Her Childhood Days and the Tragedies of Her Early Life - Queen Victoria's Affection for Her, and the Happy Days Spent at Balmoral and Osborne - Her Popularity in England - A Sericus and Accomplished Scholar
On June 6, 1872, in a small palace built for her parents at Darmstadt, a fourth daughter was born to the Grand Duchess of Hesse, who is better known to English people as Princess Alice, the second daughter of Queen Victoria.
The brightness and charm of the babe was such that her fond mother quickly bestowed upon her the name of "Princess Sunshine," but fate plays strange tricks, and to-day "Princess Sunshine" is referred to as "the most pathetic figure in Europe."
Tragedy followed her almost from birth. Mother, brother, and sister died in circumstances tragic in the extreme, and since her marriage to the Tsar, in 1894, the troubles of Red Russia, and the fear that she may be robbed of husband and children by an assassin's hand have haunted her to such an extent that she is a broken woman, although not yet forty years of age.
Never, however, was a princess born under happier circumstances. It is true her parents were poor. Until her father, Prince Louis of Hesse, became Grand Duke in 1877, they were obliged to study economy, and even afterwards money was none too plentiful. The duke's income was but that of a private gentleman, and many of the young princess's dresses were made by her mother. Until her confirmation she was only allowed a shilling a week for pocket-money, and it was a red-letter day when "Grandmamma Victoria" sent presents of new toys, books, and frocks.
H.l.M. The Empress Of Russia
Before her marriage, in 1894, the Empress was the beautiful Princess Alix of Hesse, beloved for her goodness and personal charm. Her life-story is one in which romance and tragedy have each played their part
But if "Princess Sunshine" did not live in luxury, she lived in the society of a mother who was all that a mother should be. Her "Letters" (1884), edited by Princess Christian, give a charming impression of an accomplished lady, lovable alike as a daughter, wife, and mother - gracious and kind to all the world. She did not complain of her lack of wealth; one of her favourite axioms was, "the less people have, the less they want, and the greater is the enjoyment of that which they have." Thus the princess who was destined to be the bride of the world's richest monarch was early taught the lessons of economy, and how much enjoyment can be obtained from little means.
For four years after her birth no cloud marred her happiness or that of her parents. She was christened
Victoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice, the names in due order of Queen Victoria's daughters, and it is interesting to note, in view of her marriage, that among her sponsors were her future parents-in-law, then the Tsarewitch and Tsarewa of Russia. Then came the first tragedy. One of her brothers, Prince Fritz - there were two, the other being Prince Ernest - fell from the window of a room in which he was playing, and died as a result of the accident.
Two years later there was an outbreak of diphtheria at the Royal house at Darmstadt. The lives of all the children were in danger, but they all fought against the disease successfully, except the baby, Princess May, who succumbed. But worse was to follow. Worn out with nursing and anxiety, the mother contracted the fatal infection through kissing Prince Ernest, who was suffering from the disease. It was a fatal kiss, and on December 14, 1878, the future Empress of Russia lost the best of mothers. It was a great blow, for the Duchess had been her children's constant companion. She had not only acted as their guide, comforter, and mentor, but often as their governess and playfellow, for she was one of those mothers who do not believe in leaving children too much to the care of nurses and governesses, and a letter which she wrote to Queen Victoria strikingly illustrates the wise and far-seeing manner in which she brought up her children.
"What you say about the education of our girls," she said, I entirely agree with, and I strive to bring them up totally free from pride of their position, which is nothing, save what their personal worth can make it. I feel so entirely as you do on the difference of rank, and how all important it is for princes and princesses to know that they are nothing better or above others, save through their own merit; and that they have only the double duty of living for others and of being an example - good and modest. This I hope my children will grow up to."
"Princess Sunshine" had three elder sisters - Princess Victoria, who married Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg; Princess Elizabeth, who married the Grand Duke Sergius of Russia; and Irene, who became the wife of her cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia, the brother of the Kaiser.
A tragic note even enters into the history of these three sisters, for while the marriages of Princess Victoria and Irene were of the happiest description, that of Princess Elizabeth was marred by that period of terror which has undermined the health of the Tsarina.
The Grand Duke Sergius, a man of gloomy and tyrannical nature, was hated as much for his deeds of oppression as his wife was loved for her deeds of charity. He was constantly threatened with assassination, and his wife was warned not to accompany him; but she persisted in doing so, and it was only by an accident that she escaped the bomb which exploded under the Grand Duke's carriage near his own palace in Moscow and destroyed his life.
Her Life In England
Previous to her mother's death, the Empress of Russia was brought up to an outdoor life. The winter was usually spent at Darmstadt, and the summer at the Schloss of Kranichstein, the small country house of her parents, where the children had a perfect menagerie of pet animals. Occasionally they visited Queen Victoria at Osborne and Balmoral, and it was to this country that the Grand Duke brought his children immediately after the tragic episode in 1878, which resulted in the death of his wife and the baby Princess May.
And in Queen Victoria the young members of the Hesse family found a second mother. Her Majesty insisted on having them with her at Balmoral and Osborne, and several happy years did the future Empress of Russia spend in this country, which she almost regarded as her home. At Balmoral the children led a delightful existence. They rode, walked, and fished among the Highlands, and many stories are told of the charming, unconventional ways of Princess Alix - as the future Tsarina was officially known.
On one occasion she was out riding when she lost her hat in a strong wind, and arrived at a cottage laughing at the handkerchief which she had donned as a headdress. Borrowing comb and hairpins, she quickly got her rebellious locks into order, and placing the handkerchief on her head again, rode home to the castle. Keepers, cottagers, and shopkeepers all knew Princess Alix, and are proud of the fact that she thought of them when, after her marriage, she visited Balmoral with her husband. As a matter of fact, Princess Alix endeared herself to the hearts of everyone with whom she came into contact in this country, and this, perhaps, will serve to explain the keen sympathy which has been aroused by the unfortunate circumstances which have led to the blighting of her married life.
A Serious Student Princess Alix was nearly sixteen years of age when she returned to Darmstadt. By this time her sisters had married, and she was called upon practically to occupy the position of chief lady of the Grand Ducal Court. It was a responsible position for one so young, but although she was full of fun at times, and took special delight in exercising her talent as a caricaturist, Princess Alix proved herself quite equal to her responsibilities. By this time she had begun to acquire some of that composure and dignity of manner which in later years was described as coldness and austerity. She also began to interest herself in serious study, and was exceedingly fond of reading books on philosophy and sociology.