THE Empress's relations with her son improved after the fall of
Bismarck. She was particularly touched by the many tributes which he
paid to his father's memory, and she now felt encouraged to try and
build up again the fragments of her tragically broken life.
The Emperor William had placed at his mother's disposal the palace in Unter den Linden in Berlin where the Emperor and Empress Frederick lived while they were Crown Prince and Princess, as well as the Charlottenhof at Potsdam, and the Schloss at Homburg.
Charlottenhof is in the Royal grounds at Potsdam, at some distance from the New Palace. It was built by Frederick William IV in 1826, in imitation of a Pompeian villa, and in the grounds are fountains, statues, and bronzes which were brought from Herculaneum and Pompeii.
As to Homburg, the Empress had always been very fond of the place; she had often spent part of the summer at the old Schloss, and she valued its associations with the daughter of another British Sovereign, for the delightful gardens to which Thackeray refers in The Four Georges were laid out by the Landgravine Elizabeth, daughter of George III.
When the Empress Frederick decided to build a house after her own heart, it was to the neighbourhood of Homburg that her thoughts naturally turned. Perhaps another reason which governed the choice of that neighbourhood was the fact that the widowed Empress's beloved brother, King Edward, was so fond of the place, and for many years went there each year.
Some account of Friedrichshof will be not only interesting but really necessary for our purpose, for this noble castle and estate at Cronberg in the Taunus mountains were so entirely the creation of the Empress's own mind and taste that they throw a strong light on her personality and character.
Her Majesty was able to build Friedrichshof out of the large sum, estimated at nearly a quarter of a million, which she had inherited from an intimate friend, the Duchess of Galliera, within a few months of the Emperor's death.
In the days when as Crown Princess she was living at the old castle at Homburg, the Empress had once visited Cronberg.
After the tragic events of 1888 her Majesty longed to have a place of her own where she could occupy her mind in building and improving. The Empress remembered the visit to Cronberg, and as the inquiries she caused to be made about its climate, soil, and so on, proved satisfactory, she decided on the purchase without delay. The owner was one Dr. Steibel, son-in-law of Mr. Reiss, a Manchester manufacturer who built the short line of railway connecting Frankfort with Cronberg. The property consisted of a villa and a few acres, but, as some neighbouring properties were bought up, the estate was enlarged to some 250 acres. Fortunately the pine forests surrounding the estate were communal property.
The Empress resolved that Friedrichshof should be primarily a memorial to her husband, a sort of model domus regalis, as was shown by the pathetic inscription on the porch, "Friderici Memoriae."
The first thing to do was to make roads, and this, with draining, building, and planting, occupied fully four years, from 1889 to 1893.
The villa of Dr. Steibel was practically demolished, and in its place rose a stately mansion in the style of the early sixteenth century. There are many examples of this style, which marks the period of transition from Gothic to Renaissance, to be found along the Rhine and throughout Hesse and Nassau. The schloss itself and the stables, which are in the style of a Rhenish or Hessian farmhouse, as well as the out-buildings, were all designed by Herr Ihne, a famous Berlin architect; but the Empress herself personally superintended the carrying out of all his plans.
The Empress's first idea was to call the place Friedrichsruh, but it was pointed out that name might cause confusion with Prince Bismarck's estate in the north of Prussia. The name Friedrichshof was then suggested by Princess Victoria, and finally adopted.
The improved relations between the Emperor William and his mother were exhibited early in 1891. He was desirous of testing the real feeling of the Paris populace towards Germany, and so with his sanction, possibly even at his direct request, the Empress Frederick went to Paris. If her visit had been a success, there is no doubt that the Emperor would have next proposed to visit Paris himself, as he had long been keenly desirous of doing. But the memories of the Franco-Prussian War were more lasting than the Emperor imagined, and his mother's mission, so far as it was intended to improve Franco-German relations, was a failure.
It was on February 19, 1891, that the Empress Frederick arrived in Paris. Her visit, though not technically of an official character, could not be called incognito, as she and her daughter, Princess Margaret, attended by a considerable suite, stayed at the German Embassy,
The general surprise in Paris was so marked that a communiqué was issued to the French Press. In this it was pointed out that the Empress, having consented to accept the position of patron of an art exhibition about to be opened in Berlin, had asked some notable French artists to contribute paintings. A number of these, notably M. Bouguereau and M. Detaille, had accepted, and she had felt bound to come to Paris and thank them personally.
It was erroneously said, not only in the French but also in the German papers, that this was the first visit the Empress had paid to Paris since the Franco-Prussian War. This was not the case. She had been there three times, but on the previous occasions she had stayed at the Hotel Bristol, and had travelled in real incognito.
The first three or four days of her stay, whatever the public thought of the reason assigned for it, passed off well. The Empress visited a considerable number of studios and picture galleries, and she also made large purchases in some of the curiosity-shops for which Paris has always been famous. The German Ambassador gave a dinner party each evening in honour of his august guest, and many members of the Diplomatic Corps, notably Lord and Lady Lytton, were asked to meet her.
Meanwhile, the German Press, which had been kept beforehand completely in the dark as to the visit, was now devoting to it a great deal of not very kindly attention. It was hinted that the young Emperor wished to effect a thorough reconciliation with France, and with this idea in view had asked his mother to tâter le terrain. These hints aroused the susceptibilities of the Boulangist party. Much ill-feeling had been awakened by the arbitrary suppression of the Ligue des Patriotes, and long before the Empress's visit a huge protest meeting had been arranged. The meeting was held, and inflammatory speeches were delivered inq favour of "la Revanche," but no insult of any sort was levelled at the Imperial visitor. In fact the Empress later testified to the perfect courtesy which she had received from every class of Frenchman and Frenchwoman.
It suddenly became known that twice - once alone with the German Ambassador, and then, on another day, attended by a large suite - the Empress had driven out from Paris to view the ruins of the Palace of Saint Cloud, believed by the French to have been wantonly destroyed by the Prussians in 1870. The Empress also visited Versailles and the neighbouring battlefields.
The news of these excursions aroused very bitter feelings among many otherwise sober and sensible Parisians, to whom the memories of I'Année Terrible, and especially of the Prussian occupation of Versailles, were still painfully vivid. Their indignation was intensified when it became known that some ill-advised Government official had directed that a laurel wreath placed at the foot of the monument to Henri Regnault, the greatest French painter of his generation, who was killed at Buzenval, in the last desperate sortie from Paris, should be removed on the occasion of the visit of the Empress to the Ministry of Fine Arts.
This was indeed pouring oil on the fire! It was rumoured that this special act of tactless stupidity would be the subject of an interpellation in the Chamber. The depth of feeling aroused is illustrated by one fact, which did not, however, find its way into the Press. All those painters who had accepted the Empress's invitation to exhibit at Berlin received each morning, till their acceptances were withdrawn, the following macabre visiting-card:
Meanwhile, the less responsible section of the Paris Press had also added fuel to the flame by such headings as "Insultes aux Français " - "Visites Impériales à Saint Cloud et à Versailles."
The French Government reluctantly informed the German Ambassador that it would be advisable that the Empress, who had already prolonged her visit for several days longer than had at first been arranged, should leave Paris. On February 26 the following note was sent to the Press: "The Empress Frederick will leave Paris to-morrow morning for London at 11.80 via Calais." As a matter of fact, the Imperial party left for London the next day by the ten o'clock express via Boulogne.
But the "incident" was by no means over. The French artists who had accepted the invitation to exhibit their works at Berlin all withdrew their acceptances, and as a result the German Press burst forth into most violent and coarse abuse of France and of the French. Indeed, it looked at one moment as if nothing could prevent the two nations from rushing at each other's throats.
The Empress was greatly distressed, and it is on record that she wrote to her son a long private letter, pointing out that she had been personally very well received, and indeed most courteously treated, during her stay in Paris.
It is clear that in France all parties, and even those members of the Diplomatic Corps who were personally attached to the Empress, regretted, if they did not blame, her imprudence, for what had finally lighted the tinder was the expedition to Versailles. With all her love of French art and her sympathy with the French "intellectuals" - her great admiration for Renan was well known - the Empress Frederick had always taken on the whole what may be called the German view of the French character - that is, she regarded the French as gay, frivolous, and lacking in ballast and in the deeper qualities of humanity. If they had been what their Imperial guest believed them to be, the nation as a whole would have shrugged its shoulders and diplomatically remained silent, however froissée it might have been at such lack of tact on the part of a great personage.
Some months later the Empress spoke of the matter to English friends with deep regret, but still with a curious lack of understanding. She even mentioned the subject to the then French Ambassador in London, M. Waddington, eagerly telling him that she had experienced nothing but respect and even sympathy during the first part of her visit, and expressing her astonishment and distress at the feeling her visit to Versailles and the battlefields round Paris had provoked. She had brought herself by then to share Queen Victoria's view, namely, that the whole thing had been a more or less histrionic demonstration against the French Government.
It showed, however, the Empress's largeness of mind that during this same visit to England which followed her hasty departure from France she spoke with the warmest admiration of the verse of Paul Déroulède, the great chauvinist leader of the Revanche party.
This was the last intervention of the Empress Frederick in public affairs.
In the following year the Empress had the grief of losing a very old friend in the person of Lord Arthur Russell. Of these three gifted brothers, who were at once so alike and so different, she said pathetically: "The chief charm of the two others to me used to be that they were Lord Odo's brothers, until I came to know them well and to appreciate each one for his own sake."
There burst forth, late in the year 1892, a most extraordinary scandal, in which the Empress Frederick, although the affair was almost ostentatiously unconnected with her, could not but be deeply interested.
Various members of the Imperial family, as well as members of their Households, began to be assailed with scurrilous anonymous letters, which not only contained shrewd and well-aimed abuse of each individual, but which also revealed all sorts of shameful secrets to those from whom they had been sedulously hidden. Long-buried family skeletons were dragged out into the light of day and no one was spared. Indeed, the greatest sufferers were those most closely clustered round about the throne. There was, however, one exception. The widowed Empress was neither attacked nor even mentioned, and the attempt was evidently made, by the writer or writers of these extraordinary communications, to respect, as far as was possible, the feelings and prejudices of the Emperor's mother.
Nothing was left undone to discover the perpetrators of this most evil and incomprehensible practical joke, if practical joke it was. At first it was supposed that the letters emanated from two people, presumed to be husband and wife, but soon it became clear to thoughtful investigators, and these comprised all the more intelligent members of the Berlin Court world, that many more than two or even three persons must be implicated in the conspiracy. Indeed, the Empress Frederick is said to have observed to a friend that she felt sure that many of those who had at first been victims had now become aggressors, and that practically everybody was taking the opportunity of slinging mud by way of revenge for real or fancied injuries.
This is not the place to deal with the long and complicated story of what came to be known as the anonymous letter scandal. No really satisfactory conclusion was ever attained. Even now German opinion, notably among those most chiefly concerned with the exhaustive investigation which took place by the Emperor's command, is hopelessly divided. The affair ended in the imprisonment - unjust as it turned out - of a high Court official, in a fatal duel, and in many tragicomedies.