H. M. Queen Elisabeth (Carmen Sylva) of Roumania


IT is but fitting and natural that I should open with this revered name the series of my reminiscences, as my childish recollections hardly go further back than the date of the first time I heard her, when I was only eight years old, at my very first concert in Bonn. That was so great an event in my life, and I was so impatient for the evening to come, that I hardly know how I got through the whole day that preceded it. Seldom has any day since appeared so interminably long. Still, the evening did come at last, and I remember accompanying my mother to the concert-room, into which she was wheeled in her invalid-chair, for, although still quite young, she had been for many years in ill-health and unable to walk. But whether I walked by her side, or how I got there, I no longer know, for I have only a sort of confused recollection of having been brought there without any effort on my own part, as though I had been borne thither on wings. My first concert! My heart still beats loud when I think of it.

It was a big, crowded room we entered. But I did not see the people. I paid no attention to anybody. I saw nothing but the estrade on which the piano was placed. Our seats were so far to the right that, small as I was, I should not have seen the pianist at all had I not obtained my mother's permission to establish my diminutive person in the passage left between the two rows of seats, where I had a full view of the keyboard. I was all eyes, all ears, quivering from head to foot with intense nervous expectation. At last Madame Schumann came in, and, advancing swiftly to the instrument, sat down before it. She was dressed in black velvet, with a single deep-red rose stuck low behind one ear in her dark hair, which was very thick and inclined to curl, and which she wore plainly parted and flat to the head, instead of having it according to the fashion of those days twisted to stand out on each side of the face. What struck me at once was something harmonious in her whole appearance; it always seemed to me afterwards as if her dress must have been crimson too, to match the rose in her hair. Her hands were small, firm and plump, the touch full, healthy and vigorous, almost of virile strength. I carried the rich, clear tones away with me, to ring in my ears for long afterwards. But that which went straight to my heart, and haunted me longer still, was the pathetic look in her eyes.

Leaning a little forward, bending as it were over the keys, as if to be alone with her own music and the better to hear herself, apparently utterly oblivious of the rest of the world, the player kept her magnificent, melancholy eyes persistently cast down. But I could see those wonderful eyes, and their sadness impressed me so much that it almost spoilt my pleasure in the music, for I was wondering all the time how it could be that anyone who played so divinely could all the same look so unutterably sad. I did not then know her unhappy story; I had not heard how her husband had gone out of his mind, leaving her penniless, with a large family to provide for, and that it was, indeed, to provide her children's daily bread that she thus played in public. It did not occur to me that anyone could be poor who wore a velvet dress. Besides it was impossible to my childish mind to conceive that any artist could be poor. On the contrary, I looked upon them all as being fabulously rich, as having all the treasures of the universe at their disposal. Those beliefs were natural to my age, for in childhood Romance is Reality, and Reality a very poor sort of Romance! Have we not been all of us the heroes of our own fairy-tales?—either Aladdin or Robinson Crusoe, and more often Crusoe on his island than Aladdin in the magic cave, since at that time of life the riches of this world appeal very feebly to our imagination.

But for the pathetic expression of a pair of dreamy eyes my mind was sufficiently receptive, sorrow and heartache being already only too familiar to me. My mother, as I have mentioned, was at that time an invalid, my younger brother had been a sufferer from his birth, and my father was slowly dying of consumption. The daily spectacle of pain and illness may well open a child's eyes to the expression of suffering in other human faces. But as I was always a very reserved child, accustomed to keep all puzzling problems to myself and brood over them in silence, I asked no questions, and consequently learnt nothing about my new idol nor even suspected the existence of a domestic tragedy. Schumann's works were at that time a sealed book for me, with the exception of a few simple pieces, intended for children. And children's pieces were not what I cared about. I only wanted Beethoven!

After that I did not see her again for many years—till I was grown up, a girl of twenty, in S. Petersburg. I was just recovering from an illness, and it was whilst I was still so weak that I could hardly stand, that I had the sudden news of my dear father's death. The blow was such an overwhelming one, I felt at first as if everything in life were over for me, and that I should never take pleasure in anything again. And just then Mme. Schumann arrived with her daughter Marie. The Grand-Duchess Hélène, in whom so many artists had found a true friend and enlightened patroness, hastened to place rooms in her palace at the disposal of the celebrated pianist. So mother and daughter, to my unspeakable joy and consolation, took up their abode with us for seven weeks, and were lodged in the suite of apartments just above my own. Whenever she was going to practise, Mme. Schumann would send word to me, and then I would manage to drag myself upstairs, and let myself be propped up by cushions in a corner of the room, where I could listen undisturbed. It was as if I were being slowly awakened from a deathlike trance, and brought back to an interest in life again by the strains of that exquisite music. Better still, my aunt very soon arranged for me to take some piano-lessons of this great artist, and these mark quite an epoch in my life. They were certainly quite exceptional lessons in every way, altogether unlike everything else of that nature, for at first I was almost too feeble to hold my fingers on the keys. But my dear professor soon found something for me, to which my strength was just equal—Schumann's delicious 'Scenes of Childhood'—and from these we went on little by little to higher flights. But it was not alone for the progress in my music that these hours were of inestimable value; I look back to them as having left their mark on the whole course of my life ever since, for I was roused from my own lethargy and despondency by learning the trials through which my new friend had passed. This noble-minded woman could, indeed, have hit upon no better lesson in fortitude than that which was contained in the simple story of her own youth, as calmly and unaffectedly she told her young companion of the catastrophe which had wrecked her life. It was, indeed, a revelation to me, this glimpse into the workings of another soul, whose sufferings I had never even suspected. The simple words in which the tale was told wrung my heart more than any studied eloquence could have done, and I blushed to think that I had dared to wrap myself up in my own sorrow, as if I were the only sufferer in the world. I learnt from her how much another had borne silently, uncomplainingly, and I understood how duty may often call upon us to take up our burden and resume the daily struggle before our wounds are yet healed, instead of giving ourselves up to the luxury of grief. I will try, as far as I can, to give Clara Schumann's story in her own words, as she told it to me, in the long conversations we held in those unforgettable hours. She spoke of her childhood, for her troubles began early; her parents were separated, and the little girl never knew a really happy home. In spite of the slight deafness, with which she was troubled from her earliest years, her father insisted on having her trained as a musician, and she was prepared to make her appearance in public when she was only twelve years old. 'It was all very hard,' she related, 'for I adored my mother, whom I hardly ever saw. I remember my father once taking me to Berlin to pay her a visit, and the way in which he flung the door open, with the words: "Here, madam, I have brought your daughter to see you!" Yes, those were hard circumstances for me, and the more so, as he had married again, and my stepmother was anything but kindly disposed towards me.'

There was a pause, and her expression changed as she went on to tell of her love-idyl and early marriage. There was a dreamy look in her eyes, and an arch smile on her lips that made her face quite young again, while she spoke of those bygone days of short-lived happiness.

'It was when I was only fourteen,' she said, 'that Robert Schumann first became a visitor at our house. He was then just eighteen years of age, and very soon we two young people had fallen in love, and even become secretly engaged. Secretly, I need hardly say, so frightened was I of my father, who for his part, had constantly announced that he had his own quite fixed plans for my future.'

Again she paused, and seemed for a moment plunged in memories of the past. I did not disturb her with questions, but waited for her to go on with her narrative, and it was with merriment once more rippling over her face that she related some of the more amusing scenes in the drama.

'Four years later it had come to open war between my affianced husband and my father, and I remember having to appear between them in the court of law, in which the struggle for my person was being decided. Schumann proved to the entire satisfaction of the court that he was of age, and perfectly well able to support a wife, whilst my father, having no just ground for his refusal, simply loaded him with insult. The decision was accordingly given in our favour, and we were legally authorised to become man and wife. At this my father's rage literally knew no bounds. Had he not often sworn that his daughter should never marry a beggarly musician, that he would hardly consider a prince good enough for her! So he turned me out of the house, refusing even to let me take my own few possessions with me, my stepmother going so far as to tear off my finger a little ring I always wore, as it had been my mother's, but which she now gave to her own daughter. Thus was I cast out of my father's house, and from the moment the door closed behind me I never saw his face again, nor ever heard a word more from him. It was as if I were really dead to him henceforth. But I did not grieve. It was by my husband's side that I wandered forth, happy for the first time in my life, in the consciousness of our mutual affection.

'The ten years that followed were years of happiness indeed, of such happiness as it is rarely given to mortals to know on earth. I lived for my husband alone, entirely wrapt up in him. I watched every change in his countenance, I studied his every mood, and had so thoroughly identified myself with him that my own brain was on the verge of becoming affected too, when his began to give way. I did not under-stand at first that there was anything the matter with him, and continued to take pride as ever in following and participating in every phase through which his mind passed. But that mind was darkening, although I knew it not. His fits of melancholy grew more frequent and of longer duration, as though a baleful shadow had fallen across his soul. One night he suddenly awakened me, begging me to get up, to leave him, to stay no longer in the room. Astonished and alarmed, but accustomed to obey his lightest wish in all things, I complied with the strange request. Next day he told me that it was his fears for me, for my safety, which had induced him to send me from him. "I feared lest I should hurt you!" he groaned. For he felt that he was gradually losing all control over his own actions, that something outside himself was continually urging him to violence against those whom he loved best in the world. Musical phantasies mixed themselves with the rest. Thus he was for ever imagining that he heard sounds, sometimes just one note of music perpetually repeated, and then again the tones would be modulated, and vary, and combine and weave themselves into melody ! And these snatches of melody he still noted down. But worse was at hand, for the day soon came, the terrible day, which put an end to all my earthly happiness, and after which it was no longer possible to conceal the truth from myself and others. My dear, unfortunate husband had managed to steal out of the house unperceived, and had attempted to drown himself in the Rhine! He was saved, but I was not allowed to see him again. It was said that it would be dangerous for him, for both of us. But he sent me a most touching message, begging me to forgive him the pain which he knew he must have caused me, and explaining how it was that he could not have acted otherwise—he felt that it was the only means of saving us both much trouble and sorrow. It almost broke my heart to hear this.

'Indeed, at first I could do nothing but sit and cry my eyes out at the immensity of the misfortune which had come upon me. I was alone in the world, with my helpless little ones, for he who had been our protection and support was himself now the most helpless of all. But it was the very immensity of my misfortune which roused me out of the apathy into which I had fallen, as I realised the necessity of an effort on my part for all these weak and helpless ones, who now depended solely on me. To my father I did not dare to appeal, and even now, in my dire distress, he gave no sign, sent me no word of kindness. But other friends took active steps to help me, and with their assistance, thanks to the sums they collected for me, I was able to put my affairs in order, and start giving concerts to support my family. So things went on for the next three years; I travelled about, playing in all the principal towns in Europe, and my husband remained under the care of a doctor in Bonn. All this time I never once saw him, although I was always entreating to be allowed to do so.

'Then one day, just as I was about to give a concert in London, I suddenly received a letter, informing me that my husband had only a few days more to live, that I must hurry back if I wished to be in time to see him once more! And like this I had to let myself be taken to the concert-room, and like this I played! People have since told me that I never played so well in my whole life. Of that I know nothing. I went through my work mechanically, feeling half dazed, neither knowing nor caring what or how I played, and not a note of the music reaching my own ears. At the end the whole room seemed to spin round before my eyes, but I made my way out somehow, and in a very few minutes was already on my way to Bonn.

'When I arrived I was at first refused entrance to the room. But my mind was fully made up. I was determined that no power on earth should now keep us longer apart. I simply said: "If he is really dying, then my presence can harm him no longer, and insist upon being admitted! "So they let me in. But it was a terrible shock to see him, so changed that at first I should hardly have known him. Only his eyes, those dear, loving eyes, were still the same, and as they fixed themselves on me I had the happiness of seeing the full light of recognition come back to them. "Ah! my own!" he exclaimed, stretching out his arms toward me. He was frightfully weak, having of late refused all nourishment, under the delusion that the attendants wished to poison him. I could, however, prevail on him to take a little food when I brought it him, and his eyes never left me, following my every movement. In the midst of my sorrow I yet felt a contentment at my heart that I had not known during these last years, whilst I was separated from him. I might almost say I was happy once more, just in being with him, and in feeling that his affection was unchanged. But it could not last long —his strength was ebbing fast—soon came the last parting, and then all was over, and I was really alone in the wide world, with my poor, fatherless children!'

She broke down completely on these last words, and for some minutes we sat together in perfect silence, my tears flowing in sympathy, for I was deeply moved at witnessing her grief. Her story was made the more touching by the simplicity with which it was told; this went to my heart more surely than the most studied eloquence. And it was ever the one theme—always of him she spoke! She came back constantly to this one period of life, as if all the rest—everything that had taken place since—did not count at all. Evidently her own life had come to an end for her when her husband die. If she lived on at all it was simply in the idea of contributing to raise a monument to his fame. She was really quivering with indignation when she related how on one occasion, after one of her recitals, a lady had actually asked her if her husband had not also been a pianist? But my contemptuous exclamation, 'Oh, the poor thing!' made her smile in spite of herself. I remember, too, how I could never satisfy her with my rendering of the little piece called 'Happiness enough.' She was always entreating me to put more fulness and softness into it, to make it overflow, so to say, with happiness. And in the depths of her eyes I read the triumphant certitude that this music told the happiness that had once been hers, and that to none other would it ever be given to express it as she could. Ah! those were precious hours, indeed, which I passed with her, and the lessons were something much more to me than mere music-lessons, for even greater and nobler than the artist was the woman I learnt to know in them.

In the month of May we went to Moscow, and it was there I heard Schumann's Variations for two pianos played by Mme. Schumann and Nicolas Rubinstein. The latter was an admirable pianist, gifted with great delicacy and depth of feeling, and if without the fiery, almost demoniacal, inspiration that distinguished his brother's playing, this for the duet on two pianos was rather an advantage than otherwise.

After that several years passed before I saw Mme. Schumann again, and then it being announced that she would appear at a concert in Cologne with Stockhausen, my mother and I went over for it. We went early in the day, so as to be in time for the last rehearsal, but at this we had the disappointment of not hearing Mme Schumann, for she had met with a little accident, slightly spraining one finger, which obliged her to rest till the evening, and her place at the piano was taken by Brahms. In spite of her absence, it was all the same a most interesting rehearsal. I had the pleasure of hearing Brahms play and Stockhausen sing, and enjoyed everything immensely. I could not help noticing, however, that my mother's thoughts were entirely elsewhere, and it annoyed me that she should let any-thing distract her attention from the glorious music. Nor did we stay quite to the end, much to my disappointment, but drove off to the Flora-garden, and lunched there. And as we sat there, I noticed also that we seemed to attract the attention of a little group of gentlemen, strangers, as I thought them, who were walking up and down, and one of whom at last seated himself at a little table quite close to ours, looking at me so hard, that I slightly turned away from him. But when we rose to leave, they : all three came up to us, and we recognised Herr von Werner, whose acquaintance we had made at Prince Hohenzollern's, whilst his two companions were none other than the young Prince of Roumania, and the, latter's representative in Paris, the last mentioned being the gentleman who had just been observing me so closely. But I was sincerely glad to meet the young Prince again, for I had seen much of him in Berlin some years before, and was full of admiration for the adventurous spirit and strong sense of duty in which he had entered on his task in his new country. So I welcomed with pleasure the opportunity of talking to him again, and walked on ahead with him, discussing all sorts of things, my mother following with the two other gentlemen. We wandered from the `Flora' to the Zoological Gardens, and after a long hunt for the monkey house, found the little creatures already in-stalled in their winter quarters. I remember holding out my hand to one of them, rather to the horror of the Prince, who protested against seeing my finger clasped in the rough little brown paw. But the time had passed so quickly, and I found my companion's conversation so interesting,—(he said afterwards that I told him his political views were quite Machiavellian!) —two hours had gone by before we got into the carriage again, and as we drove away, I exclaimed:—'There is somebody with whom one can enjoy talking! He is really a charming young man!' My mother said nothing at all. We stopped at Mme. Schumann's, for I was determined to have a little talk with her before the evening,—merely to see her at the concert would not have satisfied me at all. The dear old days in S. Petersburg were a little brought back to me, as I sat holding her hand, and listening to all she had to tell us of what had happened since we last met. But she was somewhat depressed, having just parted with her third daughter who had recently married an Italian Count, and feeling quite unable still to resign herself to the separation. 'Only think what it means,' she said to my mother,—'to have brought up one's child, loved and cared for her all these years, and then some stranger comes along, and carries her off; one knows not to what!' Again my mother kept silence, but I could not help thinking that there was quite a strange expression on her face. When we left, there was only just time to dress for the concert. My toilette was very hurriedly made, in spite of the satisfaction I felt in the very pretty and becoming dress—a white flowered silk over a pale blue underskirt—which I was to wear, for my one fear was of missing any of the music! But whilst I was dressing, the Prince of Roumania had been announced, and stayed, and stayed, and I could hardly control my impatience, till at last I heard him leave, and rushed to my mother, to hurry her. But the serious look with which she met me checked the impatient exclamation on my lips. Taking my arm in hers, she began to pace the room with me, saying, ' The Prince of Roumania was here just now to ask you to be his wife.' She stopped and looked at me, half expecting the decided refusal, with which all such proposals had hitherto been met. But instead,—'Already?' was the only word I brought out. I said to myself,—he hardly knows me, he cannot love me, he only happens to have heard how well and carefully I have been brought up, and thinks I may prove the suitable companion, the fittest helpmate for him in the work he has set himself. And a thousand similar thoughts flashed like lightning through my brain. But through it all I heard my mother telling me of the high and noble mission awaiting me, should I accept the Prince's hand, of the wide field in which my energies might find scope, and the honour she accounted it that his choice should have fallen on me. As she went on talking, my hesitation seemed to fade away, and it was not long before I said to her,—'Let him come! He is the right one!' In a very short time the Prince had returned, I was summoned to the room, and remember going towards him with my hand outstretched, which he raised to his lips, and I remember too the words he spoke; but my words to him I do not recall, though my mother treasured them in her heart, and had them inscribed below my portrait she sent him. She had already sent a little word in all haste to Mme. Schumann, telling her of my betrothal, and that she must not count on us for that evening. The rest of it passed quickly indeed, the Prince having only a very few hours to spend with us, as he had to return to Paris that same night. As long as he was with us, telling me of the work we should accomplish together, of the difficulties we must encounter and overcome, so far, all was well, I had caught the fire of his enthusiasm, and felt equal to all that might be demanded of me. But no sooner was he gone, than doubts and hesitations once more assailed me. Had I not been too hasty, too precipitate, in making up my mind on a question of such importance, on which depended all the happiness of my future life? I was no longer so young, very nearly six-and-twenty and that would perhaps make it all the harder for me, to give up my freedom and independence, resigning myself as it were to another's control. One of whom, after all, I knew so little, beyond what everyone else knew and could read of him in the newspapers! Was that a sufficient guarantee of happiness, I asked myself, that his chivalrous character pleased me, that I knew him to be the soul of honour, and that his mother had ever been one of the idols of my girl-hood? Unluckily too, the photograph which he had given me made him look very stern, and that quite alarmed me. I thought, if he can ever look like that, I shall be frightened to death! But I took comfort in looking at the little opal cross he had also given me, finding in the soft pure flame of the beautiful milk-white stones, a sort of presage of everything that is good and noble, and my fears gradually quieted down. Not altogether, though. They came back often during the four weeks of my engagement, and only left me entirely when I stood with my affianced husband before the altar.

With all this, alas! I never saw my dear Mme. Schumann again. I had little thought when we left her that eventful day, looking forward to meeting again the same evening at the concert, that it was the very last time we should meet on earth! I wonder if she ever guessed the extent of my affection and veneration. Two days before the wedding a concert was given in honour of the bridegroom and myself, and for this my brother tried to arrange for Mme. Schumann to come, but she was unfortunately prevented. After that I was myself so far away, plunged heart and soul in the new duties that were now to be my lifework, and so much absorbed by these, that I only returned twice to my old home in the course of the next ten years. Besides, in the meantime I had become a mother—that unspeakable happiness was mine, and then—and then it was taken from me, and all was dark around me, nevermore to become light for me henceforth on earth!