IT was not in the Empress Frederick's nature ever to be idle, and she
was particularly fond of planning and arranging palaces and gardens.
For a long time the building of Friedrichshof kept her happy and contented. She took up her residence at Homburg and drove over every day, being on the friendliest terms, not only with the architect and builder, but also with the masons and the other workmen. One might say that she watched the laying of nearly every stone, and she must have felt sorry when the work was done. Still, there was plenty of occupation left for her, when the building was finished, in superintending the furnishing and other arrangements. At this time she showed not the least sign of failing health or strength - indeed, for her age she was remarkably strong and even robust.
There is no need to enlarge upon the details of the drawing-rooms and other apartments of the castle, but some of the pictures and sculpture were of particular interest. For instance, there were many curious portraits of members of the House of Hanover; a sketch, by Titian, of the Emperor Charles V of Germany; a fine portrait of Frederick the Great; and many busts and statues of the Empress's relatives, including a beautiful marble bust of her son, little Prince Waldemar.
The fireplace in the library deserves mention, being of Istrian stone in the Venetian style - indeed, all through the castle the fireplaces were of remarkable artistic beauty. Thus, that in the great dining-room was of marble supported on columns, and surmounted by a bust of the Emperor Frederick.
In the library was placed a replica of the altarpiece in Cologne Cathedral, representing the Adoration of the Magi. The bookcases, running nearly all round the room, contained the Empress's collection of some thirty years. One case was devoted entirely to books dedicated to her, and the authors of many of them had been admitted to her personal friendship. Another section contained all the books written on the subject of the English Royal family, and many of these were gifts with inscriptions in Queen Victoria's large, clear handwriting.
Every book in the library had been examined by the Empress, and many of them had been read and re-read. This was notably the case in the section devoted to political economy, a subject in which she was intensely interested. Here were to be seen all the works of Jeremy Bentham, a gift from Dean Stanley; here, too, were kept the Empress's marvellous collection of autographs, begun when she was twelve years old, and containing the handwriting, not only of practically all the Royal personages of Europe, but also of statesmen, artists, and literary and scientific men, who had all made their mark in their several callings.
The Empress was indeed a collector. Her possessions afforded her intense pleasure; to use her own expressive phrase: "One loves one's own things so much; one strokes them with one's eyes."
There was arranged in glass cases her collection of coins and medals, which contained some particularly fine and rare examples from the Brandenburg-Prussian, English, French, and Vatican mints. One case was devoted to a numismatic portrait-gallery of her own relations.
Her collection of photographs, each properly titled, took up 300 portfolios. When going over these the Empress would wax enthusiastic over the views of the places where she had herself stayed, particularly those in Italy, such as Rapallo, S. Margherita, Baveno, and Portofino. A very favourite city of hers was Triest, of which she seemed to know every stock and stone.
In the library, too, there was much to recall the Emperor Frederick. Every word that her husband had ever written, however trivial, the Empress carefully preserved. All his marginal notes were treated with fixative, and one of her chief cares when sending any books to institutions was to make sure that there was nothing written in her husband's own hand in them.
The Empress was fond of collecting curiosities, - bits of old oak, old sculpture, and silver - and she amused herself from time to time in bargaining for these things in cottages and dealers' shops. Nor was she superior to the familiar pride of the collector in displaying her treasures afterwards and explaining what bargains she had secured.
The Empress, especially as a young woman, did not care very much for reading, though she was fond of being read aloud to, as are most Royal personages. She was, however, passionately interested in books, and it is recorded that in her tenth year she spent all her pocket-money on them. As she grew older, she read more, but she read in order to instruct herself rather than for pleasure. As a matter of course she always read all those books published in her native country which made any stir, whether they were memoirs, books of exploration; essays, or novels.
At half-past ten every morning (Sundays excepted) the Empress went into her library to work. She was an extremely rapid reader, and if her intellectual interests - science, theology, philosophy, history, literature, archaeology, art, economics, hygiene - may have seemed too discursive, there is abundant evidence to acquit her of dilettanteism. She possessed in all these different branches a solid foundation of knowledge, which enabled her to understand and appreciate the discussions of experts. Like her brother, King Edward, she possessed in a high degree the truly Royal gift of assimilating knowledge from conversation, and she had been so well "grounded," so to speak, that whenever she talked with a specialist in any subject she knew just what questions to ask.
When reading a book, the Empress almost always made notes in the margin. This is interesting as showing how restlessly alive, and in a sense over-stimulated, her brain must always have been. It was perhaps a fortunate thing during her long illness, for even then she never felt any wish to be idle, or to sit alone and think of herself.
In the grounds of Friedrichshof her Majesty was able to indulge to the full her love of gardening. Not only did she know the Latin names of every plant and flower, but she was a really practical gardener, able to design landscape schemes.
The rosery, for instance, was her creation. About half an acre in extent, it resembled the rosery at Birkhall, on the Balmoral estate. It sloped gently upwards, divided into numerous little terraces, bearing double rows of half-standard roses, and it was bounded partly by a creeper-clad wall, and partly by trellis-work over which roses were trained. In the flower-beds of the ordinary garden her Majesty showed her strong preference for old-fashioned English flowers - indeed, throughout she evidently aimed at reproducing the mingled beauty and repose so characteristic of English gardens. All kinds of trees, too, she planted, and many have the added interest of an iron tablet recording that it was planted by some Royal or distinguished visitor.
The Empress certainly had no lack of occupation and interest at Cronberg. She had always been fascinated by restoration and excavation work, and fortunately Cronberg possessed both an old castle and an old church, which she eagerly set herself to preserve for future generations. At the old Burg she found many ancient remains, such as arrowheads, keys, &c., and, most important of all, several Gothic iron "Ofenplatten." She was interested in every detail. Once she spent a long time hunting for a passage-way which she knew must be there because of the "pechnaze," or slit in the wall through which boiling lead used to be poured in mediaeval sieges. When out riding she always kept a keen look-out for survivals of the past. Thus she was much interested in the iron crosses to be found in the Taunus, and she proposed to draw all the different kinds and publish a book about them.
To the restoration of Cronberg Church the Empress devoted an immense amount of personal trouble. Two Ministers and some important officials had to be approached before the order from the Cabinet was obtained granting the necessary financial help. When it was at last issued, the Empress herself brought it to Cronberg, and, arriving there in the evening, carried it the first thing in the morning to the pastor. Hardly a nail was put in the church without her knowledge. She studied and re-studied for months the details of windows, doors, hinges, &c. Her delight was great when under the whitewash she discovered some frescoes of the fifteenth century.
A tablet was put up in the choir setting forth what the Empress had done for the restoration of the church, but here the truly modest nature of the woman showed itself. She had the tablet removed from the choir, and refixed in a place high up where it is practically unseen.
It is pleasant to look back on these comparatively happy years at Friedrichshof. The Empress as a rule dressed very simply in black. Her only jewellery were two gold rings, one with a sapphire and two diamonds, and the other a smooth ruby, while a miniature of the Emperor Frederick hung round her neck. She was up early every morning. She liked to see everything bright and gleaming in the Castle, and not a speck of dust was allowed. At eight o'clock it was her habit to go out riding for two hours. She was an excellent horsewoman and full of daring; even when nearing sixty she still jumped difficult ditches and obstacles, and she always rode young and spirited animals. Once she was pushed against a wall by a frisky horse, and later she had the more serious accident which some think brought about her final illness. But even in the worst weather she never gave up her morning ride.
During her widowhood the Empress had at last the joy of knowing that she was really loved and understood by her neighbours, both gentle and simple. She was regarded at Cronberg much as Queen Victoria was regarded in the neighbourhood of Balmoral. She made herself acquainted with practically the whole population, not only with the poor, on whom she was able to shower intelligent gifts and much practical good advice, but also with that difficult intermediate class who, all the world over, generally remain out of touch with the great house of the village.
People of this class dwelt in little chalets which began to spring up over that healthy and beautiful neighbourhood, but even their thorny pride was not proof against the Empress's friendliness, in which there was never any touch of condescension or patronage. There were not a few artists living in the neighbourhood, and with some of these the Empress was on specially intimate terms. She was fond of dropping in and finding them at work. The Empress was full of quaint conceits and ideas; thus, when she was going to see an artist or anyone in whom she took a special interest, she liked to choose his birthday for the visit. Her energy was extraordinary. One observer who saw a great deal of her in her widowhood declares that she used to go up-stairs and down-stairs like a young girl, and when she greeted the company assembled at table every compulsion of etiquette seemed to be instantly removed.
Naturally Cronberg benefited by her great knowledge of hygiene. To the elaborately equipped hospital which she founded there, she gave the most punctilious care. She often cut her roses herself and took them to the sick. The Empress also built a poorhouse, a Victoria school, and a library for the people, and she arranged the Victoria and Kaiser Friedrich public park. She hated leaving Cronberg every autumn: "The departure is dreadful to me," she said on one occasion: "when I am travelling I feel like a mussel without its shell."
Professor Nippold, in his book on the first two German Emperors, has drawn a very sympathetic and understanding picture of the Empress Frederick.
She had, he says, a most cheerful temperament, and a rapid eye for the humorous, in spite of so many terrible blows of fate. She always saw everything from the good side and quickly forgave people their faults; no one was allowed to speak ill of anyone in her presence. She was often misunderstood and unjustly accused, and when she saw things written against her in the papers she was terribly wounded. For instance, it was said that she had prevented the building of a tower on the "Altkönig" for the public to enjoy the view, but the fact was that she had never heard anything about the proposal. Sometimes she could hardly be restrained from answering some of these base accusations. She was also accused of parsimony, and her income was enormously exaggerated. The claims on her purse were innumerable. She had forty-two philanthropic institutions which she had to help, and in one year there were thirty-seven bazaars, to each of which she had to send gifts. Altogether her expenses were enormously heavy.
When the Empress is blamed for being a thorough Englishwoman, let it be said at once, exclaims Professor Nippold, that everything good and praiseworthy in England she tried to introduce into her own adopted country. She was always vexed and pained when things were said against England, more especially in the case of England's colonies. "The English," she would say, "arrange everything in the Colonies most beautifully, roads, railways, post, telegraphs, hospitals, schools, and police, and then everyone, to whichever nation he belongs, can trade undisturbed. And I cannot think that for that England should be thanked in such an evil way!" Many people regarded it as an injustice to Germany that she should have had such warm sympathies with England. She was through and through an Englishwoman, if not by descent, yet by every impression received in childhood and by education.
The professor goes on to express the opinion that no Englishman or Englishwoman, of whatever age, ever gives up his or her nationality and love of country, in whatever circumstances they may find themselves, "a contrast to so many Germans, who are far less faithful to their nationality. The Empress Frederick, as eldest child of Queen Victoria of England, had the title of Princess Royal, and she could not help feeling herself the first princess of a wonderful Empire of very old culture, and this proud feeling never left her."
This estimate and defence of the Empress is particularly valuable as coming from a man of shrewd intelligence and observation, who was himself a German.
On another occasion Nippold wrote of the Empress with clear insight: "One thing this distinguished woman never understood - to hide her feelings. She never posed; everything was sincere in her in the true sense of the word."
In her will the Empress left Professor Nippold a letter-weight, which she had used every day, as a souvenir of a conversation they had had one evening in her study. This letter-weight, which always lay on her table, was composed of an old Roman bronze - a broken Sphinx figure - on a marble slab. A ring bound this figure to the slab, and the inscription engraved was: "This stone was picked up by H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth on the walk of Frogmore, 1808."
Professor Nippold goes on to say that while the Empress was talking to him one evening a telegram arrived which obviously had to do with the crisis which led to the Greco-Turkish War. As Nippold saw that she was much preoccupied with the telegram and had to think of the answer, and yet did not want to send him away, he delicately asked to be allowed to wait and look at the pictures. When the Empress resumed the conversation, the professor asked about a picture which hung in the study. She named the different figures in the group, among them being that young Princess Elizabeth who had found the stone. That she should have left Nippold the letterweight showed, as he truly says, the wonderful memory and kindly attention in which consists la politesse des princes.
This Princess Elizabeth married one of the last Counts of Hesse-Homburg. Since then a monument to that Royal house has been erected in Homburg, and in the Emperor's speech at the unveiling on August 17, 1906, occurred these words: "I commemorate the Landgräfin Elizabeth, a daughter of George III of England. She was a real mother to this country and worked and cared for her adopted fatherland. The Homburgers to this day think of her with real thankfulness and reverence."
Professor Nippold gives a characteristic letter which he received from the Empress, evidently on the subject of those historical studies of the House of Hohenzollern to which, as we have already mentioned, the Emperor Frederick at one time devoted himself with ardour. The letter is so interesting, especially in the views which it expresses on the subject of royal biography, that to quote it in full needs no apology:
"DEAR PROFESSOR, - Many thanks for sending the separate pages from the Deutsche Revue of February, and for your excellent report, which has so much in it that does my heart good. You mean well and truly, not only as regards history, but also with the noble men who now lie in their graves, and whose deeds and influence should be properly appreciated in wide circles and through the proper medium.
"The work grows, however, even as you work upon it; the subject becomes more and more important, and one should ask oneself whether the time has come thus to lift the veil. Would it not be wiser and more cautious to close these papers for the Revue, and then to continue your labours, so that later a book could appear for which we could utilise this material, but not lightly or too soon? The letter of which you send me a copy from our Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV - should not, for instance, appear without the letter from my father, but that would arouse a fearful storm of discussion. In the political world there is so much tinder ready that one must do all one can to avoid bringing in anything exciting.
"As long as Bismarck is alive, it is very difficult! Also these things affect my mother, so that I should like very much to have a serious talk with you before the publication continues in the Deutsche Revue. Professor Ranke has handled the life of Friedrich Wilhelm IV as the Court here wished it to be treated. Similar books have now appeared, with authorisation, with regard to the Kaiser Wilhelm, and in Weimar, I believe, someone is writing a book on the Kaiserin Augusta. All these writers, however, are strictly conservative and orthodox in religion (therefore one-sided), and of all those currents which flowed into the lives of the dead, no word is spoken, in the sense that I mean. It is impossible thus to omit and yet give the public a true picture of the persons, of their time, and of the parts they played. You will see for yourself the consequences of such publication. You have more experience than I, and perhaps you can reassure me."