could keep a whole table amused. She used to encourage us to talk and entertain people, always declaring that nothing was more hopeless than a princess who never opened her mouth. "Besides," she added, "it is very rude and please remember that, my dear children."
I have remembered it all through my life.
Another thing she was very severe about was that when invited out somewhere for a meal you must never refuse a dish set before you, even if you did not like it, because she declared that nothing was so insulting to a hostess as not eating the good things that she provided.
"But if they are not good, Mamma?"
"Then you must just behave as though they were good."
"But if they make you feel sick!"
"Then be sick, my dear, but wait till you get home. It would be most offensive to be sick then and there!"
This was Mamma's good advice. Something of a Spartan, she expected her children to follow her lead.
Mamma hated anyone to be ill. She herself had marvellous health that she handed on to me, for which I thank her every day of my life as the greatest of my blessings.
According to Mamma's code one must never complain. A headache must never be confessed or given way to, a cold did not keep you at home, a fever did not send you to bed. Yet no one had such an eagle eye as Mamma. She spotted the smallest indisposition and was always at hand with pills or medicines.
She declared that English doses were much stronger than continental doses and she used to call them "des remèdes de cheval."
Mamma spoke perfect English, but preferred French, declaring that it was by far the most elegant language and that a beautiful letter could only be written in French. She did not, however, particularly care for the French as a people, preferring the English, Russians and Germans.
We children hated speaking French; we considered it an affected language, a language for grown-ups, not for children, and we wilfully threw away all the good opportunities of absorbing the language properly.
This exasperated Mamma, who said we were little fools, which, no doubt, we were, only we did not like to be told so.
"Children," Mamma would say, when giving some of her Spartan advice, "don't let English people persuade you that certain foods are indigestible; everything is digestible for a good stomach, but English people spoil their digestion from earliest childhood by imagining that they cannot eat this or that. I always ate everything; in Russia no one ever spoke about their digestions, it's a most unpleasant subject and not drawing-room conversation." All this proving that Mamma herself had an excellent Russian digestion.
Once with the greatest satisfaction Mamma declared: "Missy" (that was I) "is like me, she can eat stones and feel none the worse for it."
Without doubt this Russian peculiarity, handed down to me from my Russian ancestors, has been a great asset all through my life.
Mamma had an old maid called Fanny Renwick. She was a great character. She was dark and had a moustache and liked to imagine that Spanish blood flowed in her veins. I doubt if her forbears had come from Spain but there might have been an Irishman amongst them.
Fanny ruled us with a rod of iron. We loved and we hated her in turns. Her humours changed like the weather, but on sunny days she was most affable.
Fanny looked after Mamma's wardrobe and laid in stores of all that Mamma might need. There was a Russian largeness about the size of these needs.
It was a wonderful day when we caught Fanny inspecting her stores; there were cupboards and cupboards of them and these cupboards smelt delicious.
Here were endless rows of scents, boxes of "sachets," cold cream, soap, rose-water, but nothing in the form of cosmetics, which Mamma abhorred as violently as the prophets of old denouncing the Jezebels of their time.
There were incredible provisions of pills, especially castor-oil pills that looked like transparent white grapes with the oil moving about inside. These for some reason were always ordered in St. Petersburg, perhaps for fear of their being "des remèdes de cheval" if ordered in England.
I think these castor-oil pills mostly dried up in their boxes, because Mamma's Russian digestion hardly justified the ordering of such an enormous quantity. But as they were sent all the way from the Russian capital, perhaps it was more practical to have a great provision sent at one time. I think that Mamma had no idea of the miraculous stores that she had in her cupboards; Fanny had a free hand in the ordering.
The most enchanting of Fanny's provisions were the "smoking pastilles." These were of every sort. Some were tiny and of every colour of the rainbow, others were pink, half-moon shaped, packed in small flat boxes with an Oriental name on the top and for some reason the picture of a small gazelle. There were also heart-shaped lavender-coloured pastilles that tasted of violets. I think I liked these best, and on fine-weather days, the moustachioed, Spanish-looking Fanny was very generous with Her Imperial Highness's stores.
Big sachets like little mattresses, blue or pink, hung or lay between all Mamma's dresses or linen. These were filled with iris powder and were always sent from Florence where they were made.
Fanny Renwick was a tyrant. All royal head-maids become tyrants, however humble may have been their beginnings. It is also quite a tradition that they should quarrel with and even illtreat those under them, especially the second- in-command.
Later, Mamma had a second maid called Jolly, but that was after my days at home. Anyone less jolly than Jolly could not be imagined, but when Fanny was pensioned, Jolly became the tyrant over others, and martyrized them as she had been martyrized, but even this agreeable advancement did not make Jolly any the jollier.
Fanny's Spanish ancestors were perhaps responsible for a certain sense of humour in her; there could be a wink in old Fanny's eye sometimes that made it possible with a little imagination to think of her in a black mantilla with a red flower behind her ear, smiling at a dago. Not so, Jolly! Her grimness was that of the Quaker or the Huguenot and I think that no cavalier would ever have dared to smile at her.
Later, Jolly became the great chum of my children, but she kept sister Baby (Beatrice) strictly in order, thoroughly disapproving of the Duchess's youngest daughter who was longest at home.
Osborne Cottage was a typical English cottage overshadowed by lime trees, and honeysuckle nodding in at its windows. These were two more scents that filled me with beatitude. Ever afterwards, no matter where I was, the perfume of lime trees in full bloom carried me back to Osborne Cottage, just as the smell of damp autumn leaves ever conjures up again the Eastwell woods before me as with a magic wand.
It was always in the season of lime trees in flower and of honeysuckle that we came to the Isle of Wight.
The hall of Osborne Cottage was always full of white lilies with pink spots, which also had a perfume that regularly tingled all through me in shudders of delight. They stood in great pots near the staircase and the first thing we did on arriving was to bury our noses in them, staining our faces with their pollen till we looked like little Red Indians.
Our French governess, whom we called Mademoiselle, was an Alsatian. She had her holiday during the summer months. Mademoiselle had experienced the siege of Strasbourg in 1870, and harboured a healthy hatred against the Germans which she implanted in us for many years.
She knew how to fire our imagination and told stories very well. We liked and disliked her in turns. She had a rather large nose and smiled in a way that made her lips spread all over her face. It was an ugly smile. Also her hair was poor and had an ugly colour. She would read to us by the hour, a great quality, because we were greedy for stories of every kind. She initiated us into the charms of "La Bibliothèque Rose" (of which "Les Mémoires d'un Ane" was our favourite), of "Sans Famille," "Robinson Suisse," and later into the joys of "Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant."
It was considered healthy for us and good for our growing backs to lie flat on the floor for about an hour a day. Mademoiselle used to read to us whilst we underwent this daily trial. She kept on knitting stockings whilst she read. I remember watching her from my position beneath her, trying to reverse her face, making of her nose a chin, and a chin of her nose, but she remained hopelessly homely, as the Americans so politely call "ugly," whichever way I imagined her face.
Stocking-knitting was for some reason considered a virtuous occupation for little girls. The turning of the heel, the decreasing and increasing it involved was comparable only to the geography of Switzerland and the Alps, with the lakes on both sides of these troublesome mountains. I cannot explain why, but there was always some connexion in my mind between the two. Later on Queen Victoria had a picture made of me by Millais, knitting a green stocking, which still hangs somewhere in Windsor Castle.
Mademoiselle possessed certain treasures we loved to look at; one was a little crystal locket with a sort of flat bird on it, in small blackish diamonds with a wee pearl hanging from its beak, the other was a little amethyst seal with a plaintive-looking pansy engraved upon it. A great treat was to be allowed to seal our letters with this pansy-crest.
There was also a certain sort of biscuit Mademoiselle used to send for from Strasbourg, which was the quintessence of all that was excellent.
Mademoiselle certainly had a certain fascination for us, but she was not absolutely loyal to our mother, and for this we judged her with our childish instinct of fair play. She was too often inclined to belittle or criticize "la Duchesse" to her own children.
It was of course a great delight to be governessless during the Osborne holidays. Mamma and the nursery maids looked after us and took us out with the occasional help of M. de Morsier, Alfred's French tutor.
He was supposed to polish up our French during the holidays, and the unfortunate man, who was round, blue-eyed and smiling, had an awful time of it trying to give us "des dictées" in the garden, whilst we were always escaping from him to climb trees, from the branches of which we would look down on him, playing him no end of tricks. But M. Edouard de Morsier never denounced us; he was a good sport, and I have the feeling that he was secretly in sympathy with our pranks. I do not suppose he enjoyed the dictées any more than we did.
About this time I remember the visit of Winston Churchill as a little boy. He was red-haired, freckled and impudent, with a fine disdain for authority. He and I had a sneaking liking for each other. At first we did not dare to show it openly, but by degrees our red-haired guest threw away all pretence and brazenly admitted his preference for me, declaring before witnesses that when he was grown up he would marry me!
I do not think that Mamma considered that he improved our manners, but personally I have kept a very pleasant memory of that short visit young Winston paid us, and can still smile to-day when remembering the sly look of his eyes, with a snub nose set very pugnaciously between them and his impudent expression when reproved.
I very much liked to be as capable as the boys, as quick, as nimble, as untiring, but I was very much a little girl as regards my feelings towards them and theirs towards me.
I remember once at Clarence House, my brother had some boys to come and play with him. This did not happen very often, but on this memorable occasion I can still see a boy I inordinately admired. He was dressed as a Gordon Highlander, was dark and remarkably good-looking and he was called Stephen—Stephen Hastings, I believe, but of that I am not sure. The boys were being very wild together, rushing about the corridors and our nurses considered the games too rough for little girls. With great longing we sisters were watching them from our nursery door. I had eyes only for Stephen.
Amongst others, a splendid game was invented; sliding down the back-stairs on a tea-tray.
This was too wonderful! Overcoming all shyness, and ignoring strict prohibition, I sidled up to the handsome Stephen and begged him to let me ride down with him on a tray. Stephen was a real cavalier and was only too pleased to be the brave driver of a fair-haired little girl who was more nervous than she dared show. I have no clear remembrance how our joint undertaking succeeded; it is only Stephen's face that I remember and his dark green, black and yellow kilt.
Of course Stephen might easily have refused to take a girl down on his tray with him, but he did not, for which I am grateful to him to this day.
Think of what a cruel snub it would have been had he said "No."
I never saw Stephen again and I have no idea whose son he was and how he came to be invited that day. But he is one of my pleasant memories for all that.
Close to Osborne Park there was another park. The front gates of the two large properties stood, as far as I remember, almost opposite each other, or side by side, but I may be mistaken in this as it is so long since I was there.
Norris Castle was the name of this other place and one year the Empress Frederick, my father's eldest sister, and mother of the Kaiser, had leased it for the summer. Norris Castle was closer to the sea than Osborne House; it was a large place built in grey stone in the same style as Windsor, it seemed to me. But my remembrance of it is vague except that I thought it extraordinarily beautiful and that there were peacocks strutting about in all their glory on the terraces. It, was the first time I heard peacocks calling and ever since the call of the peacock has reminded me of Norris Castle.
I remember the Empress Frederick all in black with several daughters around her. Her eyes were extraordinarily blue, her voice enticing and her smile perfectly delightful. There was great harmony between her smile and her eyes, both were astonishingly bright and alive. She was exceedingly sweet with us children and asked us many questions. She spoke English with a strong foreign accent, but her voice was very much like my father's, a soft voice with rather slurred "r's," which both of them rolled in the same way. What I cannot at all remember is if this was before or after the Emperor Frederick's death, if she was already a widow or not. But I think it was in the Jubilee year because I do just remember the Emperor Frederick, then still Crown Prince, on the Osborne beach, and that he was already voiceless.
He was a tall, good-looking man, with a very full chestnut beard. He could not talk to us, but I remember how he pretended to bombard us with sand and dry seaweed. He was jolly and yet one somehow felt he was condescending, which made us feel shy.
I can remember another time seeing the Crown Prince Frederick and Aunt Vicky at the Neue Palais, Potsdam. It is only a faint recollection; one or two pictures only remain and these quite blurred, nor can I remember in what year we were there, or why; it must have been on the way to somewhere else, just in passing. But I see Aunt Vicky's wonderful smile. Curiously enough, although it lit up her whole face and her eyes like a light, there was also something of a bite about her smile.
Aunt Elisabeth of Roumania (Carmen Sylva) had also this sort of smile. It was extraordinarily luminous; hers also was a wonderful smile, but if I may so express it, it was more luminous than warm. There was something voulu about both their smiles, they were, so to say, "turned on," like electric light. And when they showed great amusement or appreciation, you never felt absolutely convinced that they were really amused; there was a little bit of stage setting about it; their smile was too much at their disposal—it had, in fact, become a mannerism.
I may be making a mistake in the Empress Frederick's case. I knew her so very little, but that is how, in my half-effaced memory, her smile "felt."
It may here be added that Queen Elisabeth of Roumania and the Empress Frederick, in spite of the similarity of their smiles, had no sympathy for each other. They were both learned women, with a tendency towards the "blue stocking," rather eager to demonstrate their superiority over commoner mortals. They were both of them ambitious and tatkräftig,, which is the exact expression I need in describing them, meaning that they were forcible, incisive, penetrating, and that they could always leave well alone.
A more material memory of that passing glimpse, at the Neue Palais, of Aunt Vicky's smile, is a curious soup that was served to us at lunch; it was white and sweet and had raisins in it. We were told that it was a North German soup. We were not sure that we liked it; for some reason it was called "Biersuppe." And then there was the Kotputzer Baumkuchen, also a North German product; a high round cake in the form of a tree trunk, with little projections sticking out all over it, which we called "noses." It was covered with a thick, hard, white sugar. The inside was dark brown and supremely delicious. Here once more I have the vision of Aunt Vicky's radiant smile whilst cutting great slices of this cake for each of us. Somehow Aunt Vicky was too nice to you. Her smile had something in it of sunshine when the weather is not really warm. The Roumanians have an excellent expression for that sort of sun, they call it soare cu dinti, meaning "sunshine with teeth."
But let me insist upon the fact that I have no reason for thus judging Aunt Vicky's smile; it was simply a child's impression that stuck. But as I once mentioned, I had always all my days a curious instinct for feeling depths beneath depths, reason within reason, a sort of seventh sense in fact.
Certain afternoons during the summers at Osborne were spent at the so-called "Swiss Cottage." This was a place of supreme enchantment, quite one of my dearest recollections.
A little house of dark wood, built in the rustic Swiss chalet style, a low-drooping roof with stones on the top and a balcony round the upper story. This had been the playhouse of Queen Victoria's nine children.
There was a large space all round it where our father, uncles and aunts had each had their little strip of garden, which they were supposed to have planted themselves; long rectangular patches in which both flowers and vegetables grew. These little gardens were still faithfully kept as they were in the time when they had been the playground of an older generation, now long past the "golden age," and probably better kept now than in those days.
To us children these garden plots were the ideal of all childish ambitions, and I remember asking the custodian over and over again which had been Papa's garden, and that bed, of course, although exactly like all the others, was the object of our special interest.
It was here in the gardens of the Swiss Cottage that I discovered for the first time the tall Madonna lily (Lilium Candidum). It was a revelation to me. Never in memory had I seen flowers more perfectly beautiful; noble, stately, with that something almost sacred about them, probably because of their association with holy pictures. And then their scent! Penetratingly sweet beyond words, a heady smell that almost made you a little dizzy or faint. There is a whole world in the perfume of the Madonna lily, something biblical, legendary and almost too good to be true. Besides, they are so tall, so graceful and so shiny that their petals seem to exude light.
Ever since I discovered the marvel of those white lilies in the Swiss Cottage garden I have tried to plant them wherever I made a garden. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I failed. Quite lately I have succeeded far beyond my dearest expectations, and that is at Balcic, on a terrace overlooking the Black Sea. Here to my infinite joy they sprang up gloriously, white miracles of light. But although a whole lifetime lies between that lily walk in far Dobrogea and those first lilies I ever saw, in Papa's little garden plot, the scent of the Madonna lily always carries me back to the Swiss Cottage in the Isle of Wight.
How astonishing is the strength of memory! I mention it again, because it is so haunting, that strange force that scents possess, conjuring up as with a magic wand long-forgotten pictures. Pictures of places, of faces, of words spoken, of thoughts thought . . . Visions, beauty, delight.
The charm of memory—but also its sadness and nostalgia for all that is past, irrevocably past, never to come again, and yet alive in one's heart, unforgettable, a treasure one lives with all the days of one's life.
There was also a tiny fortress built in the Swiss Cottage grounds. A wee red-brick fortress with trenches all round representing moats.
Great games were played in this fortress. Brother Alfred was the principal leader. Alfred played a great part during these Osborne holidays, and was the leader and instigator of most of our games. During the "learning " months of the year we saw less of him.
In the lower part of the Swiss Cottage was a museum where each of the nine children had accumulated treasures of every kind, brought home from their different voyages, round the world or otherwise. This museum was an endless source of interest, and here Ducky and I discovered the most beautiful fan shells imaginable. They made our mouths water and we dreamed of what the ecstasy would be were we to find such shells on the Osborne beach. Alas, they were all behind glass doors, not to be touched, a very wise precaution, for our childish fingers would certainly otherwise have handled these hoarded treasures with too much eagerness.
But when the custodian was in a good humour, like Fanny Renwick on her "fine-weather days," he would unlock one or other of the glass doors and lay the most admired treasures for a moment in our hands. Thus I once held the most beautiful of all the fan shells on my chubby palm; it was a mysterious dark red but marked like tortoise-shell and of all marvels, it was double and had little spikes all over it. It was pure bliss to be allowed to touch it for a few moments.
Here I also saw for the first time those lovely blue Brazilian butterflies, with wings like azure-tinted mother-of-pearl. They always seemed the very quintessence of blue, so to say, the supremest and most perfect expression of that colour which is the sky's and the sea's at their best.
All through my life it was my dream to have live blue butterflies of that sort flying about my rooms. Tame azure butterflies like blue lights! I imagined that I would keep them alive by having bowls of white roses on my tables, on my floor, on my window-sill, giant white roses covered with dew. In the wonderful stories I told myself, and which sometimes even to-day I can imagine with all the ardour of yore, there are nearly always these blue butterflies flying about my rooms, drinking in life off snow-white roses standing in the sun.
One of the great rarities of the Swiss Cottage museum was a flexible stone. Rectangular and sand-coloured, like a large piece of shortbread, it swayed slightly up and down when held at one end. Of course we were never allowed to hold this precious mineral in our own hands; I suppose any too rough handling would have made it break off. But no visit to the museum was ever quite complete unless this miraculous stone was lifted from its place of repose.
I wonder if the flexible stone is still in the Swiss Cottage and if the Madonna lilies, once the joy of nine brothers and sisters of whom only three are still alive, are still blooming in the small garden plots?
Mamma, because she did not like "dressing up," did not much. care about Cowes week. But we considered it supremely exciting and we loved being invited on the Victoria and Albert, the royal yacht which Uncle Bertie and Aunt Alix, as far as I can remember, used to inhabit during this week. (Or was it the dear old Alexandra?)
Nothing was ever quite so wonderful as an English ship. Man-of-war or yacht, both were equally entrancing and no sailor the wide world over can come up to the British bluejacket. All sailors are delightful, but the British blue-jacket has that something more which makes of him an English sailor. The British blue-jacket belongs to some of the most vivid memories of my childhood and he will appear again in one form or another in many of these chapters.
Cowes was a delightful little seaport town, with narrow streets, wooden-faced houses and what I seem to remember as ravishing shops.
It must be remembered that these reminiscences are of at least forty years ago. I have no idea if Cowes is still to-day what it was then, or if "modern improvements" have changed its face.
One of the chief attractions of going over to Cowes, was that you had to cross on a ferry. At high tide there was always a little water between the bank and the ferry-boat. The horses, especially beautiful Viceroy, called Skitty, made a lot of fuss about crossing this little strip of water, and I can still hear that peculiar splash when the horses were finally persuaded to cross it; and a sort of scrunch that the smooth shingle made under the wheels, then the sound of hollow boards under the horses' hoofs. The carriage gave a lunge that made us fall over one another with shrieks of delight. Then came the sound of the tautened chain when the ferry began to move, also the nervous stamping of horses' hoofs, and Skitty's restive impatience, a jingling of bits, and Robert's reassuring voice: "Woa-woa! old lady, steady there, old girl." And here let it be said that Skitty was not a girl at all, but very much a Viceroy, what the old head of the Royal Mews used to call "an entire 'orse."
Getting off the ferry was the repetition of getting on. A stamping of hoofs, a lunge, a scrunch of pebbles, a splash, and there one was on the other side.
Aunt Alix on the Victoria and Albert was as exquisite as in her ruby-red tea-gown, during the Eastwell shooting-party, but on these occasions she was generally a vision in white.
She always held a Pekingese dog in her arms and my three cousins, Louise, Victoria and Maude, were always hovering somewhere in the background. They were all dressed in white and were impeccably neat with their so-called "sailor hats," which were considered the right thing to wear on board a yacht.
I do not remember how Mamma dressed us for these occasions, but it certainly was not in white.
Mamma had a curious aversion to dressing her daughters in white, and perhaps just because of this, a white dress, was my dearest ambition. I dreamed of myself in a white dress, imagining that it would suit me better than any other colour. I was a somewhat vain little kid and dress meant a lot to me. But as our mother had queer notions of dress for herself so had she also for us. White for some reason was taboo. This so heightened the value of that hue of innocence that I have even envied the little Coburg schoolgirls, when on Schulfest days they marched over the Platz to the sound of a brass band, rigged out in stiff white muslin, with white cotton stockings and white cotton gloves. Indeed my Sehnsucht for a white dress must have been great if it caused me to envy my neighbour in such guise!
But to return to Cowes week.
Uncle Bertie on his beautiful yacht was a genial figure of rippling good-humour. As impeccably dressed for the occasion as beautiful Aunt Alix, he was royally condescending with his small nieces, would chuck us under the chin, pull our ears in a friendly manner, let off a few jokes at our expense and then laugh in his own special way which, alas, I cannot imitate on paper, but his laugh was a sort of crackle, a burst of good-humour which crumpled his face up into a hundred little lines.
We were never quite sure if we liked Uncle Bertie; he was too patronizing, he lorded it too much over everyone, and we were not yet old enough to come under the influence of his charm.
The three cousins were very kind, but they too treated us as the young things we were then, which made us feel cruelly the inferiority of our five to ten years less.
They used to call me "dear little Missy," and once Cousin Louise (later Duchess of Fife) gave me some sort of little china animal which I adored. It was a kindness I never forgot.
It was a thrilling moment when the cousins took us down to see their cabins, which were full of every conceivable treasure, for in those days there was a craze for collecting every sort of bibelot. The Wales Family, as we called them, to distinguish them from the Connaught and the Albany and Battenberg cousins, had a special talent for accumulating "treasures."
We would gasp before the magnitude of these collections; animals in bronze, china, stone, whole rows of wee vases, tiny photograph frames, lovely water-colours of gardens and sweet-faced ladies, of fields full of daffodils, of Windsor Castle in a mist, etc. Portraits of favourite horses, favourite dogs, favourite friends, and everywhere, smiling above everybody and everything else, Aunt Alix's beautiful face, even in photograph dominant, triumphant, like sunshine.
The Wales cousins had a special way of adding "dear little" or "poor little" to everybody they talked about. They always, if I can so express it, spoke in a minor key, en sourdine. It gave a special quality to all talks with them, and gave me a strange sensation, as though life would have been very wonderful and everything very beautiful, if it had not been so sad.
Why the Wales cousins should have been sad I cannot explain. Aunt Alix never gave you this sensation. To the very end there was about Aunt Alix something invincible, something exquisite and flowerlike. She gave you the same joy as a beautiful rose or a rare orchid or an absolutely faultless carnation. She was a garden flower that had been grown by a superlative gardener who knew every trick of his art.
I especially remember her hands, long, beautifully shaped hands that remained as young as her face, and she always wore a bracelet in the shape of a golden snake which was wound several times round her left arm, I think. The snake had a coloured stone in its head. So much did this bracelet seem a part of Aunt Alix that one had the feeling that it had grown on her arm.
The deafness she suffered from seemed but to add to Aunt Alix's charm, as did her slight limp.
Her way of coming into a room was incomparable, her smile of welcome lit everything up. All eyes turned towards her, and her sweetness was as great as her beauty. She was faithful and loving, and she cared for the young as well as for the old. Everyone felt happy in her presence. She radiated!
Beautiful, beautiful Queen Alexandra, may your memory be for ever blessed for the exquisite joy your face and your personality was to the world; it has become poorer since you have gone!
I suppose I shall soon have to leave Osborne to go on to other places, but let me mention one more thing, a wonderful prize cart-horse stallion we once saw at Grandmamma's farm.
He was phenomenal as to size, his neck was something tremendous, his hoofs like four rocks. His eyes were kindly and his forelock hung over his face giving him an adorable expression. He was a gorgeous creature, and I loved him with a passionate feeling of adoration. I remember going up to him and kissing his satiny shoulder which I could barely reach.
I can even now remember his name, Hitching Emperor, a name I considered quite unworthy of his beauty, especially as those who showed him off were apt to drop the first letter, which made of his name a poor one indeed. But Hitching Emperor, like the cream-coloured pony which was harnessed to Grandmamma's little carriage, haunted my dreams for many a day, and I invented no end of marvellous adventures in which this elephantine enchanter played a prominent part.
There was another great attraction at the Osborne Farm and that was the Spanish bull. He was a magnificent specimen, stone-grey with gigantic horns. He held his head like a monarch and looked at you with supreme disdain not unmixed with wrath. This regal creature could only be contemplated from a distance, which added to the thrill he gave us.
Here is another remembrance of Osborne: there was a long avenue of conifers leading up to the house, some of them, if I remember rightly, silver blue. I cannot remember what sort they were, I do not think I was ever told their name; probably in those days I never asked. But what has remained for ever unforgettable were the small bright red cones which grew on their top branches. They stood in rows like soldiers on parade. I never saw anything so entrancingly beautiful, and the contrast of the red with the silver blue was lovely. Never since have I seen them quite like this; I would go and look at them whenever I could; they were indescribably fascinating.
But how shall I ever ever be able to speak of all the wonderful things that made childhood so extraordinary, made of it every day a new adventure? All things were discoveries, joys, delights, but sometimes also there was pain and bitter disappointment.
Saying good-bye to places or people was ever an agony to me. I am by nature faithful, I attach myself profoundly, my roots go deep and the pulling up of them is a cruel process. I like to move about but not to leave. I even mind leaving places I am not really fond of; somehow it hurts. I think that it is the pain of relinquishing, I do not like passing on, and yet we are for ever doing so. All good-byes have the anguish of death in them.
However great my hope and optimistic my outlook upon life may be, a sort of instinct in me knows and always has known that there is no going back, no living over anything twice. Time rolls on, carries you forward, what is past is past, it becomes but memory, dear, precious, often beautified by distance, but yet a memory; the shadow or the light of a thing that was and is no more. There is no holding fast, neither to days, seasons, years, nor to childhood, youth, nor riper years.
Time is a great enemy when it means sweeping forward when we would pause, but becomes the great friend and healer when it means the overcoming of sorrow and grief.
And I have known more than one uprooting, leaving, passing on. They were all cruel.
When I was about twelve years old my father was made Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, with Malta as head-quarters. This brought a sudden change into our lives.
Eastwell was given up, beautiful Eastwell with its great grey house, its magnificent park, with its herds of deer and picturesque Highland cattle, its lake, its woods, its garden with the old cedar tree which was our fairy mansion. Eastwell, the house where I was born, with its many rooms, explored and unexplored, our nurseries, our schoolroom, and Mamma's cosy boudoir where she read to us of an evening and allowed us to finger the treasures on her tables; the breakfast-room, the drawing-room, and the dear library where the Christmas tree always stood and out of which a passagelike conservatory led into the garden. This passage ran down a flight of steps to a larger conservatory below, which was filled with tree-ferns; anyhow, it was the tree-ferns that impressed themselves upon my mind, as did the bright red passion flowers, a kind I have never since seen anywhere, which climbed all over the roof of the glass passage leading down into it. The flowers were like crimson stars hanging from their creepers by thin stalks, as though purposely suspended just beyond your reach.
Having mentioned the Eastwell breakfast-room reminds me of two people who crossed our lives only to disappear.
One was Uncle Leopold, Duke of Albany; the other was Carlos, Crown Prince of Portugal, who later, as king, was assassinated with his son whilst driving through the streets of Lisbon during some festivity. The Queen and their second son were in the same carriage.
Brave Queen Amélie saved young Manuel by rising from her seat and striking the assassin in the face with her bouquet before he could make a third victim.
We used to come down to the family shooting-breakfast. Mamma, being an early riser, always presided at these meals. She was in fact always at the table first; her punctuality amounted to a mania, for she was always about ten minutes before time. Try as you might you could never be there before Mamma and were continually being scolded for being late.
So severe was she in her training about punctuality that all my life I retained an anxious and almost guilty feeling about time. The loss of five minutes seems almost a crime to me, and even to-day my conscience never leaves me in peace if I am a minute late.
Uncle Leopold was Queen Victoria's youngest son. He was born delicate and suffered from hæmophilia. He did not live much beyond thirty, I think. But he married and had two children, the second, a son, being born after his death.
Uncle Leopold was my mother's favourite amongst her brothers-and sisters-in-law. Being unable, because of his malady, to become a sportsman, he had become a scholar and was a lover of art. I think that it was his intelligence that endeared him to my mother.
I have but a very faint memory of him, have in fact only retained this passing vision of him in the Eastwell breakfast-room.
Although almost continually a sufferer, he was gay and amusing and fond of joking.
On that morning which I so vividly remember he came down to breakfast holding a handkerchief before his mouth, saying that he had just lost a front tooth.
There was consternation and anxiety amongst the grownups seated round the table, because Uncle Leopold's special malady had to do with haemorrhage, and it was all important that he should in no wise be wounded, fall or hurt himself. Knocks and bruises were also dangerous.
My mother, his hostess, was especially very much upset. She asked him to take his handkerchief from his mouth and let her see where he had lost a tooth.
Uncle Leopold removed his handkerchief, which had large red stains all over it, and there, sure enough, was a big black hole in his mouth, where one of his front teeth was gone. Everybody clustered round his seat, asking questions, suggesting remedies, when all of a sudden he burst out laughing. It was all a naughty farce. The hole in his mouth was black sticking-plaster, the stains on his handkerchief red paint!
Much relieved, everybody returned to their places, but Mamma, full of half-feigned, half-real indignation, gave him a bit of her mind about causing a loving family such emotion, and Mamma never gave a bit of her mind by halves.
There is nothing special to relate about Crown Prince Carlos of Portugal, except that for some reason we took a great fancy to him. He had the fairest hair we had ever seen, almost white and very curly. His face was a healthy red and his eyes extremely blue and already he was getting stout. He joked with us children, and although we were very shy when told that he was a cousin and that we could kiss him, we declared he had nice soft cheeks "like pincushions." Why pin-cushions was our expression for soft I do not know, but to concede that his cheeks were like pin-cushions was a sign of approval, and when he told us he had something interesting to show us we flocked delightedly round his chair.
Bending low, almost under the table, he drew from his pocket several cartridges. That was all, but we laughed and were delighted, simply because we liked him, and all his jokes, even the least intelligent, were considered by us excellent.
Curious how certain memories stick whilst others get quite wiped away as though they had never been, but the Eastwell breakfast-room always reminds me of the faces of those two very different guests.
There is one tragic memory attached to Eastwell, and that was Nana Pitcathly's death.
I believe she died of cancer, but it is so long ago that I cannot quite remember, or perhaps I never knew. She was terribly ill but remained at her post to the very end.
Sister Beatrice was then quite a small baby and I remember Nana walking about with her in her arms during the night when the child was restless and cried, up and down, up and down, humming little songs and groaning in between, cruel, deep groans which she imagined we did not hear because she thought we were sleeping. But I shall never forget that tragic march up and down, up and down in a room where a single night-light burned, with the crying child in her faithful arms. Slave to her duty, she did not wish to give up one day before her strength gave way and she was absolutely obliged to do so.
That must have been in the spring, because sister Baby was born on Easter Sunday. In the autumn of that same year, on the 15 th of November (I remember the date), Nana died in our house. She was the first dead person we ever saw. We were taken up to her death-chamber for a small service read at her bedside.
I remember her face, at peace, calm, but terribly severe and fearfully awesome, a stranger, and yet, in a way, still our dear old Nana.
I have no idea what sort of age she was then; to us she seemed old, but I think that she was hardly middle-aged.
We wept and wept so that we had to be taken from the room, and were inconsolable for a long time. The loss of Nana was truly a terrible loss. Mamma never took a real nurse for us after that, only nursery-maids; I was then nine years old, I think.
Sister Ducky always declared that if Baby Bee was such a naughty child, it was because she had never had a real nurse. This is very probably true. But perhaps Baby Bee was not as naughty as we remember her.
She was an out-of-the-way clever child, and Mamma, who adored this youngest daughter, never used with her the severity she had shown us elder children.
I cannot remember in what season we took leave of Eastwell. For some reason I am a bit vague about the connexion between Eastwell and Malta or if anything came in between, and Mamma is no longer here to tell me the details I have forgotten; nor is there anyone else still alive who could tell me except my sisters, and they, being younger, are probably even vaguer than I about it. I must have been going on for twelve years old, I think.
But what I do remember was how Mademoiselle, our governess, persuaded us to give away most of our toys and treasures, instead of taking them all the way to Malta with us; this no doubt was wise advice, but it meant great sacrifice and much heart-break.
There were two treasures especially to which I clung beyond all else; one was the model of a cream-coloured horse which stood on a little board sprinkled with something that looked like steel-dust. This cream-coloured marvel, although, I believe, only made of papier mâché, was the ne plus ultra of perfection in our eyes; beautifully modelled, it was as wonderful as the famous Skitty himself, only isabelle instead of black. It had a pink nose and one delicate fore-leg was raised as though pawing the air; its mane and tail were long and sweeping. It was a faultless creature, might truly have been the Fairy Queen's horse. To part with this paragon really needed both courage and abnegation and there were great consultations as to who was worthy enough to become possessor of such a treasure. Finally for some reason the son of our carpenter Jones was chosen. I cannot remember any other reason except that we liked Jones the father. He was a pale, anæmic man with a dark beard, hollow cheeks and sad eyes, but he was one of the forces that counted in the house. Jones, like all carpenters, was the children's friend. I do not remember anything at all about Jones junior.
My second treasure was of a different kind; a tiny bonbonnière of some metal simulating gold, a round perforated little box set with false turquoises. I suppose it was a real little horror, but I valued it as though it had been from the trésor of St. Mark's in Venice.
I had pulled it one day out of a bran-tub at a big London children's party given by some lady or other who lived near Battersea Park.
I remember that party in connexion with a sentence pronounced by the hostess. When we left she said: "Be sure if you ever drive past this way to look in and see us, promise you will!"
Of course we very shyly promised we would, and ever afterwards when we passed her house (I cannot remember her name, probably I never knew it), I always felt guilty, because we did not stop and keep our promise, imagining that the lady would be dreadfully offended. I considered the promise we had made a binding one; I was also sure that the lady had seriously meant her invitation. I even tried to avoid that street so as not to pass her threshold in case she should see our infidelity.
I cannot begin writing about my Malta recollections without first speaking of Clarence House in London, which was the Duke of Edinburgh's town residence, and which was not given up at the same time as Eastwell Park, but only much later, when my father died.
It is also necessary to mention one thing which explains the curious duality of our lives which, after Malta, were spent between England and Germany.
The Prince Consort, Queen Victoria's husband, was the younger brother of Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg.
Of Duke Ernest I shall speak more later on, for he was an interesting personality and belongs already so completely to history that I shall feel justified in telling many a queer little tale about him; but here it need only be mentioned that he had no children. It was therefore decided between the English and the German branches of the family that the second son of Queen Victoria and of the Prince Consort should become heir to the Duke of Coburg.
This was of course settled, so to say, over the head of my father by his parents; he was not consulted as to whether this arrangement was pleasant to him, it was simply decreed by both families that this should be. Therefore it was also decided that our only brother Alfred should be educated in Germany as he would later become a reigning prince in that country. This explains why we were so often separated from Alfred, who did not follow us about in all our peregrinations between London, Malta, Osborne, Russia and Coburg, which were, as can well be imagined, detrimental to steady and systematic education.
Alfred's head-quarters were Coburg, where my father had built a house, which was called Edinburgh Palace, and where my brother quietly pursued his studies under the care of a German tutor, of whom more will be said anon.
This arrangement separated us a great deal from our brother, who was certainly given the opportunity of learning more systematically than his sisters, but who missed all that joy of travelling which fell to our share. It may here be added that our education was somewhat haphazard because of these many déplacements, as it always meant beginning all over again with other teachers and other methods, even in other languages and never for long at a time. My education was, in fact, more than sketchy, and I have a feeling that none of the masters or mistresses I had was very efficient and none of them fired my love of study. Anyhow, when I married at seventeen the weight of knowledge given me on my way was not heavy!
But travelling taught us much that no lessons on a schoolbench could ever have taught.