An envisioning . . . 1915 and the ice garden by the Biltmore for tea.

Oh to be here.

New York City, Christmas shopping and the stores filled. War yes but in Europe. Cousins in the officer corps in Britain but not called up yet. Scary but only kissing cousins. Related to everyone somehow but not a way that anyone can remember. No, someone gone up to Northumberland on that trip and invited in for tea but nothing more. All the way back nearly to the revolution that ancestor was, anyway.

More in America maybe but not yet. One of those German U boats coming up from the bottom and giving everyone in Baltimore a spook but gone back down to the bottom of the sea and off to someplace else. A good thing, really. Uncle’s ships filled with things for Argentina and Brazil taking up half the docks when they came in, so close that tourists tried to scramble on to watch the German crew wave the kaiser’s flag.

But New York fine. No U boats the paper said and the grandchildren coming for Christmas. A tree to be bought and ornaments hung but all that for the maids and the housemen to do.

All the packages loaded into a cab and sent uptown for someone else to take in. Tomorrow to write out the notes and have the lady’s maid wrap them up.

Tea at four at the new ice garden. Inside the Biltmore the last time but outside now. A new thing to go with the skating rink. Funny. Summer wicker chairs with winter slipcovers,  a big fireplace roaring along and big windows. Ferns in baskets and skaters to applaud even though they cannot hear.

Four friends and together. Bridesmaids for each other and bonded for life. Something different later maybe but all right for now . . . .and hopefully next year too.

Tea room, the Biltmore ice gardens. ca. 1915-19.
Tea room, the Biltmore ice gardens. ca. 1915-19. American. Byron and Company, maker. via Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. via

“The Little Princes in the Tower” and the 1480’s seen through a Victorian looking glass. One of the world’s most enduring mysteries but one surely without accoutrements a little person in the Windsor nurseries in 1850 would have known.

"The Princes in the Tower." 1878.
“The Princes in the Tower.” 1878. British. Oil on canvas. John Everett Millais, artist (1829-1896). Royal Holloway Collection. In the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. via
"The Princes in the Tower." 1861.
“The Princes in the Tower.” 1861. British. Oil on canvas. Henrietta Ward, artist (1832-1924). via ArtUK. In the public domain in the United States because the artist has been dead over 70 years. via
"The Princes in the Tower." 1831.
“The Princes in the Tower.” 1831. French. Oil on canvas. Paul Delaroche, artist (1797–1856). Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces, Tower of London. Fair use license. via

An envisioning . . . 1982 and a long afternoon in the old house in Portreath up by the sea.

Oh to be here.

Cornwall with winds that sigh and sing as they swoop around the harbor while seagulls soar in a short dance back and forth to Ireland and an even longer one between the icebergs all the way to Canada.

Mug after mug of peppermint tea and scones still warm from the bakery. Quieter than the flat in London but no sconces there like these, let alone the rolled cookies with the whipped cream middles, the kind the doctor said not to eat.

A sister coming the next day and the children the day after. Husband off looking at the fishing boats. A woman from the village cleaning everywhere. A good thing. All the bedrooms not used in years. No, auntie not very sociable and only inviting two at a time and that only for Guy Fawkes Day and never for Christmas or Easter. Must have seemed easier, no decorating what with the bonfire on the beach. But everything else forgotten and the back wing almost entirely filled with dust.

Books to sort out in the old office and a need to do something. Funny. Used to having more than enough to do and the absence of anything annoying.

The books done, their old covers clapped, and the desk in the morning room. Always locked but no one to know as long as everything is put back where it was.  Back of the blotter to draw a chart and the top drawer opened. Old calling cards in stacks like ancient toast on one side, love letters tied with pink ribbons in the back and invitations from ancient parties and debutante balls up in London. A box within a box with an old scrapbook in the middle like a bird’s nest with a perfect egg.

Old Christmas cards and pressed flowers from beaux long forgotten but a photograph at the bottom with 1875 scrawled on the back. Great Grandmother’s sister, it must be. Hair the right color and the others all blondes.

Not this house. No. A dinghy to sit on in bare feet and a pair of oars to hold. That summer house in the Isle of Wight, it must have been. Every summer they went until the year it was sold after the war. Lloyd George and no more money from the coal fields in Yorkshire. Portreath, yes, but not the other. No. Fifteen bedrooms at least and its own little beach. Five maids just to keep the lights turned on at dusk and the little children kept from chasing crabs into the sea.

But a memory .  . . A lady with a brother who is an earl and grand but just in one’s head . . . .the rest blown away and never coming back . . . . maybe it will . . . .maybe not.

Princess Marie or May of Hesse-Darmstadt. July, 1878
Princess Marie or May of Hesse-Darmstadt. July, 1878. Younger sister of Russia’s last Tsarina. Photograph in the public domain. via

Napoleon and both of his brides all three looking very grand. Offloading one for the other I’m sure he lived to regret it but all is happy in these pictures . Some days it’s a good thing you don’t know what’s coming.

"The Coronation of Napoleon" (detail). 1805-1807.
“The Coronation of Napoleon” (detail). 1805-1807. Jacques-Louis David, painter (1748-1825). Collection of the Louvre, Paris. detail via Art work in the public domain in the United States because the artist has been dead over 100 years. See an image of the entire painting here
Napoleon. 1810.
Napoleon. 1810. Miniature. Jean-Baptiste Isabey, artist (1767-1855). In the public domain in the United States because the artist has been dead over 100 years. via
Marie Louise. 1810.
Marie Louise. 1810. Miniature. Jean-Baptiste Isabey, artist (1767-1855). In the public domain in the United States because the artist has been dead over 100 years. via

An envisioning . . . 1938 and an early spring afternoon in Father’s house in Shanghai.

Oh to be here.

Time to while away once the homework is done. Well, not done yet. Stuffed behind the chair in the corner where no one can see. Another chapter of the book to read and then everything pulled back out.

Thursday and only one more day to go. Outing with everyone from school to have new uniforms fitted. The school not too fun what with the sisters with rulers to smack everyone’s hands up their sleeves but the girls very nice. Something needed in a family with lots of brothers but no sisters to whisper to in bed at night before anyone falls asleep.

Church with everyone on Sunday and then another week and another unreeling like some of those longer movies at the movie houses downtown. Fun but all the same. Well, not quite. A special feast for Lunar New Year and parties for all the cousins.

Evening frocks and a dance downtown at the big hotel, but you have to be eighteen first. Young men to dance with but not to take home. That something for parents to figure out.

A western place sort of what with all the merchant house offices downtown but not. At least not like the books the bookstore sells, the one the sisters say not to go to. Novels by American ladies and English ones, too, with jazz bands everywhere, mothers in Mainbocher whoever he is and girls in butterfly wing colored party frocks that dance across the page.

Still. A romance in one’s head. Perfect, it could be there, with no unhappiness at all.

A walk around the bedroom and a peek in Grandmother’s things. Not allowed but everyone off having tea somewhere and not back for hours. Most of the things boring. Pictures of people who died a long time ago and who knows what else.

A postcard wrapped in silk at the bottom. Trying to remember. Great auntie’s ship, it must be. Married to that young diplomat and off to Manila. The legation for years and eventually an ambassador’s wife in Europe somewhere and not always happy.

But all that not really mattering . . . a place to sit all day and watch the waves go by . . . .a bubble to ride in from one place to another . . . who knows how it will end up. . . .that’s the magic . .

This is not my story. It is the story, rather, of the mother of my friend Anthony L. whose mother was the daughter of a gold trader in 1920’s and 1930’s Shanghai with a two courtyard house of the old school filled with relatives. Marrying a very junior diplomat at the age of eighteen she sailed off on her honeymoon right into what became World War II, ending up in America where she lived to be very old.

Cafe on the "Titanic".
Cafe on the “Titanic”. 1912 image colorized by Thomas Schmid of 3D History. © Thomas Schmid/Exclusivepix Media. via

Things sparkly from French silversmith Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763-1850). If he’d had the money Napoleon would have put in an order to dress up that dreary little table in Saint Helena. Alas we must content ourselves with these.

Soupière with women on their knees. 1819. Silver plated brass.
Soupière with women on their knees. 1819. Silver plated brass. Plated by Christofle in 1907-1908. © MAD, Paris. Cc license 4.0. Photo credit : Jean Tholance. via
Ewer. 1826-38.
Ewer. 1826-38. Silver gilt in two colors and ebony. Part of a composite tea service. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. via
Model vase for a tea fountain. 1802-1819.
Model vase for a tea fountain. 1802-1819. Silver plated brass. Plated by Christofle in 1907-1908. Collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Photo credit: Musee des Arts Decoratifs/Jean Tholance. Cc License 4.0. via
Hot water urn. 1798-1809.
Hot water urn. 1798-1809. Silver and gilt bronze. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Cc License 1.0. via
"Leda" oil cruet. ca. 1819.
“Leda” oil cruet. ca. 1819. Silver plated brass. Plated by Christofle in 1907-1908. Collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris. CC License 4.0. Image © MAD, Paris / photo: Jean Tholance. via