ELIZABETH OF ROUMANIA
AT the other end of the European continent was the second gateway of barbarian invasions, a land of legend and romance that we understand much better; the Rhine and Moselle valleys whither Trebeta and Tuisco led their tribes out of the East; where Caesar conquered and Julian's legions ruled; where hordes of Franks and Alemans passed through, Burgundians and Vandals, Saxons, Alans, Suevi, and others of their sort, Attila with his Huns on this side too, and Danes and Normans; land of castles and monasteries, proud chatelaines and warring bishops; where kingdoms and empires were born; where the pendulum of mastery has swung through centuries between the Frank and Aleman.
There on the castellated Rhine, overlooking the valleys of martyrs, saints, and miracles, was born the Princess Pauline Elizabeth Odile Louise of Wied, Princess of Hohenzollern, Queen of Roumania—Carmen Sylva. There Elizabeth of Wied, daughter of a princely race whose line is lost in medieval mists, grew into young maidenhood, ranged hills of mystery and threaded enchanted woods; loved nature, loved those myriads of spirits that whisper through the wilds, loved the world, the Rhineland, loved home; the little scholar that baffled the wisdom of her elders and made her teachers own that they had taught her all they knew; maiden who wrote poetry in the woods and painted flowers in her bower, spoke and wrote the modern tongues and learned and loved the classics; played harp, pianoforte, or organ with a master's touch and woman's sentiment.
That was the Princess wooed and won by Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, austere Prince and warrior whose mind was bounded on every side by the sense of his stern duty. That was his devoted Queen, who went to share with him the burden of Roumania's crown, to find Roumania a Rhineland of the East, to love it and sing its praises to the world, to do for that adopted land in the field of the humanities what her rugged husband did in the fields of war, diplomacy, and industry. With Carol the First she shared equally the honor of creating Roumania a nation, a nation of united peoples. (Their union, of course, had been arranged, but every corpuscle was woman in Elizabeth, and she had happened to stumble down the stairs and smack dab into Prince Carol's arms, before they had been introduced, circumstance that turned iron-hearted match-making into the pure gold of romance.)
There is perhaps no writer under the sun today who stands in awe of majesty held aloft by golden chairs. But before the majesty of genius, majesty of mind, of heart, of soul, any pen is right to quake. And when that majesty of the spirit has been elevated to an earthly throne, justice in words becomes almost beyond the pale of human hope.
Carmen Sylva had a woman's soul, many times a woman's soul, tremendous, overflowing with every instinct of a woman, with every womanly emotion, and set no boundaries to their expression—except that Carmen Sylva was an aristocrat, always aristocrat, always an example, always beautiful—beautiful princess, beautiful Queen, beautiful dowager. Her golden hair was changed to white only to reassert aristocratic charm. She was always a picture, picture that never lost its golden frame. But the golden frame, those spiritual qualities in which she is seen, was ever changing, kaleidoscopic almost in its variety. It was the versatility of her genius, its many-sided brilliance, and if there is somebody who cannot admire some chosen aspect, let us say, of her unusual fantasies, none the less he must admire a thousand-fold the sum-total of what she was, of what she did, the portrait composite of Roumania's Queen.
Give you the portrait of this royal lady in a mossy grove, seated only a little higher than the company of poets that she has collected from anywhere that poets might be found, or would-be poets, and female poets; her face lighted with the fire of lyric inspiration; improvising stanzas in admiration of field and mountain-height and bloom, of love and loveliness, of sentiment and sentimental deeds, in words majestic, soulful, beautiful—above all else, soulful, beautiful; listening enraptured when her woodland company, each in turn, extemporizes; applauded, applauding, and for all the world an ordained goddess descended into the circle of her worshipers—let you see that picture, as you must if you see Carmen Sylva, and your kindliest impulse may be not to laugh. Our day and our blood have little patience with such exhibitions. But they were every-day with Carmen Sylva. Enthroned among her company of poets was her most excelling triumph. Unless—
We see her in the music room, seated a little higher than the rest, and the company are musicians. Be sure that her company play at the harp, the pipe-organ, the pianoforte, that they play the violin, that genius is among them, and also what her kindness lets pass for such-Carmen Sylva, accomplished musician, able and favorite pupil of the great Rubenstein, was no harsh judge of others, and was, often enough, imposed upon. The classics of French and German composition were rendered in the full glory, brilliance, beauty, with which they were conceived, sometimes butchered, always with soulful inspiration. We may love the picture, or scout it, or call it deluded, but it was every-day for Carmen Sylva.
Another daily portrait, and you may see her, seated not much higher than the rest, in company with artists of the brush. They paint flowers in watercolor, or may be seen illuminating missals, and the conversation is inspired, words beautiful, aimed at the soul. Or take another picture—Elizabeth a little higher than the rest, and she and they embroidering, and if they are matching the example of their Queen they are embroidering beautifully—Carmen Sylva bore off the gold medal for embroidery at the Paris Exposition.
Does the thought come now that one such daily enthusiasm would have been enough for any genius? Or wonder, that a woman, even Queen, could sit for four such daily portraits? There we have it—the explanation of Carmen Sylva that is beyond our understanding, the inspirational life that was multifold, complex, genuine, and inconceivably intense. Four portraits have passed in review, but there was no reason to stop at that number, except convenience. A dozen others could be suggested, just as faithful to her every-day pursuits—maybe not everyone on every day, but anyone as daily as the other, and as ardently pursued. The days were all too short for Carmen Sylva's inspirations, but she kept long hours. Take your choice of any pose gemüthlich in which she could group her friends, and there you have Carmen Sylva—seated always a little higher than the rest. The company over which she holds emotional direction may be story telling, may be reciting folk-lore of Roumania or other lands, may be telling fairy tales. Be sure that Carmen Sylva's story is as good as any other, and better told. See the countenance that is filled with heavenly inspiration, her eyes that look beyond the earth.
The company, enthusiasts, earnest people (sometimes, alas, a few are frauds) who hover in her golden radiance, may have been none of these things, not painters, story-tellers, poets, instrumentalists, or needleworkers. They could have been vocalists, soloists, choruses, and she, standing a little higher than they are, would be teaching choral song, leading the symphonies. They were famous, her choruses, and a task of love almost daily for Carmen Sylva.
Often as not her company were players, amateurs and the topmost of professionals, studying dramatic composition, or else rehearsing Shakespeare, Goethe, Racine, or (why not?) Carmen Sylva—she was a successful dramatist, almost a famous one. Or we might see her embarking them on a court picnic, or leading a knightly expedition to explore antiquities in the deep romantic corners of Roumania.
If Carmen Sylva lived a dream-life, it was vivid, it was well-ordered, deliberate, it never rested, and—admit—it was enchanting. She was intense beyond the power of average mortal to understand. Every minute was joy to her soul. She loved the Gemüthlich, and loved to be the center of it all. It fitted her temperament to preside at those artistic seances, and nobody ever said they were a bore.
You begin to grasp the reason why the writer's pen has quaked. Consider that she gathered her court, her courts, from every turn of mind, from every land; addressed them, as need might be, in French, in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Roumanian, and one as fluently as the other; communed with them in the intelligent expression of their arts. And the time has come to remember that she had her work to do. That, too, was beautiful, but it was work, it was her career, and not neglected.
Carmen Sylva was an author. Her works were the admiration of her day, so they are not to be despised. She gave pleasure to the world, she taught the world. Some of what she did deserves to survive, and will. Furthermore, she was a prolific author. Hours before the dawn her pen was busy, every day. Three poems before breakfast, before her guests were called, were no unusual morning's deed.
She was ranked one of the great poets of her day, one of the great novelists. Her works included folk-tales and legends, romances, lyric drama, tragedy, comedy, translations, even metaphysics and psychology—more than thirty books, innumerable poems, an opera that was staged with considerable success, symphonies and songs that earned an honorable place in the world of music. On her literature her fame is founded. She wrote with power, with feeling, cleverly, with the imagination of the artist, and with originality. It was not for lack of merit that Carmen Sylva failed of being great, but by being Queen. As Queen she had no editor who dared to edit. What she wrote was a Queen's word, its other merits beside the question. She never had a manuscript returned, never saw a rejection slip, never had a blue-pencil struck through the flights of her imagination, never had a critic tell her what was gold and what was dross. Had Elizabeth been less than Queen, editors would have told her to find words that meant what she had in mind to say; many of her tender compositions would have escaped the printing press's indelible kiss; ornamented sentiment, sculptured phrases, would have fluttered to the basket; her fine intellect would have discovered a lasting medium for feelings that she drowned in words.
Remember, though, that she wrote for an age different from ours, and pleased it; that her writings were translated into all the modern tongues, praised throughout the world. Unfortunately she wrote with unbridled and untrained imagination, untrammeled, Queen of sentiment as well as of Roumania, and neither sycophants nor real admirers let her know that anything she said could be better said another way, or with less decorating. They called her the bard inspired. Her subjects, they said, were the world. This poetic thought delighted her. Listeners were spellbound under the charm of her golden voice, of her angelic countenance, of her scholarship and knowledge, and never thought to question that all this same effect flowed from her pen. The immense dream-world that she created they called "The Kingdom of Carmen Sylva," and the Queen of it, enchantress, was the most enchanted spirit in it.
"She was so fascinating," wrote one woman who had perhaps less cause than most to love her, "so charming, the things she said were so sweet, so touching; her voice was music, everything was in keeping with the poetical atmosphere emanating from her, except her painting. . ." That last could have been a sour grape, for the lady was a rival with the brush. In any case, the Queen's interpretations of flowers have won glowing praise, and some of the missals that she illuminated with arabesques and miniatures, gothic characters and initials, have been declared among the world's most beautiful sacred treasures. The critic we are quoting was a practical woman, and plainspoken, yet she goes on—
"Her words sank into my brain. A curtain was being lifted, giving me a glimpse into a world unknown to me, where all things had other names, other meanings, an unreal world which only existed whilst she was talking, and which dissolved like mist when I left. . . But she was wonderful, herself a poem, a white apparition, born to be adored." Again, "Her poetic mind gilded every topic, she set herself no boundaries of speech."
Perhaps the psychic aspect of Elizabeth is best exemplified in the nom de guerre that she gave herself and loved—Carmen Sylva—two Latin words that sound beautiful and mean nothing, and she was enough the Latin scholar to know their emptiness. As well call herself in English "Song Wood," though the thought, if any, probably came from German in the form of "Liedwald." But if words were only beautiful they needed be naught else. Carmen and Sylva were beautiful, and she loved the sound. Carmen was song and Sylva was wood, and they were the song of the wood, and the wood was filled of song, of mossy green and gold. All was beautiful for her. She lived in beauty. She was beautiful, made beauty. When words were beautiful they were hers by the same sign, and no need for any other meaning.
She had "deep eyes, like pansies," as someone must have told her, a suggestion that could have influenced her to write, "Les Pensées d'une Reine," on which composition she was the first writer to receive the Prix Botta for literary accomplishment, the award of the Forty Immortals of the French Academy. We may be her critics, but we cannot look down on her fame.
Something more has to be said, the most important tribute to this woman whose eyes saw always beyond the earthy earth. Her ardent nature, its communion with the human soul, did not let her be content as queen of poetry, of music, painting, needlework, of conversation, sentiment, and art, of dream kingdoms created in her ecstasies. She rose to her full height as Queen of Roumania—generous, warm-hearted, benevolent, and foreseeing, devoted to the welfare of that Roumanian humanity over whom destiny had appointed her to rule.
Philanthropic deeds are a queenly part. She did them, without seeking earthly praise. How can the benevolences of such a woman be described? She did them abundantly, intensely, daily, constantly exceeding her means, earning Roumania's everlasting gratitude. She was "The Angel of Roumania," and nobody can tell in words how a Queen becomes an angel to her people. She was a gracious and a noble sovereign, gracious and noble by instinct and in her acts. Her rectitude of mind knew no unbending. Of wrong she cannot be accused. Her lively spirit, her artistic imagination, were exercised far more in the welfare of her subjects than in the triumphs of her sentimental life.
Carol, Charles, or Karl the First was the father of modern Roumania. He led his armies against the Turk. He conquered. At the tables of diplomacy he gained independence, unity, recognition for the land of his adoption. He brought almost the first touch of modernity into the kingdom, introduced modern agriculture, manufacture, and trade, built the railroad, bridged the rivers, created a national port, developed international commerce. Soldier, diplomat, politician—there ended his conception of duty—neither time nor patience for any other. But he led Roumania into the modern world, brought Roumania prosperity, gave Roumania industrial independence. Only at Castel Pelech, and rarely at Castel Pelech, he unstiffened.
Elizabeth the Queen did what King Carol could not. She made life happy for his nation. The people called her soon, and with good reason, "The Mother of Roumania." The woman that was in her was not satisfied to recognize and encourage budding genius in the arts, to make worldly-great the musicians, painters, writers of her kingdom, to spread by her own writings the fame of the Roumanian people, their gifts, their legends, their history, their progress. The distinctive and beautiful Roumanian needlework appealed to her understanding; she saw how the peasant women raised their own silkworms, spun their own silk and wool and flax, how they went distaff in hand wherever they were bound, and how with their own threads they created embroidered masterpieces. To their industry she lent her aid, and she taught them to turn it into profit. She marveled at their carpet-weaving, levantine, oddly oriental, dashed with the west, and organized the craft on a basis to bring rich returns. She encouraged every womanly occupation as a source of happiness, formed singing societies and herself undertook to train them, founded a home for the blind and taught choral singing to her wards. She visited the common people, lent them her advice, her cheer, relieved their distresses out of her purse. She admired their love of flowers, praised their gardening, and helped to make Roumania blossom as it never had.
The Société Elizabetha she organized to distribute raw wool without cost to the poor, for spinning; the Scola Elizabetha Doamna to teach embroidery to young girls; the bureau L'Albina to instruct poor women in the art of sewing, introduced the sewing machine through this bureau, and enabled literally thousands of indigent and near-indigent women to become economically independent as seamstresses, useful to society; the Concordia association to promote weaving and similar female industries; the association La Furnica to buy the products of Roumanian handicraft from the peasants, and to resell for their benefit; the Asile Hélène, an orphanage for young girls, especially to train them as teachers; the Conservatoire, a school for singing, to cultivate and preserve the love of native song. These are some of her conspicuous acts, enterprises in which she undertook personal leadership, which she retained under her personal supervision, to which she gave her own talents as helper, teacher, patroness, and her personal fortune as benefactrice. The extent of her benevolence was without bound.
It is easy to overlook great and significant actions in a life that was so replete with fine and womanly deeds. One of the earliest gestures that endeared her to the people was when she organized an ambulance system during the Russo-Turkish war, and directed its activities, when she visited and comforted the sick, the wounded, the dying, assumed the uniform and undertook the duties of a war nurse. More than one story of her pity, her goodness, and her heroism in those days survives among the people.
And Carmen Sylva was human—beautiful, soulful, angelic, intense, majestic, aristocratic, learned and distinguished, fascinating, altruistic (ready to take the dress off her back to relieve suffering or distress), brave, and hyper-sentimental—but always hungry, ready to eat at any hour—and did.
In their first King and Queen, the Roumanians were blest.