The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania



SO many remembrances crowd into my mind, so many pictures, that it is difficult to know before which to pause.

Dear country! I see you in your manifold glory, and precious is each vision; each way I turn I see places I have loved, places I long to conjure up before the minds of those who, like me, are banished from them for awhile.

I see your plains, your forests, your mountains, your hills and valleys. I see your long roads with the slow carts moving along them in patient, endless file. I see your charm-filled "luncas" beside river or stream, I see the green grass beneath their willows, where innumerable herds come to graze. I see the alien gipsies setting up their camps at dusk, the smoke from their fires mounting in bluey wisps against the orange sky.

I see the haze of dust that on still summer evenings lies over the harvest-world like a vast mist rising off solitary lagoons. I see the old stone crosses by the waysides, sentries patiently guarding certain spots, or resembling very old hermits that have naught more to do with the sons of men.

I see the labourers returning from work, their white shirts stained with sweat, small children in bright colours trotting along beside them through the dust, whilst overhead the sun is displaying its most marvellous colours before sinking to rest. I hear the continual barking of dogs answering each other with persistent clamour, barking, barking, till far into the night. Through the open doors of the cottages I see the flames on the hearths, fairy-like in their ruby glow. I see the peasants gathered around them, shadows resting after the day's labour is done.

I smell the pungent perfume of the forest when at sunset I galloped through their shade; I see the carpet of violet pea-flowers filling with enchantment their peaceful glades. I hear in the branches the fluttering of bird-wings disturbed by my unexpected advance; I feel the enveloping peace of evening when those who toil return slowly to their homes.

I love best to think of the plains in summer, when their wealth is greatest, when the golden corn-oceans lie in ripe abundance beneath the immense face of the sun, an answer and a recompense for work faithfully done. But the forests are dearer to me in spring-time, when their leaves are as translucid as stained glass windows, when violets and anemonies cover the ground with a thousand stars, or in autumn when their colours are more wondrous than any poet's dream.

Vision after vision unfurls before me as I write. At each I long to stop, an endless series of pictures do I crave to paint, yet must I choose one or the other amongst them, not hurry on indefinitely, pausing neither by river, valley or sea.

The sea, the sea! I have spoken of plain, of hill, of mountain; let me now rest awhile by the sea!

Born on an island, the sea has an attraction for me that naught can rival. I love its every face, I am acquainted with its every humour. I have sailed on it, steamed on it, swam in its waves. I love its eternal complaint, the noise of its breakers dashing against the shore.

The brave little port of Constantza was once our pleasure and pride; amongst many bitter sorrows, one of the bitterest was its loss. It was our one touch with the infinite water each country aims to reach. A country touching the sea nowhere is a country with but half a life! Constantza was not very grand or large in comparison with other ports, but it was important to us; with interest and delight we watched its growth. We knew its ships, its officers, its sailors; we knew the sound of each signal, the meaning of each flag; its most intricate corners had we explored, in calm and storm had we sailed from it out into the open sea.

It was our joy to watch its ships coming in and going out; it was an eternal interest to see which flag they flew.

Old Queen Elisabeth shared our love for Constantza. A small pavilion had been built for her, below the town upon the pier, where she spent in later years many days in restful content.

I wonder whether it still stands, that dear little house where I too have lived. The waves dashed up against its base, gulls flew in white clouds around its roof, the sun drew sparks from its windows, and on days of storm the wind howled around its walls.

All in white, the old Queen could often be seen on its terrace, lying in a comfortable chair, her weary eyes scanning the vast horizon, a nostalgia just as vast filling her soul that seemed for ever unappeased. The moan of the sea accompanied her thoughts, and the white sails floating upon it were as so many illusions leaving her one by one.

At night she would rise several times from her bed to greet the departing ships, or to cry welcome to those steaming into harbour. The sailors knew well her snow-white figure, and Constantza was proud of her love for the place.

Caring for a life more active, I did not always stay in one spot to watch the sea. On the great stretches of sand near Mamaia I would race the wind on my horse's back, often forcing my restive mount deep into the water, till the waves dashed over me as though I had been a solitary rock. I revelled in their ceaseless fury, but at times I became quite giddy by the churning, moving foam in which I stood. Affrighted, my horse would snort and try to escape, whilst volleys of white gulls would circle screaching round our heads.

On days of great calm the water would be as blue as a gentian, a vast field of azure upon which the sun-rays broke in a glittering mass of diamonds.

So long is the beach of Mamaia that I never reached its limit; on, on it stretches, a silvery road without end. Many carts rolled towards me over that beach, driven by the miscellaneous races which inhabit the Dobrougea. Turks with bright turbans, and passive, patient faces, fair-bearded, blue-eyed Russians dotting the landscape with their scarlet shirts, dark-eyed Roumanians bringing their goods to sell in town. Along through the sand toiled the carts, one wheel in the water, the gaudy colours of the peasant's clothes reflected in long lines in the sea.

The Dobrougea is a country of vast stretches. So endless are its roads that horses quite naturally play a great part; therefore many a fine animal does one meet in that corner of the land. Strong, well-built, and spirited, their carefully kept coats reflect the sun. With the eye of a connoisseur I admired their sleek forms, their powerful quarters, their clean wiry legs. Keen looks of appreciation would also be cast by the drivers upon my galloping thoroughbred, and every head would turn to follow and admire its pace. Many a smile of natural sympathy have I thus exchanged with those unknown passers-by.

More than once I met carts in long file transporting Turkish women huddled together in their dark wraps, uncovering for a moment their faces to gaze after the unknown free woman upon the beautiful horse. Like a flock of strange birds, blue, black, and grey, they would sit side by side in their jolting, creaking carts. Upon all these pictures would the sun look down, imprinting their many-coloured quaintness upon my brain, whilst the sea moaned its eternal complaint, rushing up the shore in its ever-repeated endeavour to escape from its boundaries.

Hot, windy, bare and endless as they are, the plains of the Dobrougea are full of melancholy charm for those who know them well. We all cared for their strangeness and wandered into many corners, discovering the oddest little villages, mud built, the slim towers of their mosques pointing like arrows to the sky. Because of their variety the inhabitants of the Dobrougea keep one's interest always on the alert. One never knows what types one will meet, nor to what unexpected dwellings one will come.

I have penetrated into far-off villages where strange Russian sects had built lonely convents in which the elder men of the community served as priests. They have offered me bread and salt; their loaves were brown, sour and quaintly decorated with odd designs; they have led me before their crudely painted icons so that I should kiss the images of their most venerated saints.

A curious impression has remained with me of these world-forgotten hamlets; an impression of dust and blooming acacia trees, of ringing bells and motley crowds with faces vastly dissimilar in type. A medley of mud huts and tiny churches surrounded by shade, of squat cottages painted white, of barking dogs and horses kicking up clouds of dust!

A broad road generally runs through these villages, grey, dry, and cracked; the houses spread away on both sides amongst groves of acacia, the only tree that cares to take root in regions so arid. In the month when it flowers, the air is a balmy delight; overpowered by the weight of their blossoms, the trees bend beneath showers of white.

I have a great liking for the silent Turk one meets in most parts of the Dobrougea. He receives you with hand first on his heart and then on his forehead; he stares at you with placid benevolence void of all curiosity or astonishment; he sits on his doorstep and never seems to have anything to do. Friendly, sympathetic and picturesque, I certainly would regret to see him disappear.

At a respectful distance his women-folk squat in rows, like crows upon a wall, watching from afar scenes in which they dare take no part, but if you approach them they meet you with clamorous pleasure, surrounding you with exclamations as guttural as they are incomprehensible to the European ear. But the children mix with you everywhere, follow you about wherever you go. The girls especially are deliciously quaint with their baggy cotton trousers, their ten tight little plaits, their hair, eyebrows and finger-nails dyed bright red.

The villages in these regions are scarce and far between; the roads are perhaps the most interminable of all Roumanian roads; from the smallest height you can see them winding endlessly like a huge snake, without either head or tail. Sometimes they are bordered by ploughed fields, but they often run between arid wastes, thistle-grown, stony and dry. Yet at certain seasons the flora of the Dobrougea is varied and a delight to the eyes.

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Over these endless roads more than once I have penetrated into that region that was ours but for quite a short time; and two places remain in my mind as specially attractive and full of charm.

One was the little town of Balcic, and the other was the narrow peninsula of Caliacra, a lonely slip of land jutting out into the sea.

Balcic is a picturesque, wee town almost tumbling into the sea. In untidy groups its tiny Turkish houses scramble down the steep slopes as though gradually slipping, attracted by the water beneath.

A precipitous street leads down to a miniature harbour, and on both sides cliffs of greyish stone, curiously rounded in shape, form a bay above which the little town lies in peaceful reclusion.

I went there only once, but I have a vivid recollection of its quaintness, of its jostling crowd of many-typed faces, of its delightfully perched little buildings that seemed but with difficulty to keep their footing on inclines so cut-up and abrupt.

Caliacra I reached at dusk, when the sun was sinking on one side into the sea, whilst on the other the moon was rising, a slim crescent, reflecting its eternal pallor over the moving water.

There the land falls in abrupt walls like cliffs, but these walls are of earth, not of stone. Their colour is reddish, and in the waning sunlight they appeared to be glowing with some inner fire that made them an unforgettably beautiful sight.

The ground is stony; unknown flowers spring up amidst boulders covering the bare spaces between them with colour and life. A tiny path leads through this world of stone to a lighthouse standing in lonely dignity overlooking the vast stretch of sea. In the cliff beneath some saint has been buried in a little cave difficult to reach. A solitary taper is kept burning there beside the holy one's tomb by the same hands that at night light the lamp which stands as a beacon for those sailing on the deep.

The place, the hour, the solitude, made a deep impression upon me. I dreamed of building a snow white "cula"1 high up on the furthest edge of land, there where it was but a narrow tongue washed on both sides by the sea.

I had the vision of its snowy form rising against the eternally changing blue of sky and sea, a vision of sunsets and sunrises that would be mine in that place, and of the nights when the waves would be a silver mystery beneath the cold gleam of the moon. I imagined myself looking down from a columned gallery upon the thousand seagulls whirling around my walls, a medley of white wings against the sapphire sky, or at night but ghostly shadows coming and going in endless flight, filling the darkness with their weird and melancholy screams that would mingle with the voice of the wind!

For a while, sitting upon a rock, face turned towards the everlasting unrest of the sea, I lived in this illusion, yet knowing well that it was but one of those dreams that you dream of an evening when beauty has stolen into your heart. . .

Another spot full of poetry quite near Constantza is the island of Ovid. Legend will have it that the banished poet, who had known every honour at the court of the Emperor Augustus, came to eat out his heart upon this willow-grown, God-forsaken island, which is naught but a wee bit of land, lost in the midst of a vast lake, separated from the sea only by a narrow strip of sand.

A sadder, more solitary spot can scarcely be dreamed; the great willows that have taken root upon it are its only ornament; its only beauty is a wide outlook over the sea.

I brought Carmen Sylva to this place where another poet had dreamed, so long ago, of past glories and of ambitions fallen to dust. Verily nowhere could he have more bitterly pondered over the uncertainty of court favours and over the vanity of human hopes; here indeed was exile absolute and complete.

The white-haired Queen roamed over the paths the great man was supposed to have trodden in ages past, trying to imagine what must have been the thoughts of one who, from the height of his fame, had been cast out from all honour, favour, and love. Her easily-fired imagination reconstructed the past, and her eyes filled with tears as she lived over the sorrow of one whom Fate had so cruelly wrecked.

A huge wooden wheel overgrown by creepers, once used for irrigation, now rotting away, stands in the island's centre, lending an extraordinary air of abandonment to the place. No doubt the wheel is but of recent date, but its forlorn and reproachful aspect gives the impression of its having belonged to a time when the island that now lies sad and forgotten beneath the sky's changing humour was the banished poet's home. Fishers come at times over the reed-grown lake, mooring their black boats amongst the reeds, lighting an occasional fire on its shores; otherwise Ovid's spirit can roam beneath the shady willows undisturbed by the voices of men.

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In the days of Ovid, Constantza went by the name of Tomis, and was an important town in close connection with the coasts of Asia Minor. In later times a bishop had residence in the town, and one, John of Tomis, was a well-known Latin writer at the beginning of the Middle Ages.

The actual name of the town of Constantza, or Constantiniana, came to her through Constantine, emperor of the East, who re-established her in the fifth century, and in the sixth century she was still known as an important centre of the provinces of Scythia Minor, under Justinian. Later she is only occasionally mentioned by the Genoese as a port on their sea maps.

The regions round about Constantza, or Kustendje as she is called by the Turks, are rich in old ruins, some of which have but quite recently been dug out.

One of the most important finds is the remnants of a town with the poetical name of Istros, lately brought to light between Constantza and the mouth of the Danube.

Istros must once have been an important seaport; powerful quays in marble have just been dug out there, but now it is separated from the sea by a large stretch of land.

Little by little men of understanding are laying bare interesting old foundations of mighty walls, of temples and baths, a whole world of ancient civilization, a joy to those who love to potter about in the past.

I visited Istros on a burning autumn day—a long, long drive to reach a vast stretch of land with a thin line of sea in the far distance, a sandy land, boggy in places, flat, melancholy, overgrown by a strange low, red plant that covers it here and there as with large patches of blood. A place of melancholy poetry; solitary, arid, mercilessly exposed to both sun and wind, no house, no tree to be seen for miles around, only sand-dunes rolling away towards the sea.

In the broiling heat I climbed about the ruins piloted by the enthusiastic man of science who had undertaken the excavations of the place.

I am no great connoisseur of ancient stones, my scientific knowledge is not deep, but my vivid imagination loves to reconstruct the things that were, and when in the palm of my hand I hold a broken cup or bowl, used by some human thousands of years ago, I try to picture to myself who made it, who possessed it, who drunk from it, marvelling, again and again, at the way inanimate objects outlast by centuries those who modelled them into shape.

Istros! Somehow the name has in it a sound of ancient splendour; it has a ring that specially fascinates the ear. I see great sails floating over the blue sea towards it, at the hour when the sun is sinking, sails of all colours and of all shapes, like fantastic birds winging slowly back to their nests. I know not what were the treasures they brought into harbour, but I like to dream that beneath the rusty shade of their sails, golden corn and oranges were heaped up in piles on their decks, that dark men brought precious Eastern silks of glowing colours, wherein the rich merchants' wives and daughters wrapped their beauty, but too quickly a thing of the past! I like to imagine the busy streets of the prosperous little town, the colour, bustle and noise, the glad clamour when a ship was sighted, many feet hurrying down to the quays, many voices, screaming, laughing, swearing, giving orders, and everywhere barefooted children, large-eyed, staring, with nothing to do. I like to think of the sailors singing alien songs at night as they rested after the day's work was done.

'Tis all but an artist's vision! Naught do I know of Istros but the ruins I have seen, a few mighty walls which the earth had buried, a few fallen columns of a one-time church or temple, the foundation of Roman baths, a few stout marble blocks that must have been quays; a few earthenware jars that I have held in my hands, a few splinters of glass which I gathered myself from the ground and that lay in my palm iridescent, wondrous and fragile as a butterfly's broken wing....

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One of the best known monuments that were found not far from Constantza is Adam-Clissi, or the "Church of Adam" or of "Man"; a huge marble monument of no special artistic value, but of enormous size, erected in commemoration of Trajan's conquest over the Dacians. Its sculptured stones, as is usual on such monuments, represent figures of warriors; these are the figures of Dacians and Sarmathians executing heroic deeds of war. It was a huge round construction, crowned by a gigantic coat of armour and helmet, somewhat clumsy from the artistic point of view, but interesting enough to have aroused many a discussion as to its meaning and period of erection. The German professor, Furtwangler, was of the opinion that it was a monument of the fourth century, erected in commemoration of a victory over the Goths. This theory has, however, been shown to be incorrect.

A town grew up beneath the shadow of the tremendous monument; its outlines can still be traced, and also the foundation of a great basilica that once must have been a noble building of later date.

Not having been to Adam-Clissi, I can but rapidly pass over the description of a place I have not seen with my own eyes, and hurry off to another spot by the sea where recent excavations have laid bare other monuments, all pertaining to those ancient times: the little town of Mangalia.

Now a rambling, forsaken little place, it was a seaport In olden days. Less flourishing than Istros, it was nevertheless, a place of importance known in past days by the name of Kallatis.

Here, too, interesting old ruins have been dug out; the remains of temples or churches, of houses that have once been wealthy. Delicately shaped urns and water-pots have come to light, and also huge earthenware jars, tremendously bulky, probably once used for storing oil. Even quaint little terra-cotta figures have been found there resembling tanagras, though less delicate and artistic in workmanship.

A modest little museum by the sea harbours the most precious of these finds. It is but a small beginning; everything cannot be done at once! But you feel that this strange land of the Dobrougea still contains many a hidden treasure that one day will be brought to light. Will it be our hands that will be allowed to do this? That remains still to be seen!

Mangalia is a characteristic Dobrougean town; a cluster of low stone houses with loose curved tiled roofs, it straggles over uneven ground down to the beach, which is flat and interminable, bordered on the land side by endless lakes. These lakes have sulphurous springs, and some rustic baths were erected near one of them, for the waters have remarkable healing qualities.

I have been rowed for hours over this lake. It twists and winds, becomes narrow and wide, has so many different shapes, that at first one believes it to be an agglomeration of several lakes, but it never comes to an end; the boat can glide on and on without stop or hindrance.

Arid and bare are its shores, reminding one of the stories from the New Testament. One can well imagine the "Prodigal Son" guarding his swine 'neath a sky of merciless heat.

Now and again low spreading fig-trees will spring up amongst the stones, fig-trees that, because of the everlasting winds, never develop to any height, but remain crouching over the ground as though anxiously searching with their snake-like branches for support amongst the rolling stones. A whole world of solitary mystery, forsaken and God-forgotten, evoking pictures of the deserts round about the Dead Sea.

Quite near the seashore stands an old grey wooden windmill, its squatty outline rising lonely and patient against the sky. On days of calm it is but a mouldy wooden box, without life, without meaning, but on days of wind its wheel becomes alive; then it resembles a gigantic but colourless sunflower, whirling, twirling without rest, for in these regions near the coast the wheels of the windmills are not of hard, dead wood,

but are composed of innumerable small sails like wings, giving the whole construction a delightful air of life and energy. There is something almost fantastic about these huge, moving, many-sailed wheels; so large are they, that the mill itself almost entirely disappears, and naught else is to be seen but that prodigious round flower, turning, turning as though it loved to move, and moved of its own free will! Thus, at times, by their very simplicity, do the artless tools of men become a joy to the eyes of those who can see. Easy indeed it seems for some to pass by and not to see, but a blessed gift of the gods it is to have been given eyes through which the passing beauties can be absorbed into the soul.

Once I saw the beach of Mangalia at the hour of sunset. My face was turned seawards, the world was hushed with the calm of the coming night, but the sea was rushing towards my feet in its everlasting, irrepressible unrest. Behind me the sun was sinking ever lower, his last rays lighting up the inrushing waves with wondrous radiance. Dark were the billows; but each was crowned with a wreath of foam, golden-orange beneath the kisses of the dying sun.

A prodigious sight of transient glory upon that lowly far-off beach, lasting but a few glamour-filled seconds only, to dwindle away into shade, to become a thing of the past, but another picture added to the many my artist brain can never more forget.

Then dusk came down and all was grey; night moved forward, sweeping every colour away.

A weird monster, the windmill, stood alone on the shore, its wheel at rest, a shadowy, lifeless object awaiting its next hour of work.

Thus one after another do the different pictures of our lost sea-coast rise before my mind's eye, and too many do I see to be able to speak of them all.

Sometimes it was but a passing sensation created by light or shade, sometimes a sudden view of beauty discovered amongst rolling stones, or quickly effaced by clouds of dust. Sometimes it was a bunch of violet pea-flowers on a slope, or a prodigious plant of thistles, twisting its thorny stalks, a slim silhouette against the sky's immensity, or maybe an abandoned Turkish graveyard, naught but a lonely field studded with irregular slabs of stone, standing one beside the other like tired sentinels whose watch no one comes to relieve.

At times it was glowing sunset, tinting the whole sky with flaming blood, or a storm rising over the sea, curling the waters, whipping the waves to an angry foam-crested black, or a lull after the tempest when all the world was grey; when earth and sea seemed exhausted and resting after a battle.

As in a far-off dream do I remember one moonlight night. My day had been troubled, sorrow had come to me in an unexpected form, and as though in sympathy the sea too was troubled, its heaving, throbbing surface was as a great heart torn with pain. On my own anxiety and on the sea's unrest the moon looked down unmoved in silvery glory.

The wish came to me to steam out on that quivering, shimmering mass of water, to go in a small boat far, far out to sea, running along the silver path the moon marked over the billows.

Fantastic, indeed, was that ride over the waves, the small boat climbing upon the crest of each breaker, then plunging into deep alleys of water as though never to rise again—a nut-shell upon the surging deep. No light ahead, no limit, no direction, no boundaries; the churning, foaming, moaning waters beneath, opaque, iridescent and uncanny; above, the sky's vast immensity, far-off, pale and serene, a dove-grey dome with the moon like a stupendous lamp suspended in its centre... and the little boat running—running along upon the pathway marked by her light. ... And thus did I love the sea!

1A sort of heavy thick-walled square tower, whitewashed, with a gallery of thick squat columns right up under the roof.