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Chapter XXXI. Queen Mary of England

The great European war affects profoundly all the women of each nation involved. It affects doubly the royal women. The Queen of England, the Czarina of Russia, the Queen of the Belgians, the Empress of Germany, each carries in these momentous days a frightful burden. The young Prince of Wales is at the front; the King of the Belgians has been twice wounded; the Empress of Germany has her sons as well as her husband in the field.

In addition to these cares these women of exalted rank have the responsibility that comes always to the very great. To see a world crisis approaching, to know every detail by which it has been furthered or retarded, to realise at last its inevitability--to see, in a word, every movement of the great drama and to be unable to check its denouement--that has been a part of their burden. And when the denouement came, to sink their private anxieties in the public welfare, to assume, not a double immunity but a double responsibility to their people, has been the other part.

It has required heroism of a high order. It is, to a certain extent, a new heroism, almost a demonstration of the new faith whose foundation is responsibility--responsibility of a nation to its sons, of rulers to their people, of a man to his neighbour.

It has been my privilege to meet and speak with two of these royal women, with the Queen of England and with the Queen of the Belgians. In each instance I carried away with me an ineradicable impression of this quality--of a grave and wearing responsibility borne quietly and simply, of a quiet courage that buries its own griefs and asks only to help.

From the beginning of the war I had felt a keen interest in the Queen of England. Here was a great queen who had chosen to be, first of all, a wife and mother; a queen with courage and a conscience. And into her reign had come the tragedy of a war that affected every nation of the world, many of them directly, all of them indirectly. The war had come unsought, unexpected, unprepared for. Peaceful England had become a camp. The very palace in which the royal children were housed was open to an attack from a brutal enemy, which added to the new warfare of this century the ethics of barbarism.

What did she think of it all? What did she feel when that terrible Roll of Honour came in, week by week, that Roll of Honour with its photographs of splendid types of young manhood that no Anglo-Saxon can look at without a clutch at his throat? What did she think when, one by one, the friends of her girlhood put on the black of bereavement and went uncomplainingly about the good works in which hers was the guiding hand? What thoughts were hers during those anxious days before the Prince of Wales went to the front, when, like any other mother, she took every possible moment to be with him, walking about arm-in-arm with her boy, talking of everything but the moment of parting?

And when at last I was permitted to see the Queen of England, I understood a part at least of what she was suffering. I had been to the front. I had seen the English army in the field. I had been quite close to the very trenches where the boyish Prince of Wales was facing the enemies of his country and doing it with high courage. And I had heard the rumble of the great German guns, as Queen Mary of England must hear them in her sleep.

Even with no son in the field the Queen of England would be working for the soldiers. It is a part of the tradition of her house. But a good mother is a mother to all the world. When Queen Mary is supervising the great work of the Needlework Guild one feels sure that into each word of direction has gone a little additional tenderness, because of this boy of hers at the front.

It is because of Her Majesty's interest in the material well-being of the soldiers at the front, and because of her most genuine gratitude for America's part in this well-being, that I took such pleasure in meeting the Queen of England.

It was characteristic of Her Majesty that she put an American woman--a very nervous American woman--at her ease at once, that she showed that American woman the various departments of her Needlework Guild under way, and that she conveyed, in every word she said, a deep feeling of friendship for America and her assistance to Belgium in this crisis.

Although our ambassadors are still accredited to the Court of St. James's, the old palace has ceased to be the royal residence. The King still holds there his levees, to which only gentlemen are admitted. But the formal Drawing Rooms are held at Buckingham Palace. To those who have seen St. James's during a levee, or to those London tourists who have watched the Scots Guards, or the Coldstream or the Grenadiers, preceded by a splendid band, swinging into the old Friary Court to perform the impressive ceremony of changing guard, the change in these days of war is most amazing. Friary Court is guarded by London policemen, and filled with great vans piled high with garments and supplies for the front--that front where the Coldstream and the Grenadiers and the others, shorn of their magnificence, are waiting grimly in muddy trenches or leading charges to victory--or the Roll of Honour. Under the winter sky of London the crenelated towers and brick walls of the old palace give little indication of the former grandeur of this most historic of England's palaces, built on the site of an old leper hospital and still retaining the name of the saint to whom that hospital was dedicated.

There had been a shower just before I arrived; and, although it was February, there was already a hint of spring in the air. The sun came out, drying the roads in the park close by, and shining brightly on the lovely English grass, green even then with the green of June at home. Riders, caught in the shower and standing by the sheltered sides of trees for protection, took again to the bridle paths. The hollows of Friary Court were pools where birds were splashing. As I got out of my car a Boy Scout emerged from the palace and carried a large parcel to a waiting van.

"Do you want the Q.M.N.G.?" said a tall policeman.

This, being interpreted, I was given to understand was Queen Mary's Needlework Guild.

Later on, when I was taken to Buckingham Palace to write my name in the Queen's book, which is etiquette after a presentation, there was all the formality the visit to St. James's had lacked--the drive into the inclosure, where the guard was changing, the stately footmen, the great book with its pages containing the dignitaries and great people of all the earth.

But the Boy Scout and the policeman had restored my failing courage that day at St. James's Palace. Except for a tendency to breathe at twice my normal rate as the Queen entered the room I felt almost calm.

As she advanced toward us, stopping to speak cordially to the various ladies who are carrying on the work of the Guild for her, I had an opportunity to see this royal woman who has suffered so grossly from the camera.

It will be a surprise to many Americans to learn that the Queen of England is very lovely to look at. So much emphasis has always been placed on her virtues, and so little has been written of her charm, that this tribute is only fair to Her Majesty. She is tall, perhaps five feet eight inches, with deep-blue eyes and beautiful colouring. She has a rather wide, humorous mouth. There is not a trace of austerity in her face or in any single feature. The whole impression was of sincerity and kindliness, with more than a trace of humour.

I could quite believe, after I saw Her Majesty, the delightful story that I had heard from a member of her own circle, that now and then, when during some court solemnity an absurdity occurred, it was positively dangerous to catch the Queen's eye!

Queen Mary came up the long room. As she paused and held out her hand, each lady took it and curtsied at the same time. The Queen talked, smiling as she spoke. There was no formality. Near at hand the lady-in-waiting who was in attendance stood, sometimes listening, sometimes joining in the conversation. The talk was all of supplies, for these days in England one thinks in terms of war. Certain things had come in; other things had gone or were going. For the Queen of England is to-day at the head of a great business, one that in a few months has already collected and distributed over a million garments, all new, all practical, all of excellent quality.

The Queen came toward me and paused. There was an agonised moment while the lady-in-waiting presented me. Her Majesty held out her hand. I took it and bowed. The next instant she was speaking.

She spoke at once of America, of what had already been done by Americans for the Belgians both in England and in their desolated country. And she hastened to add her gratitude for the support they have given her Guild.

"The response has been more than generous," said Her Majesty. "We are very grateful. We are glad to find that the sympathy of America is with us,"

She expressed a desire also to have America know fully just what was being done with the supplies that are being constantly sent over, both from Canada and from the United States.

"Canada has been wonderful," she said. "They are doing everything."

The ready response of Canada to the demand for both troops and supplies appeared to have touched Her Majesty. She spoke at length about the troops, the distance they had come, the fine appearance the men made, and their popularity with the crowds when they paraded on the streets of London. I had already noticed this. A Canadian regiment was sure to elicit cheers at any time, although London, generally speaking, has ceased any but silent demonstration over the soldiers.

"Have you seen any of the English hospitals on the Continent?" the Queen asked.

"I have seen a number, Your Majesty,"

"Do they seem well supplied?"

I replied that they appeared to be thoroughly equipped, but that the amount of supplies required w&s terrifying and that at one time some of the hospitals had experienced difficulty in securing what they needed.

"One hospital in Calais," I said, "received twelve thousand pairs of bed socks in one week last autumn, and could not get a bandage."

"Those things happened early in the war. We are doing much better now. England had not expected war. We were totally unprepared."

And in the great analysis that is to come, that speech of the Queen of England is the answer to many questions. England had not expected war. Every roll of the drum as the men of the new army march along the streets, every readjustment necessary to a peaceful people suddenly thrust into war, every month added to the length of time it has taken to put England in force into the field, shifts the responsibility to where it belongs. Back of all fine questions of diplomatic negotiation stands this one undeniable fact. To deny it is absurd; to accept it is final.

"What is your impression of the French and Belgian hospitals?" Her Majesty inquired.

I replied that none were so good as the English, that France had always depended on her nuns in such emergencies, and, there being no nuns in France now, her hospital situation was still not good.

"The priests of Belgium are doing wonderful work," I said. "They have suffered terribly during the war."

"It is very terrible," said Her Majesty. "Both priests and nuns have suffered, as England has reason to know."

The Queen spoke of the ladies connected with the Guild.

"They are really much overworked," she said. "They are giving all their time day after day. They are splendid. And many of them, of course, are in great anxiety."

Already, by her tact and her simplicity of manner, she had put me at my ease. The greatest people, I have found, have this quality of simplicity. When she spoke of the anxieties of her ladies, I wished that I could have conveyed to her, from so many Americans, their sympathy in her own anxieties, so keen at that time, so unselfishly borne. But the lady-in-waiting was speaking:

"Please tell the Queen about your meeting with King Albert."

So I told about it. It had been unconventional, and the recital amused Her Majesty. It was then that I realised how humorous her mouth was, how very blue and alert her eyes. I told it all to her, the things that insisted on slipping off my lap, and the King's picking them up; the old envelope he gave me on which to make notes of the interview; how I had asked him whether he would let me know when the interview was over, or whether I ought to get up and go! And finally, when we were standing talking before my departure, how I had suddenly remembered that I was not to stand nearer to His Majesty than six feet, and had hastily backed away and explained, to his great amusement.

Queen Mary laughed. Then her face clouded.

"It is all so very tragic," she said. "Have you seen the Queen?"

I replied that the Queen of the Belgians had received me a few days after my conversation with the King.

"She is very sad," said Her Majesty. "It is a terrible thing for her, especially as she is a Bavarian by birth."

From that to the ever-imminent subject of the war itself was but a step. An English officer had recently made a sensational escape from a German prison camp, and having at last got back to England, had been sent for by the King. With the strange inconsistencies that seem to characterise the behaviour of the Germans, the man to whom he had surrendered after a gallant defence had treated him rather well. But from that time on his story was one of brutalities and starvation.

The officer in question had told me his story, and I ventured to refer to it Her Majesty knew it quite well, and there was no mistaking the grief in her Voice as she commented on it, especially on that part of it which showed discrimination against the British prisoners. Major V---- had especially emphasised the lack of food for the private soldiers and the fearful trials of being taken back along the lines of communication, some fifty-two men being locked in one of the small Continental box cars which are built to carry only six horses. Many of them were wounded. They were obliged to stand, the floor of the car being inches deep with filth. For thirty hours they had no water and no air, and for three days and three nights no food.

"I am to publish Major V----'s statement in America, Your Majesty," I said.

"I think America should know it," said the Queen. "It is most unjust. German prisoners in England are well cared for. They are well fed, and games and other amusements are provided for them. They even play football!"

I stepped back as Her Majesty prepared to continue her visit round the long room. But she indicated that I was to accompany her. It was then that one realised that the Queen of England is the intensely practical daughter of a practical mother. Nothing that is done in this Guild, the successor of a similar guild founded by the late Duchess of Teck, Her Majesty's mother, escapes her notice. No detail is too small if it makes for efficiency. She selected at random garments from the tables, and examined them for warmth, for quality, for utility.

Generally she approved. Before a great heap of heavy socks she paused.

"The soldiers like the knitted ones, we are told," she said. "These are not all knitted but they are very warm."

A baby sweater of a hideous yellow roused in her something like wrath.

"All that labour!" she said, "and such a colour for a little baby!" And again, when she happened on a pair of felt slippers, quite the largest slippers I have ever seen, she fell silent in sheer amazement. They amused her even while they shocked her. And again, as she smiled, I regretted that the photographs of the Queen of England may not show her smiling.

A small canvas case, skilfully rolled and fastened, caught Her Majesty's attention. She opened it herself and revealed with evident pride its numerous contents. Many thousands of such cases had already been sent to the army.

This one was a model of packing. It contained in its small compass an extraordinary number of things--changes of under flannels, extra socks, an abdominal belt, and, in an inclosure, towel, soap, toothbrush, nailbrush and tooth powder. I am not certain, but I believe there was also a pack of cards.

"I am afraid I should never be able to get it all back again!" said Her Majesty. So one of the ladies took it in charge, and the Queen went on.

My audience was over. As Her Majesty passed me she held out her hand. I took it and curtsied.

"Were you not frightened the night you were in the Belgian trenches?" she inquired.

"Not half so frightened as I was this afternoon, Your Majesty," I replied.

She passed on, smiling.

       *       *       *       *       *

And now, when enough time has elapsed to give perspective to my first impression of Queen Mary of England, I find that it loses nothing by this supreme test. I find that I remember her, not as a great Queen but as a gracious and kindly woman, greatly beloved by those of her immediate circle, totally without arrogance, and of a simplicity of speech and manner that must put to shame at times those lesser lights that group themselves about a throne.

I find another impression also--that the Queen of England is intensely and alertly mental--alive to her finger tips, we should say in America. She has always been active. Her days are crowded. A different type of royal woman would be content to be the honoured head of the Queen's Guild. But she is in close touch with it at all times. It is she who dictates its policy, and so competently that the ladies who are associated with the work that is being done speak of her with admiration not unmixed with awe.

From a close and devoted friend of Queen Mary I obtained other characteristics to add to my picture: That the Queen is acutely sensitive to pain or distress in others--it hurts her; that she is punctual--and this not because of any particular sense of time but because she does not like to keep other people waiting. It is all a part of an overwhelming sense of that responsibility to others that has its origin in true kindliness.

The work of the Queen's Guild is surprising in its scope. In a way it is a vast clearing house. Supplies come in from every part of the world, from India, Ceylon, Java, Alaska, South America, from the most remote places. I saw the record book. I saw that a woman from my home city had sent cigarettes to the soldiers through the Guild, that Africa had sent flannels! Coming from a land where the sending, as regards Africa, is all the other way, I found this exciting. Indeed, the whole record seems to show how very small the earth is, and how the tragedy of a great war has overcome the barriers of distance and time and language.

From this clearing house in England's historic old palace, built so long ago by Bluff King Hal, these offerings of the world are sent wherever there is need, to Servia, to Egypt, to South and East Africa, to the Belgians. The work was instituted by the Queen the moment war broke out, and three things are being very carefully insured: That a real want exists, that the clothing reaches its proper destination, and that there shall be no overlapping.

The result has been most gratifying to the Queen, but it was difficult to get so huge a business--for, as I have already said, it is a business now--under way at the beginning. Demand was insistent. There was no time to organise a system in advance. It had to be worked out in actual practice.

One of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting wrote in February, apropos of the human element in the work:

"There was a great deal of human element in the start with its various mistakes. The Queen wished, on the breaking out of war, to start the Guild in such a way as to prevent the waste and overlapping which occurred in the Boer War.... The fact that the ladies connected with the work have toiled daily and unceasingly for seven months is the most wonderful part of it all."

Before Christmas nine hundred and seventy thousand belts and socks were collected and sent as a special gift to the soldiers at the front, from the Queen and the women of the empire. That in itself is an amazing record of efficiency.

It is rather comforting to know that there were mistakes in the beginning. It is so human. It is comforting to think of this exceedingly human Queen being a party to them, and being divided between annoyance and mirth as they developed. It is very comforting also to think that, in the end, they were rectified.

We had a similar situation during our Civil War. There were mistakes then also, and they too were rectified. What the heroic women of the North and South did during that great conflict the women of Great Britain are doing to-day. They are showing the same high and courageous spirit, the same subordination of their personal griefs to the national cause, the same cheerful relinquishment of luxuries. It is a United Britain that confronts the enemy in France. It is a united womanhood, united in spirit, in labour, in faith and high moral courage, that looks east across the Channel to that land beyond the horizon, "somewhere in France," where the Empire is fighting for life.

A united womanhood, and at its head a steadfast and courageous Queen and mother, Mary of England.

Mary Roberts Rinehart