A YOUNG PRINCESS, 1888-1893
In the spring of 1888 came a great turning-point in Princess Alix's life, her confirmation. She was prepared for this by Dr. Sell, a Hessian divine, chosen by the Grand Duchess Alice to give religious instruction to her children. He was a clever man, who soon gained a strong influence over Princess Alix, whose sensitive soul had always had serious leanings. His early teaching laid the foundations of that searching for "truth" which was the keynote of her spiritual life. He dwelt strongly on the force of the Lutheran doctrine, and impressed its tenets on her. This later on caused Princess Alix to have so great a moral struggle, when, loving the Tsarevich, and knowing that she was loved by him, she also knew that to marry him she had to embrace the Orthodox faith.
Above: Alix's first ball, 1889. Mrs. Orchard, Alix seated and Elizabeth.
Dr. Sell's words fell deep. Princess Alix's nature was always introspective, and now she began to analyse every action and its right and wrong motive, finding fault with herself, and seeking to attain a lofty and abstract ideal. This made her take her whole life very seriously. She was always mentally fighting things out, always striving to solve deeper questions in connection with small ones, while jealously keeping all this inner life from prying eyes.
After her confirmation, according to the custom of German courts, Princess Alix was considered "out." The great impression made upon her by the religious ceremony did not prevent her from leading the usual life of a young Princess and enjoying its gaieties. A friend of her youth, Miss Minnie Cochrane, told me she was bright and cheerful at home. When Miss Cochrane stayed at Wolfsgarten, Princess Alix would come into her room while she was dressing in the morning, and there was no end to their talk. Sometimes even at that early hour they would start singing duets, playing their own banjo accompaniments, and would be desperately late for breakfast! Princess Alix was then a tall, slim girl, looking older than her real age because of the serious expression in her beautiful luminous eyes, and of something sad and wistful about her mouth. It was this sad expression, and not her ready smile, that was always seen in her photographs. Superstitious people might say that hers was a face that bore the stamp of predestination to sorrow. Her regular features kept their babyhood's resemblance to the Grand Duchess Serge. Both sisters were tall and stately, and had very good complexions. Princess Alix had beautiful golden hair, while the Grand Duchess's was slightly darker.
The year 1888 saw another wedding in the family, which brought both married sisters back to Germany. The Princess Irene was married to her first cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia, at the palace of Charlottenburg, near Berlin. This was Princess Alix's first visit to the capital of the German Empire, where she created quite a sensation by her beauty. In the autumn the Princess's coming-out was celebrated by a ball at the New Palace, for which the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Serge came specially from Russia. The Grand Duchess saw to every detail of her young sister's appearance. She wore white muslin, with bunches of lilies of the valley on her hair and dress, and contemporary accounts say that she was very much admired.
The Grand Duchess Serge had extracted from her father the promise that he would revisit her this winter at St. Petersburg, and after Christmas the Grand Duke of Hesse with Prince Ernest Louis and Princess Alix went to Russia. The Grand Duchess Serge had won all hearts both in the Imperial Family and in St. Petersburg society, and all her friends were delighted to welcome her sister and brother. The Hessian party stayed with the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess at their Palace on the Nevsky Prospect, which was nearly opposite the Anichkov Palace, the residence of the Emperor Alexander III. The Tsarevich used often to come informally to see his young aunt, "Tetinka" (Little Aunt), as he jokingly called her. The Grand Duchess loved dancing and organized all kinds of entertainments, so that her house was very attractive to her young relations.
The Tsarevich came oftener still to the Serge Palace when the Princes of Hesse were there. He had taken a strong liking to Prince Ernest Louis, whom he had to entertain as a foreign guest, and he was greatly attracted by his young aunt's shy little sister. On her side, Princess Alix had quickly fallen in love with the Tsarevich. She hid it carefully, and at first, indeed, did not realise it herself. It was only on her return to Darmstadt that she felt that she had left her heart in Russia.
There was much entertaining at Court and in St. Petersburg that winter. There were many balls, to which the Grand Duchess took her sister, who danced more than ever again in her life, several of the merriest being given by the Empress at Anichkov. Among these was the celebrated bal noir. In order to retaliate against the Austrian Court which had held a great function during a Russian Court mourning, the Anichkov ball was not countermanded on the death of some Archduke, but the guests were bidden to come in mourning, and the ladies never looked better than in every kind of black gown sparkling with jewels. There were concert balls at the Winter Palace, and the Grand Duchess often took her family to the Opera and ballet. Afternoons were spent at the fashionable skating-grounds in the Jardin de la Tauride, where Prince Ernest Louis and Princess Alix with the Tsarevich, his brother, the Grand Duke George and the Grand Duchess Xenia skated or tobogganed down the ice-hills, with the younger members of St. Petersburg society. Princess Alix enjoyed everything. Her smile and her bright eyes showed this clearly, though her shyness still prevented her from getting on easy terms with the people she met.
The Grand Duke Louis IV was happy, bear-hunting in the country or shooting with the Emperor, and all enjoyed the visit so much that it was prolonged until Lent. The Hessian Princes conscientiously "buried " the season at the traditional folle journée - the last flourish before the season's end, given on the last Sunday of Carnival by the Court. This took place at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, where Princess Alix was to live later as Empress, and was a comparatively small and very select afternoon dance for young people personally known to the Emperor. It was followed by a dinner at six o'clock. A feature of the dinner was the traditional carnival dish of blinis (pancakes) eaten with fresh caviar. After dinner, dancing was resumed; and there was a cotillon with presents for all the guests. On the first stroke of twelve the band suddenly stopped, dancing ceased, and the Imperial Family and their guests sat down to a "fasting supper." If the truth be told, the "fasting" was in name only and merely meant that meat was not included in the menu!
The first week of Lent was, however, a serious season. No good Russian went to places of amusement then. The theatres were closed, and all were supposed to go devoutly to church to hear the penitential psalms. This Lenten spirit gripped Princess Alix even then. She loved the quiet days after the rush of pleasures, and the last weeks spent in St. Petersburg were those she liked the best - perhaps because she had more opportunities of seeing the Tsarevich quietly.
Right: Alix at the time of her engagement.
After her Russian season, Princess Alix began in earnest her life as a grown-up Princess. She received, presided at dinner parties, went about with the Grand Duke, visited schools and hospitals, and played as far as possible the part of Landesmutter in the Grand Duchy. "Prinzesschen" was loved by high and low; but the people did not know the suffering every public appearance caused her. This timidity hampered Princess Alix all her life, for shyness may spell disaster to those in high position. She loved dancing, and, when her first moments of fright had passed off, thoroughly enjoyed going out. The hereditary Grand Duke, whenever he came back from the University, was always ready to arrange pleasures for his sister. Costume balls were then the fashion and, even now, the Darmstadters remember the brilliance of a Renaissance ball, at which Princess Alix, in the dress of a Princess of that period, looked lovely in pale green velvet and silver with emeralds in the fair hair which flowed down her back according to the fashion of the time. She always enjoyed "dressing up"; somehow it made her feel like another person, and she forgot her fears. Her face was always serious, however, even when she was amused. Her friend Toni Becker (Frau Bracht) used to say that she was once at the theatre when Princess Alix was in the Grand Ducal box and a very amusing German play was being given. The theatre played a great part in Darmstadt life. She looked up at her friend's face, and saw the same half-wistful, half-sad look, though the next day the Princess had told her that she had been suppressing her inward giggles all the time.
With her mother's precepts strong in her mind, Princess Alix took a warm interest in all the Grand Duchess Alice's charities, both public and private. The gifts she gave were mostly of her own making and nearly always meant a drain on her own purse. The Princess's allowance was a very small one, and for weeks before Christmas she would work hard at presents for every kind of humble person, old retainers, go governesses and friends.
In the summer of 1890 the Grand Duke of Hesse went to Russia again, taking with him Princess Alix, the hereditary Grand Duke, and Princess Victoria of Battenberg. This time they did not go to St. Petersburg, but to Illinskoe, the Grand Duke Serge's country seat, in the province of Moscow.
The impressions received during this visit probably exercised a great influence on the Princess's subsequent fate. If she had not felt that this second stay confirmed the liking she already felt for Russia, she might have stifled her feelings and not have risked marrying into such a different and distant country. All her impressions of rural life and of the Russian peasant arose from this visit to Illinskoe, the only time she ever made a stay in a Russian country-house.
Illinskoe was a real Russian country-house, like those described by Turgenyev in his novels. The Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Serge lived a simple country life, with the ladies and gentlemen of their court, and a few personal friends invited for prolonged visits-in the Russian fashion. The Grand Duchess loved it all dearly. She was interested in the village people and enjoyed being a "lady bountiful." The typically Russian surroundings, the wide expanse of flat meadows, the immense horizons, the vast pine forests, the grey birches of her garden, attracted her more and more, and she taught her sister to feel the peculiar charm of the Russian country atmosphere. The Grand Duchess took her guests on informal surprise visits to her neighbors. They also visited every village fair in the place, to the whole party's great enjoyment. It was all so different from anything they had ever seen. Even Princess Alix lost her shyness. She felt at ease with her sister's guests at the simple meals from which etiquette was banished, and got to love the good-natured peasants, who welcomed "their" Grand Duchess's young sister, with low bows and the language of signs.
St. Elizabeth's Day, the namesday of the Grand Duchess, September 18th, was celebrated by the arrival of many guests, though, to the disappointment of his cousins, the Tsarevich, who had been expected, could not come. At the close of their visit, the Grand Duchess took her guests to Moscow. Like ordinary tourists, they visited everything, the Princess Alix in particular being greatly delighted. With many regrets and numerous boxes of sweets - a photograph taken at the time of their arrival shows them surrounded by empty boxes! - Princess Alix went back to Darmstadt. She promised to return, but did not come to Russia again till 1894, when she was the Tsarevich's fiancée and hastening to the death-bed of the Emperor.
In the winter of 1880 Princess Alix had a glimpse of the outside world, of life beyond the precincts of palaces, in the enchanting setting of the South. Her father took her on a visit to Princess Louis of Battenberg in Malta, where Prince Louis (later Marquess of Milford Haven) then held a command. It was Princess Alix's first trip south; it meant much to such an ardent lover of nature, and at the same time she came in touch with people in the simple way she loved. Princess Alix was greatly féted at Malta. Naval hospitality is well known, and Prince Louis's brother officers and their wives devised all kinds of excursions and amusements. Admiral Sir Anthony Hoskins, then commander-in-chief, gave many parties. Lieut. Mark Kerr was attached to the Grand Duke, and looked after Princess Alix, who called him "her equerry." The number of her dances at the balls beat all records. She was delighted with everyone and everything, and became an enthusiast about all connected with the Navy.
From 1890 till the death of the Grand Duke, Princess Alix stayed mostly at home, only going each year for her usual visit to England. In Darmstadt her circle of friends had increased. Many of the great princely families in the neighborhood came to town for the winter season. She made closer acquaintance with girls of her own age, her childhood's playmates still coming first among them.
She went several times to see her sister, Princess Irene, at Kiel, and there formed a great intimacy with the latter's young lady-in-waiting, Countess Julia (Juju) Rantzau. Countess Rantzau became one of the Princess's closest friends and was often at Wolfsgarten. She was a bright, merry girl, and knew how to draw the Princess out. She and Princess Alix had a common love of music and literature, and read and played much together.
Wolfsgarten was a fine old place where large family parties assembled in the summer. Five separate buildings enclosed an inner courtyard. The castle was small but very comfortable. In the great forests surrounding the house Princess Alix rode and drove her four-in-hand. She handled the reins well, and her old friend, Baron Moritz Riedesel zu Eisenbach, her father's equerry, who had taught her, was proud of her achievements.
Between her father and her brother Princess Alix was happy. There was a strong understanding also between father and daughter. The Grand Duke was a kind and indulgent parent to all his children, but he was particularly affectionate to his youngest. He was repaid by a wholehearted devotion. The older she grew, the more she came to understand and admire his character. Louis IV was essentially a soldier. He had shown considerable military qualities in the wars of 1866 and 1870, and was beloved by his men, with whom he always kept in touch. He took his duties as ruler seriously, and was interested in politics outside his little Grand Duchy. He hailed the idea of a United Germany, though Hesse had lost so much territory to Prussia. The Grand Duke loved England, his wife's country, and English institutions, and was on the best of terms with all his wife's relations.
In the beginning of 1892 the Grand Duke had slight heart trouble, which was not considered serious. He had a sudden seizure, however, while lunching with his family, and though for nine days his strong frame battled with death, he died on March 13th, 1892, without ever recovering consciousness. His death was a terrible blow to Princess Alix. She watched him day and night, longing for a sign of recognition, for a last word to remember - but in vain. That sad time and the impression of sudden death were always vivid in her memory. She once said to the author, thinking of her father: "Death is dreadful without preparation, and without the body gradually loosening all earthly ties."
Her father's death was perhaps the greatest sorrow of Princess Alix's life. For years she could not speak of him, and long after, when she was in Russia, anything that reminded her of him would bring her to the verge of tears. After his death her sisters stayed at Darmstadt long enough to help her to readjust her life. Her brother was now the reigning Grand Duke Ernest Louis. It was to him that she gave all the love that she had before divided between father and brother.
Next chapter: Engagement
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