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Chapter 33:

Palace and President.

the first country that General Grant visited after leaving England was Belgium. Here he was received as an equal by the sovereign. At Ostend messages met him from the King inquiring when he would arrive at Brussels, and the royal railway carriage was placed at his disposal to convey him to the capital. In that city the members of the Government immediately paid their respects, and the royal equerries brought invitations for the General and his entire party to a dinner at the palace. The King's carriages were offered to the ex-President, and an aide-de-camp was ordered to report to him during his stay. General Grant, however, availed himself of this courtesy only when he paid official visits. In calling on the members of the Government and the foreign ministers, he went in the royal carriages, attended by the King's officer, and also in his visit to the palace, but at no other time.

The invitations to the dinner were in French, and, translated, they read as follows:

By order of Their Majesties,

The Grand Marshal of the Court has the honor to invite
Their Excellencies, GeneralGrant and Mrs. Grant, to dinner at the palace of Brussels, Sunday, 8th July, 1877, at 6 1/2 o'clock.
Frock dress.

The words ‘frock dress’ (en frac) signified that court costume was not required. The notification was written, not [291] engraved, on the card, and was doubtless intended to make the etiquette as little onerous as possible for the democratic ex-President. Invitations were also sent, not only to the American Minister and his family, but to Mr. Sanford, the former Minister and his wife, and to all the American officials in Brussels, down to the vice-consul, who was an Englishman, and never went to court at home.

On the day of the dinner the King himself called on General Grant at his hotel. The visit had not been pre-announced and there was not time after the carriages drew up for the General to descend the staircase to welcome His Majesty, but in every other way the King was received with the usual honors.

He was attended by several gentlemen of his court, who remained standing during the interview, and when they were presented to General Grant they made him the same obeisance which they were accustomed to offer to their sovereign. The visit was short, as such ceremonies usually are among persons of exalted rank. Mrs. Grant was present and the King conversed with her as well as with the General. His Majesty speaks very good English, so that there was no difficulty about the language.

Perhaps just here I may repeat a story that James Russell Lowell once told me about Mrs. Grant. When General Grant was at Madrid Mr. Lowell was Minister to Spain and made a dinner for the ex-President. Mrs. Grant was placed between two personages who like herself spoke only their own language, but Lowell described her ease and self-possession as quite inimitable. She appeared to converse continually, was bowing and smiling all the evening, and was apparently as much interested in her companions as any one at table—a bit of fine breeding worthy of a Queen,—or of the wife of an ex-President.

But to return to Belgium. The King's visit was made on the day of the dinner, and as such civilities are to be [292] returned immediately General Grant inquired when he and Mrs. Grant could pay their compliments to the Queen. His Majesty knew that General Grant was to leave Brussels the next day, and accordingly proposed that the ex-PresidentGrant and Mrs. Grant should come to the palace a few moments before the hour for dinner, when the Queen would be ready to receive the formal visit.

In the evening the royal carriages were sent for the party, which consisted of the General and Mrs. Grant, Jesse Grant, and myself. On arriving at the palace we were shown through what seemed an interminable suite of lofty rooms and finally entered one where several of the ladies and gentlemen of the court were already present; the other guests of the evening had not arrived. It was July, and the windows overlooking the park were all open; the sun had not yet set, and, of course, the candles were not lighted; the effect of the great rooms in the warm afternoon, with only a few people in evening dress and half costume, scattered here and there, was peculiar. The men were either in military uniform or frock dress, that is, dress coats, knee-breeches, black stockings, and low shoes, with buckles, chapeaux, and swords. Full dress would have required white stockings, gold lace, and embroidery, and other paraphernalia. General Grant and all the American gentlemen wore plain evening clothes.

We remained in this apartment while the company was assembling. No one seemed authorized to receive formally for their Majesties, though the guests greeted each other as they arrived. Every one remained standing; indeed, I cannot remember that there were any seats in the room. After a few moments the King entered to conduct General and Mrs. Grant to pay their visit to the Queen. He gave his arm to Mrs. Grant, the General followed, and they disappeared, but soon returned, the King now coming only to the door, which was immediately closed upon him. [293]

Shortly afterward the company were requested to take positions to await the entrance of their Majesties. GeneralGrant and Mrs. Grant stood next the doors by which they had come in from the Queen. These doors were now again thrown open, and a courtier announced in a loud voice: Le Roi et la Reine—(‘The King and the Queen’). Their Majesties entered bowing, every one else, of course, making obeisance. The King was in uniform; the Queen, except for her jewels, was no better dressed than Mrs. Grant. The royal pair spoke first to GeneralGrant and Mrs. Grant, as if welcoming them for the first time, the previous visit being considered a separate occasion from the dinner. Then their Majesties passed around the circle and each in turn addressed every one of the guests, talking a few moments with each, although the party was large. There were about thirty people present, members of the Government and other high functionaries, besides the Americans.

After every guest had received some courtesy from the sovereigns the King approached Mrs. Grant and offered her his arm, and then requested General Grant to take the Queen to dinner. The King and Mrs. Grant preceded the General and the Queen; then the other guests followed in the order assigned them. I had the honor of going in with the wife of the Minister for War, I suppose out of compliment to my military title. A curious little question of etiquette arose among the American ladies. The American Minister was ill and his wife was not living, but his daughters were invited to the dinner. Now, according to the etiquette of courts the daughters of diplomatic personages cannot enjoy the rank of wives, and Mrs. Sanford, the wife of the former Minister, was, therefore, placed above the daughters of the actual envoy. The Queen spoke of this to Mrs. Grant. She said she was fond of the young ladies, but the rule was rigorous. I believe there were some heartburnings; but Mrs. Sanford is known as one of the most famous beauties of her time. [294] She was then at the very zenith of her charms, and no American could be unwilling to accept such a representative.

I had myself not very long before been appointed Minister to this very Court, and had even visited Brussels with my credentials, prepared, if I chose, to present my letter to the King; so that I looked upon these ceremonies with a more curious eye than if I had been an ordinary stranger, and thought of the different part I might have borne on this occasion. But I had preferred a lesser rank at a more important place, and remained as Consul-General at London rather than take the post of Minister to Brussels. I went in to dinner lower down in the line, but I lived at the core of the world instead of on the outside; for Brussels and Belgium exist only by permission of the greater Powers. This sufferance, however, according to European theory, detracts in no degree from the ceremonial importance of the sovereign. In fact, at many of the smaller courts the etiquette is more exact than that which surrounds imperial potentates. At Brussels there seemed a happy mingling of that regard for forms which in the Old World is still considered essential, with a courtesy which it cannot be said that every palace breeds.

There was music during dinner, far enough off not to interrupt conversation, and as the twilight faded, the great chandelier, with its hundreds of candles, that hung over the table, was lighted by a peculiar contrivance. A sort of thread of slow match connected the candelabra, and the fire was seen to travel from one to another till all were illuminated. When the dinner was over the whole party arose according to Continental fashion: the King took out Mrs. Grant, and General Grant the Queen; the others followed with their dinner partners, and the separation that is common in England, and often here, did not occur. The men all accompanied the ladies to the drawing-rooms and remained there. [295]

Again neither the royal hosts nor their guests were seated. The company stood in a circle, and the King and Queen passed around within it, as before. The conversation now was more prolonged and animated, but still there was a certain formality. The courtiers did not move about freely in the presence of the sovereigns. All the guests were presented to both GeneralGrant and Mrs. Grant. About half an hour after dinner the King and the Queen retired, taking especial leave of the ex-President and his party, whom they were not to meet again.

General Grant left immediately afterward. He was accompanied to his hotel by a royal equerry, and went, as before, in a royal carriage. The careful courtesy that marked every circumstance of the evening was in striking contrast with the offensive etiquette of Marlborough House, or even with the strained ceremonial of Windsor. The King of the Belgians is a Bourbon, just as blue in blood as a Guelph, and, according to all the rules of precedence, just as much of a sovereign as any named in the Almanach de Gotha; but he did not fear to lessen his dignity or disturb his throne by treating an ex-President of the United States with the same courtesy he would have offered to Isabella of Spain or Bomba of Naples.

The next Head of a State by whom General Grant was entertained was the President of the Swiss Republic, and, although the courtesy could be no more marked than that displayed by the King of the Belgians, I was struck not unfavorably with the democratic simplicity coming so soon after regal parade. A fortnight after the dinner in Brussels General Grant arrived in Berne. It was understood that the President preferred to receive the first visit, and I therefore promptly ascertained when the republican magistrate would be at home to his democratic compeer. The visit was no more formal than many that had been paid to General Grant in Washington, and, indeed, hardly differed from the ordinary [296] reception of one private gentleman by another. The President referred to the sittings of the Council of Arbitration at Geneva, of which a Swiss statesman had been a member. He declared that Switzerland was honored by the selection of Mr. Staempfli, and he complimented General Grant upon the adoption of the principle of arbitration during his Presidency. Then the representatives of the smallest and the greatest of republics exchanged salutations, and General Grant withdrew. The visit was returned within half an hour.

The same night the President gave a dinner to a few gentlemen in General Grant's honor. As he was unmarried, the invitation was not extended to Mrs. Grant. The company included Mr. Staempfli, the Swiss arbitrator, and several members of the Government. The etiquette was extremely simple, like the service; indeed, neither differed from those at the houses of private gentlemen in America, unless in their greater simplicity. But the taste that reigned was absolute; the conversation was animated and intensely interesting, and the dinner was equal in all essentials of courtesy and refinement to any ever given to General Grant. It confirmed me in my democratic preference for the reality of hospitable but unassuming elegance to all the forms and spirit of that ceremony which so often tramples upon courtesy. For courtly paraphernalia and parade, I have discovered, may be the symbols of an insolence just as vulgar when it is royal as if republican.

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