IF there is any position difficult to fill it is assuredly that of a young princess just entering her capital as a stranger to both people and country. Here the crowds seemed to regard me with cold curiosity, while only a few days before my own people had surged around me and gazed into my face with eyes filled with tears, and lips trembling with emotion, in spite of the "Hurras," and cries of "May God's richest blessings be yours, our dear child, our little princess!" Hardly more than a child in years, I was surprised and dumbfounded at the idea of being really married, sensitive and fearful of displeasing, and positive of my own inefficiency to bear the burden which had been laid on my shoulders with the royal mantle.
But I took with me one never-failing consolation—my pen. To be regarded as a poetess would have surprised me as much as to be called a magician. Can the soul of one's soul be given a name?
During my journey down "Schöne Blaue Donau" the beauty of the scenery and surroundings gradually increased the nearer I approached my new home, like the grand finale of some symphony, until it seemed as though I were passing through fairyland. From the turquoise blue of the cloudless sky, tinged with burnished gold as the sun sank to rest beyond the distant mountains, to the deep green of the pastureland, beside the picturesque villages nestled among the flower covered hills, my eyes fairly reveled in the gorgeous colors of the scene. The peasantry, in their national dress of rich colors and graceful drapery, only tended to complete the entrancing beauty of the whole. So, I entered Roumania, my future home.
The country people who gathered to greet me wore white clothes, embroidered in red, black, or gold; the women had floating veils of white linen, or yellow silk, and red petticoats. The men rode on their stocky little ponies, with gay cloaks floating in the wind, their broad girdles containing a complete arsenal of pistols and dirks, while their well-poised heads were covered by jaunty hats, from which hung long white streamers.
I found the peasantry tall, graceful and beautiful, with a dignity of poise and bearing that made their smile delightful, especially when the curling lips revealed the pearly whiteness of their teeth. Their rich, dark complexions, aquiline noses, delicate and sensitive nostrils, impassioned, deep-set eyes that seemed to scintillate with a hidden fire, their sonorous language, which sometimes sounded almost guttural, used with remarkable ease and eloquence, charmed me; these austere men, dignified matrons, and beautiful children, who regarded me with soft, liquid eyes, all combined to stir my heart with new emotions, to awaken a bond of sympathy that should last forever, and to kindle with in me an affection and interest that I had never felt towards any other people.
Occasionally, as we had floated down the Danube through Servia and Bulgaria, a troop of soldiers passing up the riverbanks would stop to salute our royal barge, or from some hillside port would come the distant echo of a fanfare of trumpets. As we entered Roumania the river became more majestic in its silence, and the towns grew smaller in size and less in number. So I entered into my new possessions and the country I was hereafter to call my own.
On that day I arrived at the sad conclusion that my own soul was not sufficient in my new position, no matter how noble, how full of love, how rich in good intentions. For the first time in my life I was compelled to think of my personal appearance. Prior to this I had never had time for thoughts of myself, or for daydreaming, as my youth bad been passed by the bedside of the dying, my leisure moments spent in the midst of intellectual circles, and my eyes had wept more for the sorrows of others than my own, and now, entering into a new life, my spirits were indeed cast down as I slowly realized my own weakness and inefficiency.
With a fluttering heart, parched lips, cold hands, and trembling limbs, I endeavored to smile bravely in response to my husband's attentions as we entered the capital, and listened to his words of description and explanation. His face was beaming with pride as the multitude greeted his young wife with "huzzas," and his words of encouragement to me were almost drowned in the roar of the cannon, the wild peal of the bells, and the sweet strains of the national anthem sung by the greeting thousands. In spite of my nervousness I could not suppress a cry of admiration, as we stepped to our carriage, surrounded by glittering troops of soldiers, gay postilions, decorated with flags and bunting, and I caught a glimpse of the city my new home which lay nestled among the green hills and verdant fields, the very picture of restfulness and idealization of beauty.
As we entered the carriage and drove toward the palace the salutes along the roadside became incessant. I smiled and bowed to the people, but my smile was forced; as we entered the city, it seemed as though between the throbbing in my ears, and the riotous clanging of bells, that my head would burst.
We entered the metropolitan court, and were greeted by officers in gorgeous uniforms, ladies in court costumes, and the red-vested clergy, with their long white beards, who all drew near to bid us welcome. To lend additional pomp to the ceremony forty couples were married before us on that day, every bride wearing a veil of gold thread.
"Here is our palace," said the king, as we approached a sombre building.
"Where?" I asked.
"Right before you," he replied with a smile; and I readily understood that it was the king's presence which made any dwelling our palace, no matter how modest it was.
The royal residence of Bukharest was an old house, which had been hastily prepared for my arrival. The young sovereign had taken but little thought of personal luxuries. He spent his days in planning improvements for city and country, devoting his life to the interests of his people. Not a window in the palace could be tightly closed, and the dampness penetrated into every room. For nearly twenty years this place had been a hot-bed for fever, and in consequence we lost many of our most devoted attendants.
Bukharest of that time and Bukharest of today are entirely different places. Tens of thousands of new houses have been added to the city. The thatched roofs are things of the past, the streets are paved with granite blocks, and electric lights have taken the place of the torches and lanterns of the night-watchman.
The palace has been completely transformed. The same old walls, it is true, are standing, but the interior has been entirely remodelled and rebuilt. It is now a palace in very truth, a regular domicile of rare beauty. The "throne-room" has been transformed into a library, the cabinet of the king into a veritable museum of art, while my own apartments have been adorned with choice paintings and rich furnishings, in which I delight.
The day following my arrival a reception was arranged, at which the ladies and gentlemen of Bukharest were presented to me, their young queen, and at once I found the aristocracy in every way different from the peasantry. The ladies were grave, almost austere, while the young débutantes were almost without exception pretty and charming. The gentlemen, true courtiers, had a decidedly French air about them, and as I look back to those days of long ago, and at the city as it now is, the change seems incredible. Then there was scarcely a house more than one story-high, where now stand lofty buildings and costly residences. But there are causes for regret as well as congratulation on the city's progress. Then the difference between the rich and poor was not so keenly felt. Everyone enjoyed the best, even those of humblest means. If I asked the poorest of my petitioners where he lived, the invariable answer was: "In casele mele" (in my own house). Now it is very different, in a hut or a tenement.
The day after these festivities I was ignominiously taken ill with measles. To be sick among people who were perfect strangers to me was, to say the least, hard. I neither knew my nurse, my ladies-in-waiting, my maids-of-honor, or my physician. Then, during my convalescence they insisted on treating me for nervousness, although ignorant of my past life. This was particularly distasteful to me, for according to my Spartan training "nervousness" and "bad bringing up" were synonymous terms.
The city then was a constant surprise to me. The streets were picturesque, and entirely unlike any others I had ever seen. In one portion of the town the houses seemed more fit for dolls than human beings, dainty and inviting, nestled among the trees. In spring, when the acacias are in bloom, the dense foliage completely hides some of these suburban hamlets. Further on were the humble shops of the mechanics and the eating-houses where the weary traveler might refresh himself, with tzuica, the native plum-wine. On the banks of the Dimbovitza, a narrow branch of the Danube, the houses seemed more diminutive than any others. The stream was crossed by countless bridges, and in the muddy banks I could discern a confused moving mass, which I was informed was the backs of domesticated hippopotami.
Later, my acquaintance with these monster antediluvians progressed considerably. Their milk is very rich, while the butter is white and pleasant to the taste. To keep these heavy brutes alive, only a bed of mud and a diet of hay are necessary. In winter they are provided with an underground retreat and woollen blankets.
The country roads are dust-covered in dry weather, and extremely muddy in wet. The stages are drawn by eight, ten, or even sixteen little ponies, according to the weight of the load and the speed desired. The boys, perched on one or more of the horses as postilions, are apparently the wildest and most reckless drivers. The conductor, on the other hand, usually hums some plaintive melody, in blissful disregard of the danger to life or limb, only stopping to use some strong language to any flagging horse to which he supplements the invocation, "May God forgive you!
The speed attained by these stages is remarkable, about 35 kilometres (22 miles) an hour, when the roads are in good condition.
In the streets of the city proper there is a constant coming and going of carts, wagons, and carriages. The Roumanian coachmen are superb drivers and trustworthy servants, whilst a pedestrian needs "nerve" and a cool head to navigate the streets with safety. There are, comparatively speaking, more carriages in Bukharest than in any other city of the world; they are also larger than elsewhere, and I am quite sure make much more noise.
During a short quarter of an hour I counted one hundred and fifty equipages as they drove past my window at the palace. The only time the streets are passably quiet is between two and four in the morning. Above the incessant rattling of vehicles sound the melancholy cries of hucksters and pedlers.
The streets have a decidedly Oriental appearance which renders them both novel and bizarre to the traveller. Amusements are plenty among these people, who are very sociable and hospitable; almost every family has two or three extra covers laid at each meal for any chance guest that may drop in. All are cordially invited to share the repast even of the poorest laborer, be it only two onions or a dish of watery stew, although social gayety and hilarity are rarely seen. Never in my life have I observed a people so sad as are the Roumanians at heart. The children even have an air of gravity and sadness far beyond their tender years; their little figures are frequently pale and wan; their great eyes, fringed with long silken lashes, beam with intelligence, but also with a glance of unaccountable melancholy.
A Roumanian never allows himself to be startled or surprised by anything; he is born blasé. Enthusiasm is an unknown emotion to him. He regards death with the utmost indifference, and accepts all the varied phases of life with the same stoicism. Once at a court ball I turned to a new deputy, whom I asked:
"Does this please you?"
"Somewhat, your gracious majesty," he replied. "I have seen it before, but my wife has never witnessed such a spectacle."
I turned to her and asked, "Do you think this is beautiful?"
"Not bad," was the laconic reply, given without any desire to be aught than deferential and truthful. Neither the blaze of lights, the dazzling jewels, nor the intoxicating beauty of the scene succeeded in disturbing the supreme coldness of her bearing.
When I arrived in this country, no lady of high rank ever deigned to walk the streets; but this has fortunately been changed, and now mothers can only tell their daughters of the days when aristocracy meant indolence or seclusion, and when formalities were carried to such extremes. Then each family was almost a kingdom within itself; the younger members looking up to their elders with veneration and extreme deference.
But the introduction of foreign ideas has done away with the domestic tribunal and confessional. Education, I am happy and proud to say, is general and advanced, especially among women, both rich and poor. There are no mothers more loving and considerate than the Roumanians. They are truly the slaves of their children. During the last war the women showed the inherent heroism of their natures. Voluntarily offering themselves as nurses, they devoted their entire time to the relief of the suffering, not leaving the sick in field or hospital, day or night, and showing the same loving solicitude to their enemies as to their own people.
Unfortunately Bukharest is not a healthy city. The changes of its climate are sudden and very severe. Nothing in the history of our capital affords so sad a reminiscence as the contagious disease which raged some years ago, and counted its victims in every household. Previous to this the funerals of the people of Bukharest had been conducted with most imposing ceremonials. Indeed, there was little of the funereal about them. The corpse was carried through the streets in an open bier. If that of a woman, the remains would be decked out in festive attire, the hair elaborately arranged and ornamented with flowers, and the cheeks and lips not infrequently daubed with rouge, making the whole spectacle a ghastly mockery of death. The gay procession, with the garishly bedecked corpse, whose head would roll from side to side on a satin pillow, formed anything but a pleasing sight. The plague changed this, and now the remains of the dead can only be exposed in the churches.
The regard for the departed loved ones is carried almost to an extreme in our country, as the monuments, inscriptions, photographs, and ornamentations amply testify. At night small lamps or lanterns are swung over the graves, giving the uninitiated the rather uncanny idea that the souls of the departed are hovering over their bones like some spectre "will-o'-the-wisp."
A natural love of flowers is characteristic of the Roumanian people, and there is scarcely a cottage that is not ornamented with vases of blooming geraniums or heliotrope. The trees on the contrary do not reach any degree of beauty here, the summer being scorching and the winter frosty cold. The difference between the temperature of summer and winter is fully 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Among the finest institutions of Bukharest are the hospitals. They have been founded in memory of deceased princes, and now have for their support an aggregate income of some three or four million francs. Their portals are always open for rich or poor, who all fare alike. Close to some of the leading hospitals are the barracks of the regiments stationed at the capital. Their presence is not without value, Bukharest being a fortified town, occupying an important strategic position, and its invasion would materially affect the results of a European war.
Bukharest has been transformed into a modern metropolis, and one of the scientific centres of the world. Our government has, I am proud and happy to say, been successful, for we have accomplished in twenty five years what our predecessors failed to do in centuries.
When my husband ascended the throne there was but one battery of artillery; now there are seven hundred cannon. Railways and bridges have been built all over the country and its riches have increased ten-fold. Still we push on to further progress, for Roumaniais a country of the future as well as of the past.