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IN THE DARKENED BEDROOM OF THE NEW PALACE IN DARMSTADT, ALICE, Grand Duchess of Hesse, lay dying. She was only thirty-five, but looked fifty, her white face with its sharp features gaunt, her eyes deeply sunken in their sockets, her heaving chest narrow and bony.
For the past month Alice had exhausted herself nursing her family through an epidemic of diphtheria, sitting beside their beds through the long nights, holding their hands, coming when they called out to her. The weakest and youngest of the children, her four-year-old daughter May, had been the most severely ill, and when she died, the pain Alice felt, she wrote her mother Queen Victoria, was "beyond words."
Her other stricken childrenfifteen-year-old Victoria, twelve-year-old Irene, ten-year-old Ernie and six-year-old Alickyhad all survived, though Ernie had for a time been given up for dead; her husband Louis, robust and thickset, had lain in bed for several weeks in a semiconscious state, unable to eat and barely able to speak, until gradually, under her unceasing care, he began to recover his strength.
Though most of her family and many of her servants succumbed, Alice herself had at first seemed immune to the terrible disease, as if willing her body to resist it so that she could spend herself in nursing the others. But after several weeks of overwork, lost sleep and anxiety she too experienced the painful sore throat, fever and throat-tightening constriction that were the hallmarks of diphtheria, and she took to her bed, unable to do any more for her ravaged family.
They stood by her bedside now as she struggled for breath, clutching the bedclothes and straining to fill her congested lungs. She had hada severe attack, and Louis had felt it necessary to notify the state officials and to request prayers in all the churches of the small German principality of Hesse. A telegram had been sent to Queen Victoria at Windsor telling her that Alice's condition was worsening. And the children had been summoned to stand by their mother's bed, and to say their prayers for her.
The youngest of the children, sweet-faced, golden-haired Alicky, stood next to her brother Ernie, her mainstay and closest companion, watching the events in the silent room. Her expressive gray-blue eyes were troubled, for all was loss and confusion in her worldher little sister dead and in her small coffin, her mother near death and beyond her reach, her governess Orchie, always so self-possessed and calm, upset and in tears. Even the nursery itself, spare and homely, was particularly sad and bare, for all the toys had been taken away to prevent their carrying infection.
Several crosses hung from the walls in the sickroom, together with verses from the Bible. There were pictures of Balmoral and of Windsor Castle and its grounds and portraits of Alice's sisters and brothers, and several tapestries in the fashionable William Morris style. Dominating the room was a stained glass window, dedicated to the memory of Alicky's brother Frederick, or "Frittie," who at the age of three had fallen from that very window to his death on the terrace below. Alicky was too young to remember Frittie, she had been an infant when he fell, but she knew that her mother grieved for him and she and the other children went every year to visit his grave. On Frittie's memorial window were the comforting words from the Bible, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Alicky, lonely and fearful, had much need of comfort, for as the hours passed her mother grew weaker, her every breath an effort.
Throughout Hesse prayers were being offered up for Alice, the Landesmütter (Mother of the Country), who had earned the respect of her husband's subjects by nursing the sick, visiting the poor and founding hospitals and schools. Since her marriage to Grand Duke Louis, Alice had thrown herself into the cause of social betterment, never satisfied with what she had done and always striving to do, as she said, "the little good that is in my power."
Alice had created a stir in quiet Darmstadt, introducing the Art Nouveau style in the grand ducal palace, playing duets with Johannes Brahms (Darmstadters preferred Mozart), substituting informality for formal etiquette at court, even holding daring religious views that aimed, as she said, to separate the historical Jesus from such "later embellishments" as the resurrection. Though her outraged mother-in-law called Alice "a complete atheist," and the quiet Darmstadters clucked their tongues over her outspokenness ("Providence, there is no Providence, no nothing!" Alice burst out when her favorite brother Bertie was gravely ill, "and I can't think how anyone can talk such rubbish"1), Alice maintained her opinions truculently, and dared others to refute them.
A new and more liberal spirit had come to Hesse with Alice, but in her efforts to make changes and to air her advanced views she had brought disruption and controversy, and even as she lay on her deathbed there were whispersrespectful, quiet whispersthat her demise would restore a welcome peace to the community.
For Alice's rigorous commitment to modernity was rooted in a mental and spiritual restlessness that made others uneasy. There was something hard and flinty at her core, an icy toughness of mind, that was seemingly at odds with her overall charitableness. She was unforgiving. Demanding a great deal of herself, she demanded as much of those around her, and constantly found them wantingespecially her warm-hearted, stolid husband Louis, who disappointed her at every turn.
Alicky, young as she was, understood something of her mother's uniqueness. Alice was not like other mothers; she did not adorn herself or curl her hair or wear colorful gowns. Her gowns were always black, and her only ornaments were a large gold cross on a chain and a mourning brooch with locks of her father's hair and Frittie's inside. Her pale face bore a perpetual expression of preoccupation and sorrow, a haunted look. She was often very tired. Even when she took the children on a vacation to the seaside, as she had only a few months before they had all come down with diphtheria, she did not rest or play with them, but went to visit hospitals and schools, taking Alicky with her to give away nosegays of flowers.
She was always helping people, and she was always full of sorrow. This much Alicky knew of her suffering mother.
The following morning Louis sent another telegram to Queen Victoria at Windsor. "I see no hope," Louis wrote his mother-in-law. "My prayers are exhausted." The queen's own physician Jenner, whom she had sent from England to treat Alice, added his terse assessment. "Disease in windpipe extended, difficulty of breathing at times considerable; gravity of condition increased."
The date on the telegrams, December 13, carried an ominous implication. Seventeen years earlier Alice's adored father Prince Albert had died of typhoid on December 14, and ever since the anniversary of his death had been marked with prayers and solemnities by his ever-grieving widow and their children. December 14 was feared as a fateful day, and though Alice herself was unaware of the date, or of much else, she did rave in her delirium that she saw her dead father, along with May and Frittie, standing together in heaven welcoming her in.
A little after midnight, early on the morning of the fourteenth, the patient began to cough and choke. The swollen membrane in her mouth was so thick she could no longer swallow, and could barely talk. Her face, even though bathed in warm candlelight, was chalk-white, her lips bloodless. Her attendants heard her whisper "May ... dear Papa" before becoming unconscious. By sunrise she was dead.
To the beat of muffled drums the Grand Duchess of Hesse's funeral procession made its slow way along the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Darmstadt to the chapel in the Old Palace. There were many mourners, each carrying a lighted torch. Alicky, her brother and sisters did not follow the coffin but were allowed to watch from a window as the mourners assembled in the courtyard below. Later, the children were told how hundreds of people came to see their mother in the chapel, taking off their hats as a sign of respect and leaving flowers and wreaths. The tributes were eloquent, the tears heartfelt.
A letter arrived from Windsor Castle.
"Poor Dear Children," Queen Victoria wrote, "you have had the most terrible blow which can befall childrenyou have lost your precious, dear, devoted Mother who loved youand devoted her life to you and your dear Papa. That horrid disease which carried off sweetlittle May and from which you and the others recovered has taken her away from you and poor old Grandmama, who with your other kind Grandmama will try to be a mother to you."
The queen sent particular wishes to "poor dear Ernie," who was bound to suffer acutely since he was so close to Alice. "God's will be done," she concluded. "May He support and help you all. From your devoted and most unhappy Grandmama, VRI [Victoria Regina Imperatrix, Victoria Queen Empress]."2
Alicky and her sisters were measured for mourning clothes, and wore identical black dresses, black stockings and shoes. Their fourteen-year-old sister Elizabeth, or Ella, who had been spared sickness and who had spent the last month away from the palace, now rejoined the family, and together the five children and their father spent a mournful Christmas.
Snow drifted down over the narrow streets of Darmstadt, settling on the gabled roofs and piling in deep drifts in the palace park. Orchie let the children play in the snow, bundled warmly against the cold, their ears covered with fur hats and their hands encased in mittens. As the days passed, though they continued to grieve, there were hours in which their sorrow lifted, and they remembered how to skate and build snow forts and ride their sleds down the gentle slopes of the hills.
One day in January Alicky, Irene and Ernie were playing in the garden, and Alicky began to chase the two older children, who ran across an area where seedlings were growing under glass. Ernie and Irene knew how to avoid the glass, but Alicky, too young to be cautious, crashed through it. Blood began to pour from her lacerated legs, and she screamed in pain and fear.
Later, bandaged and soothed by Orchie, Alicky ceased to sob, but her injured legs healed slowly, and she could not run without limping. Over the following weeks she continued to cry every night for her mother, and to say her prayers for her. All in all it was a season of scars, emotional and physical, and it would be a long time before the deepest of them would begin to heal.
ALEXANDRA. Copyright © 2001 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.