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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager



THERE was a great family gathering in Darmstadt in September, 1903, to celebrate the marriage of the Princess Alice of Battenberg (a daughter of the Empress's sister) to Prince Andre of Greece (a nephew of Queen Alexandra).

They had been engaged for quite two years, but owing to the extreme youth of both the marriage was postponed. The four Hessian sisters were all in Darmstadt, and at a ball given in their honour all looked lovely. Amongst the other guests were the Queen of England, who is closely related to both bride and groom, and Princess Victoria.

We stayed in the new palace. It was built, I believe, for Princess Alice and is a nice, roomy, comfortable residence, with a pretty garden and grounds, situated in the town of Darmstadt. There are ponds in the garden covered with lotus blossoms; they are like pink water-lilies and the seed pods are very pretty and decorative. I have never seen them in England, but they ought to do well enough, I should think.

My children were delighted to see their cousin Ella once more. This dear child was then between eight and nine years old, and very like her beautiful mother in appearance. But the child's eyes had ever a look of fate in them. Looking at her I used to wonder what those wide grey-blue eyes saw, to bring such a look of sadness to the childish face.

There is a modern picture by Josephine Swaboda, a Hungarian artist, of a Madonna and Child, and the Virgin's eyes might have been painted from that child's, so full of pathos and future sorrow do they seem. In spite of this look of intense sadness in her eyes the little Princess herself was full of life and happiness. I never saw so sunny a nature; I never saw the child out of temper, nor cross, and should any little dispute arise amongst my four charges, she would settle it with perfect amiability and justice, making whoever was the most in the wrong give in, and reproving with great gentleness the others. Where Princess Ella was, no angry disputes could exist. She was so sweet and just that the other children always gave in to her arbitration. Looking back on her short life I often wonder why we did not see that she was quite too good for this world, her fit companions were the angels. She was a regular little mother, and was never so happy as with the "tiny cousin," as she called Anastasie.

It was a pretty sight to see her riding with the two eldest cousins in the riding-school; she mounted on a great white horse and her cousins on little ponies. She rode wonderfully well, and would take either of the little ones before her on the saddle, and give them a ride round the school.

The wedding for which we came took place in the two churches, the Lutheran and the Greek.

The bride wore crepe de chine over liberty satin, trimmed with the beautiful and now historic lace formerly belonging to her grandmother, Princess Alice. This lace was worn by each of the Hessian Princesses on their wedding-days. The Grand Duke lent it to his niece for the occasion.

My little girls and their cousins were all dressed in white Honiton lace frocks and looked very sweet.

The ceremonies were very long, that in the Russian Church lasting nearly two hours. The chief feature of it is the holding of the crown over the heads of bride and groom, and their being led three times round the church.

One of the little ones was terribly distressed at learning that cousin Alice would have to leave her mother and go to live with her husband. "I'll never marry," said the little maid. ÒI couldn't leave my dear mama." I told her that every one who was married had to go to live with husband or wife, and that cousin Andre would now live with cousin Alice, but that both of them would see their parents pretty often. She began to wonder why people married, when it meant separation, and I said, "Very few people can stay always with their father and mother, many people are obliged to go away and live with strangers without being married at all."

She was surprised and wanted to know if I had ever known anyone who did. I told her of several people who had done so, whom she knew, myself amongst the number, and that we were perfectly happy.

She considered a little, and then with a beaming smile said, "But that was different, our mama called you." There was a mother in it, in any case, she thought.

After the wedding was over and the guests gone we went out to Wolfsgarten, and were very happy there during the fine autumn weather. The Empress bought bicycles for her three eldest children and they had grand rides with their cousin about the place. They hunted the woods for mushrooms, of which many varieties are found in Germany, and had various excursions.

While we were in Wolfsgarten a carriage accident which might have had serious results happened. The Empress and her sister had just returned from a drive and were preparing to alight when the horses suddenly took fright and bolted. They rushed round the sides of the narrow court yard and suddenly headed for the stables, the door of which was shut. The footman, an old servant, thinking that a smash was inevitable, threw himself from the box, hoping to catch the horses by the heads and bring them to a standstill. He however fell and got kicked in the face by one of the horses. His wounds were slight, and he was quite recovered in a few days.

The Grand Duke of Hesse saw the occurrence and rushed up in time to catch one of the horses by the bridle as they were heading into the shut-up stable. The Empress and her sister sat quite quietly in the carriage, and did not appear at all dismayed by the accident. The Grand Duke acted with great pluck and presence of mind.

The children were fortunately all in the little cottage at the moment, so were out of danger. But they witnessed the whole thing from the windows, and were terribly frightened.

Our pleasant days in Wolfsgarten drew to a close, and we went to Skernivitsi, in Poland, taking the Grand Duke of Hesse and his little daughter with us.

She always enjoyed life so much, and she ran and bicycled about the gloomy old park, took the lead in all the games and was like a sunbeam; yet all the time she was stricken with mortal illness, though none suspected it. I got some of the men to erect a swing and a giant's stride for the children, and a great surprise had been prepared for them in the shape of a little carriage drawn by a pair of tame deer, so their mornings were passed pleasantly. In the afternoon we drove.

Poland is a very ugly country, but the child was deeply interested in all that she saw. Like myself, she was horrified at seeing the people kneel in the road whenever the children's carriage approached. As for me, I never got used to it, nor ever overcame the feeling of horror mixed with pity that I experienced on seeing this done for the first time. The little Grand Duchess Olga, who is very sensitive, used to look at them with tears in her eyes and beg of me to tell them not to do it.

The Russian Government had established many schools in Poland, and the younger generation is growing up with better ideas on such subjects.

The holy pictures hung upon the trees, the little shrines at the cross roads, the straw signs showing that men and horses could find accommodation, and the poor, dirty people themselves, all interested the little Hessian Princess to a wonderful extent.

One day she and Tatiana were wonderfully busy and mysterious, running in and out of the rooms, and exploding into laughter every now and then. In the evening after they were in bed Tatiana took from under her pillow a little box which dear cousin Ella had prepared for her. This contained some little coloured stones which they had picked out of the gravel the day before, some bits of matches, luminous ends, of course, the sand-paper off a match-box and some tissue paper. This was a toy which they had prepared. After Tatiana was in bed, if she felt lonely she was to sit up in bed, light a match upon the sand-paper, set fire to the tissue paper, and by its light to play with the stones. Well, of course, that could not be allowed, and the poor little Princess was overwhelmed when I explained to her that they might all have been burned in their beds.

One evening when the game was laid out, Miss W., Princess Ella's English nurse, said to me, "I should so much like to show my baby this, it would interest her." We got blankets and shawls and prepared a warm little nest for her in the window seat, and brought her from her bed, wrapped in a dressing-gown and shawl, to see the wonderful sight. She was quite delighted, and everyone came to the window and talked to her through it for a minute. Next morning the Grand Duchess Olga was disposed to grumble at having been left in bed all night, and said to me, "Ella is only eight months older than I am, and Miss W. took her up to see it all, and you left me in bed, like a baby." The little Princess said so sweetly, "Oh! dear Olga, don't be angry, you will often see it again, but I shall never again see it." She so often made use of this expression, " I shall never see it again," that I sometimes wonder if she had any premonition of approaching fate.

The shooting party went to Spala. The whole game shot during the two days was brought home earlier than usual on Saturday afternoon, and was all laid out before the children's bedtime, so Miss W. and I thought we might indulge our little charges with a sight of it all. We accordingly wrapped them up, and took them out and they were delighted. The little Princess was full of life and fun. I never remember to have seen her in higher spirits than she was on Saturday evening. She prepared and carried out an innocent little practical joke on her father and the Empress. She asked me to put her three eldest cousins in her bed, and leave little Anastasie alone in her bedroom. "When auntie Alix and papa come," said the child, "auntie Alix will be looking everywhere for her children, and papa will not know how he has got four." Accordingly it was done, and I stepped into the corridor to ask the Empress and the Grand Duke to be very much surprised. They were, of course, exceedingly surprised, and the Empress pretended to be much frightened, to the child's great delight. You could hear her laughter all through the house, as one by one the cousins were disclosed.

On Sunday morning Miss W. called out to me that her little one had a sore throat. It was then about half-past seven and she had just awakened. I immediately sent off for the court doctor, and we took her temperature, which was normal, so we thought she might be dressed. She had only began to make her toilette when other symptoms set in, and so she was put to bed again. The doctor came, but the throat was then better. He said it was possible that the change of food might have disagreed with her, but he was not in the least alarmed, and neither were we. I kept my little ones out as much as possible, to keep the nurseries quiet for the ailing little one. At four o'clock I returned from the drive with my little charges. Miss W. looked up quickly and said cheerfully, "Oh! my baby is ever so much better, she has had no return of the sickness for a couple of Hours, and is sleeping quietly." She then went into the room to the sick child.

I went to the doctor and congratulated him on the improvement in his little patient. "Improvement," he echoed, "the child is dying of failure of the heart." I felt stunned for a moment, then utterly incredulous, and reminded him that the child had been ill for hours, and that children run down quickly and recover quite as rapidly. He adhered to his statement that the child's heart was failing from hour to hour.

I had to tell the Empress and Grand Duke that the child was very ill and weak, and her temperature had risen rapidly till it was 104¼ Fahrenheit. They both came down to see her. Neither of them could see that she was very ill, nor in any danger. The doctor said the danger was from the heart, the beatings of it were hardly perceptible. The Grand Duke felt her pulse and thought it strong enough. They were in and out all through the evening and always thought the doctor and I were needlessly alarmed. So absolutely did they disbelieve in the possibility of any danger to the child that they went to the theatre that night.

After they had gone the doctor exclaimed that he would like a second opinion. I got him to send a message to the Empress, asking if we might send to Warsaw for some one. She sent back word to send a telegram and a special train for the best advice which could be got, but added that she and the child's father were both perfectly easy and happy about her. We accordingly sent off for a specialist. Before he came the Imperial family returned from the theatre. The Empress and the Grand Duke came in to see the little one, who roused herself and spoke brightly to them. The Empress told me not to be nervous or frightened about the child, that she would be all right in the morning. They went to bed, and the child speedily sank into a semi-stupor. I told Miss Wilson I could not leave her alone with her sufferer but would stay all night with her.

Presently the two little Grand Duchesses, Marie and Anastasie, began to scream, and I ran into their room; I found them both standing in their beds looking terribly alarmed. They told me there was a strange man in their room who had frightened them. Now the rooms were in a suite, and they could be entered only from the dining-room, or from the second bedroom, and this bedroom in its turn could only be entered from the room in which the little Princess lay ill. It will therefore be seen that no one could have entered their room without our knowledge. The doctor and the little Princess's own faithful servant-man had been in the dining-room all night. I thought the night-light might have thrown a shadow which frightened the children into thinking there was someone in the room. I therefore changed its position, but still the children were afraid, and said he was hiding over by the curtain. I lit a candle, and taking little Anastasie in my arms, carried her round the room to prove to her that there was absolutely nothing to frighten her. The doctor came in and tried to soothe Marie, but it was useless; she would not be soothed and Anastasie refused to return to bed, so I took her in my arms and sat down to try to comfort her. She buried her face in my neck and clung to me trembling and shaking. I t was dreadful to me to see her in such a fright. The doctor being obliged to go I lighted a candle and left it on a little table close to Marie's bed, and sat down near it, that I might be beside both children. Marie kept talking about the dreadful person, and starting up in wild horror every now and then. The doctor came in and out, and told me the strange doctor had come and had given the little sufferer an injection of caffeine; her heart seemed stronger and he began to have hope.

When next Marie began to talk about the mysterious stranger I said, "A strange doctor had come to help Dr. H. to make cousin Ella quite well, and perhaps he might have come to the door in mistake, or you might have heard him speak, but there is no one in the room now."

She assured me that the stranger was not a doctor and had not come through that door at all, and did not speak. Suddenly she stood up and looked at something which I could not see. "Oh!" she said, "he is gone into cousin Ella's room." Anastasie sat up on my knee and said, "Oh! poor cousin Ella; poor Princess Elizabeth!"

She fell asleep almost immediately after, but it was some time before I could loosen the clasped arms, and little Marie slept also quietly. As soon as possible I laid her in her little bed and returned to the sick room.

The strange doctor said to me when I entered the room, "The little child is no better." I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "Paralysis of the heart." He had given her many injections, both of caffeine and camphor, but to no avail.

We gave her stimulants constantly, and for a little she appeared to improve, and we hoped we might save her.

Suddenly she sat up in her bed, and looked from one to the other of us with wide, frightened eyes. She cried out suddenly, "I'm dying! I'm dying!" Miss W. coaxed her to lie down again.

The child turned to me, and said anxiously, "Send a telegram to mama." I promised it should be done, and she added, "Immediately."

We sent upstairs and called the Grand Duke and the Empress, who came down without loss of time. The telegram was sent to Coburg to the mother. Alas! it was too late; when her answer was received the child had already passed away.

We continued to fan the feeble spark of life, but moment by moment it declined. She began to talk to her cousins, and seemed to imagine she was playing with them. She asked for little Anastasie, and I brought the wee thing into the room. The dying eyes rested on her for a moment, and Anastasie said, "Poor cousin Ella! Poor Princess Elizabeth!" I took the baby out of the room.

Miss W. was kneeling beside the bed. The dying child turned and kissed her; another minute and her race was accomplished; the bright young life was ended. There was an autopsy made on the body. A German, and two Polish doctors, with the court doctor, did what was necessary.

They found she had died of suppressed typhoid, was twelve days ill, but it never showed.

She had died in the children's rooms, and it was thought better to remove them, in order that the necessary fumigation and disinfecting should be carried out. So we left for Tsarskoe Selo that same evening. The Emperor and Empress intended to go to the funeral, but the Empress got cold in the child's room, and inflammation of the ear set in, so she lay in Skernivitsi for six weeks, and we were in Tsarskoe Selo. It was a sad and gloomy time, the Empress lying ill in Poland, the children and their household in Tsarskoe Selo. Even Christmas was overshadowed, as, though the Emperor and Empress had returned, the latter was laid up with influenza, and the festivities without her were shorn of half their brightness. The Empress was ill till towards the middle of January. My children talked much of cousin Ella and how God had taken her spirit, and they understood that later God would take her body also to heaven.

On Christmas morning when Olga awoke, she exclaimed at once, "Did God send for cousin Ella's body in the night?" I felt startled at such a question on Christmas morning, but answered, "Oh no, dear, not yet." She was greatly disappointed, and said, "I thought He would have sent for her to keep Christmas with Him."

One day Marie was looking at a picture of Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii; she asked me why she was blind. I replied that God sometimes made people blind, but none knew why. So she said, "I know someone who knows." I said, "No, dear, I think not; no one knows." "Cousin Ella knows," came the answer; "she is in heaven, sitting down and talking to God, and He is telling her how He did it, and why."

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