|I sent my soul through the Invisible
Some letter of the after-life to spell,
And by and by my soul returned to me
And answer'd: I myself am Heav'n and Hell!
IT was in August, 1878, that I returned to Rumania for the first time since my childhood, in order to be presented to my sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, who had graciously invited me to Sinaya, that gem of the Carpathian Mountains, afterward transformed by the King into the most ideal summer resort imaginable.
At the time of which I speak—a period immediately after our war of independence1—the coquettish-looking little town was only a mere handful of villas grouped about an ancient monastery, where the reigning couple resided. The magnificent structure, in the German Renaissance style, which now stands like a fairy castle in the valley of Pélès had hardly been begun. Bukharest and Sinaya were virtually connected by a railway; but the line did not extend beyond Ployeschi, and the seventy kilometers between that country town and the royal residence had to be accomplished by post.
The road made many an unexpected detour in ascending the steep inclines of the mountain, often winding along near the bank of the Prahova, a river that ran in torrents over its rocky bed, now shooting forth streams of emerald-green water, and again white with foam, which was flecked against our faces as we passed.
Taken as it was in an open conveyance, the drive proved enchanting. The vehicle rolled on at a pace which left one dizzy, to an accompaniment of rhythmic shouts from the postilions, whose many-hued garments seemed notes of bright color, thrown into relief by the dark background of wooded hills. Innumerable repetitions of the wild melopœia were echoed back as we drove on for hours, through dreamland, toward an enchanted palace. It was near the close of day when we arrived, and the sun, disappearing behind the towering peaks of Mount Bucegi and Mount Caraïman, had gilded the trees on the roadside with pale green-gold tints, that gave a fantastic touch to the scene.
My presentation took place on the following day. A state carriage, which had been sent for me, drew up before the door of my hotel, and no sooner had I stepped into it than a nervous dread of the approaching ordeal took possession of me. I had no idea how entirely one might rely on the Queen's gracious tact in the matter of overcoming all such sensations of embarrassment.
The memory of that first hour will remain with me as long as I live. Mlle. G—, the principal maid of honor, ushered me into a small salon so profusely decorated with alpine flowers, boughs of evergreens, and branches of pink eglantine as to have wholly the look of a bower. I swept a low curtsy, but before I could attempt a second one, Queen Elizabeth came forward with a charming smile, drew me toward her, and embraced me. Reassured, I ventured to look up, and met with an ineffaceable vision of loveliness and grace.
Of commanding stature, she impressed one from the first as being endowed with a rare quality of goodness. Brown, waving hair, worn at half-length, shaded with rebellious curls a brow as pure as a child's; changeable gray eyes gathered light or darkened with the ever-varying thoughts which animated them. The face was delicately oval in form, and a firm, almost imperceptibly arched nose gave strength and character to a physiognomy the ideality of which was no less pronounced than was its look of extreme youth. An expressive, mobile mouth, teeth like so many brilliant pearls, a complexion which had successfully defied the fatigue and broken rest inseparable from an exalted station of life—all these represented a personality the indefinable charm of which has never been adequately portrayed.
The Queen's costume had been designed to facilitate an active out-of-door existence. It was original—indeed, peculiarly her own idea at the time, although often copied since then. It consisted of a straight tunic of embossed velvet, bringing to mind the hunting-costumes seen on stained-glass windows of the time of Charles VII of France, a skirt somewhat longer than the over-garment, revealing long gaiters that reached half-way to the knee. Her Majesty gave a final touch to this medieval attire by wearing a becoming little cap made of the same fabric as the dress, the effect of which, as a whole, was largely due to her incomparable carriage.
At the first words that Queen Elizabeth addressed to me I was struck by the mellow quality of her voice. The conversation soon became interesting, and my annoying timidity vanished with the effort to respond to the countless ideas suggested by this enchantress—ideas with which the very atmosphere of the room seemed charged.
While talking, her Majesty took up some work that had been laid aside when I entered, and went on with her free-hand illuminating after the style of the Grimani breviary, done on large sheets of parchment, which were destined to form a part of the wonderful "Book of the Twelve Apostles," afterward given to the cathedral of Curtea d' Arges.
The text of this entire work was written out in Gothic characters by the Queen, whose designs introduce different varieties of the fauna of the country, and whose figures of the saints display the admirable regard for detail that is so noticeable in the missals of the old monks, with whom this form of art originated.
We discussed literature and painting, and all at once I became aware of that strong bond of sympathy which has sustained me in different circumstances of my life.
The Queen referred to her works with extreme modesty. Up to that time she had absolutely refused to have her already voluminous writings published, and she yielded the point only when she came to realize the amount of trouble it gave those about her to copy and preserve her manuscripts. The fact of her celebrity as an author, acquired under the pseudonym of "Carmen Sylva," is acknowledged throughout the world, though comparatively few of her poems have been translated into French or English.
The little volume entitled "A Queen's Thoughts" was, I believe, the first to win general recognition and appreciation in behalf of the writer's philosophic trend of thought and clear order of intelligence. Queen Elizabeth honored me by a gift of these aphorisms in manuscript, and her beautiful handwriting, with its regular upstrokes, in a way suggests the flight of birds of passage soaring toward the horizon.
If such details and daily occurrences as served to inspire her Majesty's improvisations could be noted down on the margin of each volume, they would make interesting reading. A chance word let fall in conversation frequently formed the corner-stone of a romance, a fairy-tale, or a poem. To this acquisitive mind all that came was as food for the creative flame, ready to kindle at a spark.
I do not know how long we talked before the opulent silhouette of the Queen's reader, the Baroness de W—, was seen through the tangled mass of flowers. She came to warn her Majesty that the luncheon-hour drew near, and that it was time to make a change in her dress. Simultaneously there entered a number of joyous demoiselles d'honneur, to conduct me to the room that had been prepared for me, where I too was attired in the costume de rigueur.
Half an hour later the members of the court and invited guests assembled in one of the open galleries of the old cloister to await the coming of the sovereigns. They were not long in making their appearance, and were duly announced by an aide-decamp.
The King's noble countenance, delicate yet forceful, bore visible traces of the fatigue and care imposed by the recent war. The Queen looked even more queenly than before in her richly embroidered national dress, and the thin white veil in which she was enveloped formed a nimbus, and floated off in cloud-like draperies as it gently undulated in the breeze from the mountains.
Everyone present was greeted with a kind word of welcome, and we passed on to one of the vast halls in the monastery, where the repast that was served was partaken of in a spirit of cordiality, which, however, did not preclude the observance of etiquette. When it was at an end, the royal couple formed separate circles. The King lighted a cigar, and indicated that those who smoked should follow his example, while the Queen seated herself, and desired that the ladies who gathered about her should do like wise. Talk flowed freely, and when their Majesties had retired and the guests had taken leave, the young girls of the court were at liberty to dispose of their time as they pleased.
Four o'clock found us reunited for afternoon tea, which was served apart to the sovereigns and the members of their court; then came long walks through the beautiful country, or, better still, the Queen would arrange to have m1Jsic. Many of her ladies excelled in the art and she herself was a gifted performer, and she constantly drew about her celebrated musicians, poets, and artists. Those were never-to-be-forgotten days, that passed too swiftly, satisfying every craving of the soul by bringing within reach all that was elevated and esthetic.
It is impossible to give any idea of the vitality of this court, where the arts and sciences found a common meeting-place in an old monastery, and were under the protection of a queen who was herself an artist. The court of Navarre, in the days of "la Marguerite des Marguerites," may have been somewhat similar, except that what took place at Sinaya was without literary pretensions, and anything that bordered on vulgarity would have proved displeasing to the organizer and leading spirit of these charming fêtes. Everyone who took part in them realized that the simple mode of life and the romantic surroundings were only passing privileges, to be enjoyed until such time as it became advisable to return to the palace in the capital, or until the Château de Pélès was completed; and this knowledge undoubtedly enhanced the value of the delightful hours in the cloister.
Like Fra Angelico, whose delicate creations and radiant archangels she cleverly reproduced, Queen Elizabeth invariably arose at dawn. She anticipated day, and when the clock in the courtyard (reserved for the use of the venerable monks, who had withdrawn to a remote quarter of the building) rang out its summons to matins, the work on the story or verses which she purposed to read to us at a later hour had already drawn to an end.
Sometimes, at a very early hour, I could hear the Queen's clear, powerful voice caroling as joyously as a bird on a wakening; or the sound of her footsteps approaching my cell would be followed by a succession of sharp little taps on the window with her parasol. I would jump up hastily, to find it full day, ashamed to have been caught napping while my sovereign was setting so admirable an example in industry and early rising; yet I was never permitted to feel that I was not at liberty to do as I pleased. On the contrary, the Queen's maternal solicitude was aroused by my frail health, and she was unremitting in her efforts to spare me unnecessary trouble or fatigue.
In spite of this tender care, there were times when the malady that I was endeavoring to throw off reasserted itself and confined me to my bed. It was during these depressing hours that I learned to know the full significance of the name Maïca ranitilor ("mother of the wounded") bestowed on the Queen by the soldiers when she moved among them on the battle-field. Her presence by my couch, the soothing effect of her words, were restoratives that seldom failed to act like a charm. She did not always come alone, but sought to provide diversion for me by making my room a place where subjects of interest could be discussed.
On one occasion, a lady who had introduced first one topic, then another, strove to uphold the theory, and with no small degree of eloquence, that a person who had been overburdened by sorrow in early years was not apt to be happy later on. "Do not believe that," exclaimed the Queen, smiling brightly. Then, seizing upon a poetic figure of expression, she added: "Happiness is like the ocean. It beats you away from your past and its sorrow, provided you do not persist in looking backward."
At the time her Majesty was still suffering from the painful impressions evoked by the tragic scenes she had witnessed during the war of 1877; in her works she has engraved their most moving phases on the tablets of history. To how many humble yet heroic virtues has she not thus religiously raised an imperishable monument of glory! Her inspiring poems fired us with enthusiasm, and each one of us felt that she possessed the spirit of a warrior.
Certain days were set apart for charitable undertakings in behalf of deserving persons who had become disheartened by the miseries incident to want. Our sovereign, aiming to relieve their distress, founded a society which bore her name, and which still carries on its work under her august patronage, with the support of nearly all the women of Rumania.
The Queen seldom went out, especially when in town, without having a petition cast at her feet or thrown into her carriage. It devolved upon those of us who accompanied her to see that these humble requests were granted, either by drawing the necessary funds from her Majesty's private purse, or by forwarding the appeal to one of the ministers, with a strong recommendation to his aid. But it was the Queen's ready sympathy, invariably entering into these gifts, which rendered them priceless.
Although naturally gay and inclined toward happiness, above all at the period to which I refer, there were days and weeks at a time when the dear gray eyes were veiled with an expression of indescribable pain. The poems composed in these melancholy hours bore the imprint of a burning sorrow. One would have said that a mysterious combat went on within the Queen's proud soul, until she finally gained a victory over the irrepressible longing for a beloved little being whose loss was not to be effaced by all the gifts of the earth. None ventured to touch upon this bereavement, for it was realized that Queen Elizabeth's maternal nature had sustained a blow the more enduring in that she was destined to remain uncomforted by other children.
It was toward art in its' various forms that she turned for distraction, seeking to hide her grief in intellectual pursuits, and, as it were, bursting into flower after each silent struggle. It has always seemed to me that the Queen's character is based on phenomenal moral and physical courage. During her many illnesses I cannot remember having seen her abandon herself completely to inactivity. An adjustable small desk was attached to her arm-chair, and even to her couch, that this indefatigable worker might write or paint whenever the inspiration seized her; for she never allowed weakness or bodily suffering to obliterate thought. If the nature of her ills temporarily dulled her imagination, her Majesty gave herself up for weeks to music, being, as I have said before, an accomplished musician and an enthusiastic listener; or she would take up her embroidery, and accomplish marvels in the way of fine work and beauty of coloring.
The evenings spent in the royal hermitage at Sinaya were usually calm, almost like family gatherings, except when their Majesties received distinguished personages, or sought to provide entertainment for guests. These occasions served as pretexts for the young people who surrounded the youthful sovereigns to make the rafters of the austere cloister ring with the merriment of a dance, and to improvise plays and tableaux vivants, in which celebrated pictures by old masters were reproduced with much art. The Queen often threw a long cloak over her shoulders to protect her from the chilly evening air, and we would pace rapidly to and fro in one of the open galleries, where the moonbeams penetrated, until she was advised that the King was alone and awaited her.
We termed these nocturnal promenades l'ecole des péripatéticiens, because we never dared to sit down while philosophizing, for fear of the dew of these alpine nights.
Alas! autumn soon appeared, and warned us that the free manner of existence we had enjoyed must give way to the round of duties and worldly pleasures identified with life in the palace of the capital.
A short time after leaving Sinaya, the malady which had been arrested by the ozone of the mountains again prostrated me. By advice of her Majesty the Empress of Austria, that noble and admirable woman whose tragic death moved humanity at large, I was sent to the charming island of Corfu, whence I made my way back to my native country several years later.
My sovereign's brown tresses have now become white, and our talks of the past are tinged with sadness, but her enthusiasm for all that is beautiful and true remains as ardent as ever.
|1Up to the time of the treaty of Berlin (1878) Rumania was a tributary to Turkey|