Diaries and Letters - Grand Duchess Elizabeth by Meriel Buchanan
In November, 1864, Princess Alice of Hesse wrote to tell Queen Victoria that she and her husband had decided to call their second daughter, born on the first of the month, Elizabeth, after the Saint so beloved and venerated in Darmstadt. "I forgot," she wrote a little later, "to tell you, in answer to your letter about Ella's name, that of course she must be called Elizabeth; only 'entre-nous' Ella." For the next few months her letters to her mother were full of the sweetness of the new baby, her deep-blue eyes, her bright chesmut hair, her merriness, her loving ways, her occasional naughtiness.
In August, 1865, Queen Victoria went herself to Darmstadt, partly to see the beginnings of the new Palace that was being built for Princess Alice and her husband, and partly to make the acquaintance of her new granddaughter. In no way alarmed or intimidated by the indefmable air of power and majesty that surrounded the short, stout lady, in the sombre black dress, the baby looked up at her with laughing blue eyes, and allowed her fat cheeks to be kissed, without a whimper of protest. "She is so very good, my grandmama," she said a little later, and Princess Alice no doubt breathed a sigh of relief; for her second daughter had a mind of her own, and had been decidedly rebellious when her other grandmother, Princess Charles of Hesse, had tried to caress her. "So very tiresome," Princess Alice said plaintively, bewailing the fact that a child who was otherwise so amiable, should apparently not like old ladies.
But when, in the summer of 1865, her mother took her on a visit to Heiligenberg, and her Great-Aunt Marie held her for half an hour on her lap, the little girl was delighted, throwing her fat arms round her neck, pressing her face against the haggard, feverish cheeks of the woman who was Empress of Russia, and who found perhaps in the exuberant affection of this lovely child a momentary balm for her aching heart.
Born Princess Marie, daughter of the Grand Duke Ludwig II of Hesse-Darmstadt, the Empress had left Germany in 1841 to marry the Grand Duke Alexander, heir to his father, the Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. It had not been a marriage arranged for reasons of State, for the Grand Duke Alexander had fallen in love with Princess Marie, when he paid a duty visit to her father at the end of his tour of Europe in 1839, and, in spite of the opposition of his parents, had insisted that she was the only woman in the world for him. But from the outset the little German Princess had not been very happy in Russia. Her mother-in-law, the Empress, had been a daughter of Queen Louise of Prussia, and, in her pride of birth did not trouble to hide her dislike of her son's marriage. Her father-in-law was immensely tall, imposing and alarming, and although he could at times be genial and gay, she was never able to get over her shyness in his presence. Because of her shyness her matUler was stiff, and St. Petersburg society complained that she was cold and austere, said she had no taste in dress, no conversation, no charm. The cold, damp climate of the northern capital never agreed with her, the piercing winds, the dank, humid mists rising from the swamps on which St. Petersburg was built, affected the delicate chest she had inherited from her mother, brought on a racking cough and intermittent, recurring fever.
There could be no question of her love for her tall, splendid young husband; never, for one moment, in thought, word or deed, was she unfaithful to him, and she bore him five sons and one daughter, her frequent pregnancies still further impairing her health and sapping her vitality. Her first years in Russia had, it is true, been brightened by the fact that her favourite brother, Prince Alexander of Hesse, had accompanied her, had been given a commission in the Chevaliers Gardes, and was her constant companion. She missed him intolerably, when, after his elopement with one of her ladies in-waiting, the Emperor banished him from Russia and even her adoration for her husband failed to compensate her for the loss of Alexander's unfailing gaiety and laughter. As time passed, she began to realize that her husband was growing less ardent, and although the possibility that he was unfaithful to her filled her with apprehension, she could not encirdy blame him, knowing how often he had been forced, by her ill health, to go alone to Court festivities, and aware, too, that there were many women in society only too eager to console him for her absence.
The Emperor Nicholas died in 1855. When the period of Court mourning was over the young Empress found the burden of her great position almost beyond her strength, her growing infirmity making it a martyrdom to her when she was forced to take part in some State occasion. How often, with aching limbs, and a burning fever, she had to take that part, only those who were in immediate attendance on her, and had to hdp her take off the heavy Court robes, the massive tiara, knew or realized. Society grumbled at her frequent absence, and complained that even when she did appear, she showed no animation. Nobody, they murmered, could doubt her piety, her devotion to her husband, to her children, and to charity; but Russia wanted more than that, what was needed was an Empress who was always accessible, always on view, always smiling, beautifully dressed, and resplendent with jewels.
Alexander never failed to treat her with tender and considerate kindness, but after 1858 she knew, with a blinding certainty, that his heart no longer bdonged to her, for the rumours of his secret meetings with Princess Catherine Dolgorouky were not long in reaching her ears. The knowledge that this girl, who was young enough to be his daughter, had completely bewitched him, was an agony that consumed the Empress, though she hid it with a cold and frigid self-control.
The death of her eldest son, the Grand Duke George, in 1865, soon after his engagement to Princess Dagmar of Denmark, extinguished her last happiness on earth. He had always been her favourite, on him she had lavished all the love she had never been able to give her other children, and his loss left her aged and broken, and without the will to fight against the disease that was slowly destroying her.
The only time she found comparative happiness and peace was when she went to stay with her brother, Prince Alexander of Hesse, and his wife, in the castle of Heiligenberg, near Darmstadt. There she could forget the burdens and responsibilities of her life in Russia, and the increasing ascendency of Catherine Dolgorouky over the Emperor. There, in the soft air and sunshine, her health improved, and she could sit on the terrace watching her two youngest sons, Serge and Paul, playing with the four tall Battenberg boys, and with the children of Princess Alice. Although she saw her nephew's wife so often, she was not however always in sympathy with her. She disagreed with her policy of conciliation with Prussia, and was very angry at her going to Berlin with her husband in 1879. "Louis and Alice," she told her brother Prince Alexander, "are, with all due respect, possessed of the devil, in their mania for inappropriate visits."
The fact that it was Princess Alice who had first suggested the idea of a marriage between the Duke of Edinburgh and the Grand Duchess Marie, was another sore point, for the Empress had from the first been opposed to the union. After the Russo-Turkish war had broken out, and she received etters from her daughter bewailing the difficulties of her position in England, she smiled a little grimly, for had she not always said that a marriage between a Romanoff and a member of the English royal family was a mistake.
The tragic death of the Grand Duchess of Hesse, after nursing her husband and children through diphtheria in 1879, however, made the Empress forget all her former antipathy to this daughter of Queen Victoria. The misery of the Grand Duke touched her heart, and she invited the motherless children as often as possible to the castle of Heiligenberg. Both Princess Victoria and Princess Elizabeth were now growing up, and the little fat Ella whom she had nursed so often, was beginning to show signs of an almost breath-taking beauty, a beauty that the Empress saw did not pass unnoticed by her son. In the past, when Ella had been a baby, Serge had often left his games With the other boys, to lead her gently by the hand, guiding her uncertain footsteps dovm the steep garden paths. Now she was growing up, and he was a man, a man moreover whose thoughts even his mother could not read. He had always been so different from her other sons; those tall, handsome, boisterous young men with their exuberant vitality, their sometimes lewd conversation. Spoilt by their father, adored by St. Petersburg society, they had never denied themselves anything. Thanks to their good looks and their charm, they had always been forgiven, even for the most flagrant and notorious indiscretions. But there was about Serge a cold, mystic austerity that gave one the uneasy feeling that it concealed something hidden and secret, and somehow a little frightening. It would not, his mother thought, be easy to be his wife, and what did this lovely young girl know of men, brought up as she had been in the sheltered security of a little German court, her only knowledge of the outside world occasional visits to her grandmother in England, and that sedate, homely Court which was, it seemed, perpetually in mourning.
The Empress sighed and thrust away the problem, for her head ached, and she was finding it difficult to breathe, and she had many other cares and troubles to oppress her. The growing power of nihilism in Russia was a nightmare that filled all her thoughts, and she lived in hourly terror that the attacks on the Emperor's life would in the end prove successful. When, in the winter of 1880, a bomb exploded under the dining-room in the Winter Palace, she was already so ill thar, although the blast shook her apartment, she did not notice it. Nor did she know how narrowly the Emperor, his sons, and all the members of his Court, had escaped death, thanks to the fact that Prince Alexander of Hesse , who had come on a visit to St. Petersburg, had arrived late and the Emperor had delayed going into the dining-room in order to stay and talk to him in his study.
On June 3 the Empress Marie's long martyrdom came to an end, and six weeks after her death the Emperor married Catherine Dolgorouky at Tsarskoe. The precipitate hastiness of this action aroused the furious indignation of all his family, and greatly shocked Queen Victoria. Fully aware of the unpopularity of his marriage he wrote to his sister Olga, Queen of Wiirttemberg, explaining that as he lived in daily fear of assassination he had to do his best, without delay, to safeguard the future of the woman who had given up so much for him, as well as of the three children she had borne him.
Whatever happiness he may have had was of short duration, for on March 13, 1881, the assassins, who had for so long dogged his footsteps, made their fmal and successful attempt on the life of the man who had given freedom to the serfs, and contemplated giving Russia a constitutional government. In spite of warnings he had insisted on attending the usual Sunday review of his Guards; on the way back a bomb was thwwIl at his carriage, killing two of the cossacks of his escort and wounding several others. The coachman attempted to drive on, but the Emperor ordered him to stop. On his refusal to do so, Alexander seized the reins and got out of the carriage, the. second bomb exploding near him as he went to give help to the wounded. Carried back to the Winter Palace, he died a few hours later, the document which he had signed only that morning, giving a constitutional government to Russia, still lying on his writing-table. It was tom up by his son, who succeeded him as Alexander III.
The Grand Duke Serge was in Rome when his father was assassinated, and was spared the horror of seeing that broken, mutilated body carried into the Winter Palace; nor did he have to watch the agony that followed, an agony which I once heard the Dowager Empress describe as the most harrowing and ghastly memory of her life. Serge had adored his father, and there can be little doubt that this murder had a profound and fatal effect, making him savagely reactionary, filling him with hatred of the people who had so cruelly repaid their Emperor's attempts at liberation. Maybe it also intensified his love for Elizabeth of Hesse, for he was filled with foreboding that he would meet the same end as his father. Feeling that he must snatch at the happiness this girl alone could give him, he attended the marriage of her sister to Prince Louis of Battenberg in Darmstadt and asked her father for her hand in marnage.
She did not, it seems, hesitate in accepting him, for she could never forget how gentle he had been with her when she was a child. She was too young and inexperienced to sense the fevers that burned beneath his seemingly impassive manner. Moreover, she infinitely preferred him to her cousin, William of Prussia, whose tempestuous ardour she had found very disturbing when, during the years he was studying at Bonn University, he had come to stay at Darmstadt or at Kramschstein.
Knowing that her sister the Crown Princess of Prussia was ftnding her eldest son intractable and difficult, Princess Alice had hoped that the example of the happy home life led by her children might be a good influence upon him, but they disliked his restlessness and complained that his rapid changes of mood made him an impossible companion. At one moment he would want to go rowing, then it would be riding, or a game of tennis, always eager to show how proficient he was in spite of his crippled arm. He would rein in his horse, or throw down his racket in the middle of a game, and order them all to come and listen to him reading the Bible. "Whether he was riding, playing games, or reading, he wanted his cousin Ella to be near him, always his brilliant eyes followed her movements, and when she spoke he was silent, listening to every inflection of her voice. No engagement, however, took place, and in 1881 he married the Princess Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg. It is known that for several years, even after he had succeeded his father as Emperor of Germany, and after Elizabeth of Hesse had become the Grand Duchess Serge of Russia, he refused obstinately to meet her, never going to see her if she was passing through Berlin, and deliberately keeping at a distance, if circumstances forced them to be together on some State occasion. Questioned as to this marked avoidance of his cousin, he sometimes refused to reply, or if he did, said harshly that he could never forget how much she had meant to him in the past, and how much he had loved her.
Princess Elizabeth's engagement was a short one, for Serge was impatient for the marriage to take place as soon as possible, and although the Grand Duke of Hesse did not altogether approve of this haste, he was forced to acquiesce, and in June, 1884, he arrived in St. Petersburg with Elizabeth and her two younger sisters, Irene and Alix.
Russia, with its vastness, its strange, inexplicable atmosphere, overawed the two elder Princesses who had, with the exception of their visits to England, seen so little of the world. The huge squares, the broad streets of St. Petersburg, the Neva, which was so much bigger and wider than any river in Germany or England, the golden domes and spires of the cathedrals, the baroque inunensity of the Winter Palace, the all-pervading smell of sunflower-oil and leather and cigarettes, the fountains spraying scented water, the teeming rabbit-warrens of rooms and corridors on the upper floors of the palace, the inadequate sanitary arrangements-all this was so new and unexpected that they felt bewildered and confused, unable to accustom themselves to the strangeness of these unfamiliar surroundings. They were intimidated by the crowds of servants, by the numerous ladies-in-waiting who fussed around them, by the Court attendants who were always giving them different instructions, but most of all by Serge's brother, the Emperor Alexander, with his immense height, his broad shoulders, square-cut beard, loud voice, and hands that could straighten an iron horseshoe, or roll a silver coin into a tube without any visible effort. Alicky alone, being only twelve years old at the time, seemed to have no apprehensions; she found nothing awe:"inspiring in the vast halls of the Winter Palace, with their miles of shining parquet floors, but spent hours playing at hideand-seek round the tall pillars of marble and porphyry with the eldest son of the Emperor Alexander III who, shy and diffident with strangers, found this little girl with the bright golden curls an enchanting companion with whom he always felt perfectly at ease.
The Grand Duke of Hesse had refused to allow his daughter to change her religion before marriage, so there had to be both a Lutheran and an Orthodox marriage service. When at last the long, tiring ceremonies were over, and pale and mistyeyed, Elizabeth had said good-bye to her father and her two sisters, it must have been with an aching heart and a sense of fear, almost perhaps of terror, that she faced her life in this unfamiliar country, surrounded by strange, new relations, and with a husband who was almost completely unknown.
There is nothing to show that she was unhappy; if she suffered, she did so in silence, uttering no word of complaint. But the general feeling in St. Petersburg society was one of sympathy for a lovely, innocent young girl married to a man whose coldness of manner was said to conceal a vicious depravity. Even Queen Marie of Roumania who, as a child, adored her Uncle Serge, confessed that he was always a little frightening, that his eyes were steel-grey and cold, his lips thin, his manner very often harsh.
With the white astrakhan cap on his well-shaped head, his close-cropped fair beard, his tall, slender figure in the dark-green uniform with the baggy trousers, he was imposing and wonderfully handsome; but always one had the uneasy feeling that beneath his iron self-control, there lay secret and consuming fires. He adored his wife, he worshipped her beauty, he loaded her with presents of gorgeous jewels and furs, but he would frequently rebuke her in public if she forgot an instruction or committed what he considered a breach of etiquette.
None who saw the Grand Duchess Serge in those days could ever forget her. "She was", one contemporary writer says, "the most beautiful creature of God I have ever seen." Yet although many must have fallen under the spell of that beauty, and although she was young and gay and human enough to enjoy the marvellous clothes and jewels her husband gave her, no breath of scandal ever touched her name. Queen Marie of Roumania, who visited Russia when she was a little girl, gives a vivid description of her at some of the Court ceremonies. "Aunt Ella", she says in her memoirs, "on these occasions was so fairy-like an apparition that I would like to dip my pen in colour, so as to be able to make her live again, if only for a moment, because eyes that have never beheld her will never be able to conceive what she was. With that divine smile curving her perfect lips, with a blush on her cheeks, only comparable to almond-blossoms, and an almost bashful look in her long-shaped, sky-blue eyes. . . . Her gown, heavily embroidered in silver, is a colour which is neither blue nor green, the colour of glaciers or of aquamarine; her kakoshnik of emeralds and diamonds is truly a halo for her angelic face, and the gorgeous jewels, covering arms and throat, have, when she wears them, the aspect of gifts, piously offered to some beloved saint."
I cannot now say definitely what year it was, but I remember being taken to see some tableaux vivants in the Palace at Darmstadt, and seeing the Grand Duchess Serge taking the part of her ancestress St. Elizabeth, who was a daughter of the King of HlUlgary, and was married to a Landgraf of Thuringia, in Hesse-Marburg. The legend of St. Elizabeth and the Roses was a familiar one in Germany, and I had seen many pictures representing the scene where the Princess, taking food and comfort to the poor in the village, was stopped and. questioned by her husband. Replying that her basket held flowers, not food, she held it out for him to see, when the loaves, meat and milk it contained, were miraculously transformed into a glowing mass of roscs. The tall, slender figure of the Grand Duchess Serge, dressed in a long blue velvet robe, with a silver veil covering her lovely head, a little secret smile on her lips, and her deep blue eyes full of a mystic radiance as she held out her basket full of deep-red roses, has remained in my mind like the picture of a saint in some old cathedral window. St. Elizabeth! No one present that day had any conception of what lay ahead. No one, in the invulnerable security of that late Victorian era, could foresee how closely the fatc of the woman whose beauty they applauded so rapturously was to resemble that of her ancestress who, after her husband's death in the Crusades, was driven from her home, separated from her children, and, devoting her life to the care of the sick, died at the age of twenty-four, when the Emperor Frederick II, who had vainly sought her hand in marriage, laid a golden crown on her coffin.
One summer the Grand Duchess Serge and her husband stayed at Wolfsgarten, and I remember seeing her often, always dressed very simply in the daytime, when even the ugly fashions of the time - the plainly-dressed hair and leg-of-mutton sleeves - were unable to spoil the spiritual loveliness of her face. The Grand Duke Serge adored children and in spite of the almost forbidding stenmess of his face I trusted him implicitly, even when one day he took me out on the water-chute the Grand Duke had built on the pond in the woods, sitting behind me and holding me tightly round the waist. "You need not be afraid, Dushinka [little darling]," he said softly. "Even if the boat upsets I can swim and we shall not drown."
The Grand Duchess Elizabeth had adopted the Orthodox religion a year or two after her marriage, much against her father's wishes; and when, after her visit to St. Petersburg, he was told that the Tsarevitch Nicholas had fallen in love with Princess Alix, he refused point-blank to permit another daughter of his to abjure her Protestant faith. Nor did Queen Victoria approve of these changes in religion, and she did not favour the idea of her favourite grandchild becoming engaged to the Tsarevitch. She had thought him charming, simple, and unaffected when he visited Windsor, but at the same time she felt that he lacked stability and decision. The Emperor and Empress shared her apprehensions, although for a very different reason. Princess Alix had not been altogether popular when she stayed in St. Petersburg, the Emperor had thought her a typical German, and the Empress had been irritated by her stifllless; moreover she had wanted her son to marry the daughter of the Comte de Paris, and she did not think this little Princess of Hesse with the shy, almost hostile manner, would make him a good wife.
Like his grandfather, Alexander II, the Tsareviteh Nicholas was determined that his choice was the right one. "My dream is to marry Alix of Hesse," he wrote in his diary on December 21, 1889. At last, in April, 1894, the Emperor, who was already ailing, gave his permission to the engagement, and the Tsarevitch hurried to Coburg, where a big concourse of guests had assembled for the wedding of Princess Victoria Melita, daughter of the Duke of Edinburgh, to the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, who had succeeded his father in 1891. But as the wife of the Tsarevitch and heir to the throne, Princess Alix knew that she would have to belong to the Orthodox Church, and at first she could not make up her mind to change her religion. "The poor thing cried a good deal," the Tsarevitch noted in his diary, describing a long interview he had with her, which lasted till midnight. On April 8, however, came the "beautiful, unforgettable day" when, hand in hand, they went into Queen Victoria's room, to tell her that they had rcached an understanding. "I was quite thunderstruck", the Queen wrote in her journal, "as, although I knew that Nicky much wished it, I thought Alix was not sure of her mind."
The Grand Duchess Serge, who was among the wedding guests at Coburg, was overjoyed at her sister's engagement. From all sides congratulations poured in, and even the Queen. began to think. that this marriage might bring a closer understanding with Russia. But from the outset, shadows seemed to gather round the young couple whose future appeared so brilliant, and full of promise, for when the Tsarevitch retumed to St. Petersburg, he found his father's health had deteriorated, and although he was able in June to spend a few unforgettably happy weeks with Alix at Windsor, he had to forego his visit to Wolfsgarten and hurry back to Russia. A few months later, the Emperor, who had been moved to the Crimea, became worse. In October the doctors gave up hope, and Princess Alix had to Cut short her preparations, and hurry away from Darmstadt. She was met by her sister in Warsaw, and travelled with her to Livadia, arriving there only a few days before the Emperor's death.
After the long, slow, mournful journey to St. Petersburg, and the long-drawn-out funeral services, the wedding was hurried on. In spite of the deep mourning it took place on November 26,1894. "Alicky looked too wonderfully lovely," the Princess of Wales telegraphed to her mother-in-law, and at Windsor Queen Victoria gave a dinner-party in honour of her granddaughter's wedding, wore again the bright cherry-coloured ribbon of St. Catherine, and stood while the Russian National Anthem was played,. "How impossible it seems", she wrote in her journal, "that gentle little simple Alicky should be the great Empress of Russia."
The coronation of the young Emperor and Empress took place in May 1896 the Emperor riding into Moscow on a white horse, followed by two golden coaches bearing his mother and his wife, the Dowager Empress in gold brocade, the Empress Alexandra in silver with a long golden train, her fair head crowned with diamonds. The rose-red walls of the Kremlin re-echoed to the thunder of the bells of Ivan Veliki, and the old Uspensky Cathedral, where all the Emperors of Russia had been crowned, was filled to overflowing with members of the Imperial family, royal guests who had come to Moscow for the ceremony, foreign representatives, and all the men and women holding high office, either in the Government or at Court. The lights of thousands of candles fell on the golden painted columns, on the dim old frescoes, gleamed on the gorgeous diadems, the decorations, the brilliant colours of the priests' vestments, the blue-and-gold, high-collared robes of the choristers.
"Most glorious and impressive ceremony," Prince Arthur wrote to his mother, omitting however to tell her that at one moment during the long ceremony the Emperor, overcome by the weight of his Imperial robes, by the heat, the clouds of incense and the smell of the flickering candles, had nearly fainted, and had let the jewelled sceptre fall from his ftngers. Although it was quickly recovered, and he pulled himself together, the accident gave the superstitious yet another reason for their gloomy predictions of misfortune.
Nor was this the only aecident to cast a shadow over the coronation festivities, for the tragedy of the Khodinska plain, three miles from Moscow, where a huge crowd had gathered for the traditional fair, and where hundreds lost their lives, gave to all who were present the uneasy feeling of impending disaster.
"A most untoward and horrible catastrophe took place here early yesterday morning," telegraphed Sir Nicholas O'Connor, British Ambassador in St. Petersburg, to the Queen on May 31. He described how the erowd of peasants who had slept on the field all night in their anxiety to reach the place where meals were to be given them free, surged forward in the early morning, overcoming the police. For some reason a panic started; those who were in front tripped over the uneven ground, which had been cut up in trenches, and those behind, unable to stop themselves, trampled on the fallen; others, passing over wells that had been inadequately protected by thin boards which gave way under the weight, were precipitated to their deaths.
Although the Emperor was warned that an accident had taken place, and that a few people had been crushed, the whole magnitude of the disaster, in which over two thousand people were killed or injured, was not divulged, and by the time he arrived on the scene the bodies and casualties had been taken away, although some, it was said, were hidden actually under the Imperial pavilion where he was standing.
The Grand Duke Serge, who had been appointed Governor of Moscow in 1891, had at first, as Queen Victoria feared, been blamed for the tragedy, but later it was found that the Chief of Police had failed to carry out the orders he had received, and had been culpably negligent in making arrangements. The fact that the Emperor and Empress were present that night at a ball given by the French Ambassador, was also severely criticized, but the Empress, who had returned from the hospitals in floods of tears, had begged and prayed to have the ball postponed, and was told that it was not possible at the last moment, for it would not do to offend France. But she was, Sir Nicholas O'Connor noted, evidently in great distress, her eyes were reddened with tears, and the ball was altogether a dismal affair, nobody able to forget the horror of what had occurred.
Princess Catherine Radziwill, in her books an unsparing critic of the Romanoff farnily, declares that neither the Empress, nor her sister, the Grand Duchess Serge, ever visited the hospitals, or took any interest in the injured; but there are other witnesses besides Sir Nicholas O'Connor to prove that both they and the Dowager Empress were unremitting in their care for those who had suffered, that they visited the hospitals every day and made liberal provision for the families of those who had died. "Aunt Ella was in despair," said Queen Marie, who was present at the coronation, and although her husband was eventually exonerated from blame, the memory of that day remained to haunt her, and she was never able to rid herself of the thought that in some way he had been guilty of negligence.
The Diamond Jubilee of 1897 brought a gathering of Queen Victoria's rclations once more to London. It was the last time that some of her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, were to see the little old lady who for so many years had been the centre round which their lives revolved, whose approval they all sought and cherished, whose anger and criticism they dreaded, even if they were thousands of miles away. They all brought gifts and offerings-a diamond chain from her younger daughters, a diamond brooch from the Prince and Princess of Wales, a diamond and sapphire pendant with Slavonic characters from the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Serge and the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Hesse, besides many other gifts. When she drove through the crowded, gaily decorated streets of London, on her way to St. Paul's, in a black silk. dress, with panels of grey satin, and a bormet trimmed with white flowers, her people gave her a rousing welcome, and during all the festivities that followed she was almost overcome by the love and devotion shovm her. She was, however, very tired by the banquets av.d ceremonies, she also missed many faces amongst the group of children and grandchildren who surrounded her, and some were causing her moments of grave anxiety. Her grandson, the Emperor William of Germany, was often so difficult and troublesome, and she feared that he had been very angry when he was told that his presence was not required at the Jubilee, as no crovmed heads were invited. She was worried about the marriage of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Hesse, which was not turning out a success. She had been greatly shocked when her cousin, Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, had gone back on his solemn undertaking and had his eldest son confirmed in the Orthodox Church. When the Emperor and Empress of Russia, with their daughter. had visited her at Balmoral in 1896 she had found "Dear simple little Alicky" greatly changed. The cold formality oEher manner, and the way in which she had, without question, accepted her grandmother's gesture in giving her precedence, had hurt the Queen's feelings, and she was afraid that this favourite granddaughter of hers was becoming too imperious.
On June 28, the Grand Duchess Serge and her husband said good-bye to the Queen, before leavllig for Russia, and as Ella bent her head to kiss the Queen's cheek she had tears in her lovely eyes, as if in her secret heart she knew that she would never again know the peace and security of England, never again see this small, infm.itely majestic figure, who, for so many years, had been not owy a grandmother, but a mother and a friend.
The disastrous Russo-Japanese war of 1904 brought to the Grand Duchess Serge a task which she accomplished in a way that would have ruled Queen Victoria's heart with pride, had she been alive. As wife of the Governor of Moscow the Grand Duchess was head of all the Red Cross organizations in the town. She sent out ambulance trains and camp churches, and flrst-aid equipment, she organized workrooms in the Kremlin Palace, and was there herself every day, supervizing and encouraging the hundreds of women of all classes who worked there, packing endless bales of bandages, first-aid dressings, socks, shirts, pyjamas, food and provisions, for the wretchedlyequipped soldiers at the Front. Dressed always simply in blue or grey, she was indefatigable in her constant attendance, she always had a smile or a word of praise for those who worked for her, she was never out of patience, even when mistakes were made, and was always ready to do the hardest work herself.
She was on her way from her private apartments to the workroom, on February 4 1905, when a sudden explosion shattered some of the windows of the Palace. She stood for a moment, a hand on her heart, knowing with a feeling of dread chilling her blood that what she had feared - and what her husband had always expected - had happened at last. How often during the last few years had he forbidden her to go driving with him? How often had he not told her that he knew he was hated, and was sure he would suffer the same fate as his father?
Without waiting to ask questions, or even to put on a cloak, she hurried down the stairs and out into the bitter cold, where, guided by a cloud of smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder, she came to the spot where, amidst the wreckage of the carriage and the mangled bodies of the horses, she found soldiers trying to cover with their coats all that remained of her husband.
The tears were streaming down her cheeks as she knelt there on the blood-stained snow, beneath the lovely rose-red walls, with the golden domes of the cathedrals shining against the sky, in the centre of a gathering crowd, who gazed with white, horrified faces, while soldiers and policemen held the defiant figure of the assassin in their midst. Only a few hours ago, she had said good-bye to the tall erect figure in the dark-green uniform, had seen the smile in the cold grey eyes, had felt his lips touching her cheek, had heard his voice telling her not to worry. Whatever he had made her suffer, he was her husband, he was the boy who had led her so gently by the hand in the gardens of Heiligenberg. He had known the danger that threatened him, and had never shirked his responsibilities; he had been conscientious to the last degree in carrying out the minutest details of what he considered his duty as Governor of Moscow. Yet his almost fanatical austerity, his vindictive cruelty on certain occasions, had made him hated; he was a reactionary, an autocrat, almost a tyrant; but she had been married to him for just on twenty years, and perhaps she alone knew the secret ofhis heart.
That afternoon, in spite of her own persona] grief, she visited the fatally wounded coachman in hospital. He looked up at hcr with tortured eyes. "How is His Imperial Highness?" he whispered. Very gently, her face calm and composed, she replied, "It is he who has sent me to you," and stayed beside his bed until he died. She begged the Emperor to spare the life of the assassin, and when her petition was refused she went to see the man in prison, only to find him cynically obdurate and unrepentant, boasting of an action which, he said, had destroyed a man who was an enemy of the people.
From the moment she had knelt, shivering, faint, sickened and heartbroken in the snow, she never again touched meat or fish; she divided into three parts all the splendid jewels her husband had given her, giving some to the son and daughter of the Grand Duke Paul, who was Serge's favourite brother, returning some to the Crown, and selling the rest for charity, and to found the Convent of Mary and Martha, in Moscow, to be run on the lines of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
St. Petersburg society saw her no more. Only very occasionally she visited her sister in Tsarskoe Selo, and in 1910 she herself joined the Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, giving away all her furs and clothes, her remaining bits of jewellery, retaining nothing for herself, not even her wedding-ring. "This veil," Bishop Triphonius said when she entered the Convent, "will hide you from the world, and the world will be hidden from you; but it will be a witness of your good works which will shine before God and glorify the Lord." Living in three small rooms in the Convent, plainly furnished with white wicker chairs, she slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, and with only one hard pillow. Always she took upon herself the hardest tasks, tending the fifteen patients in the hospital wing with her own hands, hardly ever sleeping for more than three hours, visiting the home for consumptives which she had also founded; always there when a patient died, taking on the long night duty when it was obligatory, according to the Orthodox faith, to repeat prayers unceasingly over a dead body.
Yet she never became rigid, or stern or morose, she even retained some of the gaiety that had made her so enchanting as a young girl. Once, when her sister Princess Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, was staying at the convent with her second daughter, Princess Louise, the door of their bedroom was opened early one morning, and a small cropped head looked in on them with a laughing "Hallo", Startled, Lady Milford Haven thought at fIrst that some mischievous boy had found his way into the convent, and was invading her room, until she realized with a rucfullaugh, that it was her sister, without her veil, her lovely hair cut close to her head.
In Secrets of Dethroned Royalty Princess Catherine Radziwill declares that the Grand Duchess Serge continued to live a life of luxury and ease at the convent, that "she wished to pose as a victim of circumstances and aspired to acquire the reputation of a saint, which she was not". I have the accounts of a friend, and also of my mother who visited the convent when we were in Moscow, to prove that this charge is false, for they both saw the stark simplicity of those plain, whitewashed rooms, the lack of any comfort, far less of luxury, in the surroundings of the woman in the plain grey nun's dress, her only ornament a wooden cross on a white ribbon round her neck.
During the years we were in Russia I saw the Grand Duchess Serge on only two occasions: once in the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, at a Te Deum held to celebrate the Romanoff Tercentenary; the second time at the outbreak of war in 1914, when, according to old tradition, the Emperor went to pray for victory in the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow, and to lay the plan of campaign before the wonder-working Ikon of Vladimer. Amidst the brilliant uniforms of the Grand Dukes, the generals and diplomats, the bright-coloured silks and satins worn by the women, the Grand Duchess stood out like a tall white lily in a garden of exotic flowers. Her face was pale and grave, and unbelievably beautiful, framed in her soft white veil; the plain white woollen robes, she wore on especial occasions, fell in classic folds round her slender figure. The blue mist of incense, the golden ikons, the gorgeous colours of the priests' vestments, made a shimmering background to that motionless white figure, and gazing at her, across the crowded church, I recalled again that picture of her in her blue velvet dress, holding out the roses, with that mystical, secret smile in her eyes. St. Elizabeth! In her veins ran the blood of that medieval princess who had been canonized; had she not by her life of abnegation earned that title?
But on that cloudless day of August, 1914, with the square in front of the Cathedral packed with people, praying on their knees as they waited to greet their Emperor, we did not know that the sacred Ikon of Vladimir, which Dimitri Donskoi had carried on his baimer when he defeated the Tartar hordes, was not this time to bring victory to the Russian armies, and that the martyrdom of the woman who had sacrificed so much was not yet ended.
And as the long years of the war went on, and defeat and frustration undermined the morale of the army, and crippled the courage of the people, the Grand Duchess wrote over and over again to her sister, letters of warning that were angrily resented by the Empress, who told her husband to pay no attention to the "Moscow Clique" and to "Ella's bigoted ideas". At last, in December, 1916, alarmed by the reports she received, and knowing that the Emperor was in Tsarskoe, the Grand Duchess determined to go there herself and try to make him see the danger threatening the throne, to beg him to dismiss the members of the Government appointed by Rasputin, and to win back the confidence of his people.
But when she arrived at the Palace at Tsarskoe it was her sister, stern and forbidding, in her violet velvet dress, who met her, telling her coldly that she could not see the Emperor as he was just leaving for Staff Headquarters, and must on no account be disturbed or worried.
The gardens outside the windows were hidden under a mantle of snow, but in the big, golden room, with its masses of photographs and ornaments, the big picture of Marie Antoinette and her children on the wall, the pots of azaleas and lilies, it was warm and still, seemingly secure. Nothing had changed; the armed cossacks riding in an endless ring round the confines of the park; the Court servants; the chamberlains; the ladies-in-waiting in the ante-rooms; the impregnable stronghold of Imperial power! But was it so impregnable, the Grand Duchess wondered? Were the foundations not already trembling before the gathering storm, the fury of a nation who, through incompetence and the lack of munitions and supplies, had seen its soldier sons laying down their lives in a vain and useless sacrifice? With sudden tears in her eyes she pleaded once more with her sister, begging her to persuade the Emperor to go to the Duma, to make concessions, to dismiss Rasputin, whose evil influence was destroying the people's faith in the integrity of their rulers.
The Empress had been pale at first, but now an angry £lush began to redden her checks. "Saints have been maligned before", she said curtly, sweeping away all arguments in her proud assertion that she, as the Empress of Russia, knew the hearts and minds of her people. Listening in silence, the Grand Duchess knew that her last effort had failed. She turned away and left the big golden room, little knowing that she would never see it again. Her heart was heavy, but she knew there was nothing more she could do but work and pray for this sister who had been so dear to her, whose golden curls and gaiety as a child had won for her the nickname of "Sunny", but who now, in her mistaken policy, had hardened herself against all who disagreed with her, and refused to see the evil in the man she believed to be a saint.
From her quiet white rooms in the convent the Grand Duchess watched the cataclysm of events, the tragic blunders that sealed the doom of the Russian Empire. She heard of the Emperor's abdication, of his imprisonment with his wife and children in the palace at Tsarskoe. She saw the raging crowds surge through the streets of Moscow, the red flags burgeoning like scarlet flames on all the buildings. She listened to the rarue of machine-guns, to the screaming voices, drunk with the lust for blood.
Nor was she herself left for long in peace, for one day, in March 1917, lorries full of soldiers who had deserted, workmen, and criminals who had been released from prison, drove up to the convent doors and clamoured for admittance. Sending all the nuns into the chapel, the Grand Duchess went out alone and, standing at the open door, asked what they wanted. When they shouted that they had come to arrest her because she was concealing German officers, she said that five of them could corne in and search the building. Leading the way first to the chapel. she asked them to put down their rifles at the door. and dumbly, overawed by her calm dignity. they obeyed her, stood with bared heads during the short service, followed her through the rest of the building, and went out at last to their comrades, waiting in the street, to tell them that they had made a mistake; there were no arms there, no German officers, it was only a convent full of nuns.
A few months later another visitor appeared, but this time it was the Swedish Minister £rom St. Petersburg, bearing a message from the Emperor of Germany to the woman he had once loved, begging her to leave Russia before it was too late, promising her safe conduct and a refuge in his country. The Grand Duchess listened with a little smile on her lips, but gently refused the offer of help. She also, she said, believed terrible things were going to happen in Russia, but she was prepared to share whatever fate awaited her adopted country, and she could not leave the sisters of her community alone. She was touched that her cousin William had remembered her, she had perhaps a moment of wistful sadness, thinking of the games they had played together at Darmstadt, and how often she had been impatient with him, but nothing could alter her decision, and the Swedish Minister had to leave, his mission unfulfilled.
"We work, we pray, we hope," she wrote to a friend in April 1918, when the First Provisional Government, too weak to control the wave of anarchy they had unleashed, had fallen from power, and the new rulers of Russia were established in the Kremlin. They knew all about the work she was doing, but they were dctennined that no member of the Imperial family should remain alive in Russia, and made up their minds to rid themselves of hcr presence. Knowing how much the people loved her, they did not dare lay hands on her, nor have her eXeCUted in Moscow, but in May they sent a detachment of Red Guards to the convent, with orders that she was to join the Emperor and Empress at Ekaterinburg. She was hurried away secretly at night, accompanied only by Sister Varvara, her former maid, who had refused to be parted from her
Had she gone to Ekaterinburg, the Grand Duchess would have shared the fate of the Emperor and Empress; but she would have been with her sister, and the end would have been quicker and more merciful. At Perm, a little desolate town on the river Kama, she was taken out of the train, and thrown into prison, in company with two of the yotmger sons of the Grand Duke Constantine, and of Prince Paley, the only son of the Grand Duke Paul by his second marriage.
At first the Lithuanian Guards were lenient to the prisoners, but after a few weeks they were exchanged for Russian soldiers, who, having received orders from the Kremlin, were Wlspeakably brutal. Then, one day in June 1918, the prisoners were led out, and forced to walk several miles through the forest, until they reached the shaft: of an empty, disused mine. One by one, the young men, who were still really only boys, and had committed no crime save that of being members of the Romanoff family, the woman who had given up years of her life to work for the poor, and the girl who had refused to leave a beloved mistress, were hurled into the deep chasm of the mine, and the soldiers, having carried out their masters' wishes, returned the way they had come through the forest.
Rumours of that crime against humanity spread in Perm, and a priest who had heard of the saintliness of the woman who had been so foully done to death, made his way secretly one night through the forest, and climbed down lito the mine. Here he found the bodies of the victims, and found also that some of their wounds had been roughly bandaged, a proof that none of them had died immediately. He was a man of high and exalted courage, and knew that he stood in hourly danger of death, but he carried away the bodies of the Grand Duchess and of Sister Varvara, kept them hidden for months in rough, wooden coffins, and then, by secret, devious ways, smuggled them out of Russia, over the Ural mountains, across Siberia and Manchuria and Asia, till finally he had them placed in a small chapel in Shanghai.
And so at last, after nearly three years, the whole terrible story came to light, the Marchioness of Milford Haven was told tbat her sister's body had been found, orders were given for the two coffins to be taken to Jerusalem, and, in April, 1921, Lady Milford Haven and her husband went to the lovely Russian church, built in memory of the Empress Marie, wife of Alexander II, on the Mount of Olives, and knelt beside those two coffins, which, after their long perilous journey, had finally come to rest.
There are probably only a few people in Moscow who remember the woman in the grey nun's dress, who was formerly such a familiar figure, going through the streets, on her way to visit the sick. The convent she founded has been disbanded, the sisters who worked with her have been imprisoned, or sent to labour camps. In the world of today who is there to care about what happened so long ago? But those who knew the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who saw her in the magnificence of her Court robes and the splendour of her jewels, or in her plain nun's dress, can never, as Queen Marie of Roumania said, forget that she did once exist, in all her glorious, almost unearthly beauty.