THE GREAT BALKAN INTRIGUE
by Henry W. Fisher
Munsey's Magazine, October 1895
The true story of the Vacaresco incident, which almost drove Charles of Roumania from his throne—Carmen Sylva's part in a romance that proved to be a conspiracy
"In our century of prose and reality love has for once manifested its power despite all opposition. It is from the land of the sun, from the land of Carmen Sylva, who sings from the heart and soul—it is from Roumania that this ray of light comes," wrote Queen Elizabeth in the summer of 1891, while her kingdom trembled with the excitement caused by the Vacaresco incident. "Prince Ferdinand and Helčne," she continued, stand before us a precious example of valiant love, braving the thousand storms raised by the shadow of that crown which hovers over the young man's head. The Roumanians will applaud their union, and all truly patriotic hearts will beat with joy when the happy couple plight their troth at the altar."
Today the poet queen, resting among the verdure clad mountains of Sinaia at the picturesque castle of Pelesh, in harmony with her husband and people, surrounded by friends, respected and honored by the great dignitaries of state, blushes as she recalls these pages from her diary. Her romantic friendship for her former maid of honor, which was ended by the king's order despite Elizabeth's hysteric protests and impotent threats-this fanciful attachment that came near wrecking her throne, proved to be a one sided, sentimental illusion, as her majesty is now well aware. The gentle Helčne was long ago unmasked as an adventuress, and the lovelorn Ferdinand has for two years been the contented husband of another woman.
Three summers ago, the most sanguine observer would not have dared anticipate so happy and prosaic a solution of the imbroglio that set the war ministers of all Europe to overhaul their marching orders. The writer, at the time, was a foreign correspondent stationed in Vienna, and the passage just quoted from the queen's diary was among the choice bits of gossip that reached his office from her majesty's "cabinet" in Bucharest, the communications being invariably signed "Schaeffer, Her Majesty's Secretary."
They say journalists are born, like strategic and poetic geniuses. Bismarck is of opinion that they are men who have missed their proper vocation. Both maxims fit the case of Schaeffer. A journalist by the grace of nature, he became amanuensis to a royal mistress who dealt in anything but facts.
I have read through several of Carmen Sylva's romances, but none of them—nor even her majesty's translation of the "Songs of the Dimbovitza," gathered by Helene Vacaresco among the gipsies—wild and unreal as they are, can compare, as works of untrammeled imagination, with the version of the Vacaresco affair sent out by the Queen's secretary on official, crowned, and crest laden paper. It was all in the general key of the queen's diary effusions-unbridled, rhapsodical, of childlike artlessness, presupposing a state of the public mind which hardly existed in the days of the troubadours. Denuded of highfalutin phrases, endless periods, fulsome declarations, hysterics and hyperbole, the queen's typewritten statements were to the effect that her nephew, Prince Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the crown of Roumania, had fallen desperately in love with the young and innocent Helčne Vacaresco, who was a lady of the court of Bucharest, a renowned poetess, and daughter of a noble family; that she—Carmen Sylva—had permitted the couple to become engaged; that they were man and wife before God's altar, and that the people of Roumania were eager to hail Helčne as their future queen.
Photographs exhibiting the queen, Prince Ferdinand, and Helčne, posed together in a loving group, were inclosed, and the sympathies of the correspondents enlisted on the plea of chivalry.
Of course, when a queen—and, forsooth, a lovely woman—unbends to ask favors of a handful of journalists in a foreign country, the readers whom they serve are liable to become her majesty's converts. Oh, the wonderful romances concerning the royal trio we telegraphed and cabled to all parts of the globe, during the fortnight when we put our trust in the loquacious and sly Schaeffer! Alas, the lovely mess of crow upon which we dined a little later!
The Roumanians, and particularly Bucharest society, do not incline to prudery. While the love making between Helčne and Ferdinand was the theme of general gossip in the capital, it excited little more than passing comment. Not until the foreign press busied itself with the case and declared it an affair of state, did the journals of the kingdom take cognizance of the subject. Then, at the mere mention of the fact that the crown prince intended to marry Mlle. Vacaresco, there arose a storm that threatened to sweep King Charles from his throne. Ministry, court, and people had at last discovered a point on which they could agree, and declared themselves bitterly opposed to the contemplated misalliance. "It is not love that inspires the Vacaresco woman," they vociferated; "it is treason, tempered by blackmail." And Prince Ferdinand was characterized as a "noodle—just such an imbecile as an ambitious woman would victimize."
The queen was abused in even more shameful style. Two days after the scandal had become noised about in Bucharest, I saw a caricature of Carmen Sylva posted in the neighborhood of the royal palace. It represented the queen as she entered Roumania, poor, bare headed, and in a dress, much the worse for wear—a German Aschenbroedel. A companion picture exhibited her majesty as a person grown rich and puissant by the bounty of her people, dealing out royal crowns to her inferiors.
This cartoon, the more objectionable as it affected a semblance of truth, was permitted to disgrace the dead walls for many hours, and hundreds of thousands came in steady procession to look and gloat over the coarse likeness. Then came the queen's journey to Venice, which was nothing short of flight, followed by rumors of divorce and of King Charles' abdication. The uproar lasted five or six weeks, finally to be quieted by the reports of a visit paid by the king to his ailing wife, in company with the premier, the secretary of the ministerial council, and a number of other officials. The nucleus of a settlement of the whole affair was then and there agreed upon. Elizabeth consented to discharge Mlle. Vacaresco and secretary Schaeffer, withdrew her approval of the contemplated match between Helčne and Ferdinand, and promised not to interfere in her husband's selection of a wife for the heir presumptive. A month or so later she was moved to Neuwied, the residence of her brother, the Prince of Wied. There she remained in seclusion until October last, when she returned to her kingdom a changed woman, a queen who had profited by the political lessons that had been taught her.
At present Carmen Sylva is holding court on Mount Sinaia, a district which the royal authoress has charmingly described in "Tales of the Pelesh." The Roumanian sovereign's summer residence is the Mecca of hundreds of scientists, artists, and literary men and women, every season. There one meets no end of celebrities, and all are cordially welcomed by king and queen, who give each a day or two to become thoroughly acquainted, and then politely proffer their regrets that the guest's departure should be made necessary by the host of other names on the court marshal's invitation list.
At Pelesh Queen Elizabeth and her ladies wear the national costume, a motley garb, the most unusual feature of which is the apron, worn at the back, and made of damask silk of a very delicate red, streaked with silver threads. A chemise of white wool, very soft and fine, and richly embroidered at the neck, sleeves, and edgings, serves for a waist.
Carmen Sylva has a classical mouth, a musical voice, deep set eyes of light blue, and teeth of pearly whiteness. Her wavy hair is prematurely white, but her tall, fine figure stands as erect as ever. Her majesty's complexion is fresh and healthy, her step elastic, and her whole manner winsome.
Behold, in contrast to this truly royal woman, her quondam "friend" and all but destroyer—Helčne Vacaresco. Below medium height, dark skinned, of full figure, she has thick lips, an abundance of raven tresses, and a smooth, round forehead. Like most ancient families of Roumania the house of Vacaresco claims Roman origin. All its members of this generation are essentially French in training and tastes. Besides Helene and her parents, there are two brothers and a sister. The latter married a Catargi, a member of the family which dethroned the former ruler of the Roumanian country, Prince Couza, in spite of the fact hat he had a son. Demetrius by name, by the elder Catargi's sister. This boy, heir to all the Couza millions—stolen millions,by the way—is the favorite candidate of the Panslavist party in Russia and .the Balkans for the Roumanian throne, and herein lies .the key of the historical intrigue of which we have been speaking.
The father and brothers of the young woman who aspired to the Roumanian crown, share her unpleasant characteristics. Through Helene's influence they secured high positions in the diplomatic service, four or five years ago, but wherever they went—to Belgrade, Vienna, or Rome—they gained a most unenviable reputation, and were treated with contempt by their colleagues. The Bucharest government today possesses positive documentary evidence that the love affair between the crown prince and Mlle. Helčne was the result of a conspiracy entered into by the Vacaresco family to the end of driving King Charles to abdication and of enthroning Demetrius, Carmen Sylva being their unconscious tool, and Russia furnishing the funds. Secretary Schaeffer, who has been a fugitive from justice for years, is known to have been a Russian agent.
While the removal of King Charles from the throne, and the demolition of the rampart that blocks Russia's way to Bulgaria and Constantinople, was the chief issue involved, the Vacarescos, as usual, had private irons in the fire. By extortion—or, to be more explicit, by common blackmail—they succeeded in fleecing both the king and queen out of hush money to the amount of several million francs. The authorities have proof of all this, and the Vacarescos need but lift their hand against the crown to be clapped into jail under charges of high treason. Thanks to this fact, Mlle. Helčne's threatened memoirs have never seen the light of a printing office; and for the same reason the world has been spared a perusal of the love letters indited by Prince Ferdinand to his aunt's wily maid of honor.
Mlle. Helčne differs from the rest of her family in that she is highly educated, and has really brilliant talent. Many years of her life have been passed in Paris, where she obtained a reputation as one of the clever young women who sat at the feet of Victor Hugo. This famous patron corrected her verses, and probably for that reason her "Chants d'Aurore" won a prize from the French Academy, seven or eight years ago. She also published a volume of Roumanian folksongs, "The Bard of the Dimbovitza," already mentioned as translated by Carmen Sylva.
Prince Ferdinand was only twenty-six when he achieved notoriety as the lover of a clever woman four years his senior in age, and twenty in knowledge of the world. He is the second son of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, and was originally intended to spend his life as a German officer, drilling recruits or riding at the head of a regiment or two. King Charles, his uncle, having no son of his own, selected him for the post, it is said, as the candidate least calculated to excite the suspicions and jealousies of the great powers. That maybe true or not; it is quite certain, however, that Ferdinand, since his marriage to the eldest daughter of the present Duke of Saxe-Coburg, has given evidence of increased mental activity and of devotion to his military and administrative duties. His clever wife, the Princess Marie Alexandra, a bride of two years, has presented her husband with as many bouncing babies, and Roumania has its wished for male heir. She is deservedly popular with all classes, and, being a granddaughter of Czar Alexander II, as well as of Queen Victoria, guarantees Russia's sympathetic tolerance of the status quo, which is an excellent thing in the Balkans.
King Charles, who won military distinction in the war with Turkey, is a ruler of twenty-nine years' experience, and a firm adherent of the Triple Alliance. He is a fine looking man, famous for boldness, grit, and perseverance. His very crown denotes as much, being constructed of hammered steel, the metal of Turkish cannons captured by his own hands at Plevna.
As a younger son of the house of Hohenzollern, he was called to the throne in his twenty seventh year, when holding a lieutenantship in the second Prussian dragoons. He entered his country gripsack in hand, and with a posse of Austrian, gendarmes at his heels. "First class promotion for a lieutenant, at any rate," said Bismarck at the time.
Henry W. Fischer.