CHAPTER VI. THE BEGINNINGS OF SORROWS.
IT has been the Queen's good fortune to see her own true-love match happily repeated in the marriages of her children. One would almost say that the conspicuous success of that union, the blessing that it brought with it to the nation, had set a new fashion to royalty. There is quite a romantic charm about the first marriage which broke the royal home-circle of England - that of the Queen's eldest child and namesake, Victoria, Princess Royal, with Prince Frederick William, eldest son of the then Prince of Prussia, whose exaltation to the imperial throne of Germany lay dimly and afar - if not altogether undreamed of by some prophetic spirits - in the future. The bride and bridegroom had first met, when the youth was but nineteen and the maiden only ten, at the great Peace Festival, the opening of the first Exhibition. Already the charming grace and rare intelligence of the Princess had attracted attention; and it is on record that at this early period some inkling of a possible attraction between the two had entered one observer's mind, who also notes that the young Prince, greatly interested by all he saw of free England and its rulers, was above all taken with the "perfect domestic happiness which he found pervading the heart, and core, and focus of the greatest empire in the world." Four years later the Prince was again visiting England, a guest of the royal family in its Scottish retreat of Balmoral, where they had just been celebrating with beacon fires and Highland mirth and music the glad news of the fall of Sebastopol. He had the full consent of his own family for his wooing, but the parents of his lady would have had him keep silence at least till the fifteen-year-old maiden should be confirmed. The ease and unconstraint of that mountain home-life, however, were not very favourable to reserve and reticence; a spray of white heather, offered and received as the national emblem of good fortune, was made the flower symbol of something more, and words were spoken that effectually bound the two young hearts, though the formal betrothal was deferred until some time after the Princess, in the following March, had received the rite of Confirmation; and "the actual marriage," said the Prince Consort, "cannot be thought of till the seventeenth birthday is past." "The secret must be kept tant bien que mal," he had written, well knowing that it would be a good deal of an open secret.
The engagement was publicly announced in May, 1857, and though, when first rumoured, it had been coldly looked on by the English public, now it was accepted with great cordiality. The Prince was openly associated with the royal family; he and his future bride appeared as sponsors at the christening of our youngest Princess, Beatrice; he rode with the Prince Consort beside the Queen when she made the first distribution of the Victoria Cross, and was a prominent and heartily welcomed member of the royal group which visited the Art Treasures Exhibition of Manchester. The marriage, which was in preparation all through the grim days of 1857, was celebrated with due splendour on January 25th, 1858, and awakened a universal interest which was not even surpassed when, five years later, the heir to the throne was wedded. "Down to the humblest cottage," said the Prince Consort, "the marriage has been regarded as a family affair." And not only this splendid and entirely successful match, but every joy or woe that has befallen the highest family in the land, has been felt as "a family affair" by thousands of the lowly. This is the peculiar glory of the present reign.
Happy and auspicious as this marriage was, it was nevertheless the first interruption to the pure home bliss that hitherto had filled "the heart of the greatest empire in the world." The Princess Royal, with her "man's head and child's heart," had been the dear companion of the father whose fine qualities she inherited, and had largely shared in his great thoughts. Nor was she less dear to her mother, who had sedulously watched over the "darling flower," admiring and approving her "touching and delightful" filial worship of the Prince Consort, and who followed with longing affection every movement of the dear child now removed from her sheltering care, and making her own way and place in a new world. There she has indeed proved herself, as she pledged herself to do, "worthy to be her mother's child," following her parents in the path of true philanthropy and gentle human care for the suffering and the lowly. So far the ancient prophecy has been well fulfilled which promised good fortune to Prussia and its rulers when the heir of the reigning house should wed a princess from sea-girt Britain. But the wedding so propitious for Germany seemed almost the beginning of sorrows for English royalty. Other betrothals and marriages of the princes and princesses ensued; but the still lamented death of the Prince Consort intervened before one of those betrothals culminated in marriage.