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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 lookedfifty, her white face with its sharp features gaunt, her eyes deeplysunken in their sockets, her heaving chest narrow and bony.
For the past month Alice had exhausted herself nursing her familythrough an epidemic of diphtheria, sitting beside their beds throughthe long nights, holding their hands, coming when they called out toher. The weakest and youngest of the children, her four-year-old daughterMay, had been the most severely ill, and when she died, the painAlice felt, she wrote her mother Queen Victoria, was "beyond words."
Her other stricken childrenfifteen-year-old Victoria, twelve-year-oldIrene, 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 semiconsciousstate, 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 ifwilling her body to resist it so that she could spend herself in nursingthe others. But after several weeks of overwork, lost sleep and anxietyshe too experienced the painful sore throat, fever and throat-tighteningconstriction that were the hallmarks of diphtheria, and she took to herbed, unable to do any more for her ravaged family.
Theystood by her bedside now as she struggled for breath, clutchingthe bedclothes and straining to fill her congested lungs. She had hada severe attack, and Louis had felt it necessary to notify the stateofficials and to request prayers in all the churches of the small Germanprincipality of Hesse. A telegram had been sent to Queen Victoria atWindsor telling her that Alice's condition was worsening. And thechildren had been summoned to stand by their mother's bed, and tosay 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 eyeswere troubled, for all was loss and confusion in her worldher littlesister dead and in her small coffin, her mother near death and beyondher reach, her governess Orchie, always so self-possessed and calm,upset and in tears. Even the nursery itself, spare and homely, was particularlysad and bare, for all the toys had been taken away to preventtheir carrying infection.
Several crosses hung from the walls in the sickroom, together withverses from the Bible. There were pictures of Balmoral and of WindsorCastle and its grounds and portraits of Alice's sisters and brothers, andseveral tapestries in the fashionable William Morris style. Dominatingthe room was a stained glass window, dedicated to the memory ofAlicky's brother Frederick, or "Frittie," who at the age of three hadfallen from that very window to his death on the terrace below. Alickywas too young to remember Frittie, she had been an infant when hefell, but she knew that her mother grieved for him and she and theother children went every year to visit his grave. On Frittie's memorialwindow were the comforting words from the Bible, "Suffer the littlechildren to come unto me." Alicky, lonely and fearful, had much needof comfort, for as the hours passed her mother grew weaker, her everybreath an effort.
Throughout Hesse prayers were being offered up for Alice, the Landesmütter(Mother of the Country), who had earned the respect of herhusband's subjects by nursing the sick, visiting the poor and foundinghospitals and schools. Since her marriage to Grand Duke Louis, Alicehad thrown herself into the cause of social betterment, never satisfiedwith what she had done and always striving to do, as she said, "thelittle good that is in my power."
Alice had created a stir in quiet Darmstadt, introducing the ArtNouveau style in the grand ducal palace, playing duets with JohannesBrahms (Darmstadters preferred Mozart), substituting informality forformal etiquette at court, even holding daring religious views thataimed, as she said, to separate the historical Jesus from such "laterembellishments" as the resurrection. Though her outraged mother-in-lawcalled Alice "a complete atheist," and the quiet Darmstadtersclucked their tongues over her outspokenness ("Providence, there isno Providence, no nothing!" Alice burst out when her favorite brotherBertie was gravely ill, "and I can't think how anyone can talk suchrubbish"), Alice maintained her opinions truculently, and dared othersto refute them.
A new and more liberal spirit had come to Hesse with Alice, but inher efforts to make changes and to air her advanced views she hadbrought disruption and controversy, and even as she lay on her deathbedthere were whispersrespectful, quiet whispersthat her demisewould restore a welcome peace to the community.
For Alice's rigorous commitment to modernity was rooted in amental and spiritual restlessness that made others uneasy. There wassomething hard and flinty at her core, an icy toughness of mind, thatwas seemingly at odds with her overall charitableness. She was unforgiving.Demanding a great deal of herself, she demanded as much ofthose around her, and constantly found them wantingespeciallyher warm-hearted, stolid husband Louis, who disappointed her atevery turn.
Alicky, young as she was, understood something of her mother'suniqueness. Alice was not like other mothers; she did not adorn herselfor 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 amourning brooch with locks of her father's hair and Frittie's inside. Herpale face bore a perpetual expression of preoccupation and sorrow, ahaunted look. She was often very tired. Even when she took the childrenon a vacation to the seaside, as she had only a few months beforethey had all come down with diphtheria, she did not rest or play withthem, but went to visit hospitals and schools, taking Alicky with herto 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 Victoriaat Windsor. "I see no hope," Louis wrote his mother-in-law. "Myprayers are exhausted." The queen's own physician Jenner, whom shehad sent from England to treat Alice, added his terse assessment. "Diseasein 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 Alberthad died of typhoid on December 14, and ever since the anniversaryof his death had been marked with prayers and solemnities by his ever-grievingwidow and their children. December 14 was feared as a fatefulday, and though Alice herself was unaware of the date, or of muchelse, she did rave in her delirium that she saw her dead father, alongwith May and Frittie, standing together in heaven welcoming her in.
A little after midnight, early on the morning of the fourteenth, thepatient began to cough and choke. The swollen membrane in hermouth 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 ... dearPapa" before becoming unconscious. By sunrise she was dead.
To the beat of muffled drums the Grand Duchess of Hesse's funeralprocession made its slow way along the narrow, cobblestoned streets ofDarmstadt to the chapel in the Old Palace. There were many mourners,each carrying a lighted torch. Alicky, her brother and sisters did notfollow the coffin but were allowed to watch from a window as themourners assembled in the courtyard below. Later, the children weretold 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 themost terrible blow which can befall childrenyou have lost your precious,dear, devoted Mother who loved youand devoted her life toyou and your dear Papa. That horrid disease which carried off sweetlittle May and from which you and the others recovered has taken heraway from you and poor old Grandmama, who with your other kindGrandmama will try to be a mother to you."
The queen sent particular wishes to "poor dear Ernie," who wasbound to suffer acutely since he was so close to Alice. "God's will bedone," she concluded. "May He support and help you all. From yourdevoted and most unhappy Grandmama, VRI [Victoria Regina Imperatrix,Victoria Queen Empress]."
Alicky and her sisters were measured for mourning clothes, and woreidentical black dresses, black stockings and shoes. Their fourteen-year-oldsister Elizabeth, or Ella, who had been spared sickness and whohad spent the last month away from the palace, now rejoined thefamily, and together the five children and their father spent a mournfulChristmas.
Snow drifted down over the narrow streets of Darmstadt, settling onthe gabled roofs and piling in deep drifts in the palace park. Orchielet 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 hoursin which their sorrow lifted, and they remembered how to skate andbuild snow forts and ride their sleds down the gentle slopes of the hills.
One day in January Alicky, Irene and Ernie were playing in thegarden, and Alicky began to chase the two older children, who ranacross an area where seedlings were growing under glass. Ernie andIrene 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, buther injured legs healed slowly, and she could not run without limping.Over the following weeks she continued to cry every night for hermother, and to say her prayers for her. All in all it was a season ofscars, emotional and physical, and it would be a long time before thedeepest of them would begin to heal.
Excerpted from Alexandra by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 2001 by Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.