The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania

CHAPTER 6


FOR a while I must turn my face away from the plains towards the hills—towards visions of our great frowning mountains, beneath the shadow of which your late King built his nest.

Sinaia! The name is full of the sound of beauty, of the sound of former joys and recent griefs. Sinaia! The place King Carol created, the place he loved, was proud of, the place in which he passed away.

Once but a tiny village near a solitary mountain convent, where the prince of the land used to seek shelter from the summer heat, it is now a flourishing little town full of villas, where many have built themselves lovely homes. Attracted by the splendour of its forests, by the purity of its highland air, by the glory of its rocky crags, the sovereign of the country decided to erect his castle there.

He too had a dream, but a dream he realized little by little through many long years.

Sinaia is beautiful in summer with its gardens resplendent with flowers, larger in size and of more gorgeous colour than anywhere else.

But none the less glorious is it in autumn when its beech-woods take fantastic shades of gold.

In winter, silent and solemn, it slumbers beneath an immaculate coating of snow, so dazzling, so uniform, that the eye scarcely can bear the glare.

Rising from all that whiteness the fir-trees stand like giants patiently bearing upon their shoulders a weight that would crush others to the ground—only the young ones, when overburdened, lean slightly forwards, bending their heads.

The forests in springtime are a wondrous cathedral of tender new foliage. Often have I roamed on horseback beneath the magic golden green of budding leaves. Birds were singing, the ground was an emerald carpet studded with anemonies and pale blue violets clustering in thousands neath my horse's hoofs.

As I loved riding over far-stretching plains, so also did I also love scaling the mountain sides, forcing my horse along paths where few had ever strayed. I have scrambled up and down roads that were naught but woodmen's tracks, and have come upon places of such awesome solitude that they have quite taken my breath away.

I knew not whether I loved the great forests better in spring, summer, or autumn; always were they full of grandeur comparable to none I have known elsewhere. No axe felled their mighty firs, and when a tree was blown down by the storm it lay where it had fallen, rotting away into luxurious mould, a glorious ground for flower, fern or fungus, which fed greedily upon its fallen strength.

I loved the autumn mornings when the high mountains formed an indigo background to orgies of ochre, copper, rust and amber, when the sky was so blue that it resembled a flag waving over the heavens for some day of national joy, when the forest was golden overhead and golden underfoot.

Glorious was the sensation of galloping right away into that feast of colour—away, away from the dwellings of men, away into solitude where I was alone with Nature and alone with God!

More austerely magnificent were my rides upon the mountain summits when, after long hours of steep climbing, I at last reached the top and could look down upon worlds I seemed to have conquered because of the efforts made to scale such heights.

It has happened to me to lose my way in the clouds and to ride for hours wondering where I was, seeing nothing before me but fantastic worlds of mist. I gloried in the sensation of absolute solitude, in the knowledge that I was so near the skies which yet I could not see. I felt like the first man lost in worlds that had not yet taken definite shape. The shifting fogs around me were as vapours belonging neither to heaven nor to earth. Then suddenly they would lift and I would find myself contemplating familiar landscapes—lying so far beneath me that they appeared to be dreams faintly remembered when awaking from sleep.

Sometimes I would be attacked by savage dogs, furiously barking round my horse's feet, and the taciturn shepherd of whom I have often spoken would all at once loom up out of the clouds like some prehistoric personage belonging to the wilds.

A strange ride do I remember when the clouds were beneath me and I was wandering slowly between two worlds. High up near to the heavens had I climbed, but down there the world of man was hidden away from my sight by a thick curtain of mist. I was alone, cut off from the living, unknown grounds stretching away to my right and to my left, in endless waves before me as far as my eye could reach.

The sky above me was a huge vault of blue, but down there, where humans had built their houses, where they toiled and loved and hated, down there everything was wrapped in fog.

Pressing my trembling horse near to the edge of the precipice, I cast a look into the deep. A feeling of awe overcame me—the world I lived in had turned into a mighty cauldron, out of which prodigious fumes were mounting like smoke. . . .

My horse snorted and swerved round, seized by fear, too uncanny, fearful and mysterious was that world down below!

That was Sinaia as I loved it—my Sinaia! The Sinaia of mountain, forest and bubbling stream, of spring enchantments and autumn glories, the world of waving bluebells, of giant ferns, of mighty man-defying rocks, of silent gorges filled with shadow and gloom; a world of beauty—God's own world.

But there was also another Sinaia; the frivolous, pleasure-seeking Sinaia, of fine clothes, of modern hats and shoes, the Sinaia that cared to gather in crowds, preferring the talk and scandal of the streets they had just quitted, rather than the grand solitudes where God was near. At times I used to come down to that Sinaia, smiling at its small delights, mixing for awhile with the holiday-makers come up from town for the day. I felt kindly towards them, understanding their joy of breathing the fresh mountain air; I did not despise them, but verily they knew nothing of that mysterious world that was mine. Only the papers with which they desecrated my forest paths filled me with fierce resentment, for man with his pastimes often soils nature's work.

But there was also a third Sinaia, the Sinaia of old King Carol, the grand and dignified Sinaia which he had created little by little, through many long years; the Sinaia that was his pride, his joy and his rest.

Sober of habit, allowing himself but few pleasures, he had found relaxation from work in this one spot which he loved best upon earth. This was the home of his heart; so dear had it become to him, that it was but with difficulty that he could tear himself away from it to go elsewhere. Travelling having been difficult in the days of his youth, he never belonged to those who moved easily from place to place.

Once a year he migrated from Bucarest to Sinaia, and there he would remain till in November he went back to town, unless some journey abroad obliged him to quit his dear castle for a few short weeks. In the twenty-two years we lived together I have seen the castle of Sinaia change face more than once. Again and again would the King invent some improvement, rejoicing over it as a parent rejoices over the progress of his child. Hours at a time would he roam through his stately apartments, where year by year he had accumulated treasures of priceless worth. Pictures of old masters, ancient furniture, precious china, oriental carpets and weapons of rarest workmanship. He had taken a lifetime to collect all these treasures, for he was a man living for others, spending but little upon himself.

The old Queen used to encourage him to continue building, for there is a superstition that he who finishes his house dies in the same year!

As dear to him as his castle and its manifold treasures were the gardens he had planted and the woods beyond. Not a road that he had not traced, not a terrace that he had not thought out, not a fountain that he had not planned. In former days we took long walks together, and many a path have we marked out, climbing up and down the mountain slopes. In later years, when his health had broken, he would content himself with walking about on the terraces or sauntering very slowly along the footpaths near the house.

According to my freer ideas of living, the old King had little conception of the real meaning of country life; for things spontaneous, for caprice or whim, he had no understanding, preferring things that were repeated each day in exactly the same order. There was a certain solemn grandeur about the habits of Sinaia that irritated me sometimes in my youth; in spite of the splendour of my surroundings, I often had the feeling that I must spread wing and fly to a wider world with larger horizons, where fantasy would have been allowed more scope

Having never been a lover of restrictions there were days when a simpler life would have been more to my taste. I pined for more freedom, more scope for my energies, less ceremony and fewer duties; but later, as my understanding grew, I learnt to appreciate the value of what often had wearied me at first. I entered more entirely into the wise old man's interests; there was so much knowledge to gain from his experience, and if his judgment was sometimes foreign to my more ardent conception of things, much did I learn from his words, and more still from the example he gave us.

Never was man more austere, more simple, more selfless, existing solely for his work. A saint could not have lived a life of greater abnegation. We did not always agree, but each year made of us better friends.

When I think of old King Carol, it is always in Sinaia that my thoughts seek him first, there amongst the things which he loved.

The Queen had been allowed little part in the plans of the castle; her conception of life being ardently fantastic, she was seldom consulted about things that had to be built of brick and stone. Indeed, I had always the impression that Carmen Sylva never really loved the castle; its sumptuous magnificence seemed to oppress her—other visions, sweeter and simpler, had remained in her poet's eye.

She dreamed of the days when, young and full of aspirations, she had brought her child to live in the modest white monastery in the hills. The castle in its growing beauty had never replaced for her those far-off days, when a mother's joy lived in her heart!

Now all that is past! . . . King Carol's stately castle has fallen into the hands of the enemy, who respect it, I believe, because he was one of their race. . . . Since his death we never inhabited it, clinging to the coziness of our smaller and less magnificent house; a few years are needed before one can take up one's life in halls that others have abandoned—not all in a day does one learn to live with ghosts!

Well, it is now the enemy who will help us to bridge over the days between the past, the present, and the Future; the rest lies in the hands of God.

Fate allowed King Carol to die in the house he loved. Tired and sorely disappointed, he one night quietly lay down in his bed, went to sleep and awoke no more, quitting for ever this world of toil and trouble, in which he had had but one ideal: the glory of his country, the good of his people.

I remember his face that morning as he lay dead in his bed. Pale, but extraordinarily unchanged, he was just as he had always been, only that when I came to his side it was the first time that I was greeted by no friendly smile of welcome. He was at rest—his work was over and, at an hour when he and his people could no more follow the same dream, the great King closed his eyes and became silent, leaving unto others the solving of the last question—the one that had been taken out of his hands. . . .

I looked long into the fine old face lying there in marble—stillness withholding ever more from us the wise words he used to speak. No reproach was in his expression, only a quiet finality, a withdrawal from worries and problems which belonged no more to the regions into which he had gone.

Sinaia wept on the day when its creator was carried for ever away from his home. The sky was low, the trees were dripping . . . slowly, upon a gun-carriage, they bore him down the hill. The tri-colour flag he had honoured lay over his coffin, and with it the austere crown of steel he had won upon the field of battle. . . .

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Sinaia must now be awakening to the beauty of spring's tenderest green, but when I last saw it, it was buried in snow like one who wants to hide his glories beneath a shroud.

It was shortly before the fall of Bucarest. My child was dead, and in the first agony of my grief, I went from place to place, visiting the wounded, endeavouring to find relief for my own sorrow by carrying a little hope and encouragement amongst those in pain.

I had heard that there were severely wounded at Sinaia and at other places along the way, so in spite of the weather's inclemency, one November morning, I motored towards the mountains, reaching my destination with great difficulty, for, after having painfully dragged through nameless mud, I was caught half-way in heavy drifts of snow; besides, the road was encumbered by thousands of military transports, blocking the way.

It was only in a hired sledge that I finally got up to my house; the snow was so deep that scarcely could my two limping steeds climb the hill.

From over the mountains the boom of the cannon could be heard at regular intervals, a sinister accompaniment to my solitary thoughts. Bowing beneath the weight of so much snow, the branches of the trees brushed my head as I passed.

Unchanged beneath its winter coating, King Carol's castle seemed peacefully sleeping. Indifferent to the battles being fought in the valley beyond, it lay there as though serenely awaiting the return of those whose pride it had been. . . .

Dazed by the sorrow that I carried everywhere with me, I felt like a spectre visiting the haunts of his youth. It was all so terribly familiar, yet I myself was so cruelly changed! When, on reaching my door, no one was there to open it for me, it was but part of some ghastly dream through which the voice of the cannon kept calling out some dreadful message I could but half understand. Scared servants, who hardly recognized me, so little did they expect to find me standing like a wanderer before my own door, finally let me in, turning the key with trembling hands.

The house was as it always had been, nothing had been put away, but a dreadful stillness lay over all that once had been gay. Why had I come? What had I hoped to find? What was the good of returning thus to a place that soon would have to be surrendered, to a house too full of remembrances of what once had been?

Like a stranger I stole through the passages, followed by the echo of my own steps; I peeped into the rooms, looked out of the windows, opened each door . . . silence everywhere, silence, but no traces of neglect. In the chamber most familiar to me, I stood still a moment, my hands pressed to my heart. It was as though I heard a small voice that once I had loved and tiny feet pattering down the corridor, tiny feet coming my way! And suddenly it was summer again, the snow outside had turned into flowers, and there beneath my window the little one was playing about in innocent delight. On his head he wore a tall crown of feathers, a miniature battle-axe was in his hand; imagining himself a terrible red Indian, with screams of excitement he was attacking the hut in which I sat under the trees. Again and again he came rushing towards me, his eyes sparkling, a smile of childish pride on his rosy lips: " Mircea is coming to Mama . . . coming to Mama..."

So vivid was the vision, that I had to pass my fingers over my eyes to realize that it was all a thing of the past! Something that never, never again would be . . . everything can come again... everything... only not those who are dead!...

And from over the mountains the cannon threatened me, threatened me with their voice...

Turning, I fled from all that once had been, and never more could be!...

Down the stairs I rushed, out of the house, away, away!...

Rather be amongst the wounded and dying than in a house peopled by ghosts! Away, away! From those wee, pattering feet, trampling upon the open wound in my heart, away from that radiant childish smile over snow-white teeth; away, away to those in pain; my place was here no more... all this belonged to the past, to times of peace and content... now it was war, it was war!

And from over the hills the cannon continued to threaten me, and their voice was the voice of Doom....