Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
Much of the life of the village and the hospital centered in the little brown wooden church which stood in the valley across the river from the castle, not far from the hospital. On Sunday morning we assembled there to hear the Orthodox Liturgy said, and the lovely Easter and Christmas services were celebrated there; sometimes marriages were performed, and the village gathered there for its christenings and funerals.
The church had been built years ago in a distant village which had prospered and had erected for itself a new church of stone and brick. The little wooden church had been abandoned. My mother had seen it on her journeying about the country, and she loved it. She couldn't bear to see it standing forgotten and neglected, and when she offered to buy it from the village, thereby helping to finance the new brick one, the town fathers were delighted to sell it to her. She had it transported to Bran and established it in a green and flowery meadow beneath the castle, facing the river and the road, dwarfed by the green mountainside rising sheer and dark behind it. A footbridge spanned the river and was met by a little stone path which crossed the meadow and led one to its door. There in the shadow of the castle it seemed to have taken root contentedly, surrounded by the flower garden that my mother had planted about it, looking as if it belonged in that spot and never had been anywhere else.
It was built of great split oak logs, their outer sides left rough, and the chinks between padded with velvety green moss. Its enormous high roof gave it the appearance of a giant mushroom, and there was a large belfry at the top. Inside it was beautifully painted. There wasn't a square inch that hadn't been touched by an artist's brush, lovingly though crudely, because this church had been built by peasants, and the peasants paint with the skill of love, not with the sophistication of finished techniques. The original sharp brilliant hues had softened with time, and there remained a lovely diffused glow of faded color and the faint dull shimmer of gold. There were pictures of remote, unknown saints, calm-faced and robed, and entrancing scenes from Bible stories. Especially entertaining were those from Revelation. I remember the seven-headed Beast: he was portrayed as a wondrous red dragon with a prodigious and most decorative tail, a crown upon each of his seven extraordinary heads, and on each of his seven faces a different expression, horrific or stern, sad or foreboding.
As in all Orthodox churches, the altar was shut off from the rest of the building by a carved and painted wooden screen that reached nearly to the roof. A cross surmounted it. The lower part of the screen was painted with pictures of saints, conventional and stylized. There were three small doors in the screen, which remained closed during part of the service, through which the priest went in and out, celebrating the ritual in private before the unseen altar and coming occasionally from the Holy of Holies behind the screen to face the congregation.
According to old Orthodox tradition, on the back wall near the entrance door of a church, there is always a portrait of the person who built it. Here, then, was the faded, primitive portrait of four old peasants standing together side by side, one of them holding in his hand a model of the church, which, symbolically, he was presenting to God. Although crudely painted, the faces were characterful. One felt their personalities; they were still individuals though long dead. According to tradition, their names were not recorded so I do not know who they were, but I used to study their faces and wonder what sort of persons they had been, and how and why the spirit of God had moved them to build this church. I imagined how they had searched the forests to find each separate, perfect, huge oak log to put into their little construction; then hitched them to oxen and dragged them perhaps for miles through the forest and down the mountainside to the site of the building, and raised them into position. I wondered what the lives of these men had been, up far away in the northwestern mountains which are called Maramures. They had been good men, of that I was certain, living the monotonous lives of farmers and mountain men, coming and going, sowing and reaping, their work and their lives always dictated by the pattern and demands of the inflexible seasons. Perhaps the only adventure in their lives was the spiritual experience that had conceived this church and the work of all four men together, spiritually, physically and materially, to build it to the glory of God, hidden on one of His mountainsides.
The peasants there are a race quite apart—they are strong and independent, tall, fine-looking and proud. It is from them, according to legend, that the first Romanian rulers descended. In the thirteenth century, they crossed over the mountains and the Transylvanian plateau from Maramures and founded the first Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.
There was something in the rugged, dignified faces of the four old men in the Bran church that reminded me of those original founders of our nation. They were truly the offspring of those first fathers.
Inside the church it was very dark. We had put in electric lights when we brought current to the castle and the village, but I liked it best when only the candles were lit. It took on a strange, dim mystery then; it became another world.
I used to love to go for a few minutes when I could at the end of a day and kneel there alone. There were no pews. The candles would be lit, or the last rays of the sun penetrating inside the church would surround the strange-faced, painted saints with pale momentary halos. They would stare at me as though astonished to be disturbed from their lonely silence and peace. But childishly I used to feel that if I remained long enough, still, motionless and receptive, prayerfully but with no words that would impede our silent intercourse, they would turn from their astonishment and accept me, they would allow me enter their distinct community as one of their company.
During those four years the peace of this holy house enveloped me many and many a time like a cloak of rest. It had a life of its own. It breathed the mysticism, the simple faith and reverence that are the core of our people's being.
Just above it, cut out of living rock on the craggy mountainside, was the shallow chapel that held my mother's heart. Flowers filled it, and two doors stood wide open to the countryside by day. Steps cut out of the outcropping rock led up to it, bordered and splashed with brilliant rock flowers from early spring to late fall.
A short distance away, around a jutting crag and shielded by shrubbery, was our swimming pool, and beside it was a tiny peasant house built of dark wood, with a shingled roof that shone like silver in the sun. Once it had been the home of a peasant family, but now we used it as a playhouse and for dressing. In the center of the one large room was a pingpong table, and the "smack-clink-smack" of the balls in a hard-pressed match was often a cheerful accompaniment to our swimming and sunning.
All summer long the pool was a daily meeting place for my family—my children and my people at the hospital. Here for a little while we could forget our worries and the duties that were sometimes tiresome, the fatigue and the small misunderstandings that arise from overwork and tension.
We plunged and swam joyously in the icy mountain water; then gasped and shrieked and made desperately for the dry land, our limbs aching from the exhilarating cold. But as soon as we breathlessly hoisted ourselves up onto the edge of the pool, we were warmed to a wonderful glow by that extraordinary Romanian sun which seems to have an incandescence all its own.
We sunned ourselves to a nut-brown color, we chattered and frolicked with the children under the beetling mountain; tight nerves relaxed and vexations vanished in laughter. We always returned gaily to our various concerns, the blood coursing vigorously in our veins, our bodies stimulated and rested, and the sense of family affection and relationship among us as pronounced in our play as in our teamwork at the hospital.
I think that all hospitals breed romance, and certainly Spitalul Inima Reginei was no exception. Several of our nurses married their patients, and since I have already told you about Anna, who took such capable care of our precious commodity, the hospital linen, I will tell you about her wedding to Iosef, one of the wounded soldiers who came to us from the Brasov army hospital to convalesce.
He was not a peasant; that is, he had none of the dignity and stability—and shall I say nobility?—of the peasant. He came from a faraway, obscure little town on the plains; he had in him none of the tradition of the soil or the dignity of occupation. He had been a laborer at odd jobs before he went into the army. He was mild and ineffectual; he was lovable and inoffensive. There was no emphasis in him for either good or ill.
But Anna loved him, and he loved Anna, and they became engaged. When he had recovered enough to be discharged, we all turned happily to making plans for their wedding, for their lives had become part of ours.
Anna lived, at this time, in one of the little houses across the river which belonged to the castle and which I used for staff living quarters. She and Josef found a cottage in the village which we helped them furnish for their new home, and the wedding day was set in late August.
When not in uniform, I always wore the peasant dress of the region, and for her wedding dress I loaned Anna one of my peasant costumes. In each part of the country—indeed, in each valley and neighboring village in Romania—the costume varies slightly. One can judge accurately where a person comes from by the regional dress. I had a large collection of Romanian costumes, for in the old days, before war came, I felt that it was courteous to dress in the garb of the village I was to visit, and my great delight was to collect the loveliest examples I could find of each type of costume. Some were truly museum specimens. The embroidery in gold and silver and lovely colors was intricate, and the designs beautiful beyond belief. Materials were always peasant-woven wool and linen, sometimes heavy, sometimes light and sheer.
The dress I loaned Anna to be married in was made in the age-old characteristic style of Bran. The wide, black wool skirt was paneled up the front with a wide strip of red and gold embroidery, and the wide-sleeved white linen blouse was also embroidered in red. On her head, covering her dark hair, she wore the long, transparent, scarflike wedding veil called marama, sheer white linen beautifully patterned in the weaving, which she would wear with dignity all her life on fete days, and be buried in—signature of her married state. This veil, so all-important to her on her wedding day and forever after, was one of my gifts to her.
In Romania, a bride always wears beteala—bright strands of spun gold twisted about her head over the wedding veil and falling over her shoulders like a shower of golden hair. It is a very old custom; no one knows how or where it originated, but it is believed to date back to Roman times, as do many of our obscure customs. Conceivably, beteala could have represented the bride's dowry. No Romanian bride, even today, would be married without her beteala, no matter what type of wedding gown she might choose—the lovely traditional peasant dress, so becoming to all women, or the latest, smartest thing from Paris. She just would not feel herself a bride.
So Anna wore beteala which I took from the great shower of it that I had worn on my own wedding day, and in the castle garden I myself picked her bridal bouquet —late white Madonna lilies which my mother had loved so much and planted lavishly wherever she lived.
When my children and I, all of us in peasant dress, came down to the hospital on the morning of the wedding day, we found a resplendent chariot and steeds standing in the hospital courtyard. Badillo, Dr. Puscariu and two of the nurses were giving it finishing touches, and they stepped back as we approached, crying our admiration.
"We couldn't let Anna walk to her wedding," explained Badillo, smiling broadly.
Somewhere, Badillo had found an open carriage, more or less the worse for age and wear. It twinkled from a fresh coat of varnish he had applied, and he and the nurses had decorated it with bunches of flowers tied here and there, and had twisted flowers along the spokes of the wheels, as well. Bright peasant embroideries were spread over the seats, not quite hiding the bulges of the broken springs, however. Our two hospital horses, although not exactly spirited and stylish, had been brushed and polished until their coats shone in the sunlight, and nosegays—scarlet salvia, nasturtiums and zinnias—were tied to their bridles. They tossed their heads with unaccustomed vivacity, as if they felt their smartness and importance and liked it. My children swarmed around the carriage, excited and enchanted; they wanted to ride in it immediately.
Badillo, looking unfamiliar in his borrowed peasant dress, and almost shockingly jaunty with a scarlet geranium over his ear, peasant fashion, helped me into the carriage and jumped into the driver's seat. One of Iosef's fellow soldiers, in uniform and with a flower stuck into his cap, climbed up beside him, and surrounded and followed by the others—my children, the hospital family and some of the villagers in their Sunday best costumes—we drove smartly out of the courtyard and clumped merrily over the bridge to the bride's house.
Anna came out to meet us as we arrived, with Maria close behind her, beaming and wiping her tears away at the same time. Anna was pleased and flattered with her carriage; she was blushing delightfully, and although we knew her well, after a year's work together, she seemed suddenly charmingly shy. She was helped up into the carriage with much cheering and laughter and sat down beside me a little timidly. I reassured her and held her hand tightly in mine under her bridal bouquet. Our escort noisily greeted Maria, and with teary smiles she flung them back as hearty banter as she got.
Badillo was enjoying himself thoroughly, although obviously he was more at home in the operating room than on the driver's box. He snapped the reins and shouted cajolingly to the horses, and off we all started to the church, where Iosef and my husband Anton, who was his sponsor or groomsman, were waiting for us. Anton wore mufti that day, and Iosef his uniform with a flower tucked into his cap and a bit of beteala twisted in his buttonhole.
It was a lovely day, clear and hot in the sunshine, but there was a hint of the sharp edge of fall in the sudden coolness of the shade. We had a very little way to go; we could have walked almost as fast as we drove, for the wedding guests afoot, who were our escort, kept abreast of us. But no bride should walk to her own wedding; that is what Badillo had said.
The priest heard our voices as we approached, and he was waiting for us at the door of the church clasping the Holy Book in his hands, the sun glinting and shimmering on his beautiful golden vestments. He looked like a motionless figure in a painting, with the little dark church behind him and the fir-covered mountain looming overhead. The carriage stopped at the footbridge that led across the river, and Anton and Iosef met us there and helped us to alight. Our little wedding company walked together down the footpath across the meadow to the church door, to meet the priest. He held the Book out to us; we reverently kissed it and then followed him as he turned and went inside, moving slowly and solemnly to the center of the church where a table had been placed.
There are no pews in an Orthodox church. Worshipers stand or kneel, sometimes through services that are hours long in the great churches. Nor, contrary to Western churches, are wedding ceremonies performed at the altar.
The table in the center of the church was covered to the floor with a large piece of purple and gold brocade, part of the vestments with which my mother had equipped the little church when she brought it to Bran. The priest placed the Bible on the table. There was a cross there, too, and a little tray holding two wedding rings, a goblet of wine with a silver plate containing two or three biscuits, and, most important of all, two golden crowns.
The wedding guests stood decorously about the table at a respectful distance. Anna and Iosef stood together by the table facing the altar, Anton stood beside Iosef, and I beside Anna. Anton and I each held a lighted candle. The priest faced us, and the betrothal ceremony began.
After prayers, the priest picked up one of the rings from the table and touched Iosef's forehead with it, saying, "The servant of God, Iosef, is betrothed to the servant of God, Anna." This he repeated twice and placed the ring on Iosef's left hand.
Then he turned to Anna and, taking the other ring, touched her forehead with it in turn.
"The servant of God, Anna, is betrothed to the servant of God, Iosef," he intoned, repeating it twice.
After this, according to the ancient ceremony, I put down my candle and exchanged the rings, putting Iosef's on Anna's finger, and Anna's on Iosef's, making the sign of the cross with each as I did so. Then I returned to my place beside the table and picked up my candle again. Anna and Iosef joined hands.
Then the priest ceremoniously lifted one of the golden crowns in his hands and touched Iosef's forehead with it.
"The servant of God, Iosef, is wed to the servant of God, Anna," said the priest three times, and with Anton's help he placed it on Iosef's head.
He lifted the other crown and touched Anna's forehead with it.
"The servant of God, Anna, is wed to the servant of God, Iosef," announced the priest, three times, and in turn, I helped him to place it on Anna's bowed head, over her wedding veil and resting on the twisted beteala. This crowning was the great moment of the ceremony; symbolically, it was the crowning moment of their lives.
The bride and groom then walked slowly and with dignity three times around the table, a symbolic dance of joy; its origin goes far back in time, indeed, into the Old Testament.
The crowning accomplished, the priest then lifted the goblet and gave Iosef and Anna each a sip of wine, and, still wearing their golden crowns, they shared a biscuit from those on the little silver plate. This part of the wedding ceremony is in memory of the wedding in Cana of Galilee where Christ, Who is our High Priest, performed the first miracle of His ministry, that of changing water to wine when His mother whispered to Him that the wine provided by the host had given out. Also, it is symbolic of the couple's first shared meal together in their wedded state.
Then the crowns were removed by the priest with the aid of the bridesmaid and groomsman, reverently kissed by the four of us and deposited on the brocade-covered table. At last, after the interminable prayers, the priest proclaimed them man and wife and blessed them with the sign of the cross.
Immediately, there was great rejoicing among the guests. They surrounded the young couple, shaking hands and kissing them, embracing and congratulating them.
The ceremony was over and we moved to the door and down the church steps. Surrounding Anna and Iosef, and in high spirits, we trooped along the path around the jutting rock to the little peasant house by the swimming pool where the wedding feast was spread. As a surprise, I had arranged for a gypsy orchestra, called lautari, to come from Brasov to play for the party. The band consists of violins, cello and a zither. They were waiting for us on the little porch, and as we rounded the rock they began to play a vigorous peasant melody. After a moment's delighted surprise, the guests broke into song. Then the gypsies tentatively and insinuatingly began to play fragments of a sarba. A sarba is the fastest and gayest of all the peasant dances; I loved dancing, and whenever I had a chance to dance a sarba I was enchanted. I reached for Anton's hand and called excitedly to all the others to choose partners and join us. We danced a gay and lively sarba on the grass before the little house, shouting and singing together, while the gypsies on the porch played like mad, singing to their accompaniment.
Finally the dance came to an end, and breathless, chattering and laughing, we crowded up the steps and into the house. The little room was crowded with guests. The pingpong table was covered with a huge white tablecloth and decorated with flowers. On it were platters of tiny open sandwiches, or canapes, and trays of little cakes, silver pitchers of fruit juice and bottles of native wine. We do not have wedding cake in Romania. Maria and my cook at the castle had done their best with their slight resources. The spreads on the canapes were mostly cooked liver mashed with garlic and herbs and spices, but there were also slivers of ham on fingers of black bread, and sheep's milk cheese was mashed with caraway seeds and fennel and spread on little circles of black bread. There was slight variety and no elegance, but the table looked so pretty, the platters filled with such attractively arranged bits of sandwiches were so unaccustomed and lavish after our slim and often monotonous meals, that just to look at it was luxurious.
We all helped ourselves plentifully—a change in diet made us greedy—and filled our glasses with wine or fruit juice. Some guests took their plates to the porch, some stayed inside to eat; others sat on the grass at the edge of the swimming pool enjoying the good August sun while they feasted. We sang songs as we ate and there was laughter; quips and banter were tossed about; we were very merry and very carefree. No one would have dreamed that the shadow of invasion and oppression hung over us, that there were Russian soldiers about, perhaps even at this very moment entering our village. This was one of our few holidays and we were enjoying it completely.
After we had eaten, glasses were filled again all round, and Dr. Puscariu proposed toasts—first to the King, and then to the bride and groom. Someone proposed a toast to me and then to Anton. Then someone else got to his feet and called for a toast to the hospital where the pair had met and which was as much a part of the village of Bran as the church. I sipped gratefully and happily.
Then, since Anna's father was not present, Dr. Puscariu took his place and made a flowery speech in accordance with the time-honored style of discourse on such occasions. As is the custom he finished, "Well, and what has each one of you brought to our Anna, the bride?"
I made my presentation; I gave her a set of table silver for six which I had found in an antique shop in Bucharest. New silver, of course, was not to be found. One after another the guests came forward with their gifts for Anna, which they presented, sometimes with quaint speeches of stilted compliment and good wishes for the couple.
I knew this would take a long while; these presentations are very leisurely and go on for hours; there are speeches and songs—the doina—poems are recited, and there are endless polite pleasantries. After that, the guests would dance for hours.
We have many peasant dances, all of them intricate, fun to dance and most beautiful to watch. Our national dance, which is best of all to do, is called the hora, in which the dancers clasp hands, crossing their arms behind them, and move in a circle clockwise, doing all sorts of complicated steps and variations meanwhile.
I knew they would be more at ease if I were not there, and so I withdrew and went back to the hospital, where I had a quick look around to make sure that all was well, and then I went back to the castle, for a rare quiet evening at home. I knew that those who had been left on duty at the hospital during the ceremony would soon be relieved by the others, so they could have their share of fun at the celebration.
They danced and sang and ate until evening, and then the hardier ones repaired to the village public house, where the celebration was continued, I heard later, until dawn.
Although this book is the story of the hospital, while I am on the subject of weddings I will tell you of the strangest wedding I ever attended, for it happened in Bran although it had nothing to do with the hospital. It was the wedding of the son of the Bran tavernkeeper to a girl from Tohan. Although I did not know her at all, she had asked me to stand up as her sponsor, and since I felt so grateful to Tohan's friendliness to Bran and for all the help the town had given the hospital and me, I accepted gladly. Stefan was invited to be the sponsor for the bridegroom, whom we knew of course.
My son and I sped to the ceremony in a small sleigh with jingling sleighbells on the horses' harness. The day was very cold; I was smothered in a fur robe and I burrowed deep into my kolinsky coat.
The wedding ceremony was in the Tohan church, and then we all drove back to Bran for the celebration which was held in the bridegroom's home, the public house in Bran. As I look back upon it, it was a storybook journey—the procession of fast-moving sleighs along the road through the valley, the glorious, white winter countryside crackling in the cold, bells jingling, the guests singing and shouting back and forth under a cloudless blue sky, the mountains rising abrupt and snow-covered all about us. It was so cold that our breaths were like puffs of steam and the horses were enveloped in a cloud of it. We arrived at the inn in Bran clamoring and eager for the hot punch and tea that were waiting for us.
The bride was dressed in peasant fashion; she was a pretty thing, with dark hair curling out from under her marama—her wedding veil—great dark eyes that seemed very serious for a bride's, and a mouth curiously unsmiling. Her eyes continually wandered from her bridegroom to the door, and there they lingered. As I watched her, I felt a growing concern that there was something wrong. This was a most peculiar way for a new bride to look and behave. Or was it only that she was shy, just married, and in new and strange surroundings? I always had a great talent for imagining things!
We had proceeded through our feast, the toasts had been drunk, and the gift presentations were about to begin. I was thinking how best to withdraw after I had given my gift, when there came a great pounding of hooves at the door, a clashing of harness and sleighbells, and shouts.
I looked in surprise at the bride; her face was alight and her eyes were wide and fixed upon the door. It burst open and a tall man stood there, the cold streaming from his clothes into the warm room and the wind sweeping in upon us through the wide-flung door. He was muffled in furs; his tall astrakhan cap was pulled down to his eyes and the high collar of his bulky fur coat was turned up over his chin. We were all turned to stone for a long moment; no one said a word. Then in two strides he reached the bride, swung her up in his arms and dashed through the door. He tossed her into the sleigh and under the furs, leaped in after her, whipped up the three black horses he was driving, and off they dashed, bells jingling, hooves pounding. They disappeared down the road and around the bend.
We were all stunned; it had happened so quickly we couldn't believe it. Surely we were dreaming it—this sort of thing just didn't happen! Then we all began to talk at once. The bridegroom looked stricken; he was a mild-mannered, gentle young man whom one could never imagine challenging such a Lochinvar.
Stefan and I said the best things we could think of in shocked condolence and took our departure, which I felt was the kind, diplomatic thing to do, leaving the young husband and his family and friends to deal with the matter as best they could.
They never found the bride, and no one ever knew who the man was who snatched her away from her own wedding. Neither was ever seen again. I have often wondered what the true facts were. Why had she gone through the marriage ceremony with one man, to be stolen by another? We never knew, and there is no sequel to the story.