Even on the occasion of her baptism the royal maid of scarcely six weeks appears to have been equal to the situation, for the fond Queen-mother, describing the ceremony to the King of Belgium, writes: "Little Alice behaved remarkably well."
In the sweet domestic life of the English royal family, where wise and loving parents personally watched over the education and development of their children, the youthful Princess grew like a fair flower. She was the pet and favorite, the sweetest and most tender-hearted of all the little crowd that made England's palaces merry with childish laughter.
At first the little maid showed no inclination for study. Books were thrown aside for a romp with her brothers on the lawn at Osborne or Balmoral, and a pony or a pet lamb was her greatest delight. Her tender care for the happiness of others was evident in earliest childhood. All her pocket-money was saved to be invested in birthday and Christmas presents for her teachers and attendants; and during the yearly visits to Balmoral many a poor Highland cottager was made comfortable by her kind charity.
After the marriage of the Princess Victoria to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, the Princess Alice, a graceful girl of fifteen years, became more and more a comfort and companion to her parents. Her intellectual development was very rapid, and her talent for music and drawing was a special delight to Prince Albert, her father, who found in her a sympathetic admirer of the rare works of art which he had collected at Windsor Castle. At this time the Queen-mother wrote of her: "Alice is very good, gentle, and intelligent, and a real comfort to me. I will not think of her marriage so long as I can reasonable delay it."
But love has its own way, even in royal palaces. In June, 1860, at the time of the great Ascot races, the court at Windsor entertained numerous royal guests, among whom were the two young Princes, Louis and Henry of Hesse, sons of Prince Karl, and nephews of the reigning Grand-Duke. Princess Alice and Prince Louis fell in love in good old-fashioned style, and after considerable correspondence between the royal families of England, Prussia, and Hesse, the Prince came to Windsor in the following November to sue for the hand of the fair Princess. The simple circumstances of the betrothal are thus related in the Queen's journal, under the date of November 30, 1860: "As I sat chatting with the gentlemen after dinner, I noticed that Alice and Louis, who were standing together by the stove, were talking more earnestly than usual, and as I passed them on my way to the next room they came toward me, and Alice, greatly agitated, told me he had asked her in marriage, and begged for my blessing. I could only press his hand, and say 'Certainly,' and that we would speak with him later in our apartments. We passed the evening as well as we could, working as usual. Alice came to our room, agitated but very quiet, Albert sent for Louis to go to his apartments. Later he called Alice and myself....Louis has a warm, noble heart. We embraced our dear Alice, and praised her. Louis pressed my hand and kissed it, and I embraced him. After we had spoken together for a while we separated. It was a very touching, and to me a very sacred, moment."
A year later, as preparations were being made for the marriage of the Princess, her beloved father died after a short illness. The death of Prince Albert was universally mourned, and to his family it was a blow which even time has had no power to soften. Between the Princess Alice and her father there existed a peculiar sympathy and affection. During his illness she was constantly at his bedside, and to the last sad moment his most tender and devoted nurse. In the time of bitter sorrow she developed a strength of character wonderful in one so young and gentle. Upon her fell the burden of supporting and comforting her broken-hearted mother. "The character shown by the Princess Alice in this severe trial is worthy of the highest admiration," wrote the Grand-Duchess of Baden; "although overcome with grief at the death of a dearly beloved father - and what a father, what a friend and counsellor! - in those first dreadful moments of the shattering of a happy and loving family she stood full of calm resolution, uniting all the broken threads in her young hands. All official communications to the afflicted Queen were received by her. She attended to the necessary correspondence, and did all in her power to save her stricken mother from undue exertion. The gentle girl became in a moment the wise and thoughtful Princess, beloved and honored by the ministers of state as well as the lowest servants of the household."
The presence of the Princess Alice became a necessity to the suffering Queen, and her marriage was delayed until the following summer, when it took place at Osborne on the 1st of July, 1862. The ceremony was strictly private and without display, only royal relatives of the bride and bridegroom being present.
The married life of this beautiful woman was spent, for the most part, at the quiet little town of Darmstadt, on the Rhine, the residence of the ducal family of Hesse. A touching record of her life as wife and mother is given in a volume of letters to the Queen Victoria, which has been recently published.
The change from the splendor of English palaces to the quiet life of the little residence- town of Darmstadt, a tiny dot of a city nestled at the foot of the picturesque hills of the Odenwald, was accepted by the Princess with characteristic sweetness. Her marriage was one of true love, and the simplicity of her new surroundings was in accordance with her thoughtful and studious character.
Writing the Queen of her reception in Darmstadt, she say: "The whole city was beautifully decorated. The citizens rode by the side of our carriage, among them many young girls dressed in white, and all so friendly and loyal. I heard many touching expressions of sympathy for your and our great sorrow. I think no one was ever welcomed so heartily. We drove together through the city among cheers and showers of flowers....Our apartments are very small, but pretty, and furnished with perfect taste. My own dear Louis has arranged everything in English fashion."
Dinners and receptions followed, "at which," says the young bride, " I had to appear in 'grand toilette,' and pay attention to each one. It is very difficult always to think of something to say to all these people who stand waiting for me to speak."
In the midst of all these festivities the sorrow for her father came to her with renewed force. She writes tender words of consolation to her mother, and says: "I earnestly devote myself to the duties of my new life, striving to act always as dear papa would wish."
The noble example of her father was a constant inspiration to the Princess Alice. In all her charitable work, her encouragement of art and literature, and in her wise and economical arrangement of her household, she always followed a course which seemed to her in harmony with the teachings of her dearly beloved father.
Life at the little court of Darmstadt flowed like a placid stream, varied by yearly trips to England and occasional visits from royal relatives. "We arise at six in the morning, and go to bed about ten,' writes the Princess, and the day was passed in long drives and tramps over the beautiful hills, and in studying and reading. The Prince read Macaulay's History of England and other serious works aloud to his wife as she sat at work, and together they read the newspapers, talking much of the political condition of the country, and laying plans for the future. "I thank God daily," says the Princess, "for our peaceful domestic life, in which we can do so much for others, and are not compelled to mix ourselves in these hateful politics."
At this time (1864) the clouds of the so-called "German question" were beginning to thicken the political horizon of Germany, and the Princess Alice, a woman with broad comprehension of public affairs, beheld with horror this dispute of brothers with brothers.
To the last she hoped and worked for a peaceable settlement. In May, 1866, she writes to the Queen: "War is really at hand. It is fearful. May God be with poor Germany! This peoples' war is very unpopular among all classes, and our industries are already suffering terribly."
But even in the midst of this anxiety, and with her husband away on the field of battle, her brave spirit rose to action, and her sole thought was to soften the sufferings of others. It was she who made preparations to receive the wounded soldiers: and when detachments of sick and suffering men were brought to Darmstadt, she spent much of her time in the hospitals caring for the wounded with her own gentle hands. Writing to her mother, she says: "The hot weather is fearful for the sick and wounded. Of lint and bandages we can not have enough. I am collecting here all I can, but I beg you to send me some. Twice a year old linen is collected in your castles for hospital use. Do give me a little. It would do so much good. We are not so rich here as in England, and there is always great need of such things in war times."
The conduct of this royal lady in times of trial is worthy of the highest admiration. With her husband in constant danger, her two children sent away to England for safety, and surrounded by suffering and mourning, she moved among the people like a ministering angel, comforting and strengthening every one by her calm and gentle presence.
In the midst of these terrors of war, as the cannonading of the battle of Aschaffenburg was booming across the hills to Darmstadt, a third daughter was born to the Princess Alice. "If my dear husband should be wounded now, I could not go to him,' she writes. "What I suffer words can not express. Oh, the sleepless, anxious nights, the long days without news! I heard three days ago that Louis was well, although he had been compelled to sleep six nights in the open air, and the last three in rained in streams."
Let it not be said that war brings no suffering to those who dwell in palaces.
The terrible battle summer was over at last, and peace came to the exhausted land, "We are almost ruined," writes the Princess, "and must devote all our energies to the reconstruction of our suffering country. I trust all governments will do the same, and think no more of war."
During the years that followed, the Princess devoted herself to the care of numerous charitable organizations - of which in many cases she was chief directress - and to the education of her children. In November, 1868, a prince and heir was born, and great were the rejoicings in Darmstadt, and very sweet and tender the letters written by the proud mother to the Queen. But one can not help regretting, as one reads, that these pretty records of nursery life were not kept sacred from Public scrutiny. They are beautiful, and reveal a vast depth of motherhood which will touch many hearts, but one longs for a deeper insight into the intellectual life of the Princess, of which this volume of letters gives but one solitary glimpse in a brief account of her friendship with the celebrated author David Friedrich Strauss.
When this remarkable man came to reside in Darmstadt, the Princess at once sought his acquaintance. Of shy and retiring habits, it was with great difficulty that he was persuaded to become a frequent guest to the ducal family.
"Not accustomed to associate myself with court circles," he says, writing of the Princess, "I nevertheless, when with this lady, found myself at ease. The friendly grace of her manner and her rare intellectual qualities relieved me at once from all embarrassment. Our intercourse was a spring of beneficial refreshment."
The author was often induced to read aloud to a small circle of attentive listeners, and thence arose the study of Voltaire, the result of which was Strauss's celebrated critique on the French author. This work he read aloud to the Princess before its publication, and was "richly rewarded by her appreciative attention."
He intended to dedicate the book to her, but as the work proceeded, and he found himself compelled by his own convictions not only to uphold Voltaire, but at times to exceed him in liberalism, he hesitated to ask the Princess to commit herself to patronage of a book the opinions of which might be called in question. This doubt was settled by the Princess herself. At an interview when Strauss had warmly expressed his gratitude for her encouragement of his work, she exclaimed, "Why do you not dedicate the book to me?" He explained to her that since reading it aloud he had changed and added many passages - alterations which he feared she would not approve; but offered to send the printed proofs, that she might consult with her husband. They were returned to him accompanied by the following letter:
"Honored Professor, - I return the Voltaire with thanks. My husband has read the fifth chapter with care, and finds nothing to prevent the dedication. The pleasure to me of accepting the dedication of the book, which recalls so many pleasant memories, will more than counterbalance any possible annoyance which may arise from it........ Alice."
Although disagreeing with many of the religious views of Strauss, especially with those of his book The Old and the New Faith, the Princess always remained his firm friend, and was brave enough to admire openly the intellectual power of a man whom the majority condemned.
In the summer of 1870 war was declared between Germany and France, and the Rhine Valley was once more the scene of military confusion. The Princess was again called to endure the absence and danger of her husband, and again were the hospitals crowded with wounded men. But it was not a war of "brothers against brothers," and wild patriotism for father-land did much toward softening the bitterness of the situation.
The nobleness and beauty of character of the Princess Alice increased with maturity. The suffering as well as the joy of motherhood fell to her lot. Her youngest son, a beautiful boy of three years, fell from the window of the royal residence and was killed before her eyes; but through all her trials she preserved the same calm grandeur, the same comforting presence for all around her.
In 1877 the Grand-Duke died, and the title with all its responsibilities fell upon the husband of the Princess Alice. With wider opportunities opening before her, the Princess made extensive plans for the benefit of her people. But the sad end was near at hand. In November of the following year the Princess Victoria sickened with diphtheria. In a single week five children and the Grand-Duke himself lay ill with the dreaded disease. The wife and mother labored day and night over her dear ones. Her short letters and telegrams to the Queen during this sad time are heart-rending. The youngest child, "dear little May," died and was buried while her father still lay dangerously ill, and the suffering mother knelt alone by the little casket.
With constant watching and care her husband and remaining children were restored to health and strength. Then this self-sacrificing, large-hearted woman was herself overcome by the terrible sickness. Calmly she gave all directions necessary in case of her death, not forgetting the servants of the household, nor the sick and poor, who so long had been her charge. "I will sleep quietly now,' she said, and closed her eyes, never to open them on this world any more. She died on the 14th of December, 1878, a loving wife, a tender mother, a noble woman, long to be remembered and mourned."
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