WRITTEN BY GILL PAUL
We all have that one love that brings bittersweet memories… even a royal prince
Tsarina Alexandra watched as a maid rolled the front sections of her daughter’s auburn hair and secured them with hidden pins, leaving the rest flowing loose down her back.
Tatiana was wearing a high-necked white dress with leg-o’-mutton sleeves and an embroidered bodice. Only the slightest swaying motion indicated that they were in a cabin on board the royal yacht Shtandart, moored off the Isle of Wight. It was the Russian royal family’s first visit to British shores, in August 1909.
“I hear Prince David showed you around Osborne House yesterday,” the Tsarina said. “What do you think of him?”
Tatiana caught her mother’s eyes in the mirror and smiled. “He’s charming. When I first saw his naval uniform I thought he might prove a little formal, but he was very kind to us.”
Alexandra watched her closely. “My sources tell me he took a shine to you.”
He was only being friendly
Tatiana’s cheeks coloured. “What sources? You mean Olga? What does she know!” Her older sister had already teased her about David’s attentions. “He was only being friendly.”
“But a little more friendly to you than to the others, perhaps. Come, child, don’t be embarrassed. I met your father when I was your age – just twelve – and we knew straight away that we wanted to be together. It’s not too young to know your own mind. And at third in line to the British throne, Prince David would be an excellent match.”
“Mama!” Tatiana pressed her hands to her ears. “You may have been ready to consider such things at twelve but I am not. Besides, Olga must find a husband first, since she is the eldest.”
Alexandra laughed and walked over to embrace her daughter.
On impulse, she reached behind her neck, unfastened a string of creamy pearls and lifted Tatiana’s hair to clasp them round her throat.
“Borrow these for the ball tonight. They’ll make your skin glow.” She bent and kissed the clear forehead, thinking that her daughter got more beautiful by the day as she hovered on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.
That evening, the Russian royals were rowed across the bay of Cowes to the British royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert. Security concerns had led to the decision that they stay on their yacht rather than on dry land, as feeling was running high in Britain about the bloodshed during the 1905 Russian Revolution and there had been threats against Tsar Nicholas’s life.
Scattered around the bay were hundreds of boats flying colourful pennants; earlier they had taken part in a regatta in honour of the royal visitors. There had been three days of receptions, teas and dinners, most of them on board the royal yachts, with only a few heavily guarded visits to shore.
Tatiana mulled over her mother’s words and thought of the tingling sensation she had felt the previous day when Prince David held her wrist to demonstrate the way to skim stones over the ocean. It hadn’t been the touch of one child to another. It had felt like a glimpse into a grown-up world that made her shy and excited at the same time.
David was fifteen and training at Dartmouth Naval College. Much more self-assured than she, he had a boyishly handsome face and easy manners.
“I suppose we are cousins of sorts,” he’d remarked, “since Queen Victoria was great-grandmother to us both.”
“I never met her,” Tatiana replied. “She looks very stern in her pictures.”
“She wasn’t remotely stern. I recall her sitting in a bath chair watching me play in the grounds at Osborne, always with a toffee or peppermint in her pocket. I was awfully sad when she died.”
“So, it seems, was your entire nation.”
“It’s true. She was much loved.”
May I take your photograph? I have a camera indoors…
He looked at her directly with these words, causing her to blush. “May I take your photograph?” he asked suddenly. “I have a camera indoors.”
Without waiting for a reply, he sprinted off and returned minutes later with a Box Brownie.
“I have one just like that,” Tatiana said, “but it’s on our yacht.”
“Come here.” David beckoned her three sisters and her little brother Alexei and arranged them for a group photograph, then he took individual shots of each. He spent longest on Tatiana’s, instructing her to turn this way and that so the light caught her hair.
She coloured thinking back on it and remembering her mother’s words. But if I married him I would have to live in England, she realised. I’d have to leave my family and my country and I would simply die of homesickness.
May I have the pleasure of the first dance?
That evening Prince David was in the group waiting to welcome them aboard the Victoria and Albert and he contrived to stand by Tatiana on deck as they watched a firework display to mark the last night of the royal visit.
The sky lit up pink, white and gold. Amid the whooshing sounds, Tatiana felt intensely conscious of David’s closeness, nervous to move in case she inadvertently touched him – yet at the same time yearning to.
As soon as the fireworks finished, the orchestra struck up a waltz.
“May I have the pleasure of the first dance?” David asked, with a smile.
“I’m not sure I know the British dances,” she replied. “I go to balls so seldom.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll lead.” His voice was so gentle it made her tingle.
Olga was already dancing with Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, and several other couples were on the floor.
David put an arm around Tatiana’s waist and took her hand. The music was glorious and she longed to relax into the sensation of floating in his arms beneath the summer night sky, but she was aware of the older generations of both their families watching them and turning to comment to each other. She hated being the object of scrutiny.
The waltz finished and as they paused to see which tune came next, Lord Fisher cut in to ask Tatiana for a dance, so David invited Olga. She lost sight of him as others requested a dance and she did not want to offend with a refusal.
At last she slipped away for a glass of lemonade and saw David standing alone by a railing. He motioned her over.
“I wish you weren’t leaving tomorrow,” he said. “There’s so much of our country I would show you if we had time.”
“You would be most welcome to visit Russia,” Tatiana suggested.
He frowned. “I think it is unlikely, given the political situation…” His voice tailed off. “But I hope you will return here soon. Maybe next summer?”
That night, Tatiana couldn’t sleep. She considered all she knew about the British royal family. From pictures in magazines, she got the impression they were always on display, whether riding carriages in the Mall, inspecting the guards, or making speeches.
Her own family were much more private, keeping to themselves behind the palace gates. If she married David one day, she was not sure how she would cope with the public attention. She would have to grow more confident.
The next morning was baking hot without so much as a whisper of a breeze. Tatiana went on deck to play with her younger sisters and her brother.
One of the sailors produced a ball and they began clowning around, forcing each other to leap high in the air to stop it going overboard. After one leap, Tatiana fell backwards onto the deck, her skirt flying, displaying her bloomers. She shrieked and tugged at her hem but it was only when she stood up that she realised David’s mother, Mary, Duchess of York, was watching. She must have come aboard earlier.
Embarrassed, Tatiana rushed to her cabin to freshen up, completely forgetting to curtsey as she passed.
When she emerged, David was already there and they smiled at each other across the heads of the other guests. The two families sat down to luncheon but she was seated some distance from him and they did not get a chance to talk until everyone lined up for formal farewells.
I hope you will accept my offer and return to these shores next year
“I have much enjoyed making your acquaintance,” she said shyly as he stopped beside her.
“The pleasure was all mine,” he replied, giving her hand a lingering kiss. “And I hope you will accept my offer and return to these shores next year.”
There was no time for more, as everyone was bowing and shaking hands, then the British royal family disembarked from the Shtandart. Tatiana waved from the deck and felt sure David was waving back just at her.
“Did he ask if he could write?” her mother whispered.
“No.” Tatiana shook her head.
“Ah, well…” Alexandra sounded disappointed. “The protocols are complicated. Perhaps he will write all the same.”
There was no letter, and no visit the following year because Edward VII died, making David’s father king. When he was invested Prince of Wales, Nicholas and Alexandra wrote offering congratulations and received a gracious reply in which he asked warmly after their family.
When Tatiana thought of him, she decided the role of queen of Great Britain would not have suited her. She had liked him, though.
“What did you mean when you said that there were protocols about us writing to each other?” she asked Alexandra one afternoon.
Her mother sighed. “For David to write to you would imply a declaration of interest which, if it were ever withdrawn, could cause insult. It’s difficult for heirs to a throne. There are politics involved.”
“Papa wrote to you straight away.”
“Yes, he was very sure about me and I him. We had a couple of weeks to get acquainted, while you and David had only four days. It wasn’t enough, but I’m sure you will see him again.”
Twenty-seven years later, David arrived at an Austrian castle for a honeymoon with his new American wife, the former Mrs Wallis Simpson. Both were exhausted after the stress of the months since his abdication, during which Wallis had become a hate figure for the British press and he had been embattled in fraught negotiations over their future status.
David slumped into an armchair in their suite, while Wallis began to unpack his personal possessions from a leather travelling bag. Among them she found a photograph in a gold oval frame of a young girl in a high-necked white dress, the sun glinting through her long hair.
“She’s very pretty,” Wallis commented drily. “Who is she?”
“The first girl I fell for.” David looked pensive. “Mother didn’t approve so I didn’t pursue her. That was before I learned you have to fight for love.” He reached to squeeze Wallis’s hand before taking the photograph to examine it once more. “She was a lovely girl,” he continued. “Very bright, very natural.”
“You should have married her,” Wallis remarked with a pointed tone. “Then you would still have your throne.”
David sighed. “If I’d married her, at least she would still be alive.”
The grisly stories emerging from Ekaterinburg told of the family being shot and bayonetted in a basement then their bodies burned and doused in acid. He shuddered. His one consolation was that he’d heard Tatiana died in her sister Olga’s arms.
As they went downstairs for cocktails on the terrace an overpowering wave of emotion took him back to June 1909 and the young girl he’d been so taken with – her jasmine scent, her pretty laugh, the way the colour rose so readily in her cheeks. She’d possessed an innocence that touched his heart in a way no other woman had managed to since. Tears pricked his eyes and he blinked them away quickly before his new bride noticed.