The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania

CHAPTER 7


HAVING spoken about the place which King Carol loved, where he lived, built and worked, I now feel the need of turning towards the quiet spot of beauty he chose for his eternal place of rest; the place where he lies, side by side with the one who was his companion upon the long road of life.

Like those who follow him, King Carol dearly loved the ancient monuments of this land. In the early days of his reign, he soon discovered which were the greatest treasures of art, and set about restoring, preserving them, thus saving them from falling to ruin.

A great rider in his youth, he covered endless distances on horseback, ofttimes in those days, when highways were scarce, the only way of reaching far-off spots. At other times it would be in a carriage drawn by eight or ten of the brave little horses of the land that he would tear for hours over hill and dale.

How often has he related to me tales of these wanderings, when he visited the most distant corners of his land. His eyes would sparkle, his descriptions become vivid, a smile would brighten the usual gravity of his face; so dear to him was the remembrance of those days of travel and discovery in the country he had come to love.

He has spoken to me about picturesque receptions in far-off mountain convents, where nuns or monks received him with the glad clamour of bells; when, over brightly-coloured carpets, woven by their own hands, they would lead him to their churches; where endless chants were sung in his honour, whilst the peasants from the neighbouring villages would assemble from all sides to give him flowers and to kiss his hands as he passed.

He has described how troops of rustic riders on rough little horses would gallop out to meet him, flag in hand. Scampering with joyous screams beside his carriage, they would cover him with dust, whilst his own postillion would whip up his many steeds, trying to outrun those racing beside him. He remembered having forded bridgeless rivers, having been bumped upon half-traced roads; and he loved these recollections, speaking of them as one speaks of joys belonging to the irrevocable past.

When in later years I visited many of these same out-of-the-way places, his words would come back to me, and I would picture to myself those scenes that had been dear to the days of his youth.

The more I advance into life, the more do I feel the value of emotions and sensations that stir the soul; the deeper becomes my comprehensions of what others must have felt. Loving this country as I do, I gratefully realize low he, who was our forerunner, showed us the way.

No doubt each age has its taste; one may admire and appreciate another's work without being entirely in sympathy with the methods used in carrying it out. In our day, for instance, we prefer preserving old existing monuments, rather than rebuilding them stone by stone, as was done with the unique little church of Curtea de Arges, reconstructed in its incomparable perfection by Andre Leconte.

An ardent adorer of all that is ancient, I am of the opinion that no reconstructing of a time-worn building, be it ever so cunningly done, with patience and knowledge ever so great, can replace the charm of things that centuries have kissed.

There is something about the patina of age that no modern improvement can rival; a harmonizing of line and colour, a rounding off of angles, a toning down of crudities, time alone can produce.

A building that has stood for countless decades becomes one with the earth it stands on; it appears to belong to nature's own growths, to have risen out of the ground without the help of man, to have taken root like the trees and plants that surround it, adapting its shape and hue to climate and space.

Often have I tried to explain to myself why an ancient building, even when in ruins, gives such perfect satisfaction to the eye, and I have come to the conclusion that it was just because of that harmonizing between nature and building, and of that inimitable softening down of line and edges. There is a too great angularity about newly-built houses. That is why a restored church, however beautifully done, never gives me complete satisfaction, and I keep a thirsty longing for the old walls as they were before being improved and redone.

Our new tendency is to modify an ancient building as little as possible, to preciously preserve each old stone or brick. We try to hinder ancient walls from crumbling, the original frescoes from mildew and damp, but we prefer to keep the old-time patina, not to efface the work done by the dust of ages, which, with inimitable art, tones down that which once must have been crude and much less harmonious.

But Andre Leconte was of another school. With relentless patience he studied the documents of yore; he pondered deeply, he was a well of science about style, form and taste; then, well imbued with what he meant to do, he would set about pulling down the old, and building up the new with extraordinary perfection, but preserving naught of the original building!

Leconte's worst adversaries cannot say that he was not past-master of his art. No line, no decoration, no detail that had not been studied thoroughly and thoroughly thought out; only the most precious and real material was used, every part of both interior and exterior was finished off with subtle cunning, but everywhere the old was replaced by the new!

I never saw the church of Curtea de Arges as it was before its restoration. It is said that an old convent stood around it, of which no traces remain. Now the church stands in solitary perfection, an oriental jewel of white, blue and gold against a background of shadowy hills. Certainly it is a building of wonderful and strange beauty, but I know of many who mourn for its form of yore.

King Carol and Queen Elisabeth loved this sacred monument beyond any other in the land; always did they speak of it as of the place in which they wished to be laid to rest one day.

Now they lie there side by side, those two companions, those two hard workers, those forerunners who knew much of the storms and vicissitudes of life. Of them can really the words of the Scripture be said: "The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow, so soon passeth it away, and we are gone."

Old King Carol was the first to be laid within the sanctuary he had treasured. No vault was dug beneath the church, his coffin was simply let down under the marble flags of the floor, quite close to those who were the founders of the church in the sixteenth century: Neagoe Basarab and his wife Miltza.

A stone was ordered for King Carol's grave, a stone in the style of those ancient slabs that mark the resting place of Princes dead long ago. The model was ready, but because of the great war raging in all countries the marble of which it was to have been carved could not be had, so nothing but flowers mark the place where the great King rests.

Alas, it is now the enemy's wreaths which cover his tomb, for Curtea de Arges, with many other treasures, has fallen into their hands.

Many times have I wondered what those two sleepers felt in their tombs when the sound of tramping armies disturbed their silence, of the armies of those who once had been brothers and had now come to overthrow all their work!

Let us hope that their slumber was so profound, their peace so eternal, that even the din of battle raging around their precious church could not disturb their rest.

God in His mercy let them close their eyes before having to see so dark a day, spared them the conflict their age would no more have allowed them to sustain.

They closed their eyes in time, leaving those younger and stronger to meet the storm that would have broken their hearts.

I often bless Providence for allowing Carmen Sylva to rejoin her husband before the fatal hour struck. She so entirely believed in the unshakable strength of her race, in its God-given right to be master of the world, that indeed too cruel would have been the blow!

It was still granted her to live a year of beauty, giving with full hands to those in need, as had ever been her joy. Surrounded by many who venerated her noble old age and the warmth of her big heart, thus was the crown put on a long life of labour and abnegation. A grand figure of dignity and charity, she has remained in the minds of those who visited her in the retreat she had chosen for herself, beside her husband's tomb.

A woman violently passionate in all her loves and all her hates, as enthusiastic as the beginners of life, a great worker, a great thinker, yet she often had the artlessness of a child. Impressionable and an ardent idealist, she did not always see either things or people according to their right value, therefore ofttimes she fell a prey to those who knew how to exploit the too great bounties of her heart.

She lived for others. Her hand was always ready to give, her ear always ready to listen, her eye always ready to shed tears over another's grief.

There was about her something of nature's storms, her raptures were as tempestuous as her despairs; passing from one emotion to another, she would sweep others along with her, firing their imagination, confusing their thoughts.

I was tempted to compare her to a great river of which the waters needed canalization, an immense force too unrestrained, therefore wasting much of what might have been put to better use. Her spirit was too fantastic, too high-flown, for this prosaic world of men. Ofttimes she spent her best upon the quite unworthy, wasting her words upon ears that could neither appreciate nor understand.

All draped in black, I see her as she was that last year of her life, an imposing figure full of dignity, that had something old-time and almost legendary about it; she hardly seemed to belong to our age of machines and materialism. Although more reposeful since the old King's death, she still would pace her room with that step of a caged animal which was hers through all the years of her life. One felt that although old, sad, tired and almost blind, there was a source of life in her that belonged to things eternal, a fount of youth that neither sorrow nor years could diminish.

Bound through life to a companion both austere and severe, she had continually been obliged to put a check upon her impetuosity, to modify her ideas and tastes according to the ideals of the one with whom she lived. Both King and Queen were hard workers, but he had patience, method and premeditation, whilst Carmen Sylva was all impulse and eagerness, ready to throw herself into any undertaking without the slightest pause for thought.

When, after a long life of self-denial, she at last lost her guide and master, she was quite at the end of her road, her strength and her health were broken; accustomed to her chains, she had no more use for a freedom so long denied her.

With touching humility she then turned to the young ones who had taken her place in the battles of life. We were grateful that she was given that one year to be amongst us, so that we could show her love, care and attention, surrounding her last days with all that could give her comfort or pleasure.

She loved the church where she desired to lie one day beside King Carol. Each morning would she go to his grave, whilst the priests were chanting the holy service. Like a figure carved in black marble, she would sit in a large chair beside the flower-decked tomb, her almost sightless eyes wide open, seeing naught of the things around her, but following the visions of her long life upon earth; restful now, with folded hands, she was awaiting the end…. An ardent believer she, looked upon death as a day of deliverance.

The episcopal palace, where she had desired to make her home, became dear to her beyond all else. She planted roses about it and began dreaming of all the good she was going to do to the inhabitants of the place. Having never been allowed to make plans of her own, she was as a child, who, suddenly finding a door open, wanders out into sunshine which dazzles its eyes.

Tenderly would we follow up her ideas. Grouped around her by her big hearth, we would listen to her dreams, for, old and tired as she was, she still dreamt of the marvels she would do. Holding us captive by the charm of her eternally young voice, she induced us to follow her poetic visions as she built up her castles in the air, one above the other, each one higher, more beautiful; nothing was impossible, nothing too vast! Astonishing, indeed, was her spirit, carrying her beyond all sorrow into a world where there existed neither impediments, limits, nor frontiers. A long life of disappointment and disillusion had not taught her to doubt her own powers, nor to distrust the hearts of men.

I can still see her seated by her fire, opposite her the old abbot of the place, both installed in high-backed chairs, two imposing figures in black. Books were scattered around her, and everyone who came to see her had to work at something—idle hands she could not abide. Or I see her on moonlit nights, seated beneath the porch, gazing at the shadowy church silvered by the moon's mystic radiance. With folded hands, she would give expression to her rapture, repeating many times the same words, calling upon us to join in with her ecstasy. Her eternally young heart would expand, years would have no more weight, in a never-ending stream of poetical rhapsodies the words would flow from her lips, and then, as usual, she would start building her castles in the air, the falling in of which had never discouraged her from beginning over and over again.

As though attracted by her poet's voice, the rays of the moon would lengthen till they reached the place where she sat holding listeners beneath the spell of her imagination; they would creep up her draperies, kiss her hands, resting like a blessing on the snow of her hair, filling once again her dimmed eyes with the light of youth.

I can see her also standing on her threshold awaiting our arrival. Her hospitality knew no limits, and when she received you it was as though no other guest could have been more welcome.

Throwing out her arms with a wide and passionate gesture, she would fold you in her embrace; thus could one imagine Mother Earth clasping her children to her breast. There was something about her that seemed eternally thirsty; some flame burnt within her that none of the waters of life had been able to quench.

Thus do I see the great woman who was your first Queen. She loved you well, even if there were hours when she seemed divided from you by other thoughts and other dreams. Her heart was large and stormy, now it is at rest.

Long was her road; tragedy seemed to dog her steps. "Character is Destiny"; she cared not for things peaceful and quiet. She saw herself as a sufferer; therefore, attracting suffering to her, she often turned into sorrow what might have been joy.

Now she lies sleeping beneath the weight of flowers that foes' hands have strewn over her grave. Side by side they lie there, the old King and the old Queen, silently with enemies' wreaths upon their tombs....

Will we return one day to finish their work, to kneel down once again by their graves?

Who can tell...