Carmen Sylva and Sketches from the Orient
by Pierre Loti

Chapter One



DURING my wanderings, I once chanced to spend a few days with a fairy in an enchanted castle.

The distant sound of a horn in the forest depths invariably brings back to my mind the most trivial incidents of this visit.

The reason was that the fairy’s castle lay in the very heart of a densely wooded forest in which the distant blasts of martial trumpets were constantly heard resounding on every side. There was a strange, weird melancholy of its own about the sound, resembling some magic call, in the vibrant air we breathed,—the silent, pure, invigorating air of the mountain peaks. . . .

For me, music has a power of evocation that is absolute; fragments of melodies heard years ago remind me, far better than any visual image would do, of certain spots I have seen, certain persons who have come into my life.

And so whenever I hear a distant clarion call, there arises before my mind, as distinctly as though I were actually present, a royal boudoir (for the fairy of whom I speak is a queen as well) whose lofty Gothic windows overlook an endless stretch of green firs, thickly clustered together as in a primeval forest. The boudoir, stored with a profusion of valuable objects, possesses a rather gloomy kind of splendour, the colour of these objects being indefinable: faint crimson turning a tawny hue, and darkened gold tints assuming the look of smouldering embers; there are galleries resembling small inner balconies, large heavy hangings that conceal recesses full of mystery. . . . And there the fairy reappears before me, dressed all in white and wearing a long veil; she is seated in front of an easel, painting on parchment—Byzantine fashion—with light, easy touch, the most wonderful archaic illuminations, in which gold is the predominant colour: work antique which she had begun three years previously, a priceless missal, intended for a cathedral.

The fairy’s white robe is Oriental in form, woven and worked in silver thread. But the face, emerging from out the veil’s transparent folds, bears that inexpressibly gentle though somewhat sad expression which belongs to none but the most refined Northern races. And yet the general effect is so harmonious that one would think the dress had been invented for the fairy who wears it, and for no one else,—the fairy who somewhere said: “Dress is not a matter of indifference. It makes of you a living work of art, the sole condition being that you adorn that which adorns you.”

How shall we describe the features of this queen? This is a delicate, a difficult task, for the ordinary expressions one would use are immediately rejected as irreverent, so instinct with respect is the feeling she arouses within the soul. The light of eternal youth is in her smile, on her velvet-pink cheeks, shining and dancing in the laughter of her beauteous lips. Her magnificent tresses, however, visible through the silver-spangled veil, are almost white! . . . “White locks,” she wrote in her Thoughts, “are the foam-topped waves which ride upon the sea after a storm.”

And what words could express the unrivalled charm of her glance, of those clear grey eyes, somewhat overshadowed by the broad open forehead: the charm of a lofty intelligence, a discreet, sympathetic power of penetration, habitual suffering, and a wide-embracing pity? The countenance almost continually changes its expression, although the smile can scarcely ever be said to be absent. “It is part of our rôle,” she once said to me, “to be constantly smiling . . . like idols.” But there are many differences, many varieties of this queenly smile: suddenly it appears as frank, almost childish, gaiety; often it is a smile of mingled resignation and melancholy,—at times, even, of infinite sadness.

With one of the many sorrows that have turned white the hair of this sovereign I am acquainted,—can I not understand it better than another?—and I will tell it. In the centre of a large garden adjoining the royal residence stood the tomb of a little princess, who had inherited the features and the beautiful broad forehead of the queen by whose orders I was conducted to the spot.

On the tombstone was inscribed the following sentence: “Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.” And indeed, the small recumbent statue did seem to be peacefully sleeping in its marble robe.

“Weep not.” Nevertheless, the mother of the little sleeping damsel still bitterly mourns her only child. A phrase she often used comes back to my mind, as though some voice within myself were repeating it in slow, funereal accents: “A home without a child is like a bell without a tongue: the sound slumbering within might be very musical, could it only be aroused to life.”

How distinctly I remember every moment of those exquisite conversations with that white-robed queen, as we sat in the sombre boudoir. At the beginning of these notes, I spoke of a fairy: that was my way of referring to a being of superior essence. I could not use the word angel, which, through misuse, has become antiquated and ridiculous. Moreover, the word fairy, interpreted as I understand it, seems to me quite applicable to this woman—youthful in spite of her grey locks; smiling through a mist of tears; a daughter of the North and yet a queen of the Orient; speaking many languages and transforming each into perfect music; ever fascinating, possessing the gift of creating around her—sometimes merely by the aid of a genial smile—a kind of beneficent charm, of the most reassuring and consoling nature.

Thus do I call back to mind the queen with her flowing veil (no longer dare I speak of the fairy, now that I have defined her more openly). She is speaking to me as she sits before her easel, whilst archaic drawings, which seem the natural offspring of her fingers, succeed one another on the parchment of the missal. By the side of Her Majesty sit two or three young ladies, her maids of honour,—dark-complexioned girls wearing strange-coloured gold-spangled Oriental costumes; they are engaged either in reading, or in embroidering on silk large, old-fashioned flowers. They raise their eyes from time to time, whenever the conversation appears to interest them more particularly. The place Her Majesty generally appoints for me is in front of herself, near a large single-paned window, which offers the illusion of opening out upon the surrounding forest. With true artistic feeling, the king had allowed the forest to approach within twenty paces of the walls; the result being that the windows of the royal apartments look upon nothing but gigantic firs and undergrowth,—or wide-spreading verdant stretches, the sylvan peaks of the Carpathians rising tier upon tier in the limpid atmosphere. And the forest, which you feel to be close at hand, creates an impression of enchantment, of mystery, within the magnificent castle. . . .

Whole sentences, spoken by the queen in sweet, musical tones, come back to my mind. I replied almost in whispered accents, for the quiet, meditative atmosphere of a church seemed present in this boudoir. I remember, too, those occasional silences after some profound utterance whose meaning seemed to gain in intensity by reason of the prevailing calm. It was then, during these intervals of silence, that I heard—as though coming from the distant confines of the forest—those unknown, military sounds resembling that of a horn. It was autumn, and I even remember the following insignificant detail: the last few moths and flies that had heedlessly flown into this sumptuous tomb to die dashed their poor wings against the large, transparent glass window by my side.

As I have said, the queen’s voice was pure music,—music as delightful and fresh as it was instinct with youth! I do not think I ever heard the sound of a voice that could compare with hers, that I ever listened to any one reading with like charm. On the morrow of my arrival, Her Majesty had expressed curiosity as to what I thought of a certain German poem, unknown to me. In the course of a private conversation, her secretary put me on my guard: “If the queen reads it to you herself,” he said, “you will be unable to judge; no matter what the queen reads, it always appears delightful,—like the songs she sings,—but if you take up the book afterwards, to read alone, it is not at all the same thing and you are often completely disillusioned.”

Subsequently I discovered how true this warning was; being privileged to listen whilst Her Majesty was reading to the ladies of the Court, certain chapters from a book of mine, I actually failed to recognise my own work, so embellished and transfigured did it appear.

Of the whole castle, appearing in the midst of that forest, like an artist’s dream which the touch of a magic wand had made real, my memory retains nothing so distinctly as this boudoir. Already there is something vague and indistinct in what I can recall of those long galleries with their heavy hangings and ancient panoplies; those stairs up and down which passed maids of honour, ushers, or lackeys; those Renaissance rooms which made one think of an inhabited Louvre, a Louvre in times of royalty; that music room, so conducive to reverie, lofty and dim, with its wonderful stained windows, and containing the great organ which the queen played in the evenings . . . whereas I immediately recall without the slightest difficulty the room in which Her Majesty was at times so gracious as to receive me, when she was engaged in painting or some other occupation. After being permitted to pass those double doors, it seemed as though one had entered some serene abode from which so many persons and interests are shut out. It is there I always prefer to think of this queen, whose guest I was. When she walked across the boudoir, her white costume contrasted strikingly with the dark background formed by the door hangings or the rare woodwork sketches made by armies of sculptors. When she was seated working, from the place she had assigned to me the first day and which I was wont to take afterwards, I saw her face and veil appear prominent in front of that great, that superb painting of Delacroix, La Mise au tombeau du Christ. And invariably, on either side of her, sat the young ladies in Oriental costumes, completing a picture I would gladly have transferred to canvas, had I been able. From time to time these little maids of honour, all so different in aspect and features, changed and took each other’s place. When one had left the room, another was seen at the entrance door, raising the hangings with their large, heavy folds. After the usual ceremonial courtesy, she advanced, and kissed the queen’s hand,—sometimes sitting on the ground at her feet and leaning her head on the queen’s knees, in a caressing, though respectful, attitude. Then the queen would explain, with a plaintive, motherly smile, that she regarded them as her own “daughters.” To my mind, what constituted the one attraction of this smile, more than aught else, was its excessive kindness and benevolence.

How well, too, do I remember these young ladies, who every morning shook hands with me so simply and gracefully, with such an air of friendliness! On reaching the Court, I had been surprised to hear them all, in spite of their Oriental costumes, speaking in the most elegant French and with the purest accent, on all kinds of novel and intelligent topics, like Parisiennes of the best society—perhaps even better than Parisiennes of their own age, with more real learning, and less conventionality and frivolity. One felt that the queen had moulded to her own liking this nursery of the Roumanian aristocracy, amongst whom French is the language usually spoken.

The first time I had the honour of conversing with Her Majesty, I was not greatly astonished at hearing her speak in a superior fashion of superior things, for I knew this would be the case. But, in her position as a queen, as one who had to wear the “constant smile of an idol,” I imagined she must have been ignorant of certain of the deepest troubles and sorrows of the human soul. Great was my astonishment, however, to find that she was well acquainted with the woes and miseries of the humblest as well as of the greatest. For the queen to be of this nature, a sad and austere childhood in a castle away in the North was needed; a childhood purposely kept away from Court life, and brought into continual contact with the poor on her father’s estate. To make her so kind-hearted and accessible to all who suffer, her early education must have been a simple, family one, doubtless such as her mother, the princess of Wied, and her aunt, the Queen of Sweden, had received. Then followed a kind of pilgrimage through Europe, to London, Paris, the Courts of Berlin and Saint Petersburg, in the company of her aunt, the grand duchess Hélène of Russia. And in the countries she visited, the greatest masters stored her mind with a transcendent résumé, as it were, of human knowledge, with the quintessence of the world’s literature. Then followed the long series of years on the throne of Roumania. . . . She was still quite young when she came to this unsettled land, and must have gazed with astonishment on many a drama. The lonely and the widowed, childless mothers and motherless girls, instantly became her friends. She regarded it as the duty of a queen never to turn a deaf ear to affliction and sorrow, however heartrending,—it was her rôle to comfort and reconcile, to pardon and obliterate. . . . Her adopted “daughters,” brought up by her side in the palace, were always chosen preferably from amongst families afflicted with some mysterious misfortune or bereavement, and those who tearfully left her, when entering upon married life, seem to have retained in their hearts feelings of profound reverence and affection for the queen.

Boundless, unrestricted pity, all-pardoning and all-embracing, expecting nothing in return, such, to my mind, is the rare, the somewhat superhuman gift with which time and suffering, deception and ingratitude, have endowed this queen. But with that ardent nature of hers, that passionate enthusiasm for everything noble and beautiful, she must have passed through many a surprise, submitted to many an indignity, and felt the stirrings of many a rebellion, before winning that ultra-terrestrial smile which seems to form an integral part of her being. “Almost everyone of us has passed through his Gethsemane and his Calvary,” she wrote once; “Those who rise again belong to earth no more.”

Amongst my most delightful recollections of the castle of Sinaia I count the morning walks along the forest paths. It was then that I was permitted to converse with Her Majesty at greater length. The Court life at Sinaia, which is in a wild part of the country, high in the Carpathians, was simpler than in the large stately palace of Bucharest, both king and queen showing themselves so gracious and admitting their guest into all the charm of family life.

Generally about nine o’clock, with the sun shining gaily through the fresh morning air, and near the end of September, an usher would knock at my door and say in Roumanian accents: “Her Majesty is about to take a walk, and is asking for you down-stairs, captain.” I immediately descended, running down the soft-carpeted stairs, with armoured panoplies on either side. Below, I found the queen smiling, her fine figure, with its graceful lines, encased in a European robe of white cloth etiquette requiring the Roumanian costume and long veil only inside the castle). By her side, dressed in black and leaning on her arm, stood the Princess of Hohenzollern (the mother of King Charles and of the late Queen of Portugal). Then came two or three maids of honour, no longer wearing Oriental costume, but dressed like fashionable young ladies of the West, in neutral tints, somewhat after the English style,—giving them the appearance of quite different persons, so great was the change.

The keen mountain air was delightful to breathe. The sun shone brightly with that glorious light so usual in the Levant. On grass and moss were mirrored drops of dew, little crystals of hoar-frost, as we started along the sandy paths which straightway disappeared in the forest, beneath the giant firs.

The queen seemed happy and tranquil. As at all times, her countenance wore an expression of reposeful freshness,—and yet she had been working four or five hours, having risen before the dawn, the first in the castle to be astir. Ensconced in a cosey little corner, she had already ended her daily task, written out her orders, finished her letters, and covered several pages of foolscap with her dainty, free handwriting. All this so that she might be free to attend to her “daughters” and guests and give herself up wholly to visitors and music, to conversation and games.

From time to time, King Charles joined in these morning walks. The worthy soldier always appeared wearing his military tunic buttoned from top to bottom.

Now that I have mentioned him, I will say a few words regarding his general aspect. He had a benevolent, grave countenance, with very refined, regular features. His beard was raven black. A deep, anxious line furrowed his brow, generally giving his face a gloomy expression, but his smile redeemed everything,—a kind, attractive smile, like the queen’s. And what distinction and simplicity, what natural grace and majesty! How perfect the courtesy he showed towards his guests!

Generally the king would walk apart from the rest, accompanied by the Princess of Hohenzollern, and the queen refrained from breaking upon the tête-à-tête of mother and son, united by such a bond of affection, and who were destined so soon to be separated (I also remember the farewell day on which the princess returned to Germany, and we all accompanied her to the Austrian frontier). A feeling of veneration comes over me when I think of this princess- mother, so beautiful in spite of her years, in her long lace and black dress; she seemed to me the ideal of a princess,—the ideal of a mother as well, bearing a distinct resemblance to my own whenever she looked at her son. . . .

As I am not a Roumanian, and shall probably never return to that distant castle where I was honoured with so hospitable a reception that I can never forget it, I feel absolutely free to say how delightful in every respect this royal family was. I only wish I could express my meaning in quite exceptional language, bearing no resemblance whatever to a courtier’s adulation.

In an open space some distance from the castle stands a strange-looking hunting lodge, of ancient Gothic architecture, filled with bearskins, aurochs’ horns, and boars’ and stags’ heads. Here the queen has a very quiet, mysterious room for work and study. The whole building suggests the chalet of the Sleeping Beauty, hidden away amongst the firs ever since the Middle Ages.

Here, every morning, all assembled before returning to dress for lunch. The queen’s “daughters” and maids of honour, who had not joined in the walk, had reached the rendezvous by another path.

It was here that I first heard the queen read us one of those Stories she signs Carmen Sylva. A religious silence fell around as soon as the music of her voice began to be heard.

It was a heart-rending little tale, written with rare dramatic power, and I still remember how I thrilled with emotion as I sat listening. . . .

However, this is not the place to speak of her talent as a writer. I do not even wish to enter into the subject, however slightly, for to do this adequately would be a lengthy and serious task; I only mentioned it for the purpose of relating a trifling anecdote which has remained in my memory.

Before beginning, the queen wished to take up her lorgnon, which was fastened to her bodice by one of those enormous diamond clasps such as queens alone appear to possess. Her “daughters,” seated around, protested: “No! It does not become Your Majesty. It’s too bad to think that we cannot see Your Majesty’s eyes!” One of them, evidently the enfant gâté for the time being, made a formal resistance, and the queen gave way, with a smile.

But after a few pages, as the writing appeared indistinct or her eyes became somewhat clouded, she addressed the girl with a beseeching smile, saying in suppliant tones: “Come, please . . . reading aloud makes me so tired! . . . ”

Just this short sentence, uttered in such a tone of voice by a queen, appeared to me something altogether exquisite.

The lofty firs surrounding us cast a kind of bluish semi-darkness over the pointed wood- carvings of the room in which we were sitting. The splash of water was heard mingling with the queen’s voice; it came from a stream running down from the heights and passing close to the hunting lodge.

I was sufficiently close to Her Majesty to see the words of the book as she turned over the pages, and great was my surprise to discover that what she was reading in French was written in German. It would have been impossible to guess it, for there was not the slightest hesitation in her charming diction; even the phrases she improvised were always harmonious.

Only once did she pause for a word which did not come to her mind,—the name of a plant whose equivalent in French she had forgotten. “Oh! . . she exclaimed, looking up to the ceiling,—and then she began a little impatient tapping of the foot, endeavouring to think of the word. Then, of a sudden, she shook the arm of the girl seated by her side, with the remark: “Come, now, what are you doing to help me to find the word . . . you little log!”

Her charming voice and manner transformed this familiar phrase—which, coming from the lips of another, would have seemed trivial and commonplace—into something delightful, something distinguished, so unexpected and droll that we burst out laughing. . . . All the same, it happened just at a point where she was reading something that brought tears to our eyes as we listened in perfect silence. Carmen Sylva, reading her own works, is the only person who ever stirred me, with fiction, to the point of making me weep; perhaps this is the strongest praise of her talent that I can give, for even at the theatre, where men are so frequently moved to tears, I am never affected in the slightest degree.

On another occasion I heard her perform the same wonderful feat in translating from the Roumanian. She was reading aloud an old mountain ballad, transposing it right off into rhythmical, poetical French. It would appear as though it were a matter of indifference to her which language she used as the vehicle of her thoughts. In this respect she resembles those accomplished musicians who play a piece of music in any key with like facility and intensity of feeling. . . .

Now that I have come to the end of these few notes, I have the impression of having said nothing of what I wished to say. It was my intention to speak of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of Roumania, whereas I have merely touched the fringe of my subject. I have described the frame rather than the portrait, and that but lightly by reason of my excessive respect and reverence and from fear that I might not make it sufficiently life-like and beautiful.

I hope Her Majesty will not be angry with me for attempting to sketch her shadow, should these pages chance to come to her notice. All the same, that sentence in her Thoughts, which one might regard as her own description or painting of herself, startles me somewhat: Some women are majestically pure, like swans. Offend them and you will see their plumes bristle up for one brief moment, then they turn away in silence and take refuge in the bosom of the waters.