CHAPTER XIII - TWO QUEENS
Dusk had fallen and the lights were twinkling and lighting up the darkened city, casting long shadows across the courtyard and -wings of the Palace, as we drove up for our first audience with Queen Elizabeth, better known to the world as Carmen Sylva.
The Palace is a long low building: a comfortable and unpretentious abode, once the home of a wealthy "boyard" or noble. It has been added to and much embellished, to render it suitable for a Royal residence. To the left of the courtyard, a smaller entrance leads to the private apartments of the Queen, and it was here we alighted; a magnificent full-bearded janitor in the Royal livery assisting and escorting us to the brilliantly-ht hall.
Divesting ourselves of our furs, we were conducted up the broad staircase, into a series of very charming rooms, lit up by the soft radiance of lamps which picked out in fine relief the mellow beauties of some fine old masters on the walls, and touched with bright gleams the beautiful objects d'art and bibelots, the massed beauty of flowers and the glowing tones of the old rugs scattered about.
Awaiting us in the first room were Madame Benjesco, the Queen's dame d'honneur and Monsieur Dall' Orsa, her private secretary, an accomplished musician and delightful man, who has been in Her Majesty's entourage for nearly seventeen years. They entertained us very charmingly with tea, until we moved through the intervening rooms to the big salon where the Queen Dowager received us.
We saw a beautiful, gracious figure with a crown of soft white hair and long lace veil, framing a face of exceeding sweetness and beauty of expression. The eyes, still full of the enthusiasm of youth, irresistibly draw one. The mouth with its finely-limned lips shows tenderness and compassion, while the pathetic droop that comes to those who have lived and suffered deeply traces its gentle line to the chin, with its evidence of courage and deep feeling. The hands are those of the artist, soft, supple, sensitive—the whole pose that of a most gracious Queen and woman. She was gowned in a soft gown of silver grey—cut to show her throat. She wore few jewels, and the long soft white veil that she wore on her head added to the graceful lines of her figure.
With a few words of welcome, she drew us into a luxurious little comer of the room, and asked us our impressions of Roumania and the countries we had just been visiting. She told us how much she loved travelling, but how little she had been able to indulge this taste.
We talked of the City of Lagoons, Venice, which she knew well, and of all its beauties and treasures of art. Imperceptibly, we glided into the subject of music. She said she had heard how musical we were, and she hoped we would come and hear some music at the Palace one evening. She disliked any formal or big musical affairs, and only invited a few real music-lovers to them. She was very interested in hearing about the Heavenly Twins, as we called the Stradivarius and Montagnana violoncellos we had left at home.1
Music without melody did not attract her, and she found little beauty in the modern German composers. Her favourite masters were the three great B's—Bach, Beethoven, Brahms: Schumann, Mozart, Wagner, and of the French School, César Franck and Debussy, appealed to her much.
I told her how often I had sung her beautiful "Meer lieder" or "Songs of the Sea," put to music by Bungert, and the pathetic "Sand Seller," and how finely Sir Owen Seaman, poet, and present editor of Punch, had translated the words into English.
The mention of the sea caused a fresh glow of enthusiasm on her expressive face, and she took us into the adjoining apartment, where a beautiful organ stands on which she plays, to look at a big picture by the Russian artist, Aïrazowski, of a wild grey sea with wind-driven clouds, and crested billows like sea monsters snorting their salt spray to the whirlwind. It was a fine thing, and stood out sombre and full of remote mystery and breath of the wild sea wastes, in the perfumed beautiful room.
The call of the deep was one of the prevailing notes in her nature, and perpetually seemed to summon her. To her it meant none of the fear, the latent cruelty that it means to many, but, a strong restful force, and to see it even in its wildest moods meant solace. She spoke also of suffering, mental and physical, and what had helped her to bear it.
As we returned to our seats, Her Majesty smilingly remarked, "Oh, I must show you that I am a needlewoman as well as a poet," and lifting from an adjacent table, she shook out in soft heavy folds a beautiful altar-cloth. It was fashioned in an extraordinary fine mesh of gold, with a Cross worked on this in deeper, closer stitchery, and ornamented with pearls and turquoises—a work of great beauty and delicacy, and destined for one of the churches, several of which already possess many valuable bits of her work.
One of the most beautiful, perhaps, of all the needlework she showed us, was the piece exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in 1900. It was a baptismal veil for Prince Carol, who was a baby then, and who will reign over Roumania one day. It was a little gem of delicacy and skill, a tiny poem in lace and fairy stitches! A Roumanian poet has written these charming verses on it:
We begged her to tell us about the blind people she is so interested in, and her face kindled as she spoke of the colony she had established for them. Full of compassion, and touched by their sad lot, her one thought is to lighten their dark existence.
She spoke of the lack of funds which hampered the full realization of her aims. A site near Sinaia has been given by a generous sympathizer, and houses, each to accommodate two families, have been built, with workrooms, a club and church. There, relieved from the most pressing cares for their existence, they can work, every means being provided to develop their tastes and promote the full attainment of their talents.
This colony is called the "Hearth of Light," and is open to the blind of all nations, and the members will support themselves in the different crafts they undertake.
There are over 20,000 blind in Roumania ; many of them, by reason of their poverty and affliction, are paupers and uneducated: unhappy stranded beings whose misery one can only dimly realize in reading de Maupassant's pathetic story, " L'Aveugle."
One of her blind people has invented a machine for printing by type, books of Braille type, until now embossed by hand. It was a rough experiment, but has been perfected after a year's close work and attention, and is now patented all over the world, placing the means of knowledge and a vast field of interest and happiness into the very hands of the blind. The machine will cost far less than any other of its kind, about three hundred francs only, and will be able to print books as easily for the blind as the seeing. Already, without any pushing, numbers of the machines have been sold.
I told her of a dear friend of mine (Captain Towse, V.C., of the Gordon Highlanders), who, during the South African War, in heroic defence of a position, had both his eyes shot away: of his brave courageous endurance of such a calamity, and the splendid example of hope and fortitude he was to many others, suffering or in despair.
How he cut down the trees in his country place, laid out and planned the gardens, played golf (and twice beat me at it too!), and had developed into a first-rate carpenter, making chicken houses, garden seats, quite fit for exhibition, and all sorts of useful as well as ornamental things.
She was astonished to hear that he travelled about alone, and was an expert salmon fisher, landing a 40-lb. beauty from the Tweed one of the last days of the fishing season. She was also exceedingly interested in hearing that he had been made one of the Gentlemen-at-Arms and Sergeant of the Body Guard to the King, and did his duties like any of the others; and how he had been chosen to stand on guard round the bier of King Edward the Seventh, during his lying-in-state at Westminster.2
Clasping her hands and leaning forward, she cried eagerly: "Oh! do beg him to come out here, to speak, help, and encourage my poor blind people—tell him to come. Tell him I would like to meet him."
Many admirers of the Queen in distant lands have sent donations, as well as the Roumanian people, to further this noble work, for who has not a deep feeling of pity and compassion for those condemned by fate and misfortune to live in uttermost darkness?
From the adjoining room we could hear the chime of a clock striking seven, and were amazed to find we had been talking for an hour and a half.
Bending forward slightly, she said: "And now I must go. It is not good-bye, it is only farewell. This long talk we have had has been one of interest, each has much to give the other;" and indeed, as she so truly suggested, we are all pilgrims together. Invisible links bind us to one another; our speech, our looks, our souls mingle for a moment, "striking the electric chain with which we are darkly bound."
Bending low, we kissed the slender hand, and the gracious figure of the Queen vanished into the dusk of the inner room.
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Two days afterwards we received a card summoning us to the Palace for a soirée musicale Her Majesty was giving, and at six o'clock we ascended the line staircase and into the big saloon where the Queen, surrounded by her ladies, received us. As we curtsied low, she said: "I am so glad to see you again, and that you are here for my music."
About twenty of Her Majesty's most intimate friends had gathered round her, delighted to share in the musical pleasure she had prepared for them.
After tea in the small salon we all moved into the beautiful music-room which adjoins, and Her Majesty, seating herself, motioned to a few of us to come and sit near her.
The programme commenced at once, and we had a very masterly rendering of a string quartette by Glazonov with a scherzo movement of exceeding beauty. The glorious "Saphische Ode" and "Alte Liebe" of Brahms were well sung by a prima donna from Düsseldorf—of Brunhilde-like proportions—and she added "Entgegnung" of Richard Strauss's. Some brilliant piano-playing by a young Slav artist and another fine quartette by Novik ended the musical programme.
During the performance, the Queen sat in a low armchair, the light falling on the snow-white hair, which she picturesquely describes thus: "White hair is the foam that covers the sea after tempest." The busy fingers, never idle a moment, were working with amazing rapidity fresh meshes in the beautiful altar-curtain she had shown us. She worked quite unconsciously, for her eyes were often on the performers or glancing at us to smilingly demand our approval of some especially lovely passage.
The usual chill formality of a court was not emphasized here, for the wonderful dignity, combined with the expressive personality and sympathetic interest shown by Her Majesty, drew out the very best in everyone.
Many a world-famed artist has surpassed himself in this room before such appreciative, intelligent interest, and Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, the Coquehns, as well as the great musicians and authors of the day, have willingly travelled to this distant land to be received by this distinguished Patroness of the Arts.
While listening to the music I had ample opportunity to look at the rooms which the Queen has made such a reflection of her tastes and accomplishments, for no greater index to the character and disposition of a woman can be found than in the way her home—the intimate encircling wails that enclose her from the world—is arranged.
At the far end of the big salon, where we had been received at our first audience, stands the winter-garden with its wealth of cool greenery, and one passes through a small salon, in which stands the great organ, to the Salon de Réception, and thence through an enormous arch to the Music Room.
Nothing could be more beautiful, more home-like, than these lovely rooms upon whose walls hang many examples by the great masters, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Ribeira—only a few out of the fine collection the King had made—but which with the smaller canvases of the Flemish and fourteenth century school covered the warm crimson-hued walls.
Costly tables covered with bibelots of every description, beautiful cabinets, and here and there a statue or bronze with a background of lovely flowers give their note of distinction to the room.
The Salon de Musique has two platforms—a small one in the foreground for "petit comité" and a larger one at the back ; around the room runs a gallery, the walls and woodwork carved by that master in wood, M. Stoehr, who has also at the palace at Sinaia effected some veritable chefs d'œuvre of artistic and decorative work.
Books, china and lovely fauteuils have their place under the gallery. To the left lies the salon of the dames d'honneur, and beyond, the library of the Queen with its book-lined walls containing over twenty thousand volumes on History, Art, Literature, Philosophy and Science.
Madame Olga Maurojeny, Grande Maîtresse de la Cour, has been over twenty years in attendance on the Queen, and has a personality of much dignity and distinction. Madame Zoe Bengesco, bright and charming, who received us on our first visit, and Madame Poenaro were two of the others we met.
The music over, the Queen, after thanking and speaking a few words to each performer, rose and, coming to me, asked if I understood German. I told her I did, and she added, "For I wish to read you some of my poems."
She ascended the smaller platform on which M. Dall' Orsa, her secretary, had arranged a low chair and footstool—a little table on which lay a large flat parcel being placed beside her.
I think one of the truest pleasures I have had in my life, and one of the most charming pictures, will be the memory of this evening with Her Majesty.
The quiet room, with its softly shaded lamps, full of the atmosphere of refinement and culture, the listening faces in bright relief, the rest in soft shadow, all attention focussed on the single gentle figure that yet dominated the room. The long flowing line of black gown, the silvery cloud of mellow-hued lace falling from the aureole of snowy hair, with the deep dark background of beautiful carved wood!
The voice rose and fell in cadences of elusive beauty, now low with quivering pathos, now rippling with mirth. One slender hand was raised to punctuate and express with gentle emphasis the hues; the eyes and lips melted in harmony, and the swift play of moods and emotions that swept over the mobile face made a poetic scene.
A little sigh of pleasure ran through the responsive coterie as Her Majesty finished in softened voice the last few lines. The Queen, assisted from the platform by M. Dall Orsa, advanced to bid us good-bye.
As I curtsied she raised me and, drawing me towards her, kissed me twice very gently, saying: " Good-bye, dear friend, good-bye; do not forget Roumania and come back soon."
Threading her way with salutations and with sympathetic words of inquiry for many, she passed into the softly-lit apartments beyond.
M. Dall' Orsa came up to me with the parcel we had already remarked lining on the Queen's table.
I found in it, to my great delight, two photographs of Her Majesty, signed and with this beautiful Pensée inscribed on one: "Each of us has so much to give that we never meet in vain and so much to receive that we part with thanks."
A little book of her poems, entitled "Sweet Hours," was enclosed, and on the fly-leaf was a photogravure of Carmen Sylva standing under a lofty aisle of beeches whose slender stems lost themselves in a canopy of leaves above: this is Her Majesty's book-plate, and underneath she had written: "We wander over our tombs in God's cathedral and then our feet are holy."
* * * * * * *
Born Princess Pauline Elizabeth Ottelie Louise of Wied, she inherited gifts of a high order from her parents, her father especially being a philosopher and man of letters, and from childhood they encouraged and developed her mental and moral qualities.
As a girl she was of a very lively, quick and affectionate disposition, and her brightness and charm of manner were greatly admired at the Berlin Court where she made her début and first met her future husband.
She had always vowed she would not marry and had announced her preference for a literary and artistic life. Travel also greatly attracted her, and her wonderful gift for languages—French, English, Italian, Spanish—gave her a wide sphere of enjoyment. When she again met Prince Charles of Hohenzollern-Zigmaringen, in 1869, she was deeply interested in what he had to tell her of his work in far-off Roumania, to which he had been recently elected Prince. So much so, that when he proposed she accepted him gladly, feeling that here was a real sphere of usefulness, and one in which she could be of help and assistance to him in raising a country so terribly persecuted and down-trodden by the Turk in the past.
Her entry into her new home after her marriage was by the Danube and in the same Royal Barge or boat that took the Emperor of Austria and his lovely ill-fated Empress on their wedding journey.
From the day of her arrival—the threshold of her new life—the Queen endeared herself to her future people by the noble qualities of mind and heart that she possessed and the unselfish devotion to their interests that she followed all her life.
During the Russo-Turkish War, when Roumania fought so splendidly by the side of the Russian armies, she did untiring work in the hospitals, nursing the wounded and soothing the last hours of those who were facing the Great Beyond, earning the name of "Mother of her Country" by a grateful people.
A year after their marriage, a little daughter, the Princess Marie, was born to them—"l'enfant du soleil," as the devoted parents called her. She was a lovely little thing, and early showed that she inherited all her mother's intelligence and sweet nature.
But this radiant little being was not long lent to them, and to the inexpressible grief of her parents and the nation she died in her fourth year. No other children blessed their union.
It is difficult to analyse the varied charm and attraction such a character has upon those who come under its influence. It is primarily that of purity of thought, courage and hopefulness.
Her nature, sincere and generous, accepted the trials of ill-health and suffering uncomplainingly, and it only seemed to intensify the depth of her pity and added to the compassionate nature of her charm. She was always ready to help those in distress and succour the people of the country she had taken to her heart.3
Her great solace has been work—work in every variety and form, from the devoted love and attention to the King to the inauguration and administration of her manifold charities and the relieving of those in distress.
But it is in her enthusiastic cultivation and steady allegiance to the Arts, and in the development of the things of the mind and spirit, that she found her greatest happiness. Her literary activity was very great, as a glance at the list of her published works will show.
The drama she wrote, entitled "Mesterul Manole," was produced in Vienna under the auspices of the Emperor, and had more than a succès d'estime.
The legend relates how Manole, the master builder of the cathedral of Curtea de Arges—where the King is buried—did not follow the ancient custom of immuring a living being within its walls to secure their stability. The consequence was that the walls crumbled as soon as they were built. Thereupon it was decided that the builders should immure the first person who passed that way.
This happened to be the young wife of Manole the master builder, who was bringing some fruit to the men. She was immured, to the tragic despair of her husband, who was away for the day and arrived too late to save her. It is said her anguished cries are sometimes heard from the old walls.
Her beautiful "Pensées d'une Reine," crowned by the Academie Française in 1888 in astonishingly flattering terms, show a delicate vein of satire and wit as well as a beauty of thought that commended itself to the French genius, which admires the epigrammatic style as exemplified by their great La Rochefoucauld.
"Coquetry is not always an allurement: it is sometimes a shield."
"La femme du monde est difficilement la femme de son mari."
"If we are created in the image of God, we also must be creators."
"A woman is stoned for an action a perfect gentleman can do with impunity."
"Happiness is like the echo: it answers but does not come."
"Fasting makes a devotee; good cheer a diplomatist."
"A woman's virtue ought indeed to be great, since it has often to suffice for two."
"Duty only knits her brow at you when you fly from her; follow her and she smiles."
"Piety is the nostalgia of a lost paradise."
"The faults of your husband or your wife are insupportable only so long as you insist on correcting them; you should put up with them as you do the smell of your dog, because you like him."
"One must have heart to enjoy a person's qualities, and mind to endure their defects."
"A wife has to love you, suffer in childbirth, share your cares, direct your household, bring up your family and be pretty and amiable into the bargain; what were you saying just now about her weakness?"
Only a short while ago the Gaulois, in an article entitled "Queen and Poet," by Edmond Haraucourt, contains this appreciation of her Muse:
"It is thus that we see a Princess, notwithstanding the disadvantages of royal birth, and the isolation that a throne creates, experiencing and proclaiming in the second half of the nineteenth century the ideas which are in essence those of the twentieth. That which people are but dimly beginning to divine, Governments only to conceive, and Parliaments to discuss—this voice of child, woman, queen has long sung! We see this poet-Queen, possessed during all her life with the four primordial needs of the new century—the instinctive impulse towards nature, the fever of work, the constant endeavour to mitigate the sufferings of the poor, the brotherhood of man and the appeasement of national hatreds."
Who has not read the beautiful lines written when England was mourning the passing of her great Queen? She, whose heart, shaken and bruised by the clashing din of the South African war, gave up the long and faithful vigil!
Let me close this brief sketch of one of the sweetest singers, and accomplished Queens of her day, with one of her own beautiful Pensées, a true epitome of the principles that have guided and governed her life.
1The Stradivarius was made for the great Visconti family of Milan in 1684, and has their coat of arms emblazoned on it in rich colour, both on the back and belly of the instrument. It was brought to England in 1800, but was subsequently taken to the West Indies, where it was lost to sight for some time, but eventually came into my husband's possession.
2During the last twelve months he has been working hard at one of the big base hospitals in France, cheering and encouraging the terribly wounded there, writing their letters, etc. So splendid has his influence been that other hospitals have begged him to come and visit their men. One tiny incident illustrates this. A man with terrible wounds to his head and one eye gone was immensely interested in hearing that Captain Towse had also had grave injuries to his brain as well as losing both eyes. On leaving, he said to the patient: "Keep your tail up and you'll get on." Next time he came, though very ill and unable to remember much, Tommy recognized him at once, and eagerly greeted him with: " I can't remember just what you said I was to keep up, Captain, but I'm keeping it up and Sister says I'm fine."
3As I write news comes of the death of Queen Elizabeth at the Palace of Curtea de Arges, to the regret of all who knew, admired and loved her.