Note.—The reader of this charming account of Bucharest will remember that the writer is the Queen of Roumania, the poetess, now, alas, suffering from serious illness, who took the nom de plume of Carmen Sylva in memory of her birthplace, the wood-encircled castle of Mon Repos. The daughter of Hermann, Prince of Wied, and Maria, Princess of Nassau, Carmen Sylva was brought up in a refined and sheltered home. Married on November 15, 1869, to the lover of her choice, Prince Charles of Hohenzollern, who had been elected ruler of the united principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1866, Princess Elizabeth made the entry into the capital she so graphically describes when she had been a bride but a few days. Since then she was long the very centre and heart alike of the popular and intellectual life of her adopted country, founding clubs for the poor, herself teaching in the schools, translating books into the Roumanian language, gathering about her at court all that is best and noblest in Eastern Europe. During the bloody campaign of 1877 her palace was converted into a hospital, and many a life was saved by her unwearying care. For love of their Regina, as they affectionately call her, the people of Roumania would gladly die, or, which is more difficult for an imaginative people, they would forego their hereditary prejudices for her sake. As we write, Prince, now King, Charles's jubilee is going on, and the future of the Roumanian monarchy seems assured, though, in default of a direct heir, the crown will pass, at the death of the present monarch, to his nephew, Prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern.—Trans.
FOR three long days, on a vessel dressed with flags, I had been floating down the wide, brown waters of the Danube, which rapidly increased in volume like the final movement of a symphony.
Everywhere, whether in town or village, a brilliant reception was accorded me; and yet my eye was not satiated with the richness of coloring beneath the Oriental sky, which in the daytime was of a turquoise blue, melting at sunset, when the orb of day was magnified to double its ordinary size, into a gleaming yellow, strewn with golden dust. In the pure light of the end of November, on the lovely undulating fields, on the black soil which had yielded riches without effort, and was prepared, on demand, to give yet more, on the thick white dust of the wide roads, marked out by the reckless driving of chariots, the bright colors of the costumes of the peasants trooping forth to receive me, stood out in vivid relief—bodices of dazzling whiteness, richly embroidered with red, black, and gold; floating veils of white linen, or of ivory-white or sulphur-colored silk, and petticoats of peony red or claret-color. Men were galloping on their small and thin but swift horses, their goat-skin cloaks floating behind them and looking like a second mane on the necks of their steeds. An embroidered sayon, or outer coat, covered their chests, resembling a many-colored tattooing above the sash, which was twelve inches wide, and held a perfect arsenal of pistols and knives. The shirt, also embroidered, fell over their white felt pantaloons; and on their heads were large caps, looking like white furs, beneath which curls of raven-black hair hung down to their shoulders.
As I approached these picturesque groups I noticed some men of noble stature, with faces of rare beauty, whose grave expression was but seldom varied by a smile, showing rows of pearly-white teeth. And these faces, of a type so new to me, with the aquiline noses, the delicate quivering nostrils, the marvellously large black or greenish-gray eyes gleaming with a sombre fire, deep-sunk within their sockets, and overshadowed by thick straight eyebrows, the bronzed complexions, the sonorous language, sounding now harsh, now almost guttural, spoken with such ease, indeed with such extraordinary eloquence, by these grave Roumanian men and matrons, and by children whose expression was as soft as the gleam of a star, all combined to produce on me an impression of an intensity and passion unknown in our northwestern climate. And then I noted, with admiration, that the handsome face, of southern type, of my young consort, was in perfect harmony alike with the men and with the country he has conquered for himself by his own unaided effort.
This, then, was my new country! This was Roumania, of which so far I had seen nothing but the vast melancholy plains, the shores of the wide river, and the all but uninhabitable marshes in which the frogs croak amongst the reeds and the wild hemp.
Every now and then a picket of Dorobantzi presented arms, or sounded a flourish of trumpets which was heard on the other side of the water and died away amongst the opposite mountains of Servia and Bulgaria, districts less fertile, it is true, but of brighter aspect and with more inhabitants than Roumania. On a daughter of the Rhine, that Rhine which leaps happily along like a flash of lightning between bright villages nestling amongst trees, the wide, silent, mighty river flowing through uninterrupted solitudes produced an impression of melancholy, and added to that serrement de cœur with which I approached the unknown possibilities of my new destiny.
If there be a difficult position in this world it is surely that of a young foreign princess making her entry into her capital The faces about you express nothing but a cold curiosity, whereas but a few days before every eye that looked on you was dim with tears, and every lip trembled, in spite of the shouts of " Hurrah!" and " God bless you, our dear child; our little princess!" You are no longer a child to any one, and you are astonished to find yourself married; you are afraid of displeasing, and convinced of your incapacity to cope with the grandeur of the mission, which will weigh upon your shoulders like a too heavy mantle.
I carried with me, however, one consolation, which I concealed with a kind of shame, and that was my pen. But I should have been as much astonished at being called a poet as a bird would at being called a singer. Can the soul of your soul have a name?
In those days I realized, painfully, that it is not enough to have a soul, however big, full of love, rich in good intentions, and overflowing with affection that soul may be. One must seem everywhere—for everywhere it is one's duty to please. Now, for the first time in my life, I thought of my appearance. I had never had time to do so before, for my youth had been passed by the bedsides of the dying, or in the midst of most intellectual society, and my eyes had wept too much to see anything in life but its sadness. With profound melancholy, then, I gazed on the ever-increasing crowds which bore witness to our approach to the capital; and I wondered how often I should find myself powerless to assuage the misery doubtless hidden amongst those gathered here.
With my heart beating against my side as an imprisoned butterfly beats against a glass, with dry lips, cold hands, and trembling knees, with a roar in my ears louder than the boom of the cannon, the clash of the bells, and the military bands playing the national hymn, I tried to smile at my husband, who was explaining what I saw about me, and was rejoicing at the thought of taking his young wife over the first part of the railway he had laid clown himself to connect his capital with the Danube. I had to wrestle with the anguish which made my throat contract, the inexplicable uneasiness which had oppressed me for several days, as I descended from the train to speak to all the people grouped upon the quays. But as I left the station to get into the carriage, a cry of admiration escaped me; above the waving plumes, the glittering uniforms, the horses, and the flags, beyond the sea of human heads, I had caught sight of the town nestling between the hills and amongst the green valleys. With its gleaming roofs, its hundreds of little churches, its green, yellow, and blue houses, all bathed in the dazzling sunshine, which made even the wood scintillate like zinc, it reminded me vaguely of Moscow.
Once in the carriage I had to bow perpetually, which is too exhausting to allow one to look about at one's ease, especially when the faintest smile becomes an effort, and every movement of the eyes causes a pain to shoot right through one's head. However, in the long drive from the station to the capital, and then from the capital to the palace, I saw some houses which seemed too small for their inhabitants, men who seemed to touch the roofs of their dwellings with their foreheads, and women wearing green and blue petticoats, and bodices as white as snow, with white handkerchiefs bordered with lace fastened on their heads, and a carnation stuck behind one ear. On first arrival this prevalence of white in country and in town strikes one with surprise; but one soon learns to wear it one's self in preference to anything else, as it is the only thing which stands the sun and dust.
It seems astonishing that each church should have but two bells, and that the effect of a carillon is only produced by the ringing of the bells of a great number of churches; on the day of my arrival especially these churches of Bucharest appeared simply innumerable….
The court of the capital where I was to alight was completely covered with a red dais, which seemed to cast a fantastic light upon the people assembled to meet me, on the red togas of the lawyers, and on the sacerdotal robes of the Metropolitan and the bishops, all of whom had long gray or white beards.
Forty couples were married on this occasion, all the brides wearing a veil of gold net….
"There is the palace," said the King to me.
"Where?" I replied.
"We are entering it now," he answered, with a smile.
Then I understood that it is "the sovereign who makes the palace, as a stone in a field may become an altar."
The palace of Bucharest is an old mansion that had belonged to a boyar,* hastily got ready for our reception. The young sovereign had not had time to think of making it comfortable, for his nights were passed in preparing the overwhelming work of the day; and on the very day of our arrival I found on his writing-table the first plan of the bridge over the Danube, which is to be built at last, after twenty years of patient waiting.
Not a window would shut in this palace, and the damp ascended to the first floor. Even now, twenty years afterwards, I suffer from the fever I contracted in it, and we lost many servants and many horses from the damp with which the walls were saturated.
*A boyar is a member of a privileged class in Roumania.
There is no resemblance between the Bucharest of to-day and that at which we were now arriving. Since that time one thousand houses are built, on an average, every year, and slabs of pavement are now laid down in the streets, taking the place of the old flag-stones and ruts.
The palace, too, has gone through a complete transformation. The original building has, it is true, been utilized, giving to the exterior a certain appearance of patch-work; but the inside has a look of home about it, and an altogether individual character.
A sculptor, a true cinque-cento master, named Stohr, who has worked for us for twenty-live years, presided at this transformation, and has decorated our rooms with wainscots and furniture of rare beauty. The throne-room has become a library in the German Renaissance style. The King's private study is a little museum, whilst my apartments contain several valuable old pictures of first rank, on which the light falls from above as in a gallery of paintings.
What was my astonishment on receiving the ladies of Bucharest, the day after my arrival, at discovering that there was no resemblance whatever between the members of the upper classes and the peasant women! No more matrons of solemn mien and sober veils, but dainty and graceful creatures, reminding me at once of the society of St. Petersburg and Naples. As for the men, they had a French air, at least that is how they struck me when I saw them the next day in the Chamber of Legislature, whither I was conducted in grand state. On that occasion I was very much amused at the contrast between the elegance of our equipage and the streets we passed through, bordered by little houses irregularly built, and paved with huge stones of different sizes, causing me and my diadem to make a good many involuntary bows. On the evening of the same day there was a general illumination.... Never in my life had I seen anything like it; in the very streets where now one big hotel touches another, and gas and electric light struggle for the mastery, nothing was then known but petroleum lamps and candles; and as none of the houses were more than one story high, between the court and the garden, there was often a break in the continuity of the illuminations, and more shadow than light.... I could hardly help smiling, but I soon found this mode of lighting up, this true lucus a non lucendo, very characteristic; and then the pathetic side of it all struck me, for each one had done his best in his little house, however humble his means. I learned, moreover, that every Roumanian makes a point of living in his own house, if it be but of mud, with no floor, with the four walls falling apart, and a thatched roof.
Ask the humblest petitioner where she lives, and she will reply, "In casele mele" (In my houses!).
The day after this entry into my capital I had fever. To be ill without knowing any one, neither my husband, nor my maids of honor, nor the doctors, nor even my chamber-maid, was really rather hard. It seemed, too, particularly trying to hear myself spoken of as nervous by people who knew nothing of my past, after the Spartan education I had had, too; nervous and badly brought up appear to me synonymous expressions. Many proud but silent tears did I shed in secret on my pillow at that time.
My first excursions were one series of surprises. In the town there were some picturesque streets, where all the doorways were encumbered with many-colored stuffs, old iron, and green and brown pottery. Other quarters resembled a medley of dolls' houses, so singularly small were the dwellings, hidden beneath the trees, those luckless willows which are being more thoroughly despoiled of their branches every year, or the acacias, which fill the whole town with their perfume in the spring. Open to the street were the shops of bakers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, with innumerable wine shops, where brandy made from plums, called tzuica, was sold, dingy little places, from the gloomy depths of which looked out men with brigandlike figures, but mild eyes and a melancholy smile. The nearer we approached the river Dimbovitza, which name signifies oak leaf, the more closely packed were the houses, with their projecting balconies and small pierced columns surmounted by carved trefoils, giving them something of a Moorish appearance. And then the Dimbovitza itself—now reduced to subjection, supplemented by canals, lined with quays, markets, slaughter-houses, schools, hospitals, barracks, and beautiful churches (too beautiful, perhaps, because too new)—was very different in those days, and presented animated scenes on its banks such as would have delighted poets and artists. People bathed in the beautiful mud in pell-mell fashion, the children splashed about with shouts of delight, the water carriers led their animals into the stream, wading knee-deep themselves as tbey filled their barrels. And in the deepest part of the ooze you could sec huge forms moving about in confusion; grayish bodies with patches bald of hair, looking like hippopotami in the distance, though the massive horns, curving near the nape of the neck, and the black muzzles shining in the sun, proved them to be buffaloes.
As time went on I was to make close acquaintance with this clumsy, sluggish, antediluvian beast, so common in Roumania. The cow yields quantities of rich milk, from which excellent cream is obtained, and of which very white but tasteless butter is made. For the buffalo to thrive it must be fed on the dried leaves of maize, and have a bed of mud to wallow in. It would die in the summer without marshes, and in winter if it did not have a subterranean retreat and a woollen covering. In the streets of the town, and in the open country, you see numerous buffaloes harnessed, in single file, to countless heavily laden vehicles, the animals' hoofs sinking deep in the dust in dry weather, and in the mud when it rains…. Speaking of mud, what was my amusement the first time I was splashed with it, and that was in one of the principal roads, at finding that it made grease spots on my clothes! And when I saw ploughing! A plough drawn by from four to six oxen, just scratching over the earth with the branch of a tree serving as harrow…. This is what they call ploughing here! More than that, the soil is so fertile that it is really all that is needed.
Roumanian carriages are often drawn by horses, eight, twelve, or even sixteen little horses being yoked together in a helter-skelter manner with a kind of packthread. A boy astride on one of them guides them all with one hand, and in the other brandishes a long whip with a short handle. Thus do they cross the wide plains, standing out larger than life against the wide-stretching horizon. The driver, as he goes, sings a melancholy melody, and now and then he halts beside some well to water his cattle. The structures protecting the wells look rather like gallows rising solitary from the midst of the fields. Every man who has sunk a well is blessed, and many are the sins forgiven him. Whosoever drinks, after blowing in the water to drive away evil spirits, is bound to say, "May God pardon him!" Sometimes the charioteer falls asleep amongst the maize, his limbs relaxed, and abandoned to careless repose….
If we suddenly hear in the distance the ringing of small bells and long-sustained cries like the whistles on the railways, we know we may expect to see appear eight horses and two postilions belonging to some wealthy man going to his country-seat at a rate of twenty kilometres an hour. The postilions wear embroidered leather garments, moccasins like those of Indians, hats with long fluttering ribbons, and shirts with wide sleeves that swell out like sails in the wind as they go. Like demons, they double themselves up, scream, crack their whips, talk to their horses, or fling you a greeting as they dash by, disappearing in a cloud of dust.
In the streets of Bucharest there is a perpetual going and coming of carriages, countless hackney-coaches, all open, with just a hood to protect the hirer from the cold, the sun, or the rain. The coachmen are extraordinary-looking creatures, beardless Russians of the Lipovan sect, wearing long black velvet robes, pulled in at the waist with a colored sash. They drive very rapidly, with the arm stretched out, as in St. Petersburg. They are clean, steady, and honest. I amused myself sometimes by counting them; no matter what the weather, from 120 to 150 carriages an hour passed the windows of the palace; only between two and four o'clock in the morning was there comparative quiet.
In addition to the noise of the carriages, peddlers and porters on foot make the streets reverberate with their long, melancholy cries. These walkers are mostly Bulgarians, wearing long white mantles with wide red woollen sashes, and a red or white fez on the head. They hawk milk, oranges, bonbons, a horrible drink of fermented millet, and sheep from which the skins have been taken, the still bleeding bodies hung upon poles. To our streets, which are an imitation of those of Paris, they give a quaint touch of the Oriental.
There is a good deal of amusement going on in Bucharest, and the people are very sociable and hospitable. No one would sit down to table without two or three extra covers in case of unexpected guests arriving. The peasant invites you to share his meal, if it be but a couple of onions, a few boiled beans, and half a melon. But for all that there is no real gayety, or rather no joy. Never did I see people so sad at heart as are the Roumanians. The very children have a gravity about them unnatural to their years. Their little faces are pinched and pale; their great eyes, fringed with long curling lashes, gleam with intelligence; but their expression is so melancholy that it breaks one's heart to look at them.
The Roumanian is never surprised at anything. The nil admirari is in his blood; he is born blasé. Enthusiasm is to him a thing unknown. The Moldavian peasants who had been bitten by mad wolves, and were sent to Pasteur in Paris, were no more surprised at what they saw in that city than if it had been their native village. Death has no terrors for them. The Roumanian peasant dies, with his taper in his hand, with perfect indifference, and with a dignity which is quite Oriental.
At the ball given at the palace on New-Year's day I asked a peasant deputy, "Does this please you?"
"Well enough," he replied; "but I have seen it before. Here is my wife, though, who sees it now for the first time."
I turned to her. "You think it beautiful, do you not?" I said.
"It's not bad," was her reply, which she gave without a smile.
Neither the floods of electric light, nor the jewels, nor the size of the room impressed them; it was the peasant woman who looked like a queen—cold and disdainful, wrapped to the chin in the severe folds of her veil, gazing with contempt upon all the Parisian costumes and bare shoulders.
On my arrival in the country no lady ever set her foot in the streets. It was not only indecorous to do so, it was impossible, the middle of the thoroughfare being occupied by the drain. Now all the women walk on pavements bordered by shops and cafés, where people eat strawberries, with champagne and ices, seated at little tables, and trying to imitate Parisian ways. Now nothing is spoken in the town but French, whereas forty years ago Greek was the only language. We know now what will be played to-morrow at the Porte St. Martin; we criticise the new books and the latest fashions; we cut the reviews as if we lived in one of the faubourgs of Paris, and yet we are divided from Paris by the whole of Europe. Mothers of families retire from the world and deprive themselves of everything for the sake of being able to send their children to Paris, and the wealthier parents, after having had some little experience of the deplorable results of the absence of surveillance, now accompany their daughters.
Great fortunes have disappeared in Roumania; the large houses where a hundred sat down to table every day, and as many poor were fed, are closed, and those bearing the grand old names are trying to make a living. A few ancient dames alone still remember the old days, and tell you tales of the time when the boyar received at his levee, seated on his divan, whilst his shaved head and long beard were washed (an operation which took at least an hour), his sons and his whole court standing motionless before him, waiting to know if he would deign to address them. Not even a son ever dared to sit down or to smoke in the presence of his father. Now we are more democratic than the freest of republics, and can take very high rank in setting good manners at defiance!
Education abroad is fatal to family life, and young people do not know that confession to the mother at the end of each day is a better thing than either the École Centrale or the Lycée Louis le Grand of Paris can give. But nowadays everybody must study, and every young girl, whether rich or poor, must take her bachelor's degree.
No mother is fuller of solicitude than the Roumanian; she is a perfect slave to her children. During the war the devotion of the women of our country greatly astonished the foreign doctors. Some of these women never left the hospital, not even at night; they cared for the poor young soldiers as if they had been their own children, saying to themselves that perhaps to-morrow their own boys might be wrestling with the horrors of death among strangers.
Unfortunately, the sudden changes of climate, and the pestilential marshes which surround Bucharest, are a cause of perpetual anxiety to mothers.
Words are powerless to describe the time of the epidemic of diphtheria, when as many as three children were buried in one coffin, when whole streets were depopulated, the inhabitants all dead; families of five or seven children swept away in one week—the poor mothers going out of their minds. It was like the last plague of Egypt, and the people called this scourge the white pest. Not one house was spared.*….
It was after this terrible time that taking the dead through the streets in open coffins was put a stop to. Previously a funeral was a kind of public fête; on a funereal car covered with gilded angels, garlands, and ribbons, the dead maiden was carried forth in her last ball dress, with hair dressed by the barber, and decked with flowers, and often even with her face rouged so as to look better! A military band playing Chopin's funeral march followed the corpse. It was like looking on at a "Dance of Death" to see the head of the deceased rolling from one side to the other of the satin pillow, whilst women shrieked, tore their hair, and smote upon their breasts. Now the loss of all this is made up for by crowds assembling in the churches, where the dead lie in state, the people jostling each other in their struggles to look on the face of the corpse or to kiss its hand. In the country the dead are still buried in accordance with the ancient rites; the obolus for Charon, the ferryman of hell, is placed in the, mouth of the corpse, corn is put into the coffin, and the body is drenched with wine before it is lowered into the earth. On All-Saints day the so-called colivo, a kind of cake made of corn and sugar, is placed on the graves of the departed. "I shall eat of thy colivo" is an ordinary form of oath, an imprecation often heard.
*Pathos is added to this account by the fact that the writer herself lost her only child, a lovely girl of four years old, from diphtheria.—Trans.
On Sundays and fête-days the people of Bulgaria take their rest in a very peculiar manner; they dance from morning till evening with a perfectly solemn air, holding each others' hands, and shaking a handkerchief; they turn round slowly, of course, as they keep up the dance for twelve hours. Gypsies so dark that they look almost like negroes stand in the middle of the circle, scraping in melancholy fashion on their violins or mandolins, beating their dulcimers, and blowing on their shepherds' flutes till their lungs are quite exhausted. Round and round and round again go the dancers to the monotonous sound of this sad but exquisite music, the steps only changing with the rhythm of the melody, which is of Arabic character. At the end of the long monotonous day the performers are quite giddy and stupefied, and sink into a kind of dreamy, confused state of mind.
The people of Bucharest are very fond of flowers; there is not a window in the town without a few pots of geraniums, carnations, or mignonette. On the other hand, trees have anything but a good time of it here; the summer heat parches them up, and the winter kills them; men strip them of branches or chop them down, so that there is not a beautiful park, scarcely even a shady garden, to be seen. The difference of temperature between winter and summer is seventy degrees Centigrade. The plants from the north succumb beneath the torrid sunshine of August; those from the south to the snow-storms of January. The quantity of snow that falls, however, protects the soil from the intense cold, and makes Roumania a country of vineyards par excellence. There are three seasons in Roumania, of which one only—autumn—is fine. There is no such thing as spring. The two sledging months are a rest to the ears. As soon as the first snow falls, nothing but sledges are seen in the town; even the carriages are mounted on skates, and the houses are no longer shaken by the perpetual passing of traffic. Sometimes a snow-storm buries the low houses of the faubourgs, and eleven people once perished in a single night at the gates of Bucharest. It is no rare thing for wolves to come into the town.
At such times the snow no longer seems to fall, but to be performing a tumultuous whirling, up-and-down dance, so that men and beasts are blinded, and merely go round and round when they think they are advancing.
The great cemetery of Bucharest is worthy of a visit. It commands a view of the whole town, a view which is especially grand in the evening, when the sunset bathes houses, churches, clouds, and dust in a glow of purple and violet tints, with here and there gleaming, scintillating points of light from the roofs and windows. Very touching, very naive, too, are the inscriptions on the picturesque tombs, which are adorned with photographs and locks of hair framed in the marble of the crosses. Food is even sometimes placed on the graves, as in the days of the Romans. In fact, the dead are never abandoned, never forgotten. One feels that they are constantly visited; and as night falls the little lamps which shine out on every side give one an impression of restless, wandering, floating souls, over which one must keep watch.
I once passed half a night with an orphan at the grave of her father, who had just been buried amongst the strange scents peculiar to a cemetery after the great heat of the day, in the silence eloquent with the presence of the countless sleepers beneath the soil. The town shone as if illuminated, and its sounds came muffled by the distance like waves breaking behind the dunes.
One's tears are stanched in the solemnity of the immutable peace—at least this is generally the case; but I remember once seeing an official of high rank, generally cold and impassible enough, fling himself upon the grave of his children, and tear up the ground with his fingers, calling his lost dear ones by name.
One poetic time at Bucharest is Easter week, when nearly two hundred churches are illuminated every evening. The bells are all clashing together; the people are crowding to offer fresh flowers to the images of the saints. On Good-Friday processions carrying torches walk round all the churches, and then take tapers from them to the cemetery with which to deck the graves, even the most neglected receiving each a little light placed on it by charitable hands.
On Easter eve the King kisses the manuscript gospel whilst it is being read aloud. Then he takes the crucifix and the taper, and every one comes to kiss the cross, and to light his taper at that of the King. When it strikes midnight all leave the church, to celebrate the resurrection in the open air.
Some of these churches are scarcely larger than a room; they are surmounted by a mushroom-shaped bell tower, and painted inside in the most fantastic manner. There are some "Last Judgments," with a kind of red serpent, in which struggle devils and condemned souls, whilst the redeemed look on with serene and unmoved countenances. There, too, we see founders holding up a church on the points of their fingers, and with their numerous progeny grouped about them, the sons on one side, the daughters on the other, all exactly alike in face, and differing only in height. Every church has its own tradition, and special facilities for granting certain petitions. In one you can secure the marriage of your daughter, in another the death of your enemy, in this you can bring discord into the house of your neighbor, in that you can secure the cure of a malady, in yet another the detection of thieves. There are men who are slowly killed by the offering in certain churches of tapers exactly their height; as these tapers burn, the persons indicated feel themselves wasting away, and when the tapers go out they die. One of our old servants imagined himself doomed to death in this manner. I said to myself, ''To children we must offer the consolations of children," and I sent another taper of his height to another church, persuading him that the prayer of the just is more efficacious than that of the wicked. What was my honor when the person who had wished for his death died herself three days afterwards!... He himself, however, has been very well ever since, and is now quite plump.
A certain church was built by three young girls who loved the same man. They agreed that the one who still loved him when the building was finished should be the one to marry him. But, alas! when the whole thing was done, the girls all loved him as much as on the first day. Then they all went into a convent together.
Another chapel was built by a woman who had lifted her hand against her husband. (It is considered quite natural that a husband should beat his wife; a young wife, indeed, once wished for a divorce because her husband did not beat her, and she thought it proved he did not love her. But for a woman to beat her husband is considered such an enormity that the guilty one is accursed, and condemned for life to spin at her distaff day and night without rest or break.) The woman who had struck her husband had long been walking about in road and field, never ceasing to ply her spindle; at last she vowed that where the spindle fell, exhausted from fatigue, she would build a church. It fell at last for the first time, but a plum-tree immediately sprung up on the spot. She did not think she ought to pull it up to build, so she went on her way. A second time the spindle fell, but up sprung an apple-tree, so on she went with her ceaseless toil. When the spindle fell a third time, a spring of water gushed forth from the ground, and the girl said, "There must, I build beside the living water," and from that day she had rest.
Another woman had been visited by every possible misfortune; she had lost her husband and all her children, and yet her hair had not turned white. Now the Roumanians are afraid of women whose hair does not turn white, and they looked upon her as accursed and uncanny. She prayed day and night, but her hair remained black. Then she thought she would build a church; but it did no good, her hair was as black as ever. At last, one night, she dreamt that a voice told her to climb on the roof of her church when the first snow fell, to catch the falling flakes and cover her head with them. So she climbed on the roof, and covered her head with undriven snow; one by one the hairs turned white. When the poor creature came down she was all white, but tired—so tired that she laid her down and died!
A barren woman had prayed for a child in all the churches. She dreamt that if she stole a stone from every church already built, and with the collected stones erected yet another, she would become a mother. So one by one she carried the stones, making pilgrimages all over the country. When she had a good big pile she began to build, and the clay the new church was finished she found a deserted child upon her threshold. This child she adopted!
The large church of Sarindar (the name of which comes from the Neo-Greek word signifying "fortieth") was built by Prince Mathieu Bassarabi, to atone for the assassination of his brother-in-law. He had gone to Constantinople to ask for the absolution of the patriarch, who had ordered him to build forty churches. This, the finest of all, was the fortieth. The same prince introduced the Roumanian language into public worship and into schools, in place of the Slavonian, which he did not understand.
The exercise of benevolence is fraught with great difficulties in Roumania; work must be found for the poor to do at home, for no one will go out to service: the cooks are Tziganes, the domestic servants Transylvanians or Hungarians, and every one must have state employment.
There is one society for distributing wood in winter, another for giving work, yet another to protect the village industry of making embroideries, which are as fine as any Oriental work, and have a character all their own. I have seen poems written, I have seen painting done, compositions made, lives lived, but never did I see real embroidery produced till I came to Roumania. On the bodice of a young peasant girl I one day noticed that the embroidery on one of the sleeves on one side only crossed the embroidery of the shoulder-piece. I asked the girl the reason of this, and she replied, "That is called a wandering stream." The language of our peasants is as flowery as Nature herself; they never speak but in fanciful images. "How are you getting on at home?" I asked one day. "Like a racking cough," was the reply. "How are you to-day?"—"Like a dog in a cart." "You have a son?"—"I have had two pines, but the storm has laid them low. "Now hear the cry from a mother's heart to her daughter: "Thy child is crying, thou hast let it fall; dost thou not know that thou should hold it like a little carnation?" "How is thy sweetheart?"—"Like the young corn in a field of maize."
No Roumanian will ever admit that he is quite well. "Deh!" he cries, "not so bad." Nor will he acknowledge that things are at the worst.
Another peculiarity is that a Roumanian will never assent fully to anything or make a positive assertion. You tell him something of which you are absolutely convinced, and, after listening to you in silence, he says, "It is possible, perhaps." Or you ask him where he is going, and he says, " I am about to go to the fields." And for centuries past the peasants never knew when they went to the fields whether they would return alive. When, during the war, I asked the wounded how they were, they invariably replied, "Well enough, but I have a pain in my chest, and in the bone of my wounded leg, and in my arm." And perhaps the next day the poor fellow who had thus answered me was dead.
Many were the heart-rending and touching scenes I witnessed during the war which were to me a revelation of the strange nature of the Roumanian people. With their superstitions, their childlike piety, they combined melancholy and fun. I have seen a devoted wife, after seeking her husband all along the shores of the Danube and in all the hospitals, finding him at last, broken down and disfigured, to greet him with a mere nod of the head before taking up her post at his bedside, there to nurse him day and night. I have heard some brave hero crying out in his agony for his mother, and covering the hands of that mother with kisses.
One poor wounded fellow, with the lower jaw destroyed, and hideous to look upon, wanted to dictate a letter to one of my ladies in waiting. This letter was to his wife, and he began with the usual formula: "I hope this letter will reach you in the happiest moment of your life. As for me," he went on, "I wish to tell you that I am very well off here, and that I am wounded in the chest."
At this the young girl who was writing paused in astonishment. "But, Nicolas," she exclaimed, "that is not true."
"Do you think," he answered, "that she would remain faithful to me if she saw me looking so dreadful?"
Once I was sent for to the town to a young man whose leg had been amputated, and who was in inconsolable despair.
Not having been present at the operation, I did not know which leg had been taken off. I sat down on the side of the bed, and remained talking to the poor fellow for a quarter of an hour, he smiling sweetly at me all the time.
When I arose, my ladies of honor discovered that I had been sitting on the stump of the lost leg. I still shudder whenever I think of my stupidity.
"You poor fellow!" I cried; "it must have hurt you terribly."
"I would have borne it many hours for the sake of listening to your voice," he replied.
A handsome young man had died in a tent opposite to mine, and the next morning dawned cold and dreary, for it was November. The fog shut us in like a wall, and the ground was like an oozy bog. All of a sudden a man and a woman came forth from the fog like spectres. The woman wore nothing but an old gray chemise, scarcely reaching to her knees, and about her worn old face hung the rags of what had once been a white linen wrap. She came forward on her bare feet through the deep mud, her arms clasping a bundle of linen for her son. She asked for him, and before I could get to her she fell on her knees with a heart-rending cry. A soldier with brutal haste had said to her, " Your son died in that tent yesterday."
The clean white shirts she had so lovingly brought for him slipped from her hands into the mud, and tearing her hair and smiting her breast, she cried again and again, "Radoul, my son! Radoul! Radoul! Radoul!" She would listen to no comfort, accept no food, no shelter, but rose at last and went away through the fog, turning back at every step to cry again the name of her lost son. Her figure assumed immense proportions in the heavy air, and her voice rang out strangely through the damp gloom; and when she was out of sight we could still hear the cry of "Radoul! Radoul!" The scene haunts me often now.
For four months I had been trying—alas! in vain—to save the life of a young man. About a quarter of an hour before his death someone spoke to me in rather a loud voice near his bed. I leaned over him, and said, "We are making too much noise, are we not?"
"What does that matter," he replied, "if only I can look at you?"
When the end came his mother began to sob and cry; but the people about asked her to be quiet, as they did not want me to know of his death till the next day. And she had the self-control and grandeur of soul to be silent.
On Christmas eve, after a long severe frost, a thaw rendered the streets of Bucharest impassable. I was to go and meet the King, who was returning as a victorious hero after five months' absence. I thought it would have been a delirium of joy to me. But I had suffered too much; I had lost the power of rejoicing; I did not know how to be glad. The last days before Plevna had all but destroyed all three armies at once. After a terrible snow-storm the cold had been twenty degrees below zero. The Danube was so encumbered with ice that not a loaf of bread could be sent over it. If Osman Pasha had held out three days longer every soul would have perished.
And now the road between Plevna and Nicopolis was covered with famished crowds. I know not how many left Plevna, but only ten thousand arrived at Nicopolis!
The King started the next day on the same road on his way home to his capital. He had to leave his sledge, for it jolted over corpses. Horror-struck, he mounted a horse, and pressed on along this pathway of death, the horse starting and rearing at every step.
There were groups of the dead sitting round the last fire they had lit in some deep rut, carts overturned, driver and buffaloes alike frozen in their places, standing up stiff as statues. There were the dying, their arms upraised to heaven in a final petition before they sank back with a last sigh and expired.
At the battle of Grivitza sixteen thousand men had fallen; one battalion of cavalry had lost one-half its numbers; and for three days the enemy's fire made it impossible to pause for a moment for food or to bury the dead in the trenches. But all these horrors sunk into insignificance before those of the journey from Plevna to Nicopolis.
By paths as slippery as glass the King climbed up to the fortress amidst the terrible clamor of the voices of ten thousand prisoners lying in the ditches, for whom not a scrap of food could be obtained. But as he gained the strong hold, the perils of the ice-path passed, the sun lit up Roumania with a rosy light, and the heart of the young monarch was warmed within him at seeing his adopted land once more.
The next day the King seemed to be exposed to such peril amongst the raging prisoners, who numbered many more than our troops, that the bold scheme was decided on of sending him away in a little iron-clad vessel, which cut its way through the ice, breaking it where it was thin, and literally springing over it where it was impenetrable, returning safely to port at last, and bringing bread to starving Nicopolis.
When at Turno-Magomelli the King found himself, for the first time for five months, in a warmed and furnished room, with a bed to sleep on he thought he was in an enchanted palace.
Another snow-storm endangered his life between Magomelli and Craïova, where the train awaited to take him to his capital—draped with flags, decorated with garlands, to welcome back the hero and conqueror—and to his wife, whose hair had turned white with the anguish through which she had passed, and whose joy resembled grief, so weary was her heart.
Could one but go amongst them, the Tziganes would be a most interesting and curious study. They are still, and ever will be, pariahs, beggars and thieves, musicians and poets, cowards and complainers, wanderers and heathen, but, oh, so picturesque! Their camp, no matter where it is pitched in the wide plain, is always in charming disorder, and of a marvellous color, especially in the evening, when the huge red sun of Roumania sets upon the violet horizon beneath the mighty green dome of heaven. The women of the camp wear garments of every imaginable hue, from tender green to brick red and orange yellow. Their nut-brown children run about half naked, their little shirts just covering their shoulders and a bit of their necks. There sit the men, with tangled hair and soft velvety eyes, grouped about the fire, their naked feet against the copper kettles they are tinkering; or we see them gathered about the timber-yards or buildings where they are employed, running about the scaffoldings with the suppleness of Indians, in attitudes and positions that are always charming. Their language is as sonorous as beaten brass, and their songs are most beautiful; but it is only with reluctance that they will let any one hear them.
One of the most interesting sights of Bucharest is the great Fair, to which all flock to buy, amongst other things, everything that is needed to celebrate the Fate of the Dead. This week is one long delight to children. In spite of the broiling sun, in spite of the smothering dust, thousands of carriages succeed each other in the long street (Calea Mochilor) leading to the Fair, which is held in a place called Mochi, in memory of a great battle fought on this spot between Mathieu Bassarabi and Radou, who tried to take Bucharest with an army of Moldavians and Tartars. "And the women and children," says the chronicler, "climbed upon the flowering hedges to see the war wage." Tramway cars and carriages overflow with people, every window is packed with gayly decked heads, some very pretty faces amongst them, and, once at the Fair, one wanders round in a labyrinth of little stalls, where terracotta pots, wooden pitchers, and glass necklaces are sold. One sees wagon loads of handsome peasant women and pretty children driving off laden with purchases, and in the midst of the noise and confusion, the shouts, the brilliant colors, the bears and the giants, and the ever-thickening clouds of dust, you suddenly see the calonchar dance begin. This is an old Roumanian dance, derived from the ancient Saturnalia, or dance of Saturn, in which the herdsmen tried to hide that they had stolen away Jupiter to prevent Saturn from devouring him, as he had his other children. The dancers, dressed in white, with little bells on their legs, behave in the wildest way. They are in training long before, so as to be able to bear the fatigue of dancing in this way from Easter to Pentecost. They are led by a violinist, and one of them, his finger on his lips, maintains silence amongst the rest, threatening them with his staff if they speak. Saturn must not know from them where to find his son.
The Roumanians express everything by dancing; men dance together, and women together. The soldiers in the barracks always manage to get a violin, a flute, or a bagpipe, on which some one plays a dance of some kind for them. On a campaign, in war, after the most fatiguing marches, in showers of shot and shell, they still dance, defying the projectiles, until one of the dancers is struck down. Then good-humor never fails, even in the hospital. The wounded amuse themselves by composing comedies to make those still in bed laugh, and act them with an animation, spirit, and power of imitation which is perfectly marvellous.
Among the finest institutions of Bucharest are the hospitals. They have been so liberally endowed by former rulers that they have at the present time an income of three or four millions, and every one is received and cared for gratis as long as he remains in bed. They have been partly rebuilt, and the new military hospital is constructed in accordance with all the latest scientific principles.
A circle of military hospitals and barracks now surrounds the series of heights overlooking the royal country-seat, the old Cotroceni convent, and the cupola of the large orphanage sheltering four hundred orphans. Further off is a second enceinte, that of the fortifications, for from time immemorial Bucharest has always been a citadel — a strategic post of great importance.
The transformation of Bucharest into a fine modern town in the style of modern taste is now complete. It is now a town intersected with canals, well irrigated, adorned with grand buildings, such as the Athenaeum, the new Ministries, the Bank, the State Printing-Press, the Town-Hall, the Houses of Parliament, etc. The foundation of the Bacteriological Institute raises us to the level of the other scientific centres of Europe. But the picturesque Oriental Bucharest, the Bucharest, as big as Vienna, but with only 220,000 inhabitants, made up of little houses nestling in verdure, the Bucharest in which one could point out the houses of Monsieur this and Madame that (giving the noms de guerre of the persons indicated), has disappeared, to give place to a town just like any other. It only appears Oriental to those who come from the West. Those who come from Asia give a sigh of satisfaction as they cross the Danube.
"Ah!" they say to themselves, "here we are in Europe."
Truly we are remarkable sovereigns, for we have managed to accomplish in twenty-five years what it has taken others several centuries to achieve.
We have created an army; on the arrival of the King there was but one battery of artillery, now we have 700 cannons. Our first cruiser is the nucleus of a fleet. The State Budget, which before the arrival of the King was 38 millions, is now 150 millions. Political life has become comparatively calm and serious, and long periods elapse without changes in the Ministry or the dissolution of the Chambers. Railways intersect the country in every direction, taking grain to the sea, cattle to Italy, wood to Panama. There are schools everywhere, and we seem likely to suffer from having hastened our development so much, the upsetting of the equilibrium being especially felt in family life.
We even make an attempt at socialism, so as to be quite abreast with modern civilization. But socialism takes root with difficulty in a country purely agricultural, where there are no industries, and where the farmers come quite naturally to consult their landlord, asking him whether it would be well for them to revolt—if they would really get more land by doing so, as the agitators tell them they would.
Roumania bids fair to become what King Charles dreamt she might—a living artery of Europe. When the crown of the country, of the very existence of which he was ignorant, was offered to a young Hohenzollern prince, he opened the atlas, took a pencil, and seeing that a line drawn from London to Bombay passed through the principality which called him to be its head, he accepted the crown with these words:
"This is a country of the future!"
|Note.—The previous papers of tins series, entitled "Capitals of the World," were published in Harper's Weekly as follows:|
By Francois Coppee.
ST. PETERSBURG. —No. 1841.
By E. Melchior de Vogue.
By Pierre Loti.
By Gaston Boissier.
By Edouard Rod.
By Comte de Mouy.
By General Tcheng-Ki-Tong.
By Camille Pelletan.
By Anton in Proust.
By Sir Charles W. Dilke.
By Madame Adam.
By Auguste Genin.
By Harald Hansen.
By Maurice Wahl.
By Henry Loomis Nelson.
By Camille Lemonnier.