HAVING led you to that far-off Dobrougea convent, the vision of another convent rises irresistibly before my eyes, a convent rarely beautiful in a quite different part of the land.
In another book I have described many of these holy homes of prayer; I would not weary your ears with repetitions, but an uncontrollable longing draws me towards the valleys of Vâlcea; of all beautiful parts of our country, the one dearest to my artist-soul.
The picture I am about to paint is one of the most lovely, and, at the same time, one of the strangest my eyes have ever seen, and I fear that my words will be quite inadequate to render its charm.
In these hilly regions of Vâlcea, with rare unity have Man and Nature worked hand in hand. So far away are these peaceful places from railways and the turmoil of modern existence that prosaic improvements have not yet penetrated there to destroy their beauty; their charm has remained untouched, therefore have they conserved something of the days of yore.
The churches found everywhere in these wooded valleys are buildings of the best period, when almost unconsciously each line man created was a line of beauty. Even the smallest chapel has lovely proportions; sometimes so quaint and unexpected are their forms that, full of astonishment, we have stood before them wondering why those of our days can no more erect treasures so perfect.
Was the faith in those times greater? Was the heart simpler? and inspiration more closely connected with prayer?
Whatever the explanation may be, the architects of our days have lost that art, that unconscious touch, imbuing even the humblest sanctuary with a beauty that elevates the soul towards God.
Fortunately there is now a strong movement in our country to come back to those forms of earlier years, a movement I encourage with word and deed. The beautiful must not die! The naturalism of our age must not be allowed to stamp it out! Like unto an oasis of rest the harrowed spirit must be able to return from labour and turmoil to those visions that refresh the soul.
A dream of peaceful loveliness are those parts of Vâlcea to which I always irresistibly go back, as the wanderer returns to a refreshing source from which once he has drunk.
There the peasants have kept their national costumes; maidens still embroider the shifts that on their marriage-day they take with them to their new homes, shifts that will be passed down to their daughters and daughters' daughters, treasures belonging to the house for several generations, never mind how humble that house may be.
Full of dignity are those peasants—even the poorest knows not what it is to beg.
They seem to have found contentment in their small villages that nestle 'neath shady trees against the side of wooded hills. The houses are often much dispersed, and occasionally one sees tiny cottages perched in solitary picturesqueness at the outskirts of a forest, at the brink of a bubbling stream, or sometimes lost on a hill-top like sheep gone astray from their flock.
Those more prosperous are covered with wood-shingles, silvery-grey, but the humblest are crushed by immense coverings of thatch, almost higher than the houses themselves. These are my favourites; they are so inconceivably tiny and primitive that they remind me of the fairy-tales of our childhood. I always expect to see some weird old witch opening the door to step out into the sunlight, shading her eyes with her hand.
Tirelessly and without haste, the lean peasants go about their work in silence; their faces are patient, their movements full of unconscious dignity. The women who sit spinning on their doorsteps rise as one passes. Erect and speechless, they stand with raised hands covering their tired lips, noble figures of lowly labour, the mothers of many children, uncomplainingly bearing their weary lot.
Sometimes, having guessed who I was, these women have knelt down before their thresholds, touching the dust of the roads with their foreheads as a sign of homage; no doubt a remnant of Eastern customs, or of days when they belonged body and soul to the rich of the land.
These humble gestures always disconcerted me. I longed each time to stretch out a hand and raise them from the ground, finding it difficult to face being treated as some sort of deity come down upon earth.
For ever could I continue relating about these valleys and their people, about the small white cottages, about the churches and shady forests, about the tall ferns that grow there, and about the flowers running riot in the fields. So extraordinarily dear were they to my heart that it needs an immense effort to realize that I can no more go to them now!
When in need of repose and recreation, it was always towards those regions that my foot instinctively turned.
I had even chosen a spot on the edge of a beech forest, where bracken grows the height of a man, near a convent with walls as white as an angel's wing, a spot which reminded me of England, and where one day I hope to be laid to rest, for I always feel that sleep would be sweet 'neath those trees. Of all places in the land 'tis the one that I love best.
Cruel events have now torn that place from us; yet one day I feel I shall return… it cannot be possible that I am never again to tread the shade of those woods!
But to-day it is not Horez, that convent dearest of all, that I mean to describe, for in other pages I have already spoken of it; to-day, in spite of the nostalgia that fills me when I think of it, I will not pause to enter its holy enclosure, I will not ascend the fir-boarded path leading to its portal; as one cast out of Paradise, I shall slip past its high, silent walls with a sigh….
The convent Polovraci, to which I want to take you to-day, is not far from beautiful Horez of the high, white walls, but it lies in another valley at the extremity of a high tableland, a large sweep of open country ended abruptly by a row of mountains, rising like a rampart built by giant hands.
A lovely road leads there. Running over hill and dale, it passes through fairy birch-woods filled with bracken and hairbells that bend their delicate heads in the breeze.
Old wooden crosses guard its borders, quaint-shaped and of all heights. They are decorated with bright paintings that the passing seasons soon efface. Lonely and weather-beaten they stand, each hiding in its old heart the history of its erection, which it confides not to those hurrying by. But the wind knows their meaning; the wind, the rain and the storm, that after having torn their secrets from them, often fells them mercilessly to the ground, where they lie face downwards, helpless, like fallen soldiers that no one has come to pick up!
I love those old crosses, touching effigies, specially characteristic of our land; they inspire me with a strange feeling of reverence, for the hearts that placed them there must have been believing hearts, having some sin to wipe out, some dear one to mourn for, or some far-off wanderer to protect…. Many a believing heart must have moved along the roads of Vâlcea, for on all of them one meets these crosses, standing like weary ancestors whose names have been forgotten by the generations of to-day.
No situation could be more lovely than that of Polovraci. The little old convent nestles at the very foot of the mountains, like a giant bird hiding amongst the trees. Here, too, as at Horez, the walls are high and white, but the building is poorer, more humble, although the church standing in the enclosure is in no wise less beautiful; form and style are as perfect, its paintings are just as rich.
Here, instead of dark firs, an avenue of cherry trees leads up to its belfry tower, beneath which one passes through a low-vaulted entry into the inner court.
The last time I was there, the cherry trees were in bloom; so thick were the blossoms that the trees appeared to be bending beneath a mass of snow. A real symphony in white: white blossoms, white walls surrounding a milk-white church; overhead, large white clouds floating over the sky, underfoot a white carpet of daisies and, peeping through the church-portal, I perceived within the sanctuary a crowd of white-clad peasants in different poses of adoration. Shadow enveloped them, but the white coats of the men and the women's head-cloths stood out like patches of light.
No one expected my arrival, so I was able to slip unseen into the church, where I became spectator of the strange scene I am going to relate.
It was a feast-day; some sort of ceremony was going on, that at first, because of the crowd, I could not see. The peasants were in Sunday attire, men and women wearing the rough white-woollen coats peculiar to the district, the women's head-dresses immaculate as sheets of hoar frost.
The church is one of the most lovely I know. Perfect of proportion, its time-faded frescoes have been desecrated by no attempts at renovation, and though cracked and effaced in places are otherwise in good repair; sober of colour, they are painted upon a sombre background of blue. The high screen masking the altar is a masterpiece of carving, discreetly gilded, encrusted with precious old pictures of saints, crowned at the top by a large painted crucifix, exquisite of shape, half enveloped in shade. Above, a large dome, from which the giant figure of Christ looks down from His golden background in benign but inaccessible dignity, one hand uplifted in an eternal gesture of benediction.
Upon the wall beyond the altar-screen a procession of saints and martyrs loom out of shadow, lean, ascetic figures, crowding round the Holy Virgin's throne. Pale are their faces, but their innumerable haloes form a glorious background of gold. Only the front figures are complete; the rest of the multitude is indicated by those luminous circles that rise one above another as though steps leading to God.
Upon His Mother's knee sits the Child Christ, stiff and upright, like a small idol with over-large eyes set in a melancholy, wax-tinted face.
All figures of the Byzantine school have these ascetic bloodless faces, their garments are painted with extraordinary care, and cover their thin bodies with minutely pleated folds, but their heads are overburdened by the haloes they are eternally destined to wear as signs of sacred dignity.
No words can describe the marvellous harmony of those church interiors that centuries have mellowed down to half-tints, and on this day the crowd which had gathered before Polovraci's golden altar-screen had nothing of the triviality of the crowds that generally dog royal steps; it was but a humble gathering of peasants, whose costumes had in themselves something almost medieval in keeping with the old-time atmosphere of the church.
For a while I stood behind the crowd of believers, deeply absorbing the charm of my surroundings. Many of the peasants held tapers in their hands; the flickering flames that crowned these tapers cast lurid lights on the saints' golden haloes, and gave an ethereal look to the many faces that were all turned in one direction watching something that at first I could not see.
Pushing through the crowd to the altar steps, I spied a woman lying upon a stretcher—a woman with a ghastly face the colour of parchment, a young woman with body so emaciated that it might have been a corpse; all life seemed to have taken refuge in her eyes that, large and haunted, stared up at the priest who stood over her murmuring prayers.
The priest was almost a giant, with a long, auburn beard flowing down over a vestment of purple and gold. He had removed his gold-embroidered stola to lay it over the woman; the weight of the heavy stuff seemed to crush her frail limbs.
Several old women in white cloaks were kneeling beside her, repeating prayers in high wailing tones, beating their foreheads against the ground, often throwing themselves over the body of the unfortunate sufferer as though to tear from her the cruel sickness that, except for her eyes, made her already resemble the dead.
A circle of believers stood around this strange group; with absorbed anxiety they were watching the face of the woman. Clad in white cloaks, one and all held lighted tapers in their hands; silent and pale, they might have been a gathering of ghosts….
The voice of the priest rose above the women's wailing, filling the church with its ardour; as in the days of the Bible, he seemed to be exhorting some evil spirit to quit the body it was so sorely torturing.
Fascinated, I looked on awhile at this weird ceremony, then, tearing myself away, I stepped back through the church portal into the sunlight beyond, and it was as though I had suddenly stepped from the dark middle ages into the sunshine of to-day….