- Historic Sites
A Gibson Girl Romance
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
I stammered, “I am so sorry I did not know who you were, Your Highness.”
“Never mind being so formal,” he laughed. I have never, before or since, seen such beautiful teeth. “You have already called me thief, and robber, and untouchable. Perhaps you could call me Mike—my mother does.… There is the coast of France. We will be in soon. Hurry, tell me—where are you staying in Paris? How long? What’s your name and your banker, in case I do not soon get back from St. Petersburg? Where do you live in the United States? Whom are you travelling with?”
I answered his questions, and all the time the boat was bobbing around like a cork and we never noticed.
“I must go,” he said then, and repeated my whole name. “Don’t forget me. And perhaps it is not I who have stolen something. It is, I think, Miss Anita Wheelwright Baker.” He was gone.
A long time afterward he told me that he and his party thought I had come to the cabin to shoot him, and were terrified. They did not show it.
We were kept waiting at the dock at Calais for hours for the imperial Russian party to land and be put aboard their special train to Russia. When we arrived at the hotel in Paris our rooms were a bower of the most beautiful white violets, and white roses—my favorite flower. Mother would not go in. She said there was a mistake, the flowers were not for us, and anyway she would not pay for them. The maître ’hôtel was very solemn and said that he had no idea where the flowers had come from, but he did treat us with great respect.
From then on I was conscious that I was always being followed, always being taken care of. We would come out of the theatre and find no cabs. In a minute one would pull up near us and the driver would say, “ Voilà, Mademoiselle ,” and in we would get. On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass at the Madeleine, but there were no seats. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, said “ S’il vous plaît ,” and motioned for us to follow him. We were given good seats up front. I do not know how it was done. We got so used to these courtesies, and to the never-ending flowers, that we hardly noticed. I never said a word, but hugged my secret to myself. I never had a letter or card and had no address to which I could send my thanks.
Then one day while Mother and I were in Sicily we read in the newspapers that the little Czarevitch had been born and that there was great rejoicing in all Russia. That meant the Grand Duke Michael was no longer so important in the line of succession.
My sisters were in boarding school and Mother had had a bad cold, so we had decided to take a trip to Sicily before the Easter vacation, when we would have to be back in France with the girls. Mother and I were staying in Taormina at the old monastery made into a hotel. It is a most charming place, with a gorgeous view over the Mediterranean.
I was taking a rather boring walk in the garden one hot mid-day after lunch, while Mother was resting in our room, when I heard my name called. There he was.
I hardly knew him. He had seemed so sedate on the Channel boat; now he was young and gay. He held out both hands and shook mine up and down. “How are you?” he asked. “Did you get all the flowers? Wasn’t it the most colossal luck that that baby was a boy? I feared that they would never have one, and that I would have that yoke around my neck always.… Isn’t this a nice place! I never was here before.”
I didn’t even tell my mother then who he was. She had forgotten what she knew of the Channel episode and had never actually seen him. She thought I had picked him up in Taormina. But he was attractive enough to make her forgive me and think me lucky to have such a delightful, entertaining friend.
What fun we had! We climbed Mola, a small mountain just back of the hotel, from where we had a lovely view of Mount Etna and the superb, colored patchwork of the surrounding country. Mike was an expert mountaineer and a great friend of the Duke of Abruzzi, one of the greatest of mountain-climbers.
We played tennis. He played badly, for he had never had much chance to practice. I played badly, too, though I had had all the time in the world to practice. We played in the garden of the beautiful old Greek theatre until the German Kaiserin and her oldest sons came to Taormina and put everyone off. They were quite stuffy and we were very humble. I can see the twinkle in Mike’s eyes now as we stood quietly beside the road and bowed low as the German royalty rode by.
All too soon we had to leave. Mother hated to go. She had found some cronies, Mrs. Nelson W. Aldrich and two of her daughters, and Marion and Hallie Hazard from Providence, and they had all spent most of their waking hours playing whist.
At Palermo we took a train for Syracuse, where we saw the strange Ear of Dionysius. It is a huge cave; inside, the slightest sound can be heard for a quarter of a mile. We had fun whispering to each other—rather, Mike whispered to me. He called me a thief, a robber, and an untouchable.
Back in Palermo again, we stayed only a day, just time enough to visit Monreale, that gem of a cathedral, and the Conca d’Oro (Shell of Gold), where the steeplechase was being held. It is the most beautiful site I have ever seen for a race; most of the jockeys were officers in dashing uniforms riding their own horses. I won and Mike lost on the races. “Unlucky in gambling and lucky in love, my old nurse used to say,” he remarked—which seemed to please him.