CHAPTER XXI

I cannot say at what precise moment during our two month's stay in Mrs. French's villa in Monte Carlo we were first seized with the desire to have a kind of secondary home--just a pied-à-terre for the winter months in that beautiful place. We felt its beauty from the very first, were shaking a large slice of the world to its foundations. When I say placidity I don't mean that there were no incidents, no actual circumstances connected with the war which touched Monte Carlo. There were some that brought sorrow and anxiety right home to one's consciousness the whole time. We had not been in the villa a week before that terrible debacle of Mons brought large numbers of our retreating armies, including a great number of wounded, seeking shelter in this peaceful part of France.

There was no question of disagreement then between us and our ally. She was whole-heartedly with us and remained so during the whole of the war. Disagreements only cropped up with the peace! At any rate, our retreating army was made very welcome all along the shores of the Mediterranean. Everything was done by every class of the population to make their lot easier for them. Gentle pity, unselfish devotion on the part of the poor and of the well-to do alike, met them at every turn, in every home however humble. Gentle pity! Mrs. French had left her faithful old cook in the villa to look after our comforts--incidentally, she was an excellent cook. She came to me one morning to tell me that she had seen ces pauvres messieurs straggling into Monte Carlo, tired, haggard, and hungry. Among them I gathered there were several men belonging to one of our Highland regiments, and good old Estelle, with tears streaming down her cheeks, went on with a heart-broken sigh: "Oui, Madame, ces pauvres messieurs, pensez donc, ils n'avaient même pas de pantalons". (Think of it, Madame, these poor gentlemen, they haven't even got their trousers.) It sounded so much funnier in polite French: "ces pauvres messieurs"! And when one tried to thank some of these peasant or working folk, some of them very poor, for their kindness to our soldiers, they just shrugged their shoulders and said: Que voulez-vous? On fait ce qu'on peut puisqu'on combat la main dans la main." I heard that phrase quite often. (One does what one can. Are we not fighting hand-in-hand?)

There were a great number of Senegalese here, the French African troops. Funny, good-natured fellows as black as your hat. Unable to stand the climate in Flanders they had been sent down here to recuperate from its baneful effects. They were quartered in Mentone, and had seemingly a jolly good time there, judging by the bevy of young Mentonese beauties who hung about round their quarters and walked out and flirted with them to the loudly expressed disapproval, not to say horror, of the American visitors. In France, of course, there is no such thing as differentiation between white and coloured races. Black or yellow or white, if enfants de la France ('children of France'), all are alike in the eyes of Frenchmen and, seemingly, of Frenchwomen also.

The ladies of the foreign contingent, both residents and visitors, did all that was possible for the entertainment of ces pauvres messieurs, both officers and men. These were not allowed to enter the gaming rooms of the Casino in uniform, this being a hard and fast rule of that great institution, and a wise one too, but a number of English officers who were provided with mufti were able to have their flutter incognito on the tables if they were so minded. Neither my husband nor I were ever bitten with the gambling craze, not from any principle but simply because it did not amuse us.

We both thought it 'a mug's game', as did the American millionaire, Jay Gould, when he was first initiated in the intricacies of roulette. "You put your money on red or black," he was told, "on a number or on three consecutive numbers or on a consecutive dozen, on this, that, or the other. If your number or colours turns up you win; if it doesn't you lose. Simple, isn't it?" and the millionaire put up a small stake on red; black turned up and he saw his money swept away. "Simple?" he murmured angrily. "I call it a mug's game."

There are any number of English people who either come down regularly to Monte Carlo every winter and many who have taken up their residence here who have no wish nor inclination to play 'the mug's game' either. But it is always amusing to watch the players. What a study of character for the writer of modern fiction. I have often been asked when I would publish a real Monte Carlo novel. "You know Monte Carlo so well," friends have often said to me; "you know the casino in and out, all its exciting adventures and all its romance. Why not put it all into a book?" Well, that's just it. To me there is no romance in the casino or even in the adventures, so often ending in tragedy of its habitués; somehow this throwing money about (it was gold when first we visited Monte Carlo) on the chance of a diminutive ball tumbling into one tiny groove rather than into another, always seemed to me rather sordid and certainly futile. What is it but the craving after wealth without having to work for it? Well! I have many friends, some of them very charming and very dear who will call my point of view futile and stupid. It is all a question of temperament. They have had thrills in those adventures with the diminutive balls and elusive grooves which, I for one, never experienced.

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There is romance, however, in the old history of Monaco and in that of the house of Grimaldi, but somehow it has never tempted me to write a story round those early days of the Principality. There was always too much fighting and bloodshed from the days of the Roman conquest of this part of ancient Liguria, conquest which is not more interesting than that by the same mighty hordes of other countries including our own. Too much fighting and bloodshed during the invasions of the Saracens, of the Vandals, of the Goths and so on, the struggle for possession between the great parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines, the occupation ending in the domination and tyranny over Monaco by the powerful republic of Genoa.

There are one or two poetic little legends that cling to the old rock, and which tradition has kept alive for many centuries. The prettiest is that of Sainte Dévote, the patron saint of the Principality. She was a young Christian girl who suffered martyrdom in Corsica sixteen hundred years ago. A priest and a fisherman between them gathered up her remains, and set out to convey them secretly by sea to Africa. The wind blew their barque towards the North, and the martyred saint appeared to the two men in a dream and ordered them to sail to the port of Monaco to the spot which a white dove flying out or her mouth would indicate. And effectively a white dove did come to rest in the valley of Gaumette. But the wind was so adverse that the men could not make the port. They tried to bury the saint higher up in the valley but whenever they attempted to lower her into the ground a terrible storm would break out which hindered their work. In the end, after equal vicissitudes, there came a fire which destroyed the boat just when she was in sight of the harbour. Nothing could be done with her any more and the two good and pious men were thus compelled to bury Ste. Dévote there where she had desired to be interred.

And now after sixteen centuries, with never a break, on the day of the feast of Ste. Dévote, a procession of pious Monégasques march with banners flying from the church on the rock which is dedicated to their patron saint down to the shore, where a boat is brought in and set alight and burned down at the water's edge. It is a pretty sight, with the banners flying, the flames reflected in the smooth waters of the port, and the everlasting stars winking down on this pious manifestation of faith and devotion to tradition. The Prince of Monaco, with members of his family and ladies and gentlemen of his little court usually attend the ceremony. A special tent is erected for them and there is always a crowd of local people who must have witnessed the event dozens and dozens of times, who nevertheless foregather year after year to see this burning of a little boat all over again; but I have never seen any foreign visitor or resident among them.

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Among the English friends who were in Monte Carlo that year there were Mr. And Mrs. C. N. Williamson, the distinguished authors of The Lightning Conductor, and many other delightful works. They had just completed the building of a beautiful villa, 'La Pausa', on the hills of Roquebrune just outside Monte Carlo; the situation was just perfect with exquisite views right across the Baie des Anges as far as Bordighera. 'La Pausa' remained their home until Charlie Williamson's death which occurred, alas! a very few years later. It was indeed a beautiful home with a delightful mingling of Italian artistic expression and of English comfort. Many charming afternoons and happy luncheon hours did we spend there that year. Both these distinguished authors were habitués of the gaming rooms. Charles Williamson played a good deal, and played high. Whenever I happened to be watching him he was winning, and always took up his winnings or saw his stake swept away with the same good-humoured smile of complete detachment.

A very noted gambler at the tables was the beautiful Madame de Bittencourt, the wife of the Argentine Minister at the Court of St. James. She would arrive soon after dinner and remain at the tables till the small hours of the morning. In those days the Casino was kept open till all sorts of hours whenever there were players, if only one or two, who were putting up big money. Madame de Bittencourt was certainly among these. When she arrived (it would be about nine o'clock) she looked perfectly lovely, exquisitely dressed always, with magnificent jewellery, her eyes bright, her lips smiling; but once or twice we happened to wander in with friends after the fall of the curtain at the opera, and it really made my heart ache to see the change in that beautiful face; the tired look, the unnatural brilliance in the eyes, the haggard lines of the cheeks. Ah, well! As I say, people tell me that there are marvellous thrills to be got by watching that miserable little ball twirling round and round and bringing fortune or disaster; a thrill perhaps, but at what a cost!

Another equally noted gambler was Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, nicknamed 'Satanasia' in the Principality. She was the mother of the then Crown Princess of Germany. I have seldom seen a more unpleasant looking old woman with the face of a lizard, and claw-like hands which one shuddered to watch as they grabbed at the money whenever she happened to make a win, which occurred very seldom--for she was a persistent loser. So much so that in the end she came to a very tragic end, after she had lost every penny of any fortune she may have had in the past. Her death was so sudden after her last throw on the table that she could not be conveyed all the way to her villa on Cap Ferrat (it was four o'clock in the morning) so she was taken to the neighbouring hotel where she died.

Personally I sedulously avoided her, though one could not help meeting her in restaurants or in the Café de Paris, where she was always to be found at the luncheon hour surrounded by a bevy of young girls, amongst whom I was really sorry to note a few English ones, who hung round her with every mark of affection and respect (!!). I suppose the magic words, 'Her Imperial Highness', fascinated them, and Satanasia was always ready to the last to entertain them with cocktails and other strong drinks.

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We had some real pleasure that year in Monte Carlo, and that was in music. Monte Carlo has always been, and still is, in the forefront of great musical centres, and in spite of war conditions the Casino provided us all with some wonderful treats in the way of concerts and operas. Caruso was there, and so was Litvine; also Vanni Marcoux and Maguenat, two of the finest baritones I have ever heard. Thus we had Aïda with Litvine in the name; she was a pupil of Jean de Reszke and had a glorious voice and her teacher's unparalleled method. Caruso was Radamès. He was still in splendid voice then. What a loss it was to all opera lovers when he died in the prime of life. He also sang Pagliacci, a part one felt had been created specially for him, and Manon.

During the war years we often had what they called here 'auditions' of grand opera, which meant the whole work sung by all the singers with full orchestra and chorus but without scenery or costumes. The singers were grouped on the bare stage with the chorus and the orchestra behind them. One paid twenty francs for one's very comfortable stall, a matter of sixteen shillings in those days. I must say I enjoyed these auditions. Somehow one did not miss the scenery or the costumes, and the orchestra was perfect. The two noted Belgian musicians, Lauweryns and Jehin, had sought refuge down here after the occupation of their country by the Germans. The Casino at once offered them each an important post as chef d'orchestra. Leon Jehin became the conductor whenever grand opera was given either in its entirety or as an audition, and Lauweryns wielded the batôn for lighter music.

Leon Jehin often came to see us. He had known my parents in the olden days in Brussels and, I think, was happy to meet me again, though he had not seen me since I was a flapper. His wife was a noted singer both in Brussels and in Paris where she had created the principal rôle in the Saint Saëns great opera, Le Roi de Lahore. Jehin adored his wife, and held that there never was, or ever would be, a singer who could hold a candle to her. She was getting on in years and was very ill when she finally arrived in Monte Carlo, and it was pathetic to hear the old musician say quite simply as he so often did: "J'adore la musique et j'adore ma femme".

Of an altogether different standing in the musical world was Louis Ganne, so well-known as the composer of Funiculi-Funicula and a number of tuneful operettas which we all enjoyed during those anxious days in Monte Carlo. One did need to be taken out of oneself sometimes and Louis Ganne did that for us with his light-hearted music.

 

Out of the many pleasant evenings we spent in the opera-house, two have a special place in my memory. One was the production of l'Ancêtre was his latest work, and he came over to Monte Carlo to conduct the performance in person. He was a very old man then and most venerable looking with a flowing white beard and a wealth of curly white hair. Remembering his exquisite Samson et Delilah we all of us here felt thrilled at the prospect of seeing him and of acclaiming his latest work to the skies. We certainly did acclaim him--we of the English contingent especially--but I imagine that the general public did not take to the music, for the opera was only performed the once in Monte Carlo and, I believe, never subsequently.

The same sad, and to me unexplainable, fate attended the performance of Cléopâtre which surpassed in melody and beauty anything the composer had written before (not even excepting Manon). Maguenet, that exquisite baritone, sang Mark Anthony, and Royat was a beautiful and dramatic Cleopatra; but here again it appears that general public opinion did not coincide with mine, for Cléopâtre was considered to be a failure and was never performed again, not even in Paris.

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Another distinguished Belgian who had sought refuge in Monte Carlo was the artist, Jan van Beers. He had a French wife who looked after him and gloated over him as a fond mother over her son He had been very successful in his work both in the 1890's and the beginning of this century. I remember hearing a lot about him when I was a girl and was first 'out', for he spent more than one season in London, where he went a great deal into Society and entertained lavishly. Since then his fame had somehow declined. The younger generation called him old-fashioned. Perhaps he was that, with what was now contemptuously called anecdotal pictures. They were genre pictures, somewhat after the style and technique of his greater compatriot, Alfred Stevens, but the dresses of 1880 and 1900 which unmistakably 'dated' Jan van Beer's paintings were not so picturesque as those which Stevens had chosen for the expression of his more serious art. One saw chromos of the van Beer's pictures all over the place, cheap reproductions, unfortunately; I think most of us will remember 'The Husband's Boat', a girl in a white pleated skirt and eel-skin tight jersey descending the companion ladder down towards a young man with a heavy cavalry moustache who was standing hp in the boat, hat in hand ready to receive her. The technique was very like that of the Belgian Stevens and our own equally great Sandys, but the ugly 1880 dress of the principal figure and the cavalry moustache of the other did somehow vulgarize the picture and bereft it of that absolutely unexplainable attribute, 'feeling'. The artist entrusted us with a few of his pictures which he had painted during his stay in Monte Carlo, which he would have liked to exhibit and sell in London, and when we returned to England we took these pictures with us and saw one or two Bond Street dealers about them, but I am very sorry to say that everywhere we met the same criticism, that terrible bugbear of nineteenth-century artists: 'Old-fashioned'.

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It was during our short stay in Monte Carlo in 1915 that I first conceived the romance which I think was, next to the Scarlet Pimpernel books, my most popular one. Already in The Laughing Cavalier I had indulged in glimpses of the Low Countries and of their heroic fight for independence against the political and religious tyranny of Spain. I had for some time before this been absorbed in that romantic period of history. Mottram's Rise of the Dutch Republic and his John of Barneveld had thrilled me and sown in my mind the seeds of those imaginings which were now about to bear fruit. It was while sitting on the terrace of the little villa during those months of February and March of that year--months so full of sorrow and anxiety for us and for all those we cared for--that I mapped out the romance of Leatherface. Meanwhile, Messrs. Hutchinson had published A Bride of the Plains, a story of peasant life in the Hungarian Lowlands, and I had also completed The Bronze Eagle, a story of Waterloo. This romance had been written at the suggestion of my valued friend, Mr. Robert H. Davis, of Munsey's Magazine. It was published both in America and in England in June 1915, the centenary of the great battle.

By that time I was deep in Leatherface, the writing of which gave me an immense deal of pleasure. It was published the following year. Indeed, those terrible years 1914 ­ 18, on which I cannot bear to dwell in thought even after all this long time, were--as far as my life's work was concerned--very fruitful for me. In the midst of so much sorrow what a joy it was to receive letters--countless letters from men at the front, from highly-placed officers and Tommies, from nurses, and prisoners, telling me of the pleasure that my books had given them--taking them out of themselves, as they always put it. "Hardly ever does a parcel go out to Flanders," my publishers would tell me, "or to France without one of Baroness Orczy's books being included in it." Nor did the public in England seem to tire of the play. Ten weeks' tour in the spring always, then sometimes a season in London, and finally the big autumn tour in the large towns. How hard the Terrys worked, poor dears! And during one season in London there was a terrible catastrophe. They were playing The Scarlet Pimpernel (at the Strand, I think it was) when during an air raid a bomb fell just outside the theatre and one of the employees, a young lady who was standing close to the entrance, was hit by fragments of heavy masonry and killed.

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Except for those few weeks in Monte Carlo in 1915 we did not indulge much in holidays. We did spend a week or so in Bath from time to time. It was quiet and restful, and the climate is decidedly more agreeable than London and its fogs. Two events dwell in my mind in connection with our visits to Bath. One of these was amusing and the other happy. We stayed at the Empire Hotel which was, during the war, a kind of stronghold of conservative 'die-hards' to whom the very name of Lloyd George, the "robber of hen-roosts," was positive anathema. Many of the people in the hotel formed a circle of actively antagonistic, anti-Lloyd-Georgites. So much so that when the Prime Minister came to Bath for the wedding of his son and when he entered the lounge of the Empire, not even a glance of curiosity met his ingratiating smile.

The lounge was quite full at the moment. It was the tea hour. No one moved. Not a word was spoken or a sign made, the only sound that greeted one of the most important men in Europe at this time was the rattle of the tea-cups. Only the two page boys at the entrance door bowed low to the distinguished guest. To be quite frank, though my husband and I were anything but admirers of the great little man, we felt a little bit ashamed of the attitude of our fellow-guests in the hotel. We were crossing the hall at the moment and stopped in order to allow him to pass in front of us. He gave us a nice little smile and went on.

Well! he stayed the best part of the week in the hotel, during which time there were luncheon- and dinner-parties given for him by his friends and there was the great day of his son's wedding with the traditional bride-cake, and sumptuous luncheon, the die-hards keeping ostentatiously out of the way. But the little man appeared quite impervious to black looks and even to some rather shameful acts of discourtesy. He was amiability personified. He smiled at everybody and nothing was easier than to enter into a conversation with him if one was so minded--and after a day or two many were so minded. He talked, he chatted, he smiled: oh yes, he smiled all the time and even some of the die-hards remarked that 'the fellow certainly had a way with him'. The staff in the hotel adored him. And the amusing part of the whole thing was the departure of 'the robber of the hen-roosts'.

Again the lounge was full of visitors. It was after luncheon and there was a rattle of coffee-cups and silver spoons when he came down the stairs. But as he stopped in the lounge, coffee-cups were pushed aside and everyone rose. And he bowed to them all as he passed by and said: "Good-bye, good-bye! I hope this fine weather will continue--lovely place this. . . . Good-bye!" And the die-hards all said: "Good-bye sir," and everyone remained standing until the swing doors had finally closed behind him.

It was a question of personality I think: 'the robber of hen-roosts' had a way with him.

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The second event which will always dwell in my mind in connection with our war-time visit to Bath was my first meeting with Rudyard Kipling. He was also staying at the Empire with his wife and daughter. It was soon after his only son had been reported missing, and it was heartbreaking to note that those three dear people all equally believed that the report would presently be contradicted and that the dear one would soon return. But he never did. I had many a talk with that very dear and very great man. It would be impossible to imagine anyone distinguished as he was, more simple and unaffected, so full of charm and understanding. He made me very happy with his generous praise of my work, telling me just what he admired in it, and why in his opinion it had been so successful and popular.

Of course his deep love, his fetish in fact, was the Empire. The very words, 'British Empire', would kindle a flame of ardour in his deep-set eyes. One felt that here was a man who would sacrifice everything in the world for the grandeur and glory of his idol. I know that since then many a jeer has been flung at what the modern youth chooses to call his 'Imperialism', and that these young vandals have even tried to drag Kipling down from the pedestal on which the hearts of millions of English readers have enthroned him. Well! they may succeed for a time, but there is one thing very certain and that is that Rudyard Kipling's work will live through the coming centuries because of his sincerity, his lofty patriotism, and his comprehension of everything that is noblest and best in this Empire which he loved.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001