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Biographies - Grand Duchess Cyril (Victoria Melita) by Meriel Buchannan

Grand Duchess Victoria Melita by Muriel Buchannan

"DUCKY," Queen Victoria said in 1889,after paying a visit to the Duke of Edinburgh at Clarence House, "is nearly as tall as her mother and such a handsome girl."

Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, was only about thirteen at the time, but already she showed signs of the good looks, the tall, perfectly developed figure, the deep-set, almost violet, blue eyes, the imperious carriage of the head that distinguished her in later life. Dark, and with a rather sallow complexion, she lacked the brilliant colouring, the radiant animation of her sister, Marie of Roumania, but she had a certain' regal magnificence that made her outshine every other woman in the room; strangers immediately asked who she was.

She had been very unhappy in her first marriage to the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse. He had fallen in love with her, and he was handsome, intelligent and artistic, but her heart had always really belonged to her other cousin, the eldest son of the Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia. From the outset she had found exasperating Ernst Ludwig's exuberance, his restless activity, his occasional fits of melancholy, or lethargic indolence, while his aversion to any form of violent exercise, and his almost timid apprehension of horses, filled her with contempt. Moreover she fretted at the restrictions of the Darmstadt Court; her inherent intelligence and capabilities needed wider surroundings, a greater scope, more colourful variety.

During the years we were in Darmstadt it was chiefly to my parents that she turned for sympathy in her troubles, her discontent and dejection. My father, who often rebuked her headstrong wilfulness, was, she said, her "kind schoolmaster", while my mother was her "old gamp" to whom she turned for consolation, certain of a sympathetic hearing and wise advice.

Many things had to be packed away when we left Russia in 1918, many others have been mislaid, or maybe thrown away by mistake, in incessant moves and upheavals, but, looking through some old papers the other day, I came unexpectedly across a letter the Grand Duchess wrote to my mother from Wolfsgarten, in May 1899, shortly before she had her last miscarriage. It is a letter typical of many she wrote, whioh unfortuntately are no longer in my possession.

Dearest Lady Georgie, (it runs) To me it seems ages since we met and chatted, I need badly a talk with "my oId gamp". You must come here soon again. But just these next few days are full of people coming, and we could not be to ourselves. But as soon as we are free, may I let you know, and then you will come, won't you? I want to pour lots of woes and complaints into your long-suffering ears. I feel an aged old cripple, and am in consequence very miserable, I doubt that I ever will be well again, and I really do take care now. I scarcely move a step, and lie on my sofa all day, even for meals, during which I have endless conversations with old Ploetzer. Otherwise life is joyless. Today we have the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the Grand Duke Michael and the Apollos to play tennis. Miserably I sit and look on, and am a dumb nonentity, Something must be done, I cannot go on like this. I want lots of advice from you. A kiss to you in waiting. Victoria Melita.

It was without doubt only Queen Victoria's age and her supremacy in Europe that forced the Grand Duchess to bear the irksome bondage of her marriage for so many years, but how often she railed against her grandmother's rigid principles, her unalterable horror of divorce, and her frequent stern admonitions, only my father and mother knew. Hardly was the Queen dead, when she left her husband and sued for divorce, marrying the Grand Duke Cyril in 1905.

In those days divorce was still rigorously disapproved of and for a princess of royal blood to leave her husband, and marry another man, was an almost unheard-of scandal. The Empress Alexandra of Russia, who as Princess Alix of Hesse, had opposed her brother's marriage, and had never liked her sister-in-law, on her occasional visits to Darmstadt, not troubling to conceal her dislike-was now full of flaming resentment. Her brother, she said, had been treated abominably, it was preposterous that his former wife should marry a member of the Romanoff family; she would not tolerate her in St. Petersburg, she refused to receive a woman who had behaved so disgracefully, she never wanted to see her again. A marriage between first cousins was not approved of by the Orthodox Church; the Emperor, who had been displeased at the publicity surrounding tlle divorce of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Hesse, yielded to his wife's insistence and banished the Grand Duke Cyril from Russia, depriving him of his rank, his honours, and his income from the Crown.

The affair caused a tremendous sensation in St. Petersburg society. The Grand Duke Vladinlir, who had always been known for his fiery temper, stormed into the Emperor's room, towering in his great height over his nephew's slender figure. No member of tlle Imperial family had ever been so grossly ill-treated, he roared in that stentorian voice of his. What had his son done to deserve to be expelled from Russia: He had married a woman he had loved for many years, Surely he had the right to some happiness in life: Give him a lecture, maybe, but why heap disgrace on him in this way? It was preposterous, unfair, disgraceful. Finally, it is believed, he tore the decorations from his chest, flung them clattering down on the table in front of the Emperor, and marched out of the room, shutting the great gold-studded door behind him with a resounding bang.

Notwithstanding his uncle's fury the Emperor remaincd adamant in his decision, and it was not till 1909, after the death of the Grand Duke Vladimir, that his son was reinstated and recalled to Russia, When we went to St. Petersburg in the late autumn of 1910, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Cyril were installed in their small brown palace with their two little girls.

The Grand Duchess had kept up her correspondence with my mother, and when we had our first audience with her she was full of unfeigned delight at the incredible luck of my father being appointed Ambassador to St. Petersburg. She apologized laughingly for her bad behaviour in the past, kissed my mother warmly on both cheeks, talked of old days and old memories, and of her radiant happiness in her second marriage. Turning to me, she kissed me also, "and so this is Meriel, 'grown up," , she said, adding with a sigh, "It makes me feel very old."

From time immemorial it had been the custom for the Tsars of Russia to attend the ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters of the Neva at Epiphany, but a few years previously, one of the guns firing the salute from the fortress facing tlle Winter Palace across the river, had been loaded with shrapnel, which struck the pavilion where the Emperor was standing, tore one of the flags to ribbons, and broke a window in the Palace. Nobody had been severely injured, and the Emperor had not moved or turned his head, but, in the fear of a similar incident occurring, he had been advised not to attend the ceremony again. During the ensuing summers, however cholera had raged in St. Petersburg, and the Russian people - superstition always mingling with their religion -had declared that this scourge had come upon them because the "Little Father" had not in person blessed the watcrs of the Neva. Shortly after our arrival, in January, 1911, the Emperor announced his intention of once more attending the Epiphany ceremony. Coincidence or not, it is a fact that the following summer there was no recurrence of cholera in the city.

The day was one of brilliant sunshine and icy wind. The yellow Imperial standard, flying over the fortress, blew taut against a sky of clearest blue, golden domes and spires glowed with almost unbearable brilliance above the snow. On the white frozen surface of the Neva a small wooden pavilion had been built, covered with crimson velvet hangings, and, close to it, a round hole had been cut in the ice down to the sullen, black waters of the river. Inside the Winter Palace the warm, hushed stillness was full of a subdued murmur of voices, a rustle of silken skirts, soft footsteps and the jingling of spurs. Court servants in gorgeous liveries, wearing qucer round hats, covered with ostrich feathers, lined the staircase. A mass of colourcd uniforms thronged the vast rooms through which we passed. St. George's Hall with its high marble pillars, the Armorial Salon, the Throne Room, with its red velvct hangings, in everyone of them there were Cossacks in vivid crimson, in white, brown or blue, hussars with scarlet, fur-trinuned dolmans slung over their shoulder, tirailleurs, in dark green; there were officers of the Gardes a Cheval, and the Chevaliers Gardcs, looking like figures out of Lohengrin, in white, with gold or silver breastplates and helmets, and mingling among them were older Court ladies, in their traditional dress of olivegreen velvet, and young Demoiselles d'Honneur in deep ruby velvet, their fresh faces framed by velvet kakoshniks, and soft white veils.

Sunshine flooded through the long glass windows facing the quay of the room where all the diplomatic body had assembled. At a given signal everyone pressed forward to stand near the open gallery which ran the whole length of the big room, and a sudden hush stilled the chattering voices as the procession of Grand Duchesses, led by the Dowager Empress, passed on their way from the private chapel, where they had attended divine service, to one of the inner rooms of the Palace. In the sudden hush the only sound was the murmur of the long trains of many-coloured velvet or brocade, the rustle of gorgeous robes opening over the cmbroidered underskirts of stiff white satin. The blaze of jewels that covered their kakoshniks, the long white veils, seemed to set them in a world apart, made all our dresses look somehow insignificant, our hats either absurd or dowdy.

In that procession, following the white-velvet, sable-trimmed train of the Dowager Empress, the Grand Duchess Cyril looked magnificent, her train of cornflower-blue velvet lined with silver, a tiara of sapphires and diamonds blazing on her head, her blue eyes alight with happiness. Now, I felt, she had, come into her own; these were the surroundings she needed, this was the setting that suited her. Here she belonged! Slowly, with the rustle of her heavy train, With the fire of her jewels, she passed; slowly the heavy doors dosed behind her and behind the others who had walked in that long procession; and the world suddenly became commonplace and ordinary. again with a buzz of voices, with little giggles, with here and there perhaps a sigh of envy, with self-conscious gestures, as hats were adjusted and hair patted into shape.

Outside on the quay the ceremony of the Blessing of the Water was taking place. Watching from the windows, we saw the Emperor cross the road to the pavilion, followed by the Grand Dukes, tall and splendid in their brilliant uniforms, the Cossacks of the Imperial Guard, old generals, and gentlemen of the Court, all standing bare-headed in the icy wind. In their brightly coloured vestments the priests began the service, the sound of their voices coming to us dimly through the dosed windows. Then, following the Emperor, they stepped down onto the ice, the silver cross was dipped three times in the water, the flags were sprinkled, the guns thundered a salute. the bells of all the churches rang out across the snow.

One might, I thought, have been looking at an illuminated page of history, when the Tsar descended from the Kremlin, accompanied by the Strelitsi in their many-coloured kaftans, by the Court magnates and Boyars in their robes of velvet, to be received by the Patriarch on the ice of the river Moskwa. They were then rowed three times across the open space of water, that had to be stirred all the time to prevent it from freezing. Ritual and pageantries of long ago, handed down through the centuries! My eyes still dazzled by the procession of Grand Duchesses, I watched the dramatic ceremony on the ice, with the fortress frowning on the opposite shore, and the spire of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St, Paul rising like a golden flame into the sky. In my ignorance, I thought that the Russian Empire was enduring, impregnable alld secure.

The Grand Duchess Cyril had become the leader of the so-called Smart Set in St, Petersburg, No party was considered complete without her, the lovely-and very often unusual clothes she wore, were examined minutely, and sometimes copied, the colour and decorations of her rooms were discussed, admired, and envied, invitations to any entertainments she gave were angled for assiduously by everybody in society. She was always kind to me, very often insisting on my taking part in the dances and parties of the young married women, to which girls were not generally invited. I thoroughly appreciatcd this, finding the "Bals Roses" as they were called, infmitely more amusing than the "Bals Blanes", which were given exclusively for debutantes.

But on one occasion her kindness caused me a great deal of unhappiness. "It would be so wonderful if Meriel could marry Sandro, it would be such fun to have her with us," she told my mother; but it all came to nothing. I shall never forget the day she sent for my mother and me to tell us that her attempt to arrange things had failed. Seeing my stricken face, she told me to go into the next room to talk to her two little daughters, while she explained what had happened. I was feeling coldly sick and miserable, and was finding it hard to control my tears as I sat on the floor, watching Princess Kyra, fair and rather solenm, and dark chubby little Princess Marie building a castle of bricks. "Sister," Princess Kyra admonished, "you must not put the bricks there, The tower will fall down." When it collapsed, with a rattle of bricks, which in my ears sounded the death-knell to all my dreams, she shook her head gravely, "I told you so, sister," she said, "you will never be able to build a castle unless you are more prudent."

Probably it was all for the best, but at the momcut I imagined myself broken-hearted, and when Sandro told me later that if only the Grand Duchess had let well alone things might have been very different, I was inclined to blame her for an interference that was actuated by the kindness of her heart and her desire to help.

In spite of all her social engagements and her official duties she continued with her painting, and in the summer of 1913, when we took a small house at Tsarskoe, where she was staying with her mother-in-law, the Grand Duchess Vladimir, she did a picture of me, kneeling by a stone sarcophagus covered with white roses, with black draperies round me, my face hidden in my arms. Nobody would ever know who it was, the Grand Duchess said, but she had faithfully portrayed the colour of my hair, and I think a good many people guessed the identity of her model and commented, sometimes rather critically, on the inadequate black chiffon scarves.

That was a happy summer at Tsarskoe. There were dinners and dances, given by the Grand Duchess Vladimir and tlle Grand Duchess Cyril; picnics and excursions to Petcrhof and Krassnoe; drives in the woods surrounding the Palace of Pavlovsk, which had once belonged to the Emperor Paul. There were visits to the big white Palace of Catherine the Great, with its bright-green roof, and endless succession of rooms and galleries; walks in the park, and ill the Chinese garden with its swan-pond and little canals, and bridges of imitation coral, where quaint carved figures held open parasols. I enjoyed the mornings spent as a model in the Grand Duchess's studio, listening, as I knelt in the rather uncomfortable position, to her conversation with my mother, memories of her former unhappiness, occasional outbursts against what she called "the stuffiness" of her English relations, and of the Queen who had kept her so long in misery during her first marriage, "When we were young," I one day heard her say, "Missy and I adored Grandmama Queen. We used to think it a great honour to be invited to go and see her. We loved her bullfinch and all the photographs in her room, but we thought her spaniel was too fat, And, oh, how solemn her Court was. How tired I got of the talk of ' Grandpapa in Heaven', and of the constant mourning, And how I later resented the lectures she was always giving me.

Golden, lazy days, passed in a sense of unchanging security that was so soon to be shattered, for only twelve months later the First World War broke out, and the threatening clouds of havoc and devastation gathered on the horizon, growing darker, more full of menace, as the years went by.

The Grand Duchess Cyril had her own ambulance-train during the war: She travelled continually backwards and forwards to the Front, returning sometimes looking worn and harassed, her eyes heavy with lack of sleep and overpowering weariness. She was acutely aware of the lack of organization in tlle conduct of the war; she had seen the appalling shortage of ammmution, the scarcity of supplies and red-cross material. When the Emperor took command at Headquarters, and Sturmer and Protopopoff were given posts in the Government, she became more than ever opposed to the Empress, blaming her for the mismanagement in the administration in the country. There had never been any sympathy between them, but now her dislike flared into open hostility, and when she went to see her former sister-in-law, begging her to influence the Emperor into granting concessions, and was told that she was interfering in matters which were not her concern, she returned seething with exasperation, saying that she had been treated like an ignorant schoolgirl.

After tlle death of Rasputin, several members of the Imperial family, including the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Cyril, wrote to the Emperor begging him to pardon the Grand Duke Dimitri for his part in the conspiracy. They received a curt reply, written across the corner of the envelope. "It is given to no one," the pencilled words read, "to occupy himself with murder. I know that the conscience of many gives them no rest, for it is not only Dimitri Pavlovitch who is implicated. I am astonished that you should address yourself to me." The Grand Duchess, showing this to my mother, had tears of anger and frustration in her eyes. This, she said, showed how misguided the Emperor was, it was yet another proof of his ignorance of what was going on. He had always said that Russia was not ready for a democratic government, but now was the time to act; he must be forced to see his folly, forced to go to the Duma, and bring in the necessary reforms

 It was believed at the time that the Grand Duke Cyril and his wife were at the head of a palace conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor and place the Tsarevitch on the throne, but so many rumours were current in those days that it is impossible to know the truth. It was said also, that they had asked Sandra to lead his Cossack regiment against the Government. But if he was approached, he certainly refused; it was he, who, after the Revolution of March, 1917, came to the Embassy to warn my father of the rising tide of anarchy and the danger to the Emperor. He begged him to do whatever was possible to get him out of Russia, The Grand Duke Cyril, on the other hand, was the first to surrender and swear allegiance to the Provisional Government, a fact that was never forgotten by many of his relations

On his first interview with M. Miliukoff, the newly appointed Minster of Foreign Affairs, my father was told to have no further communication with the Imperial family; to this he replied that he would certainly not drop old friends who had been kind to him, and added that if there was trouble, he would offer the protection of the Embassy to the Grand Duchess Cyril, as she was a British Princess and entitled to any help he could give her, a statement that Miliukoff received with cold displeasure.

When my mother continued to visit the Grand Duchess, and took her out in the Embassy carriage to visit her English nurse, who was ill in hospital, M. Miliukoff sent for my father again, and told him sternly that he could not allow this intercourse to continue, In certain quarters, he said, people believed that the British Ambassador was plotting a counter-revolution with members of the Imperial family, and he would have to ask for my father's recall, as he could not be responsible should an angry crowd attack the Embassy.

It was a hard decision to take, but my father had to considcr not only his personal safety, but the fact that the Embassy was British property, and that Britain had officially recognized the new Provisional Government in Russia. After a long discussion, my mother wrote to the Grand Duchess, and told hcr what had happened. She was somewhat comforted by the following reply: "Dear Lady Georgie, I quite understand, and thank you both for all your niceness. Of course you must not think of coming to sce me, if it can be misinterpreted. It is hard to be accused of being 'vieux regime' when all one's sufferings are due to mismanagement, Fondest love, and I hope we will meet again in happier days."

Those who have not lived through a revolution may not, perhaps, realize how helpless one felt, or know how fundamentally one's daily life was affected whellliving in a town where sudden outbursts of shooting were an almost hourly occurrence, or where one was liable to be stopped by some workman, and ordered none too gently to show an official pass, We were not allowed to see our friends, but were forced to receive those now in control, who had, possibly with the best intentions, brought about the fall of the Empire, and were unable to restrain the violence they had let loose, or stem the growing power of the extremists.

Somebody once told me that revolution was always picturesque; but when I looked at the gradual disintegration, the rot that spread like a dark miasma over the town, the unswept streets, the broken windows which nobody repaired, the walls riddled with bullets, the bands of soldiers who had deserted from the Front, I could see nothing picturesque, but only something ugly, sinistcr and terrifying.

My father's position became more difficult with every day. Distrusted by Lloyd George, who saw in him the personification of a diplomat of the old school and disliked him, accused on the one side of being a reactionary, and on the otller of having instigated the Revolution, he was blamed by all, and especially by those who had themselves failed in their loyalty to the Emperor. Even the Grand Duchess Cyril, who had denounced the old regime, and written such an understanding letter, now turned against him, and told her sister the Queen of Roumania that my father had deserted her in the hour of trouble, and had refused to help her.

In the summer of 1917, she, with her husband and children, escaped to Finland, and it was there that her son, the Grand Duke Vladimir, was born in September. Only able to take the bare necessaries with them, they lived, almost in penury, in a small wooden house, lacking any comforts or amenities. Hearing of her desperate plight my mother sent her a case of red-cross stores, clothes for the children, tinned milk and butter, cereals and jam. But the only thanks she received was a letter from the English nurse, coldly acknowledging the arrival of the gift, and with tears in her eyes my mother sought in vain for a message from the woman who had been her friend for so many years. A little later the Grand D.uke Cyril, giving an interview to members of the Press, told them that my father and my mother had turned their backs on them after the Revolution, "which", he added, "was not very nice, nor very brave".

How right Queen Marie of Roumania was, when she said of her sister, "Ducky was the most unforgiving of us all". With her own upright honesty, her llllbending pride and integrity, she could visualize only one course of action; she could find no excuses for what she regarded as a failure to live up to her own high ideals, nor take into account the force of circumstances. But in judging her one must remember the hardness of her lot. After years of wiliappincss she had married the man she loved, and, having at last got all she wanted, saw it destroyed, and herself faced a future of despair and bitterness, an exile in poverty and humiliation.

It was only after they had left Finland, and had settled down at St. Briac, near Dinard, that she learnt to adapt herself to circumstances; but even then she was never quite able to resign herself to the loss of power and position. The proclamation issued by her husband declaring himself to be the rightful guardian of the vacant throne of Russia, voiced her own inflexible hopes that one day she would be able to return there.

Their house at St. Briac was unpretentious, but with her gift for colour and decoration the Grand Duchess made it individual and charming, turning a wilderness into a beautiful garden, doing all the work herself. She was now able to make use of her talent for painting, for she illuminated old books and Bibles, and sold some of her lovely pictures of flowers, the money she made enabling her to keep the household going, and to pay for the educatioll of her children. She lived in constant dread that her son, in whom she saw the heir to the Imperial crown, would be kidnapped by their enemies, She hardly allowed him out of her sight, would not send him to school but engaged a private tutor for him, would not let him learn a trade or profession, but brought him up as if he was to inherit the wealth of his ancestors.

There was a large English colony in Dinard, and in the summer cosmopolitan visitors brought gaiety and entertainment. The Grand Duke played golf every day, he and his wife joined in picnics and excursions, and became part of the social life of the community, going out to play bridge, getting up theatricals and tableaux vivants. One summer, when Queen Marie of Roumanla was staying there, they gave a performance of Fire Bird in an empty barn.

They visited America, where they were welcomed with royal honours, being received as if tlley were indeed Emperor and Empress. The Grand Duchess may have been happy for a time, but the years passed by without her dreams being realized, and when she died, in 1936, her sisters, who were with her, could only lay the lilies and flowers she had loved around her, and mourn the passing of a bitter, disappointed woman, whose brilliant personality had been warped by failure and frustration.

The Grand Duke Cyril did not survive her many years. On his death, his son issued a proclamation, asserting his claim to be the rightful Emperor of Russia. As a boy he had been very good-looking, and was very like the Prince of Wales, but, as he once said laughingly, "Un edition deluxe." He has now grown stout, and is said to bear a strong resemblance to his greatgrandfather, the Emperor Alexander III. He married a former Princess Bagration, who inherited a considerable fortune from her first husband, and they live mostly in the South of France, only paying occasional visits to the house at St. Briac. His sister, Princess Kyra, married Prince Louis Ferdinand of Hohenzollem, and lives at Lubeck with her numerous lovely children. His other sister, Princess Marie, married a Prince Leiningen, a descendant of Queen Victoria's half-sister, Theodora, and died at an early age a few years ago.

Old Russia, with all its sinfulness, its glamour and mysticism, has passed away for ever, the house at St. Briac stands empty. When I think of the Grand Duchess Cyril it is not there that I see her, but only as I saw her that day in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, with the fire of that magnificent tiara crowning her head, and the sweep of her blue-and-silver train adding to the regal dignity of her figure, She was born to be royal, to be surrounded with pageantry, to walk in procession through the rooms of Imperial Palaces, across gleaming parquet floors, under the light of crystal chandeliers. But fate decreed that she was to live in exile, in a strange country, to dig in a garden, to sell her paintings, to die with none of her dreams fulfilled.


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