CHAPTER XVIII

1914

For it was the great year, though we didn't know it when in beautiful, peaceful Snowfield we heard the bells of our little church ring in the new-born year. All was peaceful and happy during the first six months. I was completing my romance of The Laughing Cavalier; my beloved husband was painting. He had contrived to arrange for models to come down to Bearsted and sit to him in his studio while they stayed in the lodge at Snowfield. One of these was a West Indian girl named Helen Cox, beautiful in her wild, dark way and as graceful as a Persian cat. A large picture of her hangs in the studio of our villa in Monte Carlo. I often look at it now, for somehow her pose and her set smile remind me more than anything else of the quietude which we enjoyed during those first six months of the eventful year.

We had football matches at Maidstone and cricket matches on Bearsted Green. We bought our first motorcar, often went up to London in it to see our new plays or interview Mr. Watt, still (and I always hope) my literary agent. We spent a week or two in Rome, where Sir Rennell and Lady Rodd entertained us most charmingly at the Embassy. We saw a good deal also of the beau monde of the Italian capital. I may safely say that nowhere in any of the great European capitals have I seen so many magnificently beautiful women.

There was a Princess Colonna who was, to my mind, a veritable queen of beauty, tall above the average with her regal figure and creamy skin, her small head crowned with a wealth of soft black hair, her wonderful jewels and exquisite Parisian gown, she was to me a sight never to be forgotten. She seemed to carry with perfect ease on her superb shoulders the burden of her aristocratic ancestry and of her historic name, and her presence carried with it the authority that only great beauty confers.

But there were others of course whose names escape me after all these years, and I was always very bad at names but a whole-hearted admirer of beauty, and at the reception in the fine rooms of the British Embassy in Rome I could indulge in this admiration to my heart's content. Somehow I couldn't help thinking all the time of those Roman matrons of the period of which I had dealt in my book, Unto Cæsar. In my mind, giving my imagination full play, I forgot their Paris gowns and their diamonds and draped their beautiful bodies in rich folds of crimson or purple togas and confined their dark tresses in fillets of gold.

Most of the men I met that evening only spoke very indifferent French and only a few, naval officers for the most part, could say a few words of English. Luckily I was fairly conversant with Italian, sufficiently at any rate to understand the charming things that were said to me about my books. La Primula Rossa was apparently as well known all over Italy as was The Scarlet Pimpernel in England. Nearly all of my books had by this time been translated into Italian, and had appeared serially in the monthly editions of the Corrière della Serra.

During the rest of the days, which we still spent in Rome after the wonderful party at the Embassy, I was kept quite busy autographing copies of those charming volumes of my works issued by the Florentine firm of Adriano Sanani, beautifully printed and most artistically bound and sold at the low price of five liras (four shillings at that time). I couldn't help thinking that our seven-and-six-penny editions compared unfavourably as to get-up with the Italian editions as did our cheap reprints with the four-lira editions issued by Casa Editrice Sanzogno of Milan.

 

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We went to another memorable party while we were in Rome: not so brilliant a one as that in the British Embassy but certainly more amusing and original. This was at the house of Conte Luigi Primoli, great grandson of Lucien Bonaparte, younger brother of the Emperor Napoleon, who had married his cousin Zénaïde, also a Bonaparte. So our host was Bonaparte 'all over', and showed it in the decorations and appurtenances of his house in the Rua Sallustiana. It certainly was a remarkable house. A short flight of stone steps led up to a perron and to the front door. These were lined by flunkeys (I can't call them anything else) clothed in extraordinary livery: tail-coats that had once been scarlet but were now a dull, faded shade of pink, yellow plush breeches, white cotton stockings, buckled shoes, and white cotton gloves. Their hair was powdered and worn in eighteenth-century fashion, with a black tricorne hat on top.

The two reception rooms were already crowded when we entered. They were as remarkable as the outside of the house, crammed with Napoleonic relics of every sort and kind; a few of real value such as a fan of lace and mother-o'-pearl which had belonged to the Empress Josephine, and a satin shoe which had been worn by Marie-Louise; these things and one or two others of genuine interest were in a glass case, but cupboards, shelves, and tables all over the two rooms were simply loaded with the veriest bazaar trash in the shape of busts and statuettes of the great Napoleon. Busts of every conceivable size, some life-size, others no more than an inch or two in height; busts and statuettes of marble and busts of plaster; statuettes carved in wood, the figure draped in roman toga or clothed in military uniform. And on the walls pictures and reproductions of pictures representing various phases of the great man's meteoric career.

And the company was as remarkable as the setting in which it moved about and chattered. The noise as we entered the rooms would have drowned the sounds of the parrot house at the Zoo. Some of the ladies would have put the nymphs of the Folies Bergère to shame by their semi-nakedness; others were in simple, often quite shabby, day dresses; and it seemed as if the descendant of the great Bonaparte family had gathered round him representatives of all the countries of two continents. One heard French and Italian, a very little English, any amount of Spanish and Portuguese.

There was a celebrated French artist present--a much-admired painter of the nude who could have found inspiration for his pictures in the daring décolleté of some of the South American beauties. Altogether an exceptional and, in its way, an amusing party. There were two or three of our Italian friends present and with them we wandered round the rooms looking at the extraordinary mixture of a few beautiful old pieces of Empire furniture with so much that was trash and glaringly vulgar, and of a few obviously great ladies exquisitely dressed (or undressed) with some who looked shabby and even unwashed.

As we were leaving Rome for Naples the next day we didn't stay late, but I don't think I shall ever forget this amazing party in that very remarkable museum of family relics. The host received his guests with all the charm of manner peculiar to well-born Italians. I don't think there was a hostess present: at any rate I was not introduced to one. Our kind friend, Madame Cortazzo, had procured us the invitation and I am very glad we had been able to accept as I had never seen any gathering quite like it, or any house like that of the Conte di Primoli in the Rua Sallustiana in Rome.

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Our Italian holiday was quickly at an end. We had many engagements and duties to attend to in Snowfield: foremost amongst these was the court Ball to which we had been honoured by an invitation. I had been to such a great function before and always loved it, because I have always loved glitter and pageants and, to my mind, none other in the countries which I had visited ever equalled the beauty and glamour of Buckingham Palace on great occasions. This one, I knew, would be more glamorous than former ones. All the younger members of the Royal Family would certainly be there, and the Corps Diplomatique would be in full force and in full array of gorgeous national dress.

Our dear friends, the Karolyi's, had been succeeded in the Austro-Hungarian Embassy by Count Deym who was Czech by birth and had a German wife: and we certainly would miss the Hungarian element and the gorgeous Hungarian national dress which became the former dignified ambassador so well. But one always met friends among the brilliant throng and there was always the chance while the more exalted among the guests were at supper to dance to the strains of that wonderful Artillery String Band, alternating with the Guards Band, both of which are to my mind supreme among all the military bands of other countries I have ever heard. The date fixed for the ball was 28th June, and we had arranged to spend a few days in London after it.

The weather was very hot, eighty degrees in the shade in the garden. We drove up to town by motor, and as soon as we reached the suburbs we were faced with the huge placards in the afternoon papers: 'Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.' Of course one knew at once that there would be no Court Ball this day, but we drove on into town for further news. The Ball was, of course, postponed, but a subsequent date would be announced later in the Press. The news was even more appalling than had at first appeared; at least, to me it seemed more appalling, because the wife of the Archduke had also been killed by the side of her husband while they were driving in Serajevo, the capital of Bosnia which they were visiting: she was one of the many daughters of Count Cothek, of the Czech nobility, who had been Austro-Hungarian minister in Brussels while my parents stayed there and my sister and I were at convent-school. This same Countess Clothilde Cothek I knew very well as a child, as I did all her sisters (but I never saw her again after the Brussels days), so very naturally this horrible crime, to which she fell a victim, affected me very strongly.

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We drove back to Snowfield that same evening, but had another outing in London three days later. We went up to Harrow for prize-giving day. I always love the school songs; 'Forty years on' is one of the most affecting songs I know and the cheering on the terrace and general atmosphere. My Jack didn't get a prize. He never did. We took him and other boys who were non-prize winners to the tuck-shop where they consoled themselves with numerous 'dringers'--horrible concoctions of variegated ice-creams mixed with lemonade.

The Court Ball eventually took place on 16th July. It was very brilliant. But, looking back on it, I feel that somehow there was an atmosphere not exactly of gloom but of unrest in the midst of what should have been unmixed gaiety. There must have been a good many there, men in high places or in official positions who must by then have had an inkling of the trouble that was brewing, of the trouble which we, the common herd, had no idea of as yet.

Thus on the night of the Court Ball, the usual atmosphere of heartiness and gaiety seemed somehow absent. The brilliance, the pageant, the gorgeousness were all there, the supper was magnificent, the dancing general. The Prince of Wales was there but he seemed moody and rather bored. The quadrille d'honneur which opened the ball was danced by the Queen, who had chosen the ambassador of one of the great powers (I forget which) as her partner: she looked most beautiful and exquisitely dressed, her lovely fair hair crowned with a superb diamond tiara. His Majesty, on the other hand, looked serious. He could not have been feeling very well for one thing, and there was a decidedly troubled look in his eyes. The Prince danced the quadrille d'honneur with one of his aunts. I suppose this was a question of etiquette; but he did not look as if he enjoyed it.

A striking figure that evening was the Russian Ambassador: the last to be seen at the English Court for many years to come. He wore a magnificent kind of tabard, stiff with gold embroidery and below this his thin legs appeared clad in black silk breeches, silk stockings and curiously shaped thin black boots. The Austro-Hungarian Ambassador was of course not present owing to his court's deep mourning, and to me the American Ambassador appeared most conspicuous as he was the only one among his more or less gorgeously clad confrères who wore plain evening dress.

A fortnight later came the crash.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001