Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
CHAPTER 13

One spring evening, to get the tension of the wards from my mind and the odor of ether and antiseptics out of my nostrils, I went out for a walk along the mountain paths behind the hospital. It was the time of evening when everything was still, and the air was full of good earth smells, the freshness and the newness of a mountain spring. As I walked, mounting higher and higher, sometimes there came breaks in the forest growth and I could look across the narrow, deep-cut valley to the mountains, rising steep and dark, and the ever farther mountains beyond them, lying against the sky.

At last I came to a little whitewashed cottage backed cozily into the steep hillside. Its high-pitched roof and broadly advancing eaves were shingled, bleached and oddly pale in the early twilight. In peasant fashion, the portal of the house, the shutters and the low fence surrounding it were dark wood that had been intricately carved. A company of ancient apple trees in pink and white bloom gathered around the house in old and familiar conclave; daffodils, tulips and hyacinths crowded the dooryard.

On the threshold sat a little old lady whose hair, escaping from under her black kerchief, was as white as the wool on her distaff which she was carefully and methodically spinning, while her old eyes gazed serenely out over the valley. She wore the costume of the Bran mountain peasant—a dark full skirt with a red panel of embroidery down the front, and a white, brightly embroidered coarse linen blouse.

She rose as I approached; erect and wordless, she raised her hands to cover her lips, a peasant gesture of respect.

I greeted her and asked if I might come in and rest for a little while.

"Bine ai venit, Domnitza!" she answered, happily. "Welcome to you! Come in and sit, and let us talk of all that is going on in the valley!"

I sat beside her on the doorstep, and after formalities had been accomplished, her health and my health commented upon, the crops discussed, and God's will assented to, she began to tell me about her grandson, who apparently was the last of her family. She had brought him up, and she dearly loved him. Sadly, she told me that he had left the soil and the home of his parents and grandparents and had gone to work in the factory in the village.

"He wanted very much money," she explained. "He was not satisfied with the life that the farm gave him. He was always impatient with the uneventfulness of every day."

She said, "People who set more store on money than in the honest work of their hands fall so easily into the clutches of the devil. And my grandson, he has made his pact with the devil. He has gone with these new people who call themselves Communists.

"I'm an old woman," she went on. "I do not know how to read or write, but the words of the Lord that I have heard each day in the church since my childhood, they're engraved upon my heart, and I do not go away from them. Am I not happy as I sit in the evening upon my doorstep, and watch the hand of God transforming nature before my eyes? They are the same, the wonders of His universe—coming back each year and every season, with the same beauty, quite indifferent to what we silly mortals are doing. They are enough for me for I am old—but my grandson? No, this boy is young, he had to go to town. He wants to get himself a grand house. He wants to have a woman all painted up; he wants to hear the jingle of money in his pockets, and so he has been taken in by all these new ideas.

"But," she nodded solemnly, "God is not mocked. These who call themselves Communists are people like us, but they are mistaken people. Someday they will find out how wrong they are. Someday my grandson is going to come back to me. He'll find me still sitting here on the doorstep of the house where he was born; and I will take him to the church and together we will pray God to forgive him."

The old lady shook her head a little and smiled—then she turned to me and laughed aloud with a dry cackle in her voice. "Ah," she said, "the young—they take many a winding road because they must change the world and throw out everything that belongs to the past. But they do not know that Time belongs to God and it cannot be shaped to their demands. The day comes when they find it out, and then they come back to the point they started from. That will happen to these who are Communists. It may be a long while yet before it happens; perhaps I will not be here any more, but that does not matter because God is always here.

"You see, my Domnitza," she smiled at me over her spinning, "you too are young, and things seem to you to be hurrying forward. You feel that everything must be done at once; that what you've missed today you cannot do tomorrow. But that is not so. It is only because we see the sun rise and the sun go down that we think of time in terms of days; but is the Lord not Master of the sun and the stars? And for Him there are neither days nor nights; neither a beginning nor an end. All is now, the past and the future gathered together in this moment which is all there is.

"When the young get to understand that, then they will have time to do everything."

Down in the valley night had come, and up here on the mountainside deep shadows were gathering. The sky still glowed steely blue before it, too, would be taken by the darkness. A few sharp, brilliant stars appeared.

"There is an appointed time for all things," the old woman said. "Does not the Holy Word say 'To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck of that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.' "

She quoted these words to me with loving familiarity, as though she had repeated them many, many times before in her long life, while the spindle spun in her hand and the thread seemed to grow miraculously between her old fingers. She was like one of the Fates spinning out Destiny, unhurried, inexorable. She was silent for a moment, lost within herself.

"And now," she finished, "it is a time to lose and a time to keep silence." The old woman crossed herself.

As I sat there in the warm fragrant spring twilight listening to her cracked old voice, it was as if I were hearing the voice of the prophets, and I marveled at the wisdom of this ignorant peasant woman who had lived all her life here on the mountainside in her clay-walled cottage. I felt very humble before her knowledge, so far superior to mine. For I fought and struggled and schemed and wept and rebelled, like all of us who skim the surface of Time.

She turned to me. "You have walked a long way, Domnitza Ileana," she said, "and you must not go away without something—at least a drink of water, for our Lord would have it so."

She took the distaff out of her belt and laid it aside on the doorstep, went inside and lit a candle.

In my country we have a custom which is so old that its origin is lost far back in the reaches of antiquity. A visitor in a Romanian home, peasant and noble alike, is always served with a tray on which is a glass of cold water and a saucer containing a spoonful of thick preserve which is called dulceata. One eats the sweet, following it with a drink of the water.

Probably the custom originated when travelers, on foot or on horseback, were in the habit of stopping for refreshment at the infrequent dwellings they passed. A spoonful of the sweet, highly concentrated preserve, which the Romanians have great skill in making, renewed the tired wayfarer, and the draught of cold spring water refreshed him. In the courteous, picturesque Romanian manner of speech the traveler called down God's blessing upon his benefactor, and then resumed his journey. Thence, from the very practical circumstance of a human need filled, has derived our traditional, courteous custom. To serve and to partake of dulceata is an obligation.

The old woman returned, bringing me spring water in an earthenware jug, beautifully painted in peasant fashion with leaves and flowers, and she poured me a glassful. She also brought a dish of honeycomb which I tasted. We talked a few minutes longer, and then I said good-bye. She wished me godspeed and I left her.

I walked back to the hospital in the dark, carrying with me a little of her depth of peace and reassurance to the uneasy self deep within me which recognized and welcomed the truth of what she had said. I was curiously comforted, but life in those days was lived on the surface of a swift-moving stream of alarm and urgency, and the stillness and the sense of secureness of that evening soon disappeared in the clamor of everyday happenings.

But I have never forgotten that old peasant woman and all she said to me. I have often thought about her words, and the turbulent years that have passed since that spring evening have brought me, through much experience, understanding of what she talked about.