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A Gibson Girl Romance

July 2024
16min read

Our readers will recall the author of this story as the charming lady who in our June, 1965, issue described the colorful events that have kept Wickford, Rhode Island, where she spent her turn-of-the-century summers, a very lively place. Wickford was—and it remains —a small town, but it has by no means been the entire compass of Mrs. Hinckley’s life. She comes of an old Providence family, of that class of sweet-faced Edwardian young ladies who took the Grand Tour—or several tours—of Europe and came home with enough memories to last a lifetime. Time might color the memories a bit, and blur the precisions of time and place, but the story is affecting, and a nice one to remember.

—The Editors

One autumn—it was 1903, as I remember—we were delayed in London until nearly Christmas. I had gone to Europe with my mother and two sisters to put the girls in a French boarding school, but our maid, Marie, became very ill in London and it wasn’t until one day in December that we left Charing Cross Station for Dover and the Channel boat. It was raining hard, but we had a comfortable second-class carriage to ourselves; we settled Marie with pillows behind her back. Mother, my sisters, and I sat anywhere, surrounded by our luggage.

There seemed to be a good deal of commotion at the station as we left, but we did not pay any attention.

When we reached Dover the rain was still streaming down, and a howling gale was blowing. Why we did not think of waiting until the storm was over, I do not know. We hustled aboard the boat and Mother said to me, “We will sit here and wait. Go and try to get a stateroom to put Marie in. I think it is going to be very rough.”

We had two porters carrying our bags. One porter put his down beside Mother, received his pay, and left. I turned and saw our other porter going into a stateroom with the rest of our bags, among them the one that held all our tickets and valuables. I darted after him frantically.

As I got to the closed door of the stateroom and started to go in, I was grabbed by the arms by two of the biggest liveried footmen I had ever seen. I struggled to get free, saying, “The porter is stealing our bags and tickets! I must get them! Let me go!” Nothing happened.

Just then the door of the stateroom opened and our porter came out. Sitting opposite the door at a table were three men, two in uniform flanking a third in civilian clothes. I screamed to our porter, “You have stolen my luggage!” and appealed to the men not to let him get away. Dead silence …

After a little, the man in the middle said something to the footmen holding me. They pushed me into the room and closed the door behind me, never relaxing their grip on my arms. For once I knew what fear was. I was desperate at our plight. I had failed Mother and had lost our tickets, our valuables, and our letters of credit. I didn’t know what to do or how to get away.

Sensing that the young civilian was the person in authority, I turned on him. “How dare you bring me in here and steal our things?” I shouted.

He looked terribly surprised and said, in perfect English, “Mademoiselle is an American.”

“Yes, I am. But that is no reason for you to be a thief.”

“Please, Mademoiselle.” Then he said something else to my captors, and they let my arms go. Finally able to move, I was turning to go out when I suddenly saw, in a corner, Mother’s cape and the precious bags.

“Those are my bags and my mother’s cape!” I cried, pointing to them.

“Oh, Mademoiselle—I am sorry,” he said, standing up for the first time. He asked some questions. All the men shook their heads. “Do not think too badly of us. It was a mistake. I do not know how your things got here.”

“Of course you know how they got here,” I stormed at him. “You thought you saw an easy way to steal some nice things. You are a miserable thief. Now, let me go.”

“Please don’t go. Do sit down and tell me where you came from. Are you going to Paris?”

“Sit down with a robber?” I sneered. “No!”

“Then will you not shake hands, as this is all a mistake?”

“Shake hands? Of course not. I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole. I want my things and I want to get out of here.”

I pointed out our belongings to the footmen, who carried them out. I took the ticket bag in my hand and went outside. What a storm had blown up! Mother had found a stateroom, and the footmen put our things in it. She was furious with me for going off and leaving her, and she had been worried about the luggage.

I was too dazed to explain.

My sister Gladys said we were lucky to get a stateroom. “The Grand Duke Michael, the Czar’s brother, is on board,” she explained, “and has taken nearly all the staterooms. He has just been on a state visit to England and is going back to Russia. He is young and terribly good-looking, the stewardess says.”

So that was who the “robber” was! I felt faint. I had to have air, and in spite of the storm I went out on deck and hung over the rail on the lee side. How rough it was! I would probably have been seasick if I had not been so excited.

I had been standing there about fifteen minutes when I sensed someone beside me. I looked up and there was the Grand Duke. He looked scared to death and his voice trembled as he said in a rush, “Don’t be cross—there is so little time. Do tell me your name. You know I did not mean to cause you trouble.”

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.

We had a grand dinner at a special restaurant whose name I have forgotten, and went on board the steamer about 10 P.M. She was someone’s private yacht, small and unseaworthy, and on the way to Naples we had a terrific storm. The boat stood first on one end and then on the other. I was terribly sick. Mother, in her bunk, just hung on and never said a word.

We were too exhausted to go farther than Naples, and spent two days there. We went to the opera and just happened to hear Caruso that night in Aïda . Is it possible that anyone else ever had such happiness? Afterward we walked back to the hotel through the gardens along the waterfront in the moonlight. It is lucky that the walk was not too long, for when a beggar asked us for money Mike gave such a lot that the news travelled fast, and soon we must have had a retinue of at least fifty, all praising us and singing with happiness. Mike emptied my bag and his pockets and then turned them inside out and said, “Now we are beggars.” They laughed and blessed us, and Mike told them we needed their blessings and their prayers. We went into the hotel with their vivas ringing in our ears.

He had to leave early the next morning and I did not see him for many months, but now I did get an occasional letter brought by messenger, which I answered the same way. It does cramp one’s style to know that a messenger is sitting in the next room waiting for an answer, and I know my letters were stupid and stilted.

My father and brother David joined us in the spring, after David’s term at Andover had ended. We met them at Cuxhaven and then came back to Hamburg and had a wonderful reunion.

The next morning Father asked me to walk to the bank with him.

“You have changed, dear,” he said. “Are you happy? You seem thoughtful to me … Your mother tells me you have a friend. Tell me about him.”

It was fun telling him everything. He laughed at the Channel boat story and said right away, “Why did you let the bag with the tickets out of your hands?”

At the bank Father found a letter from Mike asking if he could come and call on him. Father wrote and said he could come as soon as convenient, and told him our plans.

Mike couldn’t have been very far away, for he was with us by lunchtime. It amused me so, for Mike was as nervous as a debutante. I had never heard him stutter, but now he seemed hardly able to talk. Father was adorable to him. I do not know what they said to each other, for all I heard as they started out for a walk after lunch was, “Don’t apologize to me, boy—I love her, too.”

Father told me later that Mike was moving heaven and earth to renounce his right of succession, take one of his lesser titles, and marry me. His mother and the Czar had consented and were delighted at the thought of his happiness. But until the Czarevitch was older and stronger, nothing could be done. Mike told Father he was glad I was so young, for I could wait, and he would wait forever if there was a chance.

Father told him quite plainly that he would never consent to a morganatic marriage, and Mike said he did not want one either.

That night the hotel was crowded and Mike had to sleep with David, who happened to have an extra bed in his room. They had a pillow fight and a pillow burst and the German housekeeper called them everything she could think of. She was so dancing mad that they had to get Father to apologize for the two unruly boys, and he had to give the housekeeper enough money to buy pillows for an army.

We saw Mike again that summer, in Paris. One day I had to go shopping—for stockings, I suppose. We went to the Bon Marché. I told Mike I would only be a few minutes and to wait for me on the ground floor near the main entrance. He found a chair and sat with his back against the wall at the end of a long aisle between two ribbon counters.

As luck would have it, at the stocking counter I met a friend of ours from the United States with her two daughters. None of them could speak French and they fell on me to help them buy some trousseau items for one of the girls. It took longer than I realized. When I finally got back to Mike he was sound asleep, with the shop girls much interested. But the two nice-looking civilians, the shabby-looking clerk and the workman with a bunch of tools under his arm who were hovering around glaring at me, made me realize how well guarded he was. We called these men, who were constantly on the alert to protect him, “The Speckled Band.” Mike loved Sherlock Holmes and that was one of his pet stories.

We sailed home in the fall, and though gifts of flowers, candy, and fruit—and an occasional letter—continued to arrive, I did not see Mike for a year.

In the meantime, my father died. I had the most wonderful letters from Mike, and got used to Paul. Paul was the man I was never to notice, but who took care of me. Once, coming from Boston on the train, I found myself without money for my ticket. I must have dropped my purse running to catch the train. The conductor was rude. I did not know what to do. Suddenly a five-dollar bill was thrust into my hand and a voice said, “ Voilà, Mademoiselle .” It was Paul. Paul got a job on a farm near ours and worked there all the time we were in Wickford.

Early the next October, on a beautiful warm day, I was in the kitchen making apple jelly. I heard someone come into the back hall and open the kitchen door. I turned, and there was Mike. I nearly fainted, and he had to catch me.

He had come over on the steamer with a dear friend who also cared for an American girl, Katherine Elkins. (Nothing came of their attachment. I never met her and I know she never heard of me, but I used to read with much interest anything about her that appeared in the newspapers. She married William Hitts, and died only recently.)

The week Mike was at Cedar Spring was a week in a million. The weather was absolutely perfect and the foliage at its most gorgeous. We used to ride up to McSparran Hill and look down at Narrow River, a blue ribbon amid the brilliant oranges and reds of the trees. In the distance we could see the little white South Ferry church, and beyond it the open Atlantic. Mike couldn’t get over the colors.

He was much changed now; when I could catch a glimpse of his face in repose, which was seldom, he looked very sad. The little Czarevitch was sick, and it had been discovered that he was a hemophiliac. There was no chance for Mike to relinquish his right of succession. I knew he had come to say good-bye.

We spent that week picking apples and carrying the baskets swinging between us to the root cellar for storage. We laughed and talked and he told me many stories of himself and the Russians. To this day they keep coming back to me.

One was a folk tale about “Why the Devil Never Became Omnipotent”:

Ages and ages ago when the earth was ruled by a wise and holy man, the devil became impatient and wanted more power. He came to the holy one and said, “You know, I am more powerful than you are. All the people on earth are wicked and want to be so. Why not give in and proclaim me supreme ruler of all?” The holy one said, “What you say is true—but wait a little. Perhaps someone will repent and be good.” Off went the devil. In a few months he came back and repeated his proposal. “I know how bad everyone is, and I really am discouraged,” said the holy one. “When the leaves are off the trees, you shall be ruler.” The next time, the devil came in the middle of the winter. “Now stop all this foolishness,” he said. “Everything is dead—all the leaves are off the trees. You have no power—and I demand my rights.” “Look at the oak tree,” said the holy one. “Oak leaves remain on the tree until they are pushed off by the little new leaves in the spring. If the oak leaves ever all fall off, then the devil will be supreme.”

Mike loved to learn the foolish toasts we all said in those days, such as:

A Frenchman loves his native wine, A German loves his beer, The Englishman loves his half-and-half Because it gives good cheer.

The Irishman loves his whisky straight Because it gives him dizziness. The American has no choice at all He drinks the whole damn business .

Between the Englishman and the Irishman, Mike inserted a Russian, like this:

And vodka is to all good Russians A comfort each day in the year.

He also liked another one:

Man is somewhat like a sausage, Very smooth upon the skin; But you can never tell exactly How much hog there is within.

But there was one that he criticized:

You’re not my first love— I loved before we met, And the memory of that ardent love Is lingering with me yet. You are my last love The dearest, sweetest, best: My heart has shed its outer leaves I give you all the rest .

“That is foolish,” Mike said. “One can really love but once.”

The night before he left, Mother had tactfully gone to bed early, and he and I sat in front of the smoking-room fire.

“Little Nini,” he said, “marry the good Frank—and soon. And have lots of babies to play with. It is best so … I have had my week of heaven. One should not ask for more.”

He stood up and took my head between his hands. I closed my eyes. I could not look at him. He recited the sweet poem of Heine that I have always loved:

Du bist wie eine Blume, So hold und schön und rein; Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut Schleicht mir in’s Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände Auf’s Haupt dir legen sollt’, Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte So rein und schön und hold .∗ You are like a flower, / So sweet and fair and pure; / I look at you and sadness / Steals into my heart. / It seems to me as if my hands / On your head I ought to lay, / Praying that God might keep you / So pure and fair and sweet.

Then he said a few words in Russian that I did not understand, turned away, and looked into the fire.

He did not turn again but said shakily, “Please go, darling, and don’t see me off in the morning. I can’t stand it. Paul is taking me to the station. If you need anything, ask him. And don’t ever forget you have given me the only happiness I have ever known, and until I die I will love you.”

I stumbled out of the room and cried myself to sleep.

I never saw him again. Years later I heard, indirectly, that he had died in Russia.

After Mike left, Paul stayed on. I used to try to see Paul, but he would never talk and would run away if he saw me coming. The Boltons, at whose place he lived and worked, were crazy about him. In fact, he was such a good hand that nearly all the farmers in town tried to hire him away.

About two years later, the week before I married Frank, Mrs. Bolton fell downstairs. She weighed 400 pounds and the Bolton house was very old, with narrow stairs going down to a tiny entry whose door opened inward. Mrs. Bolton got wedged in and could not move. Paul, the only person around at the time, heard her screams. He nearly burst a blood vessel trying to lift her, but he couldn’t.

He ran to the barn to get Mr. Bolton and some other men to help, but nothing did any good. They finally had to chop a big hole in the front wall of the house and get a small derrick to get her out. She was pitifully bruised, but no bones were broken.

As soon as I heard of the accident, I went over with some wine jelly and a shawl. Paul was quite a hero. It was he who had thought of chopping down the front of the house, and he told us about the accident with a solemn face, although he must have known how funny it was.

It was the longest speech I had ever heard him make. He spoke good English, but with an accent and not as perfectly as Mike. Yet some tone of his voice made my heart beat faster and brought memories flooding back.

I told him I was to be married. He bowed politely. I asked him to come to my wedding, and his face lighted with pleasure. I asked his name so that I could send him an invitation. He hesitated a minute, then said, “Paul Mann.”

He came to the wedding. I caught a glimpse of him standing outside in the rear talking to Roland Gilbert and many other farmer friends. At the end of the receiving line, there he was. He wished us happiness and said he would drink our health as I had asked him to. Then he handed my husband a small box. “For your wife, with the good wishes of an old friend,” he said.

I asked Paul if he had had news of His Highness.

“Yes—good news,” Paul said. “He is a farmer, too, in the west of Russia.”

There was no card with the gift. It was a beautiful circle of diamonds, with a diamond and platinum chain.

With my wedding, Paul’s vigil was over.

The Boltons were crushed at his leaving.

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