CHAPTER XXVI

And all through these years, 1920 to 1939, Monte Carlo kept up its high standard as one of the great musical centres of Europe. L'Opéra de Monte Carlo was celebrated throughout the musical world and the greatest artistes of the time looked to a season in Monte Carlo as one of the crowning glories of their career. Caruso, alas! was no more; and of the two de Reszkes, Edouard had died during the war in misery in his native land, Poland, and Jean had retired from the operatic stage and was living in Nice, teaching singing to a privileged few. But we had that fine Greek tenor, Lapas (who caused much amusement among the audience once when singing Parsifal, which he did divinely, he forgot to take off his wrist-watch), and the French artiste Thill, we had Vanni-Marcoux, we had Fanny Heldy, and Melba gave her absolutely final appearance on any stage as Marguerite in Faust. Anyway, we had everything that heart of amateur or musician could desire.

When there was no opera we had the Russian Ballets with Diaghileff still in command; or else comedies, sometimes with Sacha Guitry and his wife, sometimes with artistes of the Comédie français come especially from Paris.

About this time, too, there was instituted in Monte Carlo a Société des Conférences. Monsieur Labande, Keeper of the Archives of the Principality, was its moving spirit. He was a charming, highly-cultured old man and under his rule the Society quickly grew into artistic importance. He had enlisted the support and patronage of Prince Pierre de Monaco (this was before the divorce) who made it a point of being present at the conférences which were held once a week. Great personages in the French literary world, as well as distinguished military and naval men, gave some very interesting lectures in the Salle des Conférences, specially built to accommodate the Society and its many patrons. The lectures were, of course, held in French, but whenever we two went, which we did as often as we could, we invariably met a small number of our English friends who were conversant with the language and enjoyed them as much as we did.

Monsieur Labande then did me the honour to ask me to give one of these lectures. He also asked Commander Spicer-Simpson, of the International Hydrographic Bureau, to do the same, as he, like myself, spoke French fluently. For my lecture (I do so dislike the word) I chose Les Beaux et les Dandies des Grands Siècles en Angleterre (otherwise the Beaux and Dandies of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. I spoke of the Duke of Buckingham, Beau Nash, and Beau Brummel, and spoke without any notes--of course in French. It was a great success, so much so that the Society had it printed and distributed among its members and a copy now rests among its archives.

That same year Commander Spicer-Simpson gave us a most interesting account of a mission under his command to Lake Tanganyika, entrusted to him by the British Government. He showed us some wonderful magic-lantern slides which he had taken and developed himself. Both he and I were subsequently asked to repeat our lectures at two special galas given in aid of our Church Building Fund, each gala being graced by the presence of H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught. On those occasions both the Commander and I spoke in English, and the hall of the Hôtel Metropole was crowded with English visitors and hosts of our friends and acquaintances.

After that I was asked, year after year, to give a conference, which I did. The members of the Société seemed to like them. Two of my most successful ones were 'historical mysteries', when I sedulously avoided the Man with the Iron Mask--it would have been to trite for a French audience, even in the manner so cleverly elucidated by Andrew Lang--but the audience liked my version of the mysterious Comte de St. Germain whom Horace Walpole had met in England in 1742, whom Madame de Pompadour flirted with twenty years later, who is spoken of by the noted French archæologist, Grosley of Troyes, in his memoirs, as an exceptionally handsome young man in 1813, and Van Damme in the same eulogistic terms as gracing the salons of Louis Philippe, i.e. circa 1840.

My account of the great mystery connected with the false Jeanne d'Arc was also very much liked, especially by my American auditors, and of course the Gowrie Conspiracy is always intriguing; and there are several more which suited my purpose admirably.

Another successful conference I named: "Books fatal to authors'. The wretched Urbain Grandier who was burned at the stake for publishing an attack on Cardinal Richelieu, the all-powerful minister of Louis XIII; our own Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, a strong partisan of the Nonconformist cause who published a pamphlet entitled, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, in which he ironically advised their entire extermination. Parliament condemned his book to the flames and the author to pillory and prison. After that he gave up writing controversial pamphlets and gave us his immortal Robinson Crusoe. I also tackled Literary Frauds and Amours de Reine, both in English and in French.

The getting together of material for these conferences gave me a very great deal of pleasure. The French ones were usually for the Société des Conférences and the English ones in aid of one or other of those English charities which interested us all, my own efforts in the matter being, of course, honorary.

There was for every conference a good deal of 'material' to be got together as I was expected to talk for an hour and a half without notes though all the French lecturers I noticed always had their notes in their hands, but I always think that to see the speaker's head bobbing up and down, now looking at his notes and then at his hearers, is very irritating to the audience. Luckily for me my memory was then still very excellent.

One of the English charities we of the colony on the Côte d'Azur were most interested in was the Victoria Memorial Hospital. As its name implies it was built in memory of Queen Victoria and was entirely kept up by private subscription, principally English of course. Like every institution in France, permission for the founding, the employment of an English nursing staff, and for subsequent upkeep had to be obtained first, that so many wards must always be retained for patients of French nationality; and secondly, that if ever the hospital had to close down for one reason or another, the French Government would then enter in possession of the building and carry on with its own staff at its own will.

However, at the time there was no question of ever being obliged to close down. Subscriptions and donations had flowed in freely from the first and the hospital was free of debt. A small number of beds were already endowed by generous members of the English colony for the accommodation of English patients, the donor having first call on any vacant bed; to this number we did our best to add a few more. I, for one, desired to endow one of these beds to be known as The Scarlet Pimpernel bed. So I set to work with the help of that fine amateur actor, Captain Chadwick, who had often sung in grand opera in Monte Carlo, to arrange two matinées of The Scarlet Pimpernel with himself in the name part, one to take place in Monte Carlo and the other in Nice. The proceeds were to be in aid of The Scarlet Pimpernel bed in the Victoria Memorial Hospital. Captain Chadwick got an excellent company together among his friends in the Monte Carlo theatre, and they all most generously gave their services; he himself was so very good and sympathetic in the name part. The result was most satisfactory, and there was, and still is to this day, the endowed Scarlet Pimpernel bed in the Victoria Memorial Hospital with happy, happy me having first call on a vacant bed for any necessitous English patient.

Soon, as was only to be expected, the beloved hospital got too small for its needs. The building had to be enlarged, the interior modernized, accommodation for the ever-growing number of patients and consequent nursing staff had to be provided. No less a sum than £9,000 was required for all this. Onward Christian soldiers! I mean, Onward, English Colony of Monte Carlo! We organized a super-gala in the opera house, which H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, with his usual goodness of heart, graced with his presence; there were superb attractions and the prices of seats were raised to what would have been impossible heights but for the liberality of the English and American colonies. The money was got together in that one afternoon and was subsequently amplified by other entertainments, galas, amateur performances in the theatre, lectures, whist drives, bridge tournaments, and so on. By the end of the season £18,000 was got together and the Victoria Memorial was free of debt and able to carry on.

©Blakeney Manor, 2001