MARIE, QUEEN OF ROUMANIA
JUST as one never thinks of Conrad as anything but English, so one considers this gifted writer as Roumanian. She became, at the age of fifteen, the wife of the present King of Roumania. Her work shows that she has truly learned the secret of the vast and fertile plains of her adopted country, and that she has won the hearts of the Roumanian peasantry. Her stories constitute the autobiography of a rich spirit developed by contact with a country still by no means exploited for literary purposes.
This story was written in English, and is here reprinted by permission of the author.
WHAT VASILE SAW
IT was night.
A gusty wind swept over the plain; the cold was intense. Very far above, the stars shone quite small as though they had withdrawn as far as possible from the cold upon earth, but the thick snow that covered the fields was so white that it radiated a faint light over the ground. From time to time the wind stirred the sleeping surface, chasing it along in small clouds which rose straight into the air as though seeking escape from their tormentor.
A gloomy night, a sad night—the sort of night when one can imagine spirits abroad. When the howling of the wind abated, a sinister sound would occasionally roll through the night—a far-off boom that held within it the voice of war.
Near the road which was faintly distinguishable even in the night as a dark line where many feet had sullied the snow's whiteness, sat a shivering group of soldiers, huddled over an almost extinguished fire.
The wind seemed to single them out as special object of its fury, dashing the snowdrifts against them as foaming waves against a rock. The soldiers had pulled their collars up over their ears and their caps well down over their foreheads, but neither fur nor cloth could protect them against the icy storm.
There were about a dozen soldiers in all, three or four bearded old fellows and one quite young man, guarding a handful of ragged prisoners who sat round the last embers of the fire in postures of mournful resignation. Their bowed heads were sunk upon their drawn-up knees, thus hiding their alien faces from the snow as well as from the looks of those who regarded them, half with pity, half with contempt; their gloveless hands were cracked and swollen by the frost, and a faint tremor shook their bodies with spasms of either cold, sorrow or fear—perhaps all three!
Their burly guardians paid little attention to them; in short sentences which the wind seemed to rend, they were talking to their only young companion who stood leaning on his gun as in summer shepherds lean upon their staffs.
Quite a boy he was, eighteen or nineteen perhaps. He was staring into the night with a dreamy expression in his large green eyes. The snowflakes whirled about him, settling in layers upon the fur of his cap, catching even on to his eyelashes that were long and extraordinarily strong; this made him pass his hand occasionally over his face.
"Vasile, the fire is going out!" growled one of the elder men. "Before this damned night is over, we shall all die of cold!"
"We ought not to have lost our way," grumbled one of the others.
"We did not do so on purpose," said the first again, a certain Andrei Scurtu, leader of the small detachment in charge of the prisoners. His temper was as short as his name and the others treated him with irritated docility.
"How can one drag even prisoners beyond a certain distance with frozen feet; we were to have reached the village before night—well, we have not—more's the pity. If we freeze here before morning, we shall probably only be a few of many, and the fault will neither be ours nor God's."
"Whose fault is it then?" asked someone.
"That is no business of yours or mine," snapped Scurtu.
"It is the fault of war," said another old fellow, one Petre Pasca, who had not yet spoken.
"War, war!" grumbled Scurtu, "war comes as a dry summer, or a flood when the seeds are young."
"But a war like this!" objected another.
"Those German fiends are the devil's own!" said another as he vainly tried to stir up the dying embers.
"May the devil take them, then," said Scurtu, and to emphasize his words he spat into the cinders.
Vasile turned his young frost-bitten face towards his elders. "I am sorry for those prisoners," he said.
"Sorry!" Several voices were raised in protest. "Sorry for these foreign dogs!"
"They are young and far from their homes," explained Vasile. "And we, where are we then?"
"We are still on our Roumanian soil!"
"It is not their fault if we are!"
A gust of wind whirled up a great wave of snow and each man turned so as to meet the onslaught with his back.
"A night for wolves," said one.
"A night for the devil," said another.
"A night for the dead," said a third.
"Vasile, we shall freeze if we find no wood," said Scurtu again. "Where can one find wood in this desert?" answered Vasile still using his gun as a shepherd's staff.
"Thy legs are young," began Petre Pasca, "and, after all, the night is not so very dark. . . ."
"Not so very dark because of the snow," said someone from the other side of the cinders.
"It is the devil's night," repeated one of the men with a groan. "Vasile, thy legs are young . . ." persisted Petre Pasca, and old Scurtu, who had been struggling to light a cigarette, looked up. "Aye, aye, thy legs are young, why not search for some wood?"
"I am here to guard the prisoners," protested Vasile, clacking his feet one against the other, but otherwise not shifting his position.
"A dog could guard them!" exclaimed Scurtu. "Besides I am here in command."
Someone laughed hoarsely.
"Thy old one would be proud of thy honors!"
"Leave my old one alone," snapped Scurtu; "she was young in her day and has borne me many children, mostly boys."
"Where are they?"
Scurtu shrugged his shoulders and made a deprecating gesture with his hands.
"God alone knows with this war . . . and then the Boches . . ." he added vaguely after a pause.
"They know how to fight," said someone.
"They are the devil's own," repeated a voice out of the dark. "That does not help us much," said another.
"No, but their cannons would!" sneered Scurtu who after many efforts with his flint had managed to light a damp cigarette. "Even now do you not hear them?" asked Vasile.
"Curse them!" said several voices together and then there was silence a while, the wind alone filling the night with its howl.
"Vasile," began Petre again, who was a persistent fellow, "thy legs are young and there must be wood somewhere, and the night is not so very dark. . . ."
"If we do not find something to burn we shall all be dead before morning," Scurtu agreed with slow nods of his head. "Shoulder thy gun, Vasile, and go and search—anything will do."
Vasile shrugged his shoulders. "As you will," he said, slinging his gun upon his back and without further protest set out, wading with stiff movements through the deep uneven snow, little caring which way he went, for verily where could he find fuel? . . . it was night . . the plain was bare . . . there were no huts anywhere, no trees, no enclosures, nothing . . . not even an old wooden well . . . what could he find? . . . Stumbling and resigned, Vasile tramped into the night's immensity.
As he trudged along in the dark Vasile had many thoughts, confused thoughts, but thoughts nevertheless, and even visions, happy visions that had nothing to do with either winter or war.
He saw a fruitful valley through which ran a long, long dusty road leading to a village half hidden amongst fruit-trees. It was the hour of sunset and a herd of oxen was returning along the road guarded by a youth who sauntered behind them, a green switch in his hand. The youth was whistling a melancholy peace-filled "doïna," whistling it over and over again—always the same doïna. . . .
Unconsciously Vasile's lips tried to whistle the tune, but they were cracked by the frost and only a few weird notes rang out into the night.
But the youth was still sauntering along the road at sunset; the dust raised by the oxen powdered his hands and his face. . . .
The road was long, but there was no hurry; neither the youth nor the creatures cared much about time.
On reaching the village the solemn gray oxen turned each one to his stable . . . the herd diminishing as the youth went along.
He flourished his switch in the air as he advanced still whistling his song.
Some little children with a family of earth-colored pigs that had been grubbing in the road scurried away on all sides as they passed. The pigs had curly little tails and ridiculous stiff, skipping movements, the children were noisy and half naked, scarcely covered by their ragged shirts.
In front of nearly each house large pyramids of pumpkins had been heaped up and long strings of scarlet "ardei" hung from the porches like giant necklaces of barbaric beads. A haze of dust and lazy content lay over the entire village; it was all full of peace . . . peace . . . peace . . . and the youth was striding back to his love. . . .
Vasile stumbled over something in the dark and came heavily down on his knees. The fall was soft, as the snow was deep, but the warm visions vanished. He was once more alone and shivering in the night, whilst out of the far distance the cannon's voice forced reality back upon him.
"Wood—wood! I was to find wood," he grumbled. "Where in this damned desert is there any wood I wonder! My God, what a night! The wind cuts like a whip and the snow it drives into my face pricks like pine-needles,—but where in the devil am I to find wood!"
Vasile stood still slapping his sides with his numbed hands. In his aimless wanderings he had not stuck to the road; he had just blindly tramped into the night. He could not see much, but here and there were darker patches in the snow where its covering was thin; shapeless mounds that might be anything, a heap of stones, a dead horse, a rotting pile of straw—in the uncanny solitude of the night they might also have a more sinister meaning—anything was possible in time of war. . . .
Vasile shuddered, and again the vision of the peaceful village rose before him: once more he saw the pyramids of orange pumpkins and from behind some hedge a girl's clear voice took up the refrain of the "doïna" the youth had been whistling. . . .
"But I must find wood!" exclaimed Vasile, driving away those pictures of peace. "The others are freezing and I cannot go on wandering all the night."
Again he looked about him and it seemed to him that he perceived the darker line of the high road not very far off—it would be easier walking on the high road.
Slowly and painfully he began picking his way towards that trodden path; the ground was uneven, he was weary, his feet terribly cold.
All of a sudden he stood still with a start—what was that over there? Three gaunt specters standing side by side—three weird solitary skeletons rising dimly out of the night!
His heart began to beat, a sudden moisture wetted the middle of his palms—what was it! How devilish lonely was the night! But after all why should he be afraid? Ghosts were ghosts—pretty harmless—to meet a live Bosch were surely worse! But at that moment in his heart of hearts Vasile was not certain that he would not have preferred a Bosch!
Overcoming his reluctance with an effort, Vasile strode towards the three specters which stood quite still allowing him to approach—three crosses! three solitary weather-beaten crosses of wood! three forsaken graves!
Vasile crossed himself instinctively, murmuring under his breath a prayer for the dead. He stood gazing in a dazed way at those three melancholy effigies, vaguely wondering the end of whose road they marked. Were they soldiers' graves? or the graves of women? or perhaps of little children . . . of little children who had died of hunger and frost? Since the war so many children had died of hunger and frost. . . .
Then with a start Vasile realized that the crosses were made of wood . . . of heavy wood! Had he not been sent out into the night to find wood? . . .
As one who stares at an unexpectedly discovered treasure upon which he dare not lay hand, Vasile remained standing before the three crosses, fascinated by the wood, yet not daring to touch them and at the same time unwilling to move on.
A terrible temptation rose within him: why not tear up one of those crosses and carry it off to feed the dying fire he had left! After all the dead are dead! Their sleep is so profound that they cannot hear what is being done above their heads! Thank God that they sleep so profoundly, for who otherwise could even contemplate such a thought!
Going a few steps nearer, he laid his hand upon the first cross. As he did so, a great revulsion of feeling came over him—No! such an act was sacrilege—the dead must be honored, even above the living. Such an act would surely be condemned by both God and Man. The dead cannot defend themselves; each one is at the mercy of him who passes by—therefore must a grave be respected as one respects the altar steps of a church . . . it were verily impossible to lay hands upon its cross, the last tribute paid to one who upon earth someone had surely loved!
Then again the voice of temptation rose in Vasile's soul. The dead are dead, their sufferings are passed, whilst over there men were freezing for want of wood, brave men who were doing their duty; surely, surely it were better to despoil the dead than let the living die—brave soldiers defending their country! If the dead had voices, they would cry to him to take their crosses—all their crosses! to warm the country's defenders—to warm brave soldiers who were dying of cold. . . .
With a rapid movement Vasile seized the first cross and tried to pull it from the frozen ground. . . . The cross resisted—resisted like a tree with roots deep down in the ground, resisted like a living creature defending a sacred spot. But Vasile's blood was up—the resistance he met with awoke the instinct of strife that lies dormant in each man. The stubborn cross became an opponent he had to overcome.
The strangest of struggles then ensued upon that forsaken plain—the wind howling like furies let loose whilst the young man wrestled with the wooden cross! The inert symbol offered a resistance that was almost human, and the youth fought desperately as though he had an enemy to overthrow.
Both arms clasped round the cross, as though it had been a living creature, Vasile pulled and shoved and shook the stubborn monument that would not yield to his strength. The perspiration ran like rain down his cheeks. He had thrown his cap from him and taken the gun from his back; with a persistence that had in it something of hatred, Vasile fought, fought with all his might!
Suddenly the cross gave way . . . gave way so suddenly that Vasile fell with it to the ground where he remained stretched above his fallen opponent—his opponent that was naught but a wooden cross!
The light of battle still in his eyes, Vasile lay awhile gasping; each time he drew in his breath, it was like a sob he could not hold back. The wind howled around him, whipping up crystals of frozen snow into his face. . . .
But he had won! The cross had been uprooted; he had found wood for the fire of the living . . . so all was well. . . .
The fire had gone out—even the embers had died down and with them all talk. Like thrown-away bundles of old clothes the captives and captors sat in mute resignation round the dead cinders; there was little difference between them in this night of suffering.
A faint sound of someone approaching came to them out of the dark. For the moment nothing could be seen, and then suddenly Vasile stood before them dragging behind him something heavy and black like a shadow.
A shout of joy rose from the circle seated around the ashes, a sound of unutterable relief rang in the cracked voices greeting Vasile's return; and several men rose instinctively, searching for their flints with stiff fingers so numbed that they would scarcely obey.
Vasile said nothing. He was breathing heavily. This walk back through the night had been like a battle—a battle against wind and snow and cold—and especially a battle against his conscience. Therefore said he nothing; but with a movement of finality let the heavy cross fall at the feet of those who had been waiting. . . .
Scurtu was the first to realize of what nature was the fuel Vasile had brought and something like a curse fell from his lips: "It is a cross," he muttered, "a cross . . . a cross!"
Others rose to examine the longed-for wood Vasile had brought and. exclamations of all kinds arose.
The prisoners raised their heads and stared with sullen eyes at those who were talking. But Vasile was dumb. Overcome by fatigue, he sank down into the snow.
"A cross!" cried Scurtu. "How dare he bring a cross!"
"But it is wood and we are cold," hazarded someone.
"That may be as it may be, but we cannot burn a cross!" "It were sacrilege!"
"God would curse us!"
"And the dead also!"
"Yet we are cold and the dead are dead. . . ."
"What good to the dead if we freeze?"
"We have our country to defend!"
"There are so many dead without crosses!"
"For shame! Who dares burn a cross!"
Thus did exclamations fly from all tongues at once. Only Vasile and the prisoners were silent. Shame, weariness and a dull feeling of resentment filled Vasile's soul—what could he do! He had found nothing else. . . .
The men's voices rose and fell in a wrangle that had within it notes of strife. The wind added to the discussion stormy gusts of fury that outcried those small voices of humans in dispute. . .
"I will not allow it!" It was Scurtu's voice raised to an angry pitch. "Rather would I see you all freeze to death and I with you, than allow Christ's cross to be burnt!"
The old fellow stood his ground. There was something of the look of a rugged bear about him as he faced his companions. The snow lay thick upon him, his ugly old countenance was blue with cold, he stamped his frozen feet, clapped his hands together, beat them against his sides in futile efforts for keeping off the frost, but being the head of his party, no persuasions nor threats could make him change his mind: "Rather die, rather freeze, than commit the mortal sin of burning the holy Sign of Christ. . . !"
Silence had fallen upon the suffering group of half-frozen men. Huddled together like lost sheep with heads buried in their arms, they lay around the cold ashes, enemy beside enemy, suffering having leveled every distance—after all they were all men before God and the cruelties of the winter's night!
A little apart lay Vasile, his head resting upon the cross he had dragged with such trouble from so far. Sleep did not come to him. Although the cold numbed his never very acute faculties, Vasile was pondering over the problems of life.
Why war? why suffering and cold and sacrifices when life might be easy—why? why? Why a God in the Heavens . . . too far off? Why symbols and superstitions and prejudices that had no clear meaning, no real use? Why hatred between nations? Why death and abominations of all sorts? Why? Why?. . .
The wind raged around him. Vasile occasionally raised a hand, stiffened by cold, to wipe the driven snow from his eyes.
Why winter after summer? Why distance and longing, and things that never can be again? Why? Why?
Vasile did not understand.
He raised himself to a sitting posture; why was the night so dark? What did it all mean?
Ah! but over there, there was a faint light? Was dawn coming? Was the deadly vigil soon coming to an end?
Vasile watched intently the light he seemed to see right over there in the distance—was it dawn? Could it be dawn at last? But it did not spread, yet it seemed moving—it was moving! It was coming nearer. . . . It was coming his way!
When afterwards . . . in full daylight Vasile tried to relate what he had seen—the others—those who had been sleeping, would never quite believe his tale—yet they had been sleeping, those others, and Vasile, he had been awake!—but even thus is man—like Thomas of old: he wants to touch so as to be able to believe. . . .
What Vasile saw was a white figure coming steadily towards him over the snow, a white figure all wrapped in light—and the figure itself was the light, and so luminous was that figure that Vasile never understood why it did not awake the others from their sleep.
A long trail of brightness remained in the wake of the moving figure—a path of glory marked by Holy Feet. . . . For it was the Son of Man who was coming over the snow towards Vasile—it was the Son of God!
Out of the night He came—a figure so glorious that Vasile sank to his knees, tearing his cap from his head, folding his numbed hands.
Forgotten all suffering, all conflict! forgotten the many doubts, the many questions that had made heavy his soul.
Now he was but a watcher in the dark, a lost child to whom God had come! An ineffable ecstasy filled his being—for the Man of Light was coming towards him, Vasile—Vasile, the soldier who had stolen a cross from the dead!
But what was it that the Son of God was bearing on his shoulders—something dark and heavy and enormously large. . . .
His Cross! Christ too was carrying His Cross, why? oh! why? . . .
So lightly did He come over the snow, the Cross seemed no weight for His shoulders, yet Vasile's shoulders still remembered the weight they had borne.
The luminous Figure did not pause before the young soldier, but Vasile had a fleeting glimpse of the angelic compassion in his eyes. . . . Slowly the Holy One passed the spot where Vasile knelt, and going straight up to the circle of sleeping soldiers, he stepped amongst them and Vasile saw—saw with his own eyes how the Son of God cast his Cross upon the cinders and how a glorious flame shot up from them, licking the sides of the Cross till the Cross itself was as a great torch of light!
Christ had brought his own Cross, had brought it to make a fire, so that the country's brave defenders should not die of cold!
After that Vasile remembered but dimly what had happened; on his knees he had dragged himself towards the holy flame, upon his knees . . . and then in a swoon he had fallen beside the saving flame. . . .
Day had come.
One after another the sleepers awoke, and, oh! marvel! the cinders that had been cold and dead so early in the night were now red-hot and a blessed glow irradiated from them, a glow so intense and life-giving that winter-cold seemed but the specter of a terror that had passed.
Each man came gradually back from the realm of dreams with the sensation that something marvelous had happened, his body warmed and his soul overflowing with a gladness he could not explain. Even the pale prisoners had in their eyes a strange reflection of something resembling joy. . . .
With a loud voice he tried to make menacing, Scurtu called upon Vasile—had he disobeyed orders? had he burnt the cross whilst his chief had been asleep?
But, no! Over there lay the cross, like a dead man with arms outstretched, and beside the heavy wood on the snow knelt Vasile, with hands clasped, staring into the rising sun. . . .
Scurtu crossed himself.
"Vasile!" he called. "Vasile! What seest thou in the face of the rising sun?"
Vasile turned towards him—there was a wondrous light in his eyes, but he did not answer—and Scurtu never knew what vision Vasile was following as he stared into the face of the rising sun.