LEAVING Brasso we motored due south, accompanied by our guide, Mr. T —, and Dr. George Baiulescu, the courteous Prefect of the county of Brasso, and following the high road, turned sharply to the right after crossing the railway, leaving the Transylvanian Alps on our left.
Beyond the mountains lay Sinaia and Old Roumania and, towards us and to the north, the fair lands which Roumania had wrested from the Hungarians as a result of the World War.
A country wild and picturesque, with many mountain peaks and rushing streams, and here and there an equally picturesque village with tiled-roofed houses gleaming in the sun. Occasional carts, drawn by sturdy, pale-fawn oxen staggering along the uneven road, while homespun-clad drivers strode beside them, and near the outskirts of Tohanulnow, the last village that we passed, a camp of gypsies which for a time we lingered to observe.
Half-naked, elf-like children, who ran before us begging for alms, and wrinkled old women, one of whom wore as girdle a strange cord and shell that we were told was the symbol of necromancy. And behind these, a crowd of handsome gypsy men and women with flashing eyes and teeth of pearl, chattering like magpies, who gradually approached the car and started to dance and sing to a wild barbaric melody that entranced us with its restless, savage rhythm.
The wild grace of these young gypsy girls was arresting, and as they danced and swayed to a music that throbbed right through our hearts we too began to feel something of the passion that it incarnated, and strange, undreamed-of yearnings impelled us to forget our civilisation as we sensed in the dirty ragged beings who evoked them something that we had once felt but forgotten.
Throwing a few ten lei notes among the crowd, we continued on our way, amid loud cries and vociferations, that were apparently meant to convey the impression that our largesse had not been sufficient and that we had been expected to give more.
Another five minutes and we were climbing up a steep hill, on the top of which we saw a mediaeval-looking old fortress that towered over the village below. This was Bran, an old castle that had formerly belonged to a Hungarian landowner, but which the town of Brasso had bought and presented to the Queen in testimony of the profound regard and gratitude that they entertained for her royal person.
Hastily jumping down from the car, the Prefect rang the bell and, on a servant opening the door, gave him our cards and his own.
He told us that he had written to the architect who was in charge of the rebuilding operations, and that we were expected.
"The Queen is away," he said. "She is staying at Sinaia with Princess Iliana, but that will not prevent you seeing everything you wish to see in the castle."
The servant now returned to show us that we had been mistaken. He told the Prefect that the Queen was at home and that she would be glad to see us.
What were we to do? We examined our travel-stained costumes and vowed that we were hardly presentable, but when the Prefect pointed out that he was just as unsuitably clad, we hesitated no longer. We followed a servant up a long staircase to a beautifully furnished room overlooking the valley, where we were asked to await Her Majesty.
Looking round, I noticed that the room was almost entirely furnished in the English style and that the bookcase near a pretty escritoire was almost entirely filled with English books; then I suddenly heard a voice behind me greeting us in English. I turned round and saw approaching, with a gracious smile, the Queen herself.
How shall I best describe her appearance?
Shall I dilate, as so many others have done before me, on the perfection of her profile, the exquisite chiselling of her nose and mouth, the lustre of her golden hair, the noble breadth of her brow, or the regal splendour of her carriage and poise?
All these things I could do if I only sought to portray what is by its essence transient as the rainbow or the bubble, but as I am desirous, above all, of conveying a really faithful impression of the individuality that breathed beneath her mature loveliness, I will content myself with saying that few Roumanians are as fair and none fairer; that, tall and beautifully moulded, Marie of Roumania wins every heart by the beauty and charm that she manages to impart to her very simplest gesture, and that among the royal houses of Europe there is no queen or princess whose beauty makes so profound an appeal to humanity.
Of the charm and magnetism, however, that are mainly responsible for the attraction which she has for so long exercised on her people, and the immaterial beauty of which her very material charms are only a figure, I would speak more fully; for I saw them synchronising before me during the hour's audience that she so graciously granted us on this occasion, and I would say that, laired among this impulsive and warmhearted Latin race, among whom she came as a very young queen more than thirty years ago, she has gradually acquired an influence and popularity for which only a magnetic and vivid personality can in the main be responsible.
"Of course I love being a queen," she told me. "Who would not? But it is no easy task, believe me, living up to a people's ideal of what a queen should be, for beauty and charm are indispensable complements to a crown."
And certain it is that the saying of Carmen Sylva, that the profession of queen demands the exercise of three qualities, beauty, bounty and fecundity, may well be applied to her. For while her beauty and grace have always endeared her to her people, her generosity has always been unstinted and she has enriched the royal crown with a progeny of beautiful children who are among its most beautiful jewels.
Like many other Balkan nations, moreover, Roumania during the Great War drank deep of the cup of humiliation and suffering. Her territory was laid waste and her towns occupied and looted by the enemy, but no Roumanian drank deeper of that cup, or, having drunk from it, remained more unyielding or with faith more undimmed in the ultimate victory of the Allies than Marie.
During all these years of tribulation she was the inspiring soul of resistance, sharing her people's burdens and ever trying to alleviate their lot by her personal service, lavish generosity and gentle sympathy.
Obviously pleased to meet anyone with whom she could talk in English, as she had ever retained the very happiest recollections of the days that she had spent as a girl at Eastwell Park, she received us most graciously.
She made us sit down near her on a settee, declared that she had already been informed of our arrival in Roumania, and said that she had intended granting us an audience on her return to Bucarest if we had not anticipated it by coming over to see her.
Just a suspicion of accent, but a manner of saying even the most simple thing which gave it distinction, combined with a gracious and winning charm, that evoked the queen of ancient days who had many chevaliers beside her own true lord, " all gay with music in their gold and silver and beautiful furs."
A fair and stately queen, intensely human and lovable, who, though born to the purple and delighting in its prerogatives, prefers at all times to sway men by virtue of her womanly charm and beauty rather than by exercising her power as sovereign, Marie possesses the most varied talents. An intelligence and grasp of political conditions that are far above the average, tact, sympathy, and a business instinct which are so sound that I have heard several big business men wishing they could have her in their employ; a keen love of the arts and music, in which she is extremely proficient, and a power of descriptive writing, which has been evidenced in many channels. She is a woman whom her people adore and worship as a fay, who has the knowledge of simples and who delights in offering her bounty, and the mere sight of whose lovely presence, as she passes the homely cottages of the peasants, usually calls forth the most spontaneous enthusiasm and loyalty. Such, briefly, was the Queen whom we were now visiting.
And in a setting, moreover, that was in every respect in accord with the woman whose beauty it enhanced.
An old mediaeval turreted castle evoking ages of conflict, and in whose vaulted rooms was found the happiest blending of East and West; Eastern the many beautiful Roumanian embroideries that covered the backs of armchairs and settees or hung over doorways; Eastern the heavily-chased lamps that hung on chains from above and shed a light on silver-framed ikons; Eastern, too, the beautiful frames and pieces of carved wood that adorned the walls; while the West was evoked by the comfortable table chairs and divans that bade you rest and the many bookcases which I saw filled with modern literature.
"I hope you have been well received in our country," she began by saying, " and that you have been given every facility for seeing it."
I replied that nothing could have surpassed the warmth of our welcome, but that I had really half expected it, as we had so many Roumanian friends, and knew the Roumanians to be the soul of hospitality.
"And our peasants," she continued, "I hope you have been able to see something of them too. You see, they are very primitive, but if only you could get to know them as I do you would soon discover how fine they are, how unspoilt. I am very fond and proud of my peasants, and understand their mentality as well as I think they understand my own."
For a time she talked of the Roumanian national costumes and expressed her conviction that there were no peasants in the world possessing a more instinctive gift for knowing what is beautiful, artistic or becoming than the Roumanians.
"As my people believes that much of the shaping of human life depends on the most trivial and commonplace things, even the most simple embroidery that they have worked comes to have a special significance in their lives. Look at these blouses, are they not exquisite? Is it not befitting that the people who have conceived and made them should enshrine them in their lives as some of its most essential factors?"
That is why I so much prefer wearing Roumanian national costumes to any other," she added.
And looking at her we could well believe that it would have been difficult to have evolved a more attractive dress.
A pale-grey swathed turban of lightish material that hung down slightly at the back; a white blouse that was embroidered in red; a red pleated skirt, and round the waist a lovely hand-wrought buckled belt. Over the blouse a three-quarter length embroidered coat, most exquisitely made, with a band of fur at the neck; white shoes and stockings completed the costume.
But the peasant national costumes were not the only subjects that we discussed.
Knowing that politically the Queen exercises tremendous influence in her own country, I accordingly diverted the conversation into the channels of internal policy, and soon realised that Marie combined the most intimate understanding of the problems of the day with the most lively regard and concern for the upbuilding of Roumania and the improvement of her economic life.
She expressed warm sympathy with the minorities and declared that she wished to see them living contentedly under the Roumanian regime.
"I can quite understand the Hungarians feeling chagrined at losing so fair a province as Transylvania," she said, "but it is a Roumanian land, and it is only fair that it should revert to our rule."
Monarchy she refused to think as being a moribund institution, but expressed her opinion that, now that monarchs were beginning to realise their new responsibilities, a strong and powerful monarchy was not incompatible with progressive democracy.
"To be a queen nowadays means a lot of work and anxiety and great toiling for very small results, yet I confess that I enjoy being a queen, and that I would not exchange my lot for any other."
She agreed, however, that in some countries at least it was an occupation that entailed many risks and alluded to the revolution in Greece; which she said might easily have been avoided.
"Greece is a country where free elections are as yet unknown, and I do not believe for a moment that the majority of the people were in favour of the king being deposed.
Of Venizelos she spoke as if he could have avoided the revolution; in fact, she asserted that if he had been willing to interfere King George would to-day be reigning in Greece, while she was unable to refrain from saying that English intervention would also have prevented the abdication.
"I believe that a word from my cousin of England would have prevented the revolutionaries from carrying out their plan, but I know King George is too constitutional a monarch ever to interfere in another country's internal politics."
Queen Marie talked to us of many other matters: of her gardens and the Byzantine crosses that she has had taken from old graves and placed in the park surrounding her palace at Sinaia and of the various improvements that she intends carrying out in Bran. Then, as the hour was approaching for her return to Sinaia, she called the architect and told him to show us round the castle. She promised to grant us a further audience when she would be back in Bucarest, and after wishing us a pleasant journey in Transylvania, dismissed us from her presence.
Under the guidance of this official and accompanied by the Prefect and, Mr. T —, we then visited other parts of the castle and found that much still remained to be done to meet the requirements of its royal owner; in fact the architect confessed that the Queen's ideas were often extremely difficult to carry out, and showed me various recesses and odd corers in which he had been instructed to put bathrooms, a task that obviously presented many difficulties.
"As Her Majesty is determined to have these bathrooms, it will be done," he declared, "but I imagine many months will elapse before I shall have completed my work."
All the rooms which were ready, however, were beautifully decorated and furnished. Ikons abounded, and in one sittingroom I noticed a lovely incense-burner as well as many scentbottles of different countries and periods, our informant telling us that collecting scent-bottles was another of the Queen's hobbies, and that the bulk of the collection, some 8,000 specimens, was at Sinaia.
"If you visit Sinaia," he said, "make a point of seeing this collection, for I don't think another one like it exists in the world." Coming to the tower, containing the apartments of the young princes, we found an almost austere simplicity, and concluded that the King and Queen did not believe in children being made too comfortable at an age when a comparatively spartan regime is often the best building up for the good health of the future, and, having thanked our courteous guide for his kindness in taking us round, called our chauffeur and were soon speeding back to Brasso.
Once more we passed the gypsy camp that we had come across on our way to Bran, but as we refused this time to stop, but passed through, only slowing up to avoid doing any injury, we were greeted with loud vociferations, angry looks and even menacing gestures that showed how unpleasantly evillooking even the most picturesque gypsies can appear at times until a few determined words had sent them back cringing to their hovels. On gaining the high road we were then suddenly passed by a fast-moving Rolls-Royce, from which we were charmed to see our gracious hostess waving her hands in greeting.
And turning to our Roumanian friends, after the car had disappeared before us, we thanked them for the experience that they had provided us and vowed that no more charming Queen exists than Marie, and none in whose safe keeping they could more aptly entrust their country's fortunes. And so ended a very pleasant little journey.