The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania

CHAPTER 9


IF you are not yet weary of my wanderings from plain to mountain, from hill to sea, I would lead you awhile down to the banks of the Danube, that great and noble river which is one of the prides of our land.

Its waters are less blue than says the song, but they are great and slow-flowing, carrying many a vessel, rolling past many a hamlet, many a town.

I have steamed down the whole of its length that belongs to our land, from the Iron Gates to that strange flat region which is its mouth. A region of lakes and swamps and eternal waters, of canals and rushes and venerable willows, a region that in places makes one think of what the world must have been like before the waters were separated from the earth; and because of that irresistible attraction I always feel for places wild, lonely, and vast, it is more especially these regions that I am going to describe.

No precise map of these intricate waters has remained in my mind, but I see it all in pictures, as is my way. I see sudden glimpses of places that delight the eye, endless stretches of water, the play of light and shade. I see the outline of a tree standing lonely like a lost soul in a fog, or an endless herd of water-buffalo walking in single file upon a narrow strip of land, their bulky bodies reflected in the water beneath; or I see a wandering white horse, its coat glistening in the sunshine like mother-of-pearl; many swamps do I see covered with water-lilies opening wide their snowy stars to stare at the sky.

In our yacht we would steam down the Danube, passing many places more prosperous, to halt here where the world was so quiet that you had the sensation of having reached its end.

When I think of it a feeling of dreamy content comes over me, and for a while I would put away all thought of battle and strife, all knowledge that here, too, the cannon has raged, that these places with many others are ours no more, to wander, in thought at least, down those grey-green canals bordered by the grey-green willows.

This is in fact the world of willows, they are master here, they are to be found by the thousand; loving dampness, they are willing to grow there where no other tree can take root. At seasons when the land is flooded they stand, so to say, knee-deep in water, with but little of their trunks to be seen.

I have been rowed for hours down these willow-bordered canals beneath the shade of the trees' quivering foliage, out into lakes so wide that they resembled the sea.

Everywhere willows, willows, venerable guardians, keepers of these lonely waters, silent watchers of the passing seasons, the grey slime on their trunks indicating the rise and fall of the floods. Many-shaped, gnarled, and ancient, they seem to be wringing their knotty arms in petrified despair above waters everlastingly flowing over their feet. In every attitude they bend towards them as though searching for their own reflection which the current continually blurs. Some are wide-spreading like oaks, harbouring numerous nests in their boughs, others crouch like sleeping giants; some fallen trunks, strange-shaped and uncanny, resemble antediluvian monsters hiding in slime. When the breeze sweeps over their leaves they become as silver as an autumn cloud, but at dusk they turn into an army of phantoms come down to watch over places where silence broods.

This is also the world of winged creatures; every sort of bird homes amongst these swamps. When the waters are high, one can row into the shade of flooded forests which at certain seasons are alive with birds building their nests; wild duck and cormorants, grey, white, and yellow herons, egrets with precious plumes, solemn, silent eagles and birds of prey of different sorts. Awkward, slow-moving pelicans nest in the swamp beside wild swans, that at evening wing in groups over the sky, recalling Andersen's fairy tales back to mind.

Gliding out of endless canals into the mystic shade of these flooded forests, I have often disturbed the peace of these feathered colonies. The first shot from the sportsman's gun would make the birds rise in thousands from their nests, filling the air with the beating of wings and the anxious sound of their screams. The whole atmosphere would become alive with whirling, twirling, frightened creatures, flying hither and thither in nameless dread; a world of silence suddenly desecrated by man's approach.

Again and again we came to these places, whose charms were so different from anything else. Sport was sometimes the pretext, shooting was excellent amongst the manifold fowl, but more often we came solely to enjoy so much beauty and calm.

The willow-bordered canals, as I have already mentioned, lead to large lakes in part overgrown by reeds and water-lilies, in part, because of their immensity, resembling the sea.

The Razelm is the largest of these lakes; when a certain wind blows, the lake is so rough that the small boats dare not confront its waves. In all these waters fishers catch rich spoil. In places the State has organized fisheries with excellent results; besides, as food for the poor, the fish are invaluable.

For the greater part, the fishers are Lippovanes; Russians of a special sect. Peaceful, fair-haired giants, their type never changes. They are everywhere easily recognizable with their blue eyes, their honey-coloured beards and scarlet blouses that can be seen in all places, bobbing about like giant poppies in their flat, black boats.

I remember a wonderfully picturesque reception somewhere in these dreamy parts of the Danube.

Our yacht had steamed at evening into peaceful waters as broad as a lake. The sun was low, in the distance a bluish line of hills bordered the horizon; a snow-white mosque with its slender tower straining towards the heavens stood against this background, the ghost of building, enigmatic and mysterious, like a prayer in the evening calm.

By thousands, the inhabitants had rowed out to meet us. The river was alive with boats! The peasants having donned their brightest colours, the water resembled a garden of prodigious flowers, all converging towards one spot.

There was a hubbub of voices, a waving of bright kerchiefs; there were cheers and noise and a buzz of excitement. The boats were gaily decorated with flowers, some of which had fallen into the river that bore them away on its current, silently like a thief.

Our yacht had stopped; the small squadron of boats flocked towards us filled with men, women and children of different races, but especially with Lippovanes, whose women wear the brightest cottons ever woven by loom.

Over this many-coloured scene of goodwill and cheerfulness, the intense gold of the setting sun shed its glory, lighting all things with a radiance almost awesome in its brightness.

Then suddenly from out of the bobbing, moving, jostling throng a boat detached itself, with a strange being standing at its prow. A tall figure in a long dark robe, a man with a cross in his hand, a man with long hair shining like burnished metal in the waning light. An astonishing figure that might have stepped out of any legend—a figure belonging to the Book of Saints!

Over the water he glided towards us upon his flat, black boat; the light seemed to have singled him out, and to rest lovingly upon him; nearer and nearer he came with upheld cross that shimmered like a magic charm in his hand.

This strange personage boarded our yacht; he spoke no language we could understand, but he offered us his cross to kiss, blessing us the while with soft Russian words. The cross no more resembled a shimmering charm, but even from near the man's hair was marvellous; in great waves it lay on his shoulders, a wealth of glittering gold—never before, never since, have I seen such lustrous locks. Wherever he moved, two red-shirted peasants moved with him, chanting hymns as they went; deep and sonorous were their voices, rising solemnly to the heavens. One carried a censer that he swung to and fro, the other pressed a Bible to his heart, a Bible with silver clasps.

The sun was sinking gradually, the shadows of these three strange guests lay long and ink-black across the deck. On both sides of the river, like giant sentinels, the grey-green willows stood on watch.

From our yacht we made incursions into this world of canals and lakes; there I gathered pictures that I can never more forget.

Beneath the trees, where the shade was deepest, where mystery hovered like a presence felt but not seen, grew strange tall flowers, the colour of the sun.

From sombre depths they shot up, stars of gold straining towards the light which sparingly filtered through the branches. An enchanted world, a world of silence where beauty reigned supreme, almost uncanny in its slumbering peace.

Endless were these watery willow-woods; for hours our boat would glide through shade that seemed eternal; the songs of the birds went with us, mingling with the music of whispering leaves; and everywhere in the water those tall yellow flowers sprang up in groups, their blossoms full of light, whilst their roots lay far down hidden in slime.

Then out into the wide lakes would our boat be steered, from deepest shade into glare so great that it was almost a pain to the eyes, out into vast expanses of water cut here and there by narrow tongues of land, upon which giant trees had taken root; and those trees were the homes of the regal brown-winged eagles, who throned in their topmost branches, silent masters of air and space.

These lonely monarchs of the water-worlds fascinated me more than all else; for hours could I watch them, their grand austerity holding me beneath a prodigious spell.

There was something in their flight, something in the way they spread their great wings, allowing the air to bear them along without effort or movement on their part, that appeared to me the very incarnation of grace, strength and majesty combined—it was so silent, so easy, so extraordinarily strong.

I remember having seen a pair of these winged monarchs, whose nest hung like a deep shadow between the topmost branches of a gigantic tree. The tree was dying; leafless it stood, a bleached skeleton stretching out its fantastic arms against the blue of the sky, whilst its reflection in the floods was a second tree growing upside down. All around water, nothing but water; the strip of land upon which the old tree stood was so narrow that from far it was completely invisible.

Disturbed by our sudden approach, the winged couple had risen from their nest and were circling in wide sweeps round the giant tree, but without haste or any outward sign of dread. Their movements remained full of majesty; there was at the same time something soft and velvety about them, something grandly calm, something pertaining to eternal heights, or to illimited horizons where fear has no meaning and time does not count.

As my boat glided away, I saw how the two great birds settled down upon the furthermost end of a withered bough, and their calm was at once the calm of statues; two hearaldic figures of majesty cast in bronze. Perfectly motionless they throned, staring towards the horizon with steady eyes, their heads turned the same way—grand creatures of solitude, proud, silent, watchful, royal hermits of the wilds.

On other narrow land-tongues spared by the floods, I have seen herds of grey cattle, which seemed to be wandering on the face of the waters, one behind another, followed everywhere by their reflections that moved with them, a phantom-herd at their feet Unaccustomed to man's intrusion they would raise their heads to watch us pass, whilst the sun drew sparks from their huge widespread horns.

Green islands have I also seen, willow-grown, cut by stretches of luxurious grass, where gaunt, dishevelled shepherds, clad in great coats resembling the animals they guard, herded their flocks; half-wild humans, whose eyes seem to see naught but the distances they eternally contemplate, sullen, taciturn beings, indifferent to either cold or heat.

Standing as still as statues, with arms crossed on the top of their high staffs, they would stare without astonishment or interest at the strangers who had invaded a solitude of which they alone were masters.

Disconcertingly surly were these shepherds, weather-tanned, with matted locks beneath broad felt hats, hardly deigning to answer if talked to; they seemed to have lost both the desire and the power of speech.

The sheep were more friendly than their guardians; often it happened that, confident of my good intentions, they have accepted grass from my hand, whilst the men of the wilds have looked on, dumb, dogged, and grim, never changing their attitude, motionless as though rooted to the ground.

At night these shepherds assemble round blazing fires. From far I have watched their shadowy figures passing to and fro before the flames. Snatches of melancholy chants, heavy with unconscious nostalgia, have floated over the waters towards where I stood on my deck, filling my soul with an uneasy longing for a freer and simpler life; from all sides, nightingales lifted their jubilant love-filled voices, ever higher, ever more melting till the air was resonant with their songs.

The night held her breath to listen and the stars trembled in their unattainable heights, marvelling at that strange note of yearning that rings through all the melodies of our old earth.

Another joy to me were the water-lilies which grew by thousands in these world-forgotten lakes. Fairy-flowers, immaculate, white and mysterious, by thousand they would open their great stars in eternal adoration of the sun. But on days of cloud they would remain tight shut, full of resentment, revealing none of their beauty to the clouds that hid from them the great light for which they longed. At night even when the moon was full they were invisible. The sun being their lover, they would surrender their charms to no other light, austerely concealing their snowy petals within a sheath of green, which made them one with the great leaves upon which they float.

And I found these lilies everywhere, in gardens of enchantment Nature alone had planned; rush-bordered, silent and secret, places of dreamy perfection, I possessed them but for a fleeting instant and then passed on, having absorbed into my soul undreamed-of visions of beauty and peace, undisturbed by the noise and labour of man.

Sometimes we would forsake our yacht for the long inland drives, passing through quite unknown villages with names which attracted my ear because of their unusual Turkish sound: Anadolkioi, Casapkioi, Jofuljar, Caramurat, Bairam-Dede, and so on—to visit out-of-the-way convents where nuns or monks lived in solitary seclusion.

Even in these otherwise desolate regions these holy communities found means of selecting spots where all the beauty of the land seemed to have converged, making of these homes of prayer tiny islands of verdure and shade.

Indescribable was the joy and excitement when we unexpectedly arrived at one of these convents.

From all sides like dark birds the nuns would come running from their tiny cottages, all the bells would be set ringing, flowers would be gathered and with much outward expression of delight, with much fuss and ceremony we would immediately be conducted to the church, where tapers would be lighted, and the droning of endless chants would begin in our honour, monotonous, nasal melodies, sung in dark corners by the nuns themselves.

I remember a reception at a convent, bearing the strange name of Cilic-Dere, where Roumanian and Russian nuns live side by side. A far-off place which we reached after a long drive over dusty, winding roads, through many villages, past lakes and swamps—a place full of shade in the hollow of a hill.

In early spring inundations had destroyed many of the holy women's small dwellings, and amidst the uproar of sad lamentations we were conducted to the place of disaster, where the lowly huts had been reduced to heaps of crumbling rubbish.

Brave little gardens still bloomed around them, trying to cover with colour the doleful ruins.

The nuns wrung their hands, explaining in many words their misfortune, but the joy of our presence was a balm to their distress; again and again would their complaints be interrupted by expressions of ecstatic delight. This unexpected visit was almost a compensation for former calamities!

We were also solemnly led to a large new church of stone which stood alone in somewhat isolated grandeur. A heavy building erected on a bare hill-side and so constructed that beneath the upper church there was a second church somewhat in the form of a crypt, but larger and higher. I cannot quite remember why so much care had been expended upon a church in so far-off a place. For me this imposing building had but little charm, it was too new, and had the air of an intruder not yet accepted by his surroundings. The nuns were proud of its large dimensions, though deploring the lack of funds wherewith to complete the interior.

Far more in sympathy was I with the little church I was first taken to—a wooden chapel, of primitive build, long, low, with heavy roof and cupolas, the whole washed Russian-wise a vivid green. Icons, distressingly crude of colour, decorated the interior, for the nuns themselves painted these holy pictures, having instituted a school in the convent precincts, where they displayed more zeal than taste.

I must admit that there was no real beauty about this sanctuary, but it was quaint in its somewhat barbaric efforts at embellishment. A goodly army of saints were here at home; those specially venerated were gaily adorned with flowers and little lace curtains, or by long skeins of metal thread, worn by brides over their marriage-veils and afterwards offered up as a gift to the most cherished saint, but generally to the Virgin Mary.

From out of dark corners these painted effigies watched me with steady gaze. Noiselessly like black shadows the nuns moved about, lighting long, slim tapers before the sacred shrines, whilst some of their sisters monotonously droned their never-ending chants.

A venerable dame was the mother-abbess; a Russian, speaking our language fluently but with soft Slav intonations foreign to our tongue. Her head-dress resembled that worn by our nuns but it was more becoming of shape; a long black veil fell from it down to the ground. Tall and gaunt, she moved with dignity, bending low when she talked to us, and devoutly crossing herself whenever she pronounced our names.

Through a garden gay with bright autumn flowers, she led us to her snow-white dwelling, where a stiff and tasteless apartment awaited the coming of the all too rare guests. There, with many bows that were almost genuflections, silent-footed nuns served the traditional jam and water, followed by steaming coffee in tiny cups, but when we mentioned that the hour of departure had struck exclamations of distress were raised, the hospitable women trying to detain us in a thousand ways. Flowers were brought us, roses, asters, dahlias and sweet-smelling basil, pieces of embroidery, delicate work, but in tasteless colours; even carpets were offered us, woven by the nuns themselves. But the crowning gift was a carefully painted icon, the Holy Virgin upon a golden background with cloak as blue as the sea on a sunny day; over-large were her eyes, which stared at us as though painfully bewildered at being thus exposed to the criticism of those of this earth.

Thus richly laden we were at last allowed to depart accompanied by many a blessing, the black-robed women standing in a long line to bid us farewell. Then back over the long, dusty roads we raced back to our yacht on the Danube.

Wherever we passed the peasants had decorated their gates and doorways, their carts, their bridges, their boats and even the telegraph poles with enormous bunches of orange marigolds as bright as the sun; already from far their glorious colour attracted the eye.

Never have I seen rustic decoration more unconsciously perfect; the peasants had done their best, little realizing that their best was so lovely. At times they would stop our car to thrust bright nosegays upon us, fragrant with the perfume of cottage gardens. Once a cluster of sunflowers was pressed into my hands, sunflowers of a special kind, huge many-leaved and heavy-headed like giant chrysanthemums grown for some show; large disks of light, they lay on my lap during all the drive home.

The sun was setting; it was the hour I loved; when we reached our boat the water was red like a pool of blood….

Then our yacht bore us away into the dusk, floating past banks silver-grey with willows. Swish! swish went the water, and from both shores the nightingales' voices accompanied our advance into the night and darkness, into silence and peace….

That was the Danube I loved.