BUCHAREST, APRIL, 1890.
THIS morning, as I entered the queen’s rooms, I was surprised at seeing an unwonted profusion of flowers; the salons were full of roses, like the sanctuaries of Indian idols on special days of worship. There were bouquets on every seat, on the gilt forms, the Oriental cushions and the dainty, artistic tables; others were in flower-stands made of reeds, suspended by ribbons of the national colours; other buds, of a golden yellow tint, were arranged so as to imitate the royal crowns.
At the far end of the salon, on a slightly raised kind of platform, sat the queen, who was once more being fêted. She was dressed in white, as usual; her white hair surrounding her still youthful countenance, which was lit up with a smile indicative of the most exquisite kindness of heart. Two maids of honour, sitting at her feet, were tearing open and reading telegrams of congratulations, with which a silver tray was filled. . . .
“. . . Signed Humber First,” one was just saying.
Another began: “This, madame, is from the Queen of Sweden, who wishes Your Majesty . . .”
As I entered, the queen smilingly raised her head, and, in tones of ineffable melancholy, gave me the explanation she evidently saw I was expecting:
“This is my fête day . . . but of course you knew nothing of it. I ordered these little maidens not to tell you; for I receive quite sufficient flowers, mon Dieu . . .”
The unfinished sentence clearly indicated that the queen was not deceived by such a profusion of roses.
One of the two maids of honour seated by her side on this occasion was destined soon to return to a life of obscurity; the other was Mademoiselle Hélène . . . who, at a later date, had the misfortune to see her name in all the journals of Europe, in connection with her short-lived betrothal to the heir to the throne.
She was quite small and would scarcely have been noticed at a first glance, though she soon attracted attention by the charm of her intellect. She was gay and childlike on the surface, but possessed of a soul that was not easy to fathom; somewhat intoxicated with her literary success and rapid rise; ambitious, perhaps, though with every excuse for it, and, at all events, capable of spontaneous outbursts of affection and love, especially for such as did not oppose her. The queen, at first attracted by the rare intelligence of Mademoiselle Hélène . . ., had gradually come under the sway of her poetic talent. Herself a childless mother, in perpetual mourning for her own daughter, she came to lavish a truly maternal affection on this adopted child, who was so marvellously gifted.
In honour of the queen’s fête,—the last one she received from her own people,—there was a private reception in the palace that afternoon.
About two o’clock there began to arrive all the maids of honour whom the queen called her “daughters.” She received them in a large salon containing a church organ, which rose to the dim-looking ceiling. They entered in small groups from the conservatory; and it was a dream of delight to see them wearing embroidered robes all spangled with gold, for, on this occasion, the queen had bid them wear the old national costume, and was herself dressed in a severe-looking cloth-of-silver gown, and the long, old-fashioned veil.
Amongst the newcomers, I saw many whose acquaintance I had made three years previously at the fairy castle of Sinaia, and with them I exchanged a few pleasant words of greeting.
All these giddy, elegant creatures, however, infatuated with the fashion of the day, these pretty, dark eyes, with their searching, treacherous glances, were more than ever out of harmony with bygone customs. Besides, even then there was an element of ingratitude, of hatred and cruelty, in the courtesies, the hand- kissing, and the smiles they gave the queen. . . . Oh! It was not so in the case of all, certainly; some were loyal and faithful, grateful and warmhearted, quite different from the rest. But the majority, suddenly seen under unexpected circumstances, sent a cold shiver through my whole frame. . . .
And what a change had come over the queen in these three years! So youthful in appearance then; and now, overwhelmed by a loss that could never be forgotten, some great deception, perhaps; thin and aged, with the light all gone from her smile!
Tzigane musicians (Laotaris) followed; these were hidden away in the conservatory. Beneath the artificially sun-lit palm-leaves, which, seen from the dim salons, bore a striking semblance to an Oriental garden, only their auburn locks could be seen, like so many coolies in an Indian jungle, hiding away in ambush; whilst the sad, fevered strains of their music fell faintly on our ears.
Then all these dangerous little gold-spangled dolls formed themselves into one long chain, delightful to behold, and, following the fashion of the day, began an old but popular country dance, called the “hora.”
They entreated the queen to join them, which she was quite willing to do with her never failing good grace and a perpetual sad smile on her brow. The chain had now formed itself into a circle, and she advanced to the centre, taller than any of her “daughters,” and dressed all in white, wearing her silver cloth gown and muslin veil, amid the many-coloured embroideries and the spangles of the rest. She resembled a sedate, gentle figure from some Byzantine fresco, for she had for the first time put on, beneath her white veil, an old-fashioned headband, which came very low down over the brow: “You see,” she had said to her maids of honour that very morning, “at my age, I cannot continue to do without an old woman’s head-band, in Roumania, can I?” Nor had any attempt been made to dissuade her, so well did it become her. . . . With a charm and art that none of her “daughters” could equal, she danced the slow, solemn dance, which resembled a kind of ritual.
Then they requested her to sing; and, bent on pleasing them, she sang an old German lied which she asked me to accompany on the organ. All the anguish of her soul passed into her voice, and when it was over, I thought I noticed more than one pair of pretty, wicked, eyes brimming with tears. . . .
That evening it was my lot to take my seat at the small royal table for the last time. We were in the centre of the private suite of rooms, in a lofty circular dining-room of red marble, with black marble panellings, adorned with the paintings of old masters. Quite a simple dinner, on a round table just large enough for the six persons seated there: the king and queen, the prince royal, two maids of honour and the guest whom Their Majesties had graciously invited. But for the austere splendour of the place and the number of servants in Court livery, all silent and attentive, it would have been the most intimate family meal imaginable.
During dinner the king always showed himself in the most affable and charming light, there being no trace of his usual grave, imposing expression, beyond a deep wrinkle between his dark eyebrows. “No one who sees that deep line on the king’s brow,” the queen said to me one day in accents of tender reverence, “would ever suspect how much labour and thought, struggle and suffering, have gone to create it.”
But neither the benevolent simplicity of the sovereigns, the youthful faces of the prince royal and the maids of honour, nor even their quiet laughter and chatter, could dispel a feeling of sadness, which seemed to descend from the lofty ceiling above.
The red marble rotunda looked down upon high dimly-lit rooms, the magnificence of which bore the impress of the king’s austere, refined tastes. These rooms included the library, at the farther end of which was lit the historic lantern of the gondola of the old doges of Venice. The two maidens, rendered nervous by the somewhat sequestered life of the palace, cast startled glances from time to time about them, as though in vague dread of beholding some phantom or apparition of the past.
What was the cause of all this? Perhaps the isolation of the life without; perhaps that empty, magnificent open space, guarded by sentinels, and that dead silence in the midst of one of the noisiest cities in the world, where the rumbling of carriages and conveyances is most restless and intermittent. . . . Indeed, one was conscious of something unusual in the air, something never felt at a great Court dinner, all blazing with light, and which might be said to suggest palaces and the oppressive burden of royalty.
By the side of the heir presumptive, every evening, at the small family table, sat Mademoiselle Hélène. . . . Doubtless this continual association had already given birth to feelings that might easily have been foreseen. It was the most natural thing in the world that a prince of twenty-four, kept strictly away from the pleasures of his age, living a life of intellectual labour and military manoeuvres, should fall in love with a bright, extremely intelligent girl, the only one, moreover, whom he was permitted to see at all intimately. The romance here outlined, which a certain section of the press did its best to mar and spoil, was thus essentially honourable and straightforward. And the idea of marriage, however opposed to established rules, became the only one capable of offering itself to a youth, brought up as was the prince royal in quite a puritan atmosphere and having the most worthy examples about him to follow; Mademoiselle Hélène, . . . whose keen intellect, moreover, was by no means calculated to excite the seductions of a fleeting love, but far rather to hold and retain true affection.
The following evening I was to start for Constantinople, and I well remember my distress at taking leave of the queen in this palace to which I had so strong a foreboding that I should never return.
I was ignorant as to where lay the danger, or from what direction the ill wind would begin to blow, but the impression left upon me by that last day, and by the fête, was a dull inward chill. As I watched the young guests, on taking leave, kiss the beautiful hand of the queen, I caught premonitions of hatred and hardness of heart in those who bowed most devoutly, and in the sovereign who smiled upon them I divined a new-born clairvoyance, an indulgent though boundless mistrust.
A year later, the queen, seriously ill, was taken first to the south of Italy and afterwards to Venice. It was alleged that she needed the milder sea air and the constantly moist atmosphere of the lagoons.
In reality, it was the beginning of her exile.
And there, in Venice, I was permitted to come and see her, though for the last time. . . .
VENICE, Friday, 14th August, 1891.
It is an August morning, at daybreak. Summoned by Her Majesty, I arrive from Nice for two brief days, all the leave of absence from the squadron that I am allowed.
We are just beginning to see distinctly when I descend from the Genoa express at the station of Venice, which resembles a tiny island. Everything is still indistinct in that hazy semiobscurity before the sun appears, a kind of luminous mist, of a grey-linen hue, peculiar to the last few mornings of summer.
At the station harbour, I enter one of the dark-looking gondolas shut in like a floating sarcophagus, which ply for hire in Venice as cabs do in other cities.
We start off, gliding over the still waters of the streets, immediately finding ourselves, after a few windings, in a maze of old surroundings, between black-looking, ancient houses, full of cracks, and still plunged in the slumber of past ages. The silence of these watery streets calls to mind some gloomy town of Ys, drowned and submerged in the long-distant past, but which the sea would appear now to have forsaken.
Then a sudden turn, and we come out into open air and space. The light of dawn reappears and we have before us the magic splendour of the Grand Canal before it awakens to life, lying there absolutely motionless, of a uniform pearl-grey hue, with the pink dawn appearing, here and there, above the tops of its palaces. . . .
Still, on the present occasion, I scarcely look at this marvellous Venice; the only value it has to me now is that of being a charming accessory, a somewhat ideal background or frame to the sweetly sad figure of the queen, the fairy I have come to visit.
Another turn and we are once more in semidarkness. For the second time we make our way into the narrow streets, between the old, black-looking buildings which rise above the dismal waters. There is still slumber all around, and the silence of the early morn. When, perchance, some distance away, as we approach a dark crossing, the regular splash of oars is heard, my gondolier raises a prolonged warning call which goes echoing between the damp marble walls,—these deserted streets are as sonorous as a vault,—someone yet invisible responds, and soon there appears another gondola, as black and shut in as mine, and the two sarcophagi glide past each other in perfect order. . . .
With my thoughts farther and farther away as I draw near my destination, I follow neither the route nor the direction taken, I have even ceased looking. . . . And now we are about to pass beneath that “Bridge of Sighs,” whose name is as antiquated as an old romance, but which still leaves anything but a faint impression, when seen appearing in view so unexpectedly. . . . Then we emerge from the darkness into wide-stretching, luminous, pink-tinted space, and suddenly we find ourselves in the Great Lagoon, with all the glory and splendour of Venice before us: close by stands the palace of the Doges and the Lion of St. Mark; away on the other bank, situated in the midst of sunlit waters, like some fairy isle, stands St. George the Greater, its dome and campanile ablaze with light. All this is a classic, an eternal marvel, known to all, for it has been painted again and again, but so glorious is the summer dawn, that I do not think any artist has ever had the courage to use such vivid tints of pink, red, and orange for the light and such iris violet for the shade.
And now we reach the hotel Danieli, where the queen is staying.
This hotel Danieli, where in former times the Republic of St. Mark received its ambassadors, is one of the most beautiful Gothic palaces in Venice. It stands close to that of the Doges, and is in the same line with it. The interior still retains its marble staircases, its mosaic floors, and magnificent ceilings in two or three of the rooms. In these democratic times, however, it has become a vulgar, an ordinary hotel, at which anyone may put up.
The whole of the first floor, containing the large halls and the State salons of old, had been reserved for the queen and such few members of her suite as still accompanied her.
The friendly faces that welcomed my arrival have a sad, disquieting expression which I never saw at Bucharest: the queen’s secretary, her doctor, a maid of honour, Mademoiselle Catherine. . . . Ah! She, at all events, was sincere and faithful! . . . May I be pardoned for mentioning her, and acknowledge, in passing, her discreet and steadfast devotion to her sovereign.
About ten o’clock I am informed that the queen can receive me. The room to which I am conducted is guarded by loyal old servants whom I remember having frequently seen at Bucharest.
Right at the end of the large salon, the doors of which are surmounted with royal crowns and from whose still splendid ceiling hang huge Venetian glass chandeliers, reclining in an armchair, I saw the queen, dressed in white, and with a gracious smile of welcome on her face. . . . But how that face had changed, how thin it was! . . . She seems to have aged ten years since last spring.
“She is so ill,” Mademoiselle Catherine had said to me that very morning. “Besides, she cannot walk any more; we have to carry her or roll her in the arm-chair; her graceful bearing and queenly gait have vanished.”
Seated on a stool at her feet, like a little coaxing child, is Mademoiselle Hélène . . ., dressed very simply in pink, nothing escaping her dark, inquisitive glance. In her attitude there is a something affected, as though she were playing at being the spoiled child of this adorable mother; besides, I noticed that whenever no one was watching, or she was practically alone with the queen, her attitude towards the latter was invariably of a colder and more reserved nature. I do not mention this as a reproach: so few women are capable of appearing just as they really are, without a more or less affected pose, or even unconsciously calculating the effect they are producing. Moreover, I have not the faintest doubt but that she had a sincere feeling of attachment for this adopted mother of hers, and that she shed genuine tears when bidding her a last farewell.
Around the queen is the little group of eight or ten,—faithful to a certain extent,—who have been with her since leaving Bucharest, and now constitute her Court in Venice. Conversation is almost gay, but complete confidence seems lacking. With a laugh, the queen utters the following sentence, which indeed is not far from the truth, “We are the exiles of Venice, you know.” She continues, more sadly, “And some allege that we are even a little group of malefactors against Europe. . . .”
Here I must briefly state what, at this date, was the position of Mademoiselle Hélène at the Court of Roumania. The simple maid of honour I had formerly known was now betrothed to the prince royal. True, Parliament had never given its consent to the marriage, and the king had just withdrawn his consent. Still, there was no rupture, for the prince royal, recalled by his family to Germany to live in strict seclusion within his hereditary castle, had given back to Mademoiselle Hélène neither her promise, letters, nor engagement ring. The queen, who was so anxious to bring about the marriage of these two adopted children, and who, through urging forward this mésalliance, had drawn upon herself the disfavour of the nation, had not yet lost all hope. The entire press of Europe published malevolent comments on the strange situation. And Mademoiselle Hélène, . . . after visions of the throne and a four months’ sojourn in this enchanted dreamland, was beginning to feel that everything was crumbling to the ground, as when one awakes. . . .
This was the first time the queen had appeared before me, apart from her special environment, or setting, so to speak, I mean, away from her palaces in Bucharest and Sinaia, in which the maxim of elegance defined, I think, by E. de Goncourt finds such justification: “A person’s good taste may be judged by the good taste of the things around him.”
Here, doubtless from a feeling of intense lassitude, the great stately salon, which might have been so beautiful to behold, had been left just as it was, with its lodging-house ornaments of the most atrocious taste, modern gilt bronzes beneath globes, and—a detail quite unexpected—the vulgarly rich arm-chair in which Her Majesty sat languidly, was covered with a small white crocheted veil.
The work-table alone revealed the queen’s presence, for it was spread with writing-pads and a number of precious writing utensils stamped with her initials and crown.
As soon as each sheet was finished, it was torn off. Poems and spontaneous thoughts, novels and dramas, were conceived and feverishly transferred to paper, in the exhausting effort to lay hold, as rapidly as possible, of all those unexpressed ideas to which her fertile imagination gave birth. This work was of unequal merit; some was of sublime grandeur, some again incomplete, thrust aside, as it were, by the budding germ of the work following. She did not take sufficient pains with her writings,—it being the queen’s opinion that, in the matter of literature, everything ought to be spontaneous, written in obedience to the initial impulse and then left as it is, without there being any necessity to perform the indispensable task of condensing one’s own thoughts ever more and more, and thus making them as clear and intelligible as possible to the reader. The extensive literary output of Carmen Sylva, very little of which has appeared in French,—most of it being destined to be forever lost or unpublished,—would have needed passing through the hands of someone capable of pruning and curtailing it, and that conscientiously; after such treatment, this work of genius would have attained to the place it merits in public esteem. . . . Oh! I do not mean to say that the queen’s writings are not charming, just as they stand; she soars aloft in a manner unattainable by so many clever writers of books; and even at her weakest, one is ever conscious of the presence of a great and noble soul, throbbing with pity for human woes,—and that is sufficient for those who are sensitive, for those who mourn,—though it may not be for the crowd of official scribblers. One even wonders how it has come about that this woman, born a princess and crowned a queen twenty years ago, can thus have sounded all the depths of human sorrow, and thoroughly sympathised with the distress of the poor and the down-trodden.
And how motherly you feel her to be in all circumstances, how conscious you are that her heart must often have been torn with the grief and the infinite tenderness of a Mater Dolorosa!
You are also aware that she is indulgent towards all sins and failings, with the serene indulgence of a spotless soul; free from the prudery of the impure and looking upon everything with rare breadth of vision and the spirit of forgiveness. This, indeed, it is that in certain narrow-minded, pharisaical sects in Germany raised up against her bitter and implacable enemies, even amongst those who ought to have cherished her name and upheld her cause.
I think the very illness that keeps her confined to this arm-chair is the result not so much of grief and trouble, as of a state of intellectual overwork, of that fevered condition in which one feels that the pen runs too slowly to express the thought. I remember how she spent her time at Bucharest and Sinaia; from my room in the palace I saw her lamp burning every night at the window of a distant tower. It was lit between three and four in the morning, and there, in peace and silence, she would work alone until the usual morning occupations began, or her “daughters” came in a group to bid her a pleasant good morning; then, without apparent fatigue, until eleven at night, she went through her daily round of duties, a perpetual smile and a look of never failing charity in her face.
On the table of the salon, my eyes involuntarily fall on a manuscript, whereupon the queen says in that musical voice of hers, with its delightfully foreign modulations:
“That is my new book, at which I am working so hard! Do you know, I am afraid I shall not finish it and that it can never be published. I intend to call it The Book of the Soul, and will read you a few passages if you wish.”
“Oh! Not here,” she continued, on my eager acceptance of this gracious offer. “This afternoon, in the gondola. You see, I spend my days on the water; that forms part of the treatment of a poor patient. To keep me company, you will be forced to do the same and live on the lagoons all the time you stay in Venice.”
The Book of the Soul! On the queen’s table, I looked at the unfinished manuscript, divining from the title alone what it must be: a kind of swan song, a masterpiece of grief, destined to be heard only by a few intimate friends, and whose very pages have perhaps now been destroyed. . . .
With a smile of resignation and in gentle tones that seemed to extend forgiveness to all her enemies, the queen added:
“All the same, I must warn you to be on your guard: this is the work of one who is insane! My head, it appears . . .”
With her beautiful, though almost transparently thin, hand she described two or three circles in the air to indicate—she was now laughing heartily—that she was accused of being very light-headed. . . .
Indeed, an entire party was at that time trying to insinuate that Her Majesty had lost her reason. This was repeated throughout Europe, in more or less corrupt journals. It was even one of the least harmful things then being retailed by one section of the press, against a sovereign who was to be crushed and ruined at whatever cost.
Soon afterwards luncheon was announced, and then I witnessed something of a painful nature, though now it happened daily: two men-servants, whose special duty it was, presented themselves for the purpose of removing the queen in her arm-chair, for she was unable to walk.
“Oh! Thanks! Just wait a moment, please, will you?” she said, so gently and politely that I immediately called to mind that sentence from her Thoughts: A true lady has the same manners with her servants as with her guests. . . . “I feel a little better this morning, so I will try to go alone.”
Very slowly at first, she rose to her feet, tall and upright, a thing she had not done for months, and looked round upon us all with a charming smile, as though to say:
“You see I was right; I feel much better.”
Thereupon she deliberately started off for the dining-room, the rest of us, in utter surprise, following in her train.
Glancing at Mademoiselle Catherine . . . walking by my side, I remember the joyful expression, so full of affectionate hope, which came into her eyes.
“Look at the queen,” she said. “Incredible!” Our joy was not destined to continue, alas! After all, such deceptive changes for the better are characteristic of this malady.
In the dining-room, the queen did not sit at table. She lay stretched on one of those Empire couches, the gilt arms of which represent swans, and there she received, at the hands of Mademoiselle Hélène . . ., who served her with the most respectful attention, a small quantity of special food in tiny cups, almost such as a child would use for her doll!
As soon as luncheon was over, we entered the gondola for our long, aimless sail, a daily experience, peaceful and soothing. Along the old marble staircase, the same two servants carried the queen in their clasped hands, forming an extempore chair on which she was transported right to the door of the hotel. A few inquisitive spectators,—as always happens when a queen passes by,—including a dozen tourists, had collected to watch the sad procession and greet the queen with respectful bows.
A dark-looking gondola, of mourning black, as all the gondolas of Venice have remained ever since the sumptuary laws; on the ends the two traditional sea-horses, of shining brass; behind, the large, dark, black-curtained shelter; the gondoliers, in a dress suggestive of the stage, though here it forms an actual uniform for the crews of the leisured classes: white shirt and trousers, with a very long blue silk girdle streaming behind.
Without indicating any special direction, the only order given them was to go slowly, and we set forth, wherever their fancy willed.
We were speedily lost in an old quarter of the city, silent as death, beneath the shade of closed-in, mysterious-looking houses, overhanging us from great heights; along these submerged streets we made our way by jerks, noiseless and scarcely perceptible, over the silent, stagnant water. The queen, reclining with sovereign grace beneath the shade of the dark shelter, a maid of honour on either side, looked exquisite, though it filled one’s mind with anguish to behold her. Everything except herself, moreover, seemed but of secondary importance, nothing but frame and accessories, so to speak. The foreboding that she might soon be taken from us made us concern ourselves with her alone and with the thoughts to which she gave utterance, or even her slightest remarks, to which the sound of her voice added special charm. From time to time we passed by some old Venetian palace we could not help noticing; or, as we wound round one of those shaded, watery streets, there appeared a wonderful vista in the distance: some dome or spire, with the golden sunlight streaming on it, only to disappear from view a moment later.
The queen had again become almost gay; for after all, it was a principle of hers that one must always smile, like the gods. “A certain outer gaiety,” she once said to me, “like one’s toilet, is a matter of decency or good breeding; that is your duty both to your neighbour and to yourself, just as one ought to contrive to be no more unsightly to behold than one can possibly help.” She looked out from between the black curtains of the shelter, appearing to take an interest in the various incidents, as we slowly sailed along.
We were now passing through a poor and populous quarter, with narrow streets into which it was as impossible for the light to stream as into the bottom of a well. Evidently it was bathing time for the little ones. From the windows, the parents kept watch over them as they splashed about, close to the doors, in the still water. Some of the tiny infants looked so comical in their bathing costumes that the queen could not refrain from a hearty laugh.
Then silence again fell on the party, as though the anxiety caused by thoughts of the dim, uncertain future were pressing heavily on all.
Absentmindedly, perhaps even in slightly ironical tones, the queen asked Mademoiselle Hélène . . .:
“Ah! Has any one seen the papers to-day? Is there anything new concerning us?”
“Certainly. To think that I had forgotten to inform Your Majesty. . . . In those of France, there is quite a serious item of information. . . .”
Then, after a pause which made us only the more attentive, she continued, without the slightest change of expression:
“It would seem that I have committed suicide for the third time!”
This was so unexpected, and uttered in so irresistibly droll a tone of voice, that we all burst out laughing.
“Yes,” continued the young lady, calmly, though in somewhat savage and mocking accents, “this time it is laudanum! It appears I swallowed a considerable quantity, but Your Majesty, warned in time, succeeded in restoring me to life.”
About that time, indeed, the journals were continually giving details of the suicide of Mademoiselle Hélène . . . and as she was very intelligent and rather inclined to scoff and ridicule, all this introduced quite an unexpected and comical element into the painful situation. I remember, too, what she said to me in this connection, and this time she showed herself grave and dignified: “Never! . . . Just what a servant-girl would do, is it not? ... I quite agree that such a dénouement would settle many difficulties, but it is too vulgar a solution to please me.” She further implied that there would be greater dignity in retiring to a life of obscurity and quiet, which subsequently she actually did.
In Venice, she still felt interested in all the excitement she was causing in Europe; for she was too young and too womanly not to enjoy the intoxication of the romantic adventure of which she found herself the heroine. True, the press had converted this love story, which was so honourable and natural, almost inevitable in fact, into something dramatic and strange. All the same, to pass as a charmer, or even a perverse instrument of destiny, still, in some respects, excited the imagination of Mademoiselle Hélène . . .; at all events, this seemed less cold and gloomy than the deathlike silence which was subsequently to be her lot when she was in disfavour and had left the court never to return. . . .
All sadness had now departed, thanks to the beautiful autumn evening sun, as his setting radiance streamed over Venice. Those who watched the passage of the handsome gondola, from their windows, peering through the curtains of the shelter at the white princess who was enjoying the sail, might easily have caught snatches of gay conversation, borne across the water.
During the past year the queen, to my mind, had made considerable progress towards that state of supreme dispassion which brings with it perfect serenity of soul and the favour of heaven.
When twilight fell, we had made considerable progress, finding ourselves in a lonely quarter, and separated from Venice by a wide lagoon. The silence, the old ruins of houses and quays, the still water around, suddenly filled us with gloom as the light faded away. A sort of old curiosity shop, containing Venetian glass and old iron all covered with dust, attracted our attention as we passed along; so we craved the queen’s permission to land on this deserted quay, and examine the strange articles for sale.
Extraordinarily slender and dainty little ewers, small caskets ornamented with swans and dolphins, were what we discovered as we rummaged about in the dust-covered collection, a number of strange objects which we purchased as we went along,—as quickly as possible so as not to keep the queen waiting too long,—finding pleasure in drawing lots when, perchance, the same article was pounced upon by more than one of us. And Mademoiselle Hélène . . ., quite a child on such an occasion and free from any visible sign of affectation, ran off, on each new acquisition, to show her prize to the queen, into whose care it was forthwith handed; whilst Her Majesty, whom, contrary to all etiquette, we had left alone, received this childlike way of doing things with indulgent, motherly smiles.
The night had almost fallen when we returned to the hotel Danieli. Immediately after dinner, we were to start again and enjoy a serenade.
The queen, who refused to eat anything, keeping up her strength by means of some medical preparation or other, remained lying in the gondola; she merely ordered that the latter be rowed out more into the open, in order that she might enjoy a greater degree of quiet. She assured us of her wish to be alone, so as to compel the rest of us to dine in the hotel dining room.
But it was not long before we returned. Meantime, our music had arrived: a large broad gondola, lit up by numerous lanterns and containing a double string quartet, a chorus, and two soloists—a contralto and a tenor.
The illuminated gondola started as soon as we had taken our seats in the queen’s, and we followed. The black shelter had been removed, and, in the dim light, we could see the white fairy, reclining on her cushions.
Then, following in the wake of the music, we again began a slow, winding sail, now passing along wide streets, well lit within and without, for the moon was shining brightly, and then again traversing some dismal old quarter, dark almost as pitch. A number of other gondolas also followed, our floating cortège increasing with each bend of the lagoon, and all these silent lovers of song, gliding behind, listened to the serenade.
Natural and languishing, thrilling one through and through, was this Italian music; at times rising in an anticipated crescendo and echoing between the marble walls of the palaces, and then again dying away by degrees in lingering cadences. There was no trace of fatigue in the thrilling voices, which were employed with a degree of skill native to this land, even in the case of the least gifted singers.
The music of a people is intended to be heard in the country which gave it birth, with its natural environment of sound, odour, and light. Even this Italian music which, speaking absolutely, is of an inferior kind, may charm the soul to its depths when thus heard at nighttime, reaching one’s ears,—with its occasional delightful surprises caused by echoes or varying distances,—from an ever gliding gondola, which one follows, in a reclining posture, rocked on the surface of the waters, now near, now far away,—in the midst of the glory of Venice, and beneath the summer moon and stars.
“This forms part of my treatment,” said the queen, with a smile. “Songs and the open air are my doctors. You know the beneficent influence of music on . . . (she pointed to her head). Remember King Saul of old. . . .” Her irony, however, modified by the sweetness of her voice, never succeeded in manifesting the least tinge of bitterness.
We now formed a long cortège of over a hundred gondolas, an eager pushing throng, grazing the stones or the marble walls, as we glided along the narrow streets. Close by, in barques which obstinately hugged our own, I remember there were some beautiful young women—whether Venetians or foreigners I know not—extravagantly attired and wearing lace mantillas. The light from the beacons enabled us to catch a glimpse of them from time to time, lying stretched on cushions. Moreover, the queen had been recognised; her name was repeated from mouth to mouth, and the crowd, interested in the charming patient, maintained a discreet attitude.
People came to the windows to watch the serenade pass below, greeting it with applause. The sound of violin or ’cello would at times add its mystery to that of the human voice, as we advanced in that music-laden darkness. . . .
Beneath the Rialto Bridge it is customary for serenades to halt. Here, in stranger fashion than elsewhere, between the stagnant water and the archway of stone, the vibrations become intensified. We made a rather lengthy stay, listening to a plaintive duet, with chorus, which gradually—doubtless because of the place and the hour—came to sound in our ears as a sort of incantation.
Back at the hotel Danieli, about eleven o’clock, we took leave of the queen. The windows of the old palace looked down on the lagoon, resplendent beneath the moon’s beams. Not a breath of air that warm August night, glorious beyond compare. Right in front, beyond the reflecting waters, could be seen two figures of St. George the Greater, the one of a luminous grey tint, rising heavenwards; the other darker and reversed, plunging into the watery depths. Above, in the mighty azure vault, and below, in imaginary depths, shone similar stars, in perfect symmetry. And the silent gondolas, shadow and substance, with two sterns and two prows, like black paper-cut figures that have just been unfolded, passed along, with their red lanterns, between the two skies, looking as though they were proceeding through empty air, dragging behind them long undulating streaks in their train.
Then, for the first time since my arrival, I became fully conscious that I was no longer in a Venice of dreamland, such as was visible from between the curtains of the shelter, but in the real Venice, which in itself alone deserves to be visited and admired. And, so as not to lose so glorious a night, I again went down to the quay, took the first gondola that came up, and out again into the open, in the direction of St. George, on the other bank.
We advanced slowly, with no special aim in view, fascinated by the light of the moon mirrored in the still water. Little by little, as we went farther away from the bank, the delicate, exquisite outlines of the palaces became more distinct.
Thus did Venice, the Venice of classic story, wrapped in the moon’s soft beams, quite unchanged in its main features, once more become the one, incomparable city, wonderful to behold, as in the centuries long past.
SATURDAY, 15th August, 1891.
A splendid sky and the sun brightly shining. The bells of Venice are ringing out from every steeple, for to-day is the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin.
This morning the queen is more dejected, more sad and depressed than she has been for some time. In the first place, yesterday’s apparent improvement has not been maintained, she has not even the strength to stand upright, and the ominous two men-servants are again needed to carry her from one salon to another.
The news of a recent execution troubled her greatly. A treacherous servant-girl, whom the maids of honour had long ago surnamed Marino Falieri, had just been dismissed and sent back to Germany, convicted of having purloined and copied some of the queen’s letters and pages from her private diary, for the benefit of some mysterious enemies. . . . Ah! It is quite certain in the case of anyone at all acquainted with this ideal queen, that nothing in these pages, if read aloud to the whole world, would be of a nature to rouse doubts regarding her integrity and rectitude, though dangerous politics might occasionally have been mentioned, useless revelations made, and cruel truths told. What appalled the queen most of all was to feel herself surrounded by anonymous enemies, lurking beneath her very shadow, so to speak, and who shrank from nothing, not even from such cowardly expedients as this.
Then, too, another mail had arrived from Germany without bringing any letter from the prince royal. His expected reply was not forthcoming. The queen, whose somewhat intolerant loyalty caused her to rebel against such treatment, had written to him several days previously, calling upon him to state whether or not he had withdrawn his promise, and if he had, to return to Mademoiselle Hélène . . . her letters and betrothal ring. In fact, the marriage seemed broken off, though the prince had said nothing; days and weeks passed without any answer.
At the first blush, one is tempted to blame him, and yet, before judging from the ordinary standards, we must remember that there may have been State reasons for his silence, that he was very young, and perhaps suffering, and finally that absolutely nothing is known of his inner struggles or of the pressure that may have been brought to bear upon him.
And also, before attaching any degree of blame to Mademoiselle Hélène . . . for giving way to ambitious dreams, we must ask ourselves if any young lady, whoever she might be, loved by a charming prince, the heir to a throne, would not have done everything possible to bring such a marriage to a successful issue.
About eleven o’clock, as the sun was blazing down upon us, the queen had requested to be carried back into her room and left alone for an hour or two, to try to obtain a little sleep. Her two maids of honour, her secretary, and myself thereupon set out on foot, proceeding along the quays and the arcades of the palace of the Doges, then taking the large paved squares, and finally going along any passage where it is possible to walk about as in an ordinary town. We hastened to make our several purchases and return before Her Majesty awoke, so that not a moment of her precious presence might be lost. To us, this was an occasion of relaxation and recreation, almost of child’s play, such as happens from time to time in the most anxious and storm-tossed periods of life: we felt almost as though we were playing truant, in a place where, after all, we were practically strangers and free to enjoy ourselves in this innocent fashion. All the dealers of the Piazza San Marco had spread out their white tents; as we hurried along, an African sun streamed down upon innumerable displays of glassware and the jewellers’ shops, all coral red; its rays shone everywhere, on cathedral and palaces, burning and flashing upon that wealth of mosaics and statues which makes up Venice.
A few passers-by, however, turned to look again at us, as though half recognising Mademoiselle Hélène . . ., the romantic heroine of the day. And she, with soul lulled to rest, or perhaps because she was carefully concealing her true feelings, seemed this morning to take a child’s delight in everything she saw. On calling to mind the news contained in the previous day’s papers, we even exercised our imagination in dwelling on the possibility of the four of us committing suicide, with all kinds of dreadful details, right in the middle of the Piazza San Marco,—a catastrophe which assuredly would have dumfounded the press.
Feeling somewhat rested on awaking, the queen read a letter from the king, stating that the political business which detained him in the East would soon be finished, and that he hoped to be in Venice within a few days. She appeared glad at the idea of seeing him again.
During the midday meal, she asked how we had been spending the time,—as though we were children returning from a walk,—listening with an indulgent, almost amused, smile as we told of our purchases, the terrible heat of the sun, and even the suicide idea. From time to time the laughter shone in her eyes, lighting them up as we had so often seen in the past.
This, indeed, in happier times, was one of the signs and charms of her profound, though delightful nature, these furtive outbursts of gaiety and spontaneous laughter, invariably aroused by the most incoherent, fleeting, and childish trifles. After all, a nature that is rigidly correct and knows nothing of this kind of laughter and childlike innocence is almost inevitably harsh and limited in its outlook, or at all events of a very ordinary and commonplace type.
We started again for our daily sail in the gondola. Yielding to my entreaties, the queen had kindly brought with her the manuscript of the Book of the Soul, to read passages from it aloud as we went along.
“Not just now,” she said; “this evening, when we come to a quieter spot, a little farther out. I feel so tired. . . .” And her resigned smile, so sweet and sad, seemed to crave indulgence for everything she did.
At first, not a word was uttered, for we all felt sympathy with the queen’s dejected attitude.
By degrees, however, obedient to her will, the life returned to her voice and eyes,—as we continued to glide along at the same measured swing through old, sad-looking quarters, with their armour-sheathed windows. At first, the conversation was intermittent, consisting of short, tired sentences; but gradually the queen grew more animated, she regained her wonted vivacity, and, touching upon one subject after another, we came to speak of the religions of India, of Buddhism and Nirvana.
Then Her Majesty and myself engaged in a discussion on such questions as the survival of the soul and the eternal revoir. Oh! We did not discuss the reality of these things, alas! . . . but only the more or less consoling forms in which such books as claim to be revelations have presented them to mortals. And I defended—both because I was really attached to it and because of the sweet traditions of childhood—the ineffably alluring Christian creed, convinced then, as I am now and shall always be, that no more radiant or glorious mirage will ever enchant the long hours of suffering or give consolation at the moment of death. And some misunderstanding or other must have arisen, though, at bottom, we were of the same mind. The rest of the party, listening in the gondola, now began to use stronger arguments than the queen had used, and appeared to insinuate that the Book of the Soul, to which I was about to listen, contained a more consoling message than Christianity could give. The queen, doubtless absent-minded, permitted them to champion the bold proposition they had put forth, and to speak, in terms almost of disdain, of the faith which, for centuries past, has brought peace and comfort to the dying. They themselves were the initiates, learned in the Book of the Soul; they were in possession of something superior, something more soothing, which caused them to think pityingly of the Gospel. To me, it all appeared childish blasphemy and puerile vanity; of a sudden, the queen seemed less great, by reason of the false pride inspired by her book, and a painful feeling of sadness came over me at this unexpected disappointment. . . . Then I began violently to defend Christianity, as though I had been personally abused and insulted.
This was followed by an embarrassing silence, spell-breaking and disenchanting. The gondola was still gliding through the stagnant waters, past ruins and the old quarters of the city. It was again the bathing hour; from time to time little girls came out of the houses and took delight in swimming after us, their laughing faces, like those of little sirens, rising above the water, close to the gondola.
Now we are far from the land, on the vast lagoon, and quite alone. In the distance, Venice appeared much lower, for domes and spires had regained their true proportions, rising, in mingled groups, high above the houses.
The maids of honour declared this to be a suitable place to stop and open the Book of the Soul, which they had brought with as much ceremony as though it were the Tables of the Law. I now dreaded the reading that was to follow, as something vain and foolish.
The queen, however, still smiling serenely, replied that it was too soon, and that we must first lunch, like ordinary people out on a picnic. At a sign of her hand, the two gondolas following us and bearing the rest of the small court, drew up alongside the one in which we were seated, and Her Majesty, opening a luncheon basket, began to distribute our portions to each of us, playfully treating us as though we were children. Then came the turn of the gondoliers, whom she served herself, with her beautiful, almost transparent, hands. We partook of bread and cake, currants and peaches—the beautiful, sun-ripened fruit of Italy.
In this connection, there comes to my mind a trifling incident, one, however, which in itself affords a striking index to the queen’s nature. On her lap, over her white dress, she had spread a small light-grey mantle, with several overlapping capes. An overripe peach fell on it, leaving a slight stain. “Oh!” she exclaimed, in half jesting, half serious accents, “What a pity! And I was so fond of this little mantle!” On handing it back, after shaking it over the sea, I ventured to remark that there was scarcely any sign of a stain and that in any case it would not be seen, as it chanced to be underneath one of the capes.
“Oh! whether it is seen or not is a matter of indifference to me. All the same, I shall know it is there; and that is sufficient, you understand.”
An answer expressive both of her great loyalty and of her purity of soul.
The summer sun was a glowing ball of fire, low in the heavens, when the queen began the promised reading of the Book of the Soul. His ruddy golden tints flashed upon Venice in the distance. And there lay our three gondolas, at rest on the surface of the broad lagoon. Not another barque was visible.
Before beginning, the queen gave me a reproachful look, a very kind though roguish and confident glance.
Then that incomparably charming voice of hers began to make itself heard. She read slowly, in a way entirely her own, with a gentle soothing effect, like the music murmuring through some stately cathedral. One would have been content merely to listen to the voice; that alone would have been a delight, even if the meaning and sense had not been clear. My mind, however, was somewhat anxiously intent on grasping the signification of every word. . . .
How beautiful the book was, how different from what I had feared! There was nothing dogmatic, nothing subversive or presumptuous. It was the expression of the human soul probed to its depths, and the effect was strange and novel; every page seemed to breathe forth a spirit of deep humility in suffering. The chapters were short, each developing some rare and profound thought, clothed in grandly simple language, as poetical as that of the Bible. From time to time came passages chanted in a kind of apocalyptic tongue. The peace and comfort that breathed from this endless plaint lay in its spirit of sweet resignation, of pity for the lowliest of her fellow-beings. The book was a new and sublime form of prayer, the beseeching appeal to a God, raised by an entire humanity. It made no presumptuous claim to destroy, to build up, or to promise anything.
And to think that this book, almost throughout a work of genius, a work in which her nobility of soul shone brightest, is doubtless now lost, torn up, or burned; to think that men will never read it! . . .
From time to time the queen stopped. “Oh! I am so tired,” she said, “so tired, . . For a brief moment her voice seemed to fade away and die. Yes, worn out through suffering for others: that was more evident than ever, when one looked upon her colourless face, which vied in whiteness with her hair and her dress.
Then the music of her voice returned, in a fresh outburst of sound, as she sang the mysteries of the soul. And I remember my surprise when my gaze once chanced to fall on the gondoliers, as they sat there motionless, leaning over towards the queen, unable to grasp anything beyond the charm of sound and rhythm, listening all the same, in captivated wonderment at something they felt to be religious and sublime.
The light was growing dimmer and dimmer. The great red sun had just disappeared behind a corner of the city.
Two small, strange-looking women had by this time approached in a tiny canoe. They were frail and ugly, of an age and class impossible to define. They handled the paddle with the skill of savage women and were dressed in English bathing costumes. Drawing near, they sprang into the water and swam right up to the gondolas. For a few moments they listened to the queen as she read, a strange, evil look on their faces, then they dived and swam away, only to reappear shortly afterwards.
“I cannot see any longer,” said the queen. Whereupon the gondoliers removed the shelter, and the white fairy appeared more in view as the light faded. Her voice, too, was growing fainter and fainter. Venice now appeared outlined in the distance against the pale yellow sky. And in the twilight, the two little creatures, noiselessly diving again and again, seemed like mocking evil spirits of the night, held there, all the same, by the charm of that melodious voice.
Finally we said, “Enough, please do not read any more, Your Majesty is quite worn out. . . .” The manuscript fell from the queen’s hand. Night had now closed all around.
Back in the hotel, the queen, really exhausted, was straightway carried to her bed, and I was deprived of the pleasure of spending my last evening in her company. I was to leave Venice next morning, and she had promised to receive me for a few moments in her room before I took my departure. As I bent over to kiss her hand, just when the two men-servants carried her away in her arm-chair, I had no suspicion I was seeing her for the last time.
Entering my room, I had not been there more than a few minutes when a faithful servant of Her Majesty handed me one of those familiar grey envelopes, stamped with her initials and crown. It contained a sheet of paper on which she had written in pencil, in large elegant characters:
I sat long at my window, leaning on the balcony of Gothic marble, and looking at the fairyland of Venice in the summer moonlight. I reflected on the sombre destiny of this admirable, this revered woman. Memory brought back to me, in that great palace of Bucharest, the cruel eyes of all her “daughters,” on the occasion of her fête, those “daughters” who owe everything to her and yet bear her a grudge for not doing even more for them.
I know not what political errors this queen may have committed to have incurred such disfavour in a land to which she had given her whole heart and life. After all, it would not be for me to judge them.
There is only one fault I can see clearly: that of having tried to bring about this marriage, and imagined that a maiden, one amongst so many others who envied the favour lavished upon her, could become a queen in her own country! And this fault was probably more dangerous than all the rest; the one which all those little charming dolls, who, a year ago, danced the hora in a long gold-spangled chain around their sovereign, will never forgive. This was the origin of that raging feminine hatred which stops at nothing and gradually brings every other kind of hatred into manifestation.
And there welled up within my heart a great wave of pity for this queen, a feeling of despair at my inability to defend and avenge her so little.
SUNDAY, 16th August.
This morning, half an hour before my departure, I came down to bid farewell to the queen.
There, in the large salon, I found the maids of honour awaiting me. The queen, they tell me, is much worse than the previous evening. They have both spent the night by her bedside. It is quite impossible for her to receive me.
Then I begin to write down all I intended to say in that farewell conversation. I hand my letter to the two maids of honour and a gondola takes me to the station.
Seated in the carriage which is to convey me to Genoa, I see approaching a faquino who had run after me and is perspiring freely. He hands me a grey envelope bearing the royal arms and containing the following message, written in pencil:
This was the very last time I saw the queen’s handwriting.
I know not in what gloomy silence she is enveloped, behind what leaden curtain her fair open countenance is veiled. Vague rumours reached me that she had been taken away, far from all her companions of the past, to the banks of an Italian lake, there to spend several months in rest and solitude, and that she is now in a gloomy castle on the banks of the Rhine. . . .