Oh to be here.
Mother in Corfu, Father in Vienna and sisters who knows where.
One of those houseboats that they rent to tourists with a dragoman to steer and others for the sails. Awnings that go sideways all the way out like the ones Mother said they have on Lake Como but stripes that go sideways instead of up and down.
All the doves in the world to shoot and a special man to stuff each one. Better by far than what they do in Austria. No, one of those hunting jackets like the ones they take rabbits in with the big pocket in the back for the rabbits to be stuffed in. A beater to carry them out, yes, but that Father would do. More manly to carry them out oneself the tutors always said.
But the Nile and a whole winter. Jackals to hunt up and down the stones of the pyramids and in and out of abandoned tombs.
Slave girls for dancing. Sherbet houses, they call them. Hookahs, something in the glasses near as strong as the schnapps the cousins in Bavaria buy from the gypsies at the edge of town.
A state visit with the viceroy and another at the other end. All the way up river from their palace and free. More dinners in Cairo but not now. Stamboul after with its sultan and then home. But now and something . . . the future yet to see. . . .
Crown Prince Rudolf was born in 1858, the heir and only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and his Empress Sissi. Journeying to the East in 1881, he went home to Vienna and did his best to live, dying in a suicide pact with his teenage mistress in late January, 1889 at his hunting lodge in Mayerling in the Vienna Woods.
Oh to be here
Bavaria in 1926 and a dance at the old villa that was Aunt Gertrude’s until the government seized it after the revolution came. A photograph to pose for to send back to Mother in Paris. Time for a cigarette in the hall and a few drinks in the drawing room before the party begins.
Some gauche people from the villa down the road from Berlin but something to be ignored. Odd. Austrian, someone said, but not Vienna with its cultured edge. No, from somewhere with peasants, Transylvania or wherever it was that it turned into Hungary after the war.
An orchestra all the way from Baden, the one with the lead singer whose father played for Kaiser Wilhelm before it all went up in smoke. Not the same anymore but something left.
Enough for winter in a cut-rate villa that at least has an address in Nice even if it isn’t really. The Lutheran church on February Sundays where Father put piles of money in the plate. Only enough for ten marks now but something. Not like the poor Russian chaps with only one kopek. Bad but not as bad as that.
Better than nothing but not the same. Heirloom tiaras for weddings and a veil to match but the grand house up on the Baltic sold. Only the townhouse left and half of that leased out. But a better day to come and for now another dance and dinner . . . . .tomorrow for rubies and the pawnshop on Monday but still one can dream.
Oh to be here
Mid afternoon in 1809 in a villa somewhere in the more unfashionable outskirts of Zurich.
The trunks brought down and a granddaughter with the key. Grandmama’s it must be. Has the scent of faded rose and chrysanthemum from her favorite perfume.
Frock after frock and some old baby clothes. An envelope at the very bottom with Grandpapa’s name.
What looks like a blotted kiss. A true memory, it must have been. Grandmama able to get out when the Terror started but Grandpapa already in prison and trapped. Guillotined but who knows when. So traumatic that no one could ever recall.
Years that are in snippets like ribbons that float through the air from one of the peasants’ maypoles that soar and sink. Versailles, Trianon and a cousin that was a special friend of the queen.
Picnics by fountains and plays to be in. Gambling that went way into the night. Being a domino at the masquerade ball at the Paris Opera.
Wedding dress by Mlle. Bertin but that cannot be. Dressmaker to Marie Antoinette. A frock from them and no one would have been able to afford to eat for life.
But maybe. Only two rings and the design left. For Grandpapa’s last ball, the note says in letters so tiny and cramped up that they take younger eyes to read.
Everything else gone for a bribe at the border. Safe but not rich anymore except for memories . . . .all one has . . .. even the ones that were Grandmama’s . . . .. they will live forever until the king comes again and everyone can go home.
Oh to be here
Eight in the evening, a stocking seam adjustment and compact to use in the powder room of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin.
The war and all that but the noise and bombs some place else and in someone else’s country.
Dinner, a room upstairs and then home. But what can one do? A chest full of medals and a big suite at the Reichstag. Enough power to protect and that is all that matters.
A husband taken off and a daughter to watch out for. No. Better an affair with one of them. Safe that way. Too much money spent on silk frocks but a need to look glamorous.
Jewelry all right. Aquamarines, rubies from somewhere and emeralds from Vienna. Better not to think too hard on it. Eye candy, that and being a living ornament on an officer’s arm.
Tomorrow not to be thought of. Summer up on the Baltic if they can ever take Leningrad. A watering place otherwise or a stay by the lake. Everyone for a month but for his wife wherever she goes.
But the finest champagne brought back from France and a toast from the other end of the banquet table. The best food anyone can buy in the dining room of the hotel where one’s parents’ wedding reception was. Something. Still the best place.
Hard though. Living a schizoid existence. Glamour queen trying to look like a film star on the outside and scared on the inside with a child half Jewish that they could find if they looked hard enough.
A nice fellow down the hall wanting to share dinner but impossible. Better to be immoral and safe than free to dine and scared. Better than anything . . . .life . . .. freedom . . . . .a better day to come whenever it does . . . .
This is not my story. I heard it from a woman I worked with when I was young about her friend who was a child in Berlin during World War II. The story was that of a beautiful woman whose Jewish husband was taken off to the camps early in the war. The mother had an affair with a high ranking Nazi though all of the war to keep her little girl safe . . . .You know I would have done it too to protect my babies.
Oh to go back and be here.
Somewhere in the full bloom of Empire before the War . . . . .
An afternoon to while away with the other chaps and back out to the country in the morning. The Residency and its troubles but not for today.
Enough fans to cover the ceiling with a boy for each one instead of every two or three. Bamboo and rattan chairs like the ones in Grandmama’s parlor back in Bournemouth that her brother brought home from the East.
Waiter with another tray of gin and tonics and another hour. No. Two, three or four what with no ladies about to insist on tea.
Food eventually on the terrace but not now. No, time to rest before piling on dinner attire. Easier back in the country. A bachelor existence. Not perfect but still. No gloves and almost never a tie except for Race Saturday at the club and that time the Prince of Wales came through on one of his state tours and stayed for a week.
A dance every night that time or a banquet. But the roar of the animals out in the bush and water dripping through the thatch on the porch roof when the rains arrive.
Letters from home and letters back. Like a kaleidoscope, seen backward. Home but a different home creeping in around the edges. Brighter in hue and with the same queen.
But the rest not. Father running the post office and now a Residence. One girl to help back then and a good ten now. But years left before that final steamer back.
The waiter back again with another round. Tall stories about hunting. Even taller ones about ladies sat with in opera houses in old colonial cities. All gone they are now with the jungle back. More time and the jungle over nearly everything but the Union Jack forever.
Image: Grand Lobby, Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, Egypt. No date or photographer. Via pinterest.com and Facebook.
Oh to go back and be here.
Penbarrow House, Northumberland. Mid-October, 1895, and the rest of the afternoon to while away.
Smoke rising on the far edge of the garden. The leaves fallen and heaping up in mounds headed for the bonfire makers on the drive. If only. The gardeners having allowed jumps in and out and turns with the rakes when nanny wasn’t looking.
But not for young ladies. Starter corsets that make it hard to run and stockings from the expensive store in London where Mother gets her things. Too much trouble if the leaves and dirt weave into the wool.
Grandmama’s Bounce and Maude to take for a run. Must have named them, too. Bounce for a poet’s dog and Maude for another. Father reading nothing but the racing form and Mother never. But the names kept.
The dogs running and someone calling. Another week and back to Saint Elfrieda’s with the headmistress that checks that everyone is asleep by nine.
But sunset to come, tea before the grownups’ dinner begins and friends yet to arrive for a game of croquet with their brothers in tow to knock the balls toward so they will have to be returned.
A mad dance around the fires on the drive for good luck. From the olden times, the old woman by the caves says. The face of one’s future husband to be read in the swirls of ascending smoke if one can only dare to peek.
Image: Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh Saxe-Coburg in 1895. A granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Image via pinterest.com.
A ribbon map, this is. If only it had come along a decade earlier, Mr. Bordelon could mark off the distance from one drinking and gambling establishment on the Mississippi shore to the next with his new poker friend Martin Harden in my upcoming novella “Couchsachraga.”
Alas, it came into being in 1866, patented by Sidney B. Fairchild and Myron Coloney of Missouri, much too late even if these gentlemen could be time traveled into their future and blasted back again to their seats on a heap of cotton bales with a bottle of bourbon as the paddle wheel starts again.
Eleven feet long, it is only a few inches wide and wrapped handily around a spool small enough to fit in a gentleman’s pocket with a crank but with what must have been a banner like effect if the wind blew hard enough to push the paddle steamer halfway across the river while you were trying to fit it back in its case.
Town to city. Waterfall to river. Sugar lands to cotton. Cotton to corn and then to Minnesota wheat. That part a bit hard to read, it was true, being right at the end that stuck in the inside of the spool. Better the other where the river met the sea with the bayou looking like a turkey’s foot with water lines dashing every which way as they headed for the sea.
This example being part of the collection of the Library of Congress, http://www.LOC.gov. If one looks closely at the southerly end, you can spot Jefferson Davis’s name by the name of his Brimfield Plantation at Davis Bend in Mississippi’s black bottom country.