The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania

CHAPTER 12

IN ALL FOUR CORNERS OF THE COUNTRY THERE WERE THESE SILENT PLACES


PATIENTLY have you followed me in my many wanderings through the country I love; I have led you from plain to mountain, from mountain to sea, from the broad Danube to the hills of Vâlcea, where I lingered in the quiet monasteries so dear to my heart, and now I feel that so as not to weary you with too many pictures, I must close these pages, although still many visions float before my eyes. Indefinitely could I go on writing, for rich and wonderful is this country, picturesque, poetical, full of penetrating charm, and doubly precious at its hour of distress; yet I feel that for a while I must lay down my pen, guarding within my soul other pictures that one day, perchance, I shall paint for you, but not now... not now...

All the places that I have spoken about in this volume are places from which we are now separated by a cruel fate, places we are yearning to get back to, homes we had to forsake, fields that the invader is reaping, regions we have had to give up; but before I quite leave you, I would talk of the town which opened out her arms to us when we were wanderers, having had to quit our hearths, not knowing where to take shelter.

We asked much of her, but she was generous; she took us up into her bosom, although many of us had neglected her in the days of prosperity and peace.

Jassy! The name has a special sound in our ears! Particularly at a moment when new and unheard-of dangers stare us in the face. When we had to flee from Bucarest, Jassy was the town we all flocked to; Jassy1, once herself a proud capital, who had been sacrificed to another's glory, and who had suddenly to harbour those who had ignored her for so many years. She did her best to receive us, but her slender resources were sorely tried!

Jassy! Town of shifting fates, town dear to every Moldavian heart, once a cherished and blooming centre, in later years much neglected, much forsaken, living alone by her remembrances, abandoned even of those who loved her best. Her name has retained the sweetness of things once cherished, as the name of a woman formerly loved for her beauty, but whom the passing years have handed over to oblivion with so much else.

Situated upon several hills, amidst verdure and gardens, surrounded by fertile regions, Jassy has every reason to be proud of her position, a position that many a town might envy. Her churches are not to be counted, and seen from afar at dusk, when mist floats like a veil above her imperfections, Jassy has the air of an enchanted city, out of which her sanctuaries' many-shaped towers and cupolas rise like ghosts of past glories that nothing can efface.

But, through all ages, Jassy's geographical situation has been unlucky, therefore has she known invasion in every form, and with invasion, change and disaster, fire, famine and fear.

So varied have been the phases of her destiny, so manifold the masters who claimed her, succeeding each other with such bewildering rapidity, that in reading the old chronicles, the mind gets confused, and it is difficult for the uninitiated to follow so intricate a tale. Standing, however, as we are before events great and fearful, I can but cast a look backwards, comparing to-day with yesterday, marvelling how this unfortunate town has again and again been subjected to every form of disaster. Yet she stands and lives, undaunted by misfortune, no vicissitude having been able to tear her from the people to whom she belongs.

I have tried to live in her past, so as better to understand her present, but to-day it would lead me too far were I to relate her whole history.

At the entrance of the town, on the road of Nicolina, stands a tall stone cross. Old, grey and venerable, it appears to be a guardian watching over the city's safety, a guardian in whose heart some ancient tale lies dormant. Often I wondered what event it recalled—now I know—only for a few days have I known! And I can but consider it a good omen that its story was revealed to me just now...

The cross goes by the name of Ferenz, and marks a place where fallen foes lie buried....

Between the years 1716-1717, during the reign of Mihai Vodă Racoviţă, the Austrian-Germans, who were fighting the Turks near our frontiers, made incursions into Moldavia, taking possession for a time of Caşin and Neamţ.

Some of their troops, led by traitors through the valley of Oďtuz, penetrated even into Jassy, but they were beaten back, and many were made prisoners in a bloody skirmish between the fortress of Cetatuia and the convent of Frumoasa. The bodies of the fallen, with their leader, Ferenz, were buried at Nicolina, "the earth being heaped high above them," so says the chronicle; "and those also who tried to betray their country were killed and buried with the foe."

And now the old cross stands on guard, high up above the town, its time-worn face turned towards the rising sun.... Thus even at the gates of a city can the foe be turned back in shame

Foes also of another kind has Jassy known: During the reign of Miron-Vodă Barnovski (1626-1629) there was a terrible winter, which now still goes by the name of Barnovski's winter; people died in the streets of cold and hunger, and wolves were supposed to have come as far as the outskirts of the town. Some years later, under the reign of Stefăniţă-Vodă Lupu, famine raged in the city, and the story goes that the population, having nothing to eat, fed upon reeds from the swamps about the town, so that the prince received the nickname of Papură-Vodă, "Reed Prince." Also in the winter 1684-85 there was famine, and dark tales are still told by the people about those times.

The reign of Mihail Grigore Sturdza (1834-1849) was marked by more than one misfortune. Twice Jassy was nearly burnt to the ground; in 1849 cholera made cruel ravages amongst her people, and the fearful epidemic was followed by a winter of deadly frost, by famine and misery of every sort, for it is a well-known saying that "misfortune never comes alone!"

But guests less lugubrious have also been known within Jassy's walls. In the year 1711 Peter the Great was received here with great ceremony and many honours by Dimitrie-Vodă Cantemir, who was known to the world at large for his erudition. "On this occasion," says the chronicle, "the Moldavian noblemen tasted 'French wine' for the first time," that is to say, champagne!

Stanislaus Leszynski, King of Poland, was also once a guest within Jassy's walls; having come with the intention of meeting King Charles XII of Sweden, he lived for a while in a private house. "When the Prince of the Land got wind of his presence, he showed the King all honour, and installed him grandly within the palace of Trei Erarhi (Three Saints)."

"At an earlier date, the Sultan Mohammed IV, who was fighting the Poles, entered Jassy, where he promenaded about in great state, welcomed with much honour by Gheorghe Vodă Duca, who treated him royally; but the town was greatly shocked by the Sultan's having ordered a ' muezzin' to chant Turkish prayers from the belfry of St. Nicolai, one of Jassy's most cherished churches. Thereafter, for a long time the church was considered desecrated, and could no more be used before being sanctified anew."

In the year 1769 the Great Catherine took possession of Moldavia, and General Rumianzow was established as Governor. The Russian occupation lasted five years. Catherine's best known favourite, Patiomkine, died in Jassy, and it is said that his body lay in state in the beautiful old church of Golia.

Under the reign of Grigore Alexandru Ghica, Austria suddenly laid hands upon Bucovina, the port raising no protest; on the contrary, Turkey made a convention with Austria, in which it ceded these provinces over which it had but a protective right. All protest on the part of Moldavia was in vain, Grigore Vodă paying with his head for the efforts he made to uphold his country's interest.

From the year 1828 to 1834 the Russians once more occupied Moldavia, and Jassy was governed by Count Kiseleff, an able organizer, whose final departure the town had many reasons to regret. Between the years 1849-1856 Jassy was taken possession of in turns by the Russians, Turks and Austrians. Her vicissitudes, as may be seen, were without end, till finally, on the fifth of January (old style) 1859, Alexandru Joan Cuza was unanimously elected Prince of Moldavia, and in the same month became Prince of Valachia, thus at last uniting both parts of the country under one sceptre. Once, in the year 1600, the great national hero, Michail the Brave, had realized this dream, but only for the short period of five months.

Cuza Vodă reigned at first with two governments, one in Jassy, one in Bucarest. Finally Bucarest was chosen as capital, Prince and Government establishing themselves definitely in the town. Henceforward Jassy had to look on at another's growing importance, whilst she was left to mourn past glories! Cuza Voda's reign lasted seven years.

I have but roughly sketched some of Jassy's changing fortunes, picking out a tale here and there, without any effort at sequence or order, these being but lightly sketched pages—a picture-book, full of visions of places we love, without any larger pretensions; therefore would I now move away from the past to the Jassy of to-day.

The sad events of last autumn suddenly tore Jassy from her somnolent dreams of the past. Her streets, for many years so desolate and silent, teemed again with eager crowds; her houses, many of which had long since been shut up, had to open wide their doors to receive more guests than they could hold. Her dusty peace was scattered to the four winds by the inflow of all those who, having had to quit the capital, had come to take refuge within the walls of the town they had handed over to oblivion and regret.

Almost brutal was this invasion, of which Jassy did not wholly approve—she would have preferred a less violent monopolizing of her solitude. Her wishes, however, were not consulted; she was simply obliged to strain her slender means to the utmost to try and harbour those who had no more homes of their own.

A certain aggrieved bitterness did the quiet town feel at first; why should she thus be taken possession of, after having been neglected so long? Why should her fragile pavements be shaken by a thousand motors? Why should those who had left her to crumble away suddenly establish themselves here as masters, when in the days of prosperity she had been ignored? Into the bargain, those who had quit the capital felt like exiles in this other town, and but slowly resigned themselves to what Fate had decreed!

I, also, at first found it hard to settle down in a new centre, under such circumstances, with so overwhelming a grief in my heart. Had I not left one of my own over there—where I could return no more! And then, the danger was not at an end; the enemy was on our heels, our army was retreating, our allies an unknown quantity; was it worth while working, beginning all over again? Would what we built stand? Or would our renewed efforts have to be surrendered into the invader's hands?

Tragic hours! Hours of doubt and suffering, hours of cruel suspense, when effort seemed vain, when we all stood straining our ears, listening for the advancing feet of disaster—our hearts beating, our souls heavy with dread!

And yet, those in trouble could not wait; the hungry clamoured for food, the naked for clothing, the wounded for care, the homeless for a roof over their heads! With the grim boom of cannon in our ears, we had to set about our labour, regardless of difficulties, never matter if what we built up was not destined to stand; it had to be done!

Thus, little by little, did hard work help each man to overcome his sorrow, to strain his nerves to an effort that every day anew seemed far beyond his strength.

I will not enumerate all that was missing, all that had to be created under circumstances I hardly find words to describe. The fearfulness of our last winter lies graven in letters of fire upon the mind of each. It was uphill work, and often it was hopelessly incomplete, but those who were mourning their lost homes, and those who had at first resented so untimely an invasion overcame their grief and their grievances in the mutual effort for good.

I had known Jassy in other years—in the years of peace. I had come to her sometimes, too seldom, though through no fault of my own, and always had she received me loyally, with manifestations of great joy.

Now I had come to her a broken-hearted mother, a Queen seeking refuge, like many other, an exile from my own hearth, and Jassy took me up in my hour of trouble and helped me, and little by little became my new home.

I had always felt tenderly towards her, for in the days of my extreme youth, when first I came as a bride to this country, there had been rumours that we, the young ones, would settle down in the second capital of the land.

Jassy desired it, and after my first visit to her picturesque solitude I would gladly have made my home within her walls. But the old sovereigns needed us. So long had they pined for children that they could not contemplate the thought of our living far from their side. Thus Jassy saw us seldom, but always with joy!

I remember how the sun shone the first time I came to Jassy, I remember the welcoming faces that crowded the streets, the cheers, the flowers—the many flowers that were thrown into my carriage—I remember that I was but eighteen and full of hope...

How different was my last coming! I was in mourning, and there was no sunshine, no flowers, no glad cries of welcome, only anxiously inquiring faces, and no other sound but the far-off cannon tolling our fate.

Unannounced, I stole into the town, a refugee, house-less, homeless, without my youngest child... winter was approaching, and something like despair lay at the roots of my heart. Yet irresistibly hope rose anew, timidly at first, but each day stronger, little by little overcoming tears, sorrow and regret.

Oh, Jassy! Shall we ever forget the past months spent within thy gates! Indescribable are the sufferings thy streets have witnessed; snow has lain mountain-high against thy house-sides, crowds of beggars have haunted thy pavements, and more than one, overcome by want, has lain down on thy stones to die!

I have seen thee a picture of misery—shaken by dread, shivering with cold; into thy darkest and most dismal corners have I penetrated, searching for those who needed help—giving all I could, but it was always too little, for all my love and all my pity could ease but a particle of the distress I met at every step!

Sombre indeed was thy aspect during those winter months. Oh, Jassy! I felt how each house harboured hidden suffering, cruel secrets seemed hovering behind each wall. Food was scarce, wood still scarcer. Thy hospitals were overfull, so that those not yet completely recovered had to make place for others whose needs seemed more urgent; therefore did such pale faces haunt thy streets.

Like ghosts, our underfed soldiers wandered from shelter to shelter, often finding nowhere to lay their fevered heads. We worked, we toiled, we tried to do marvels, but transports were insufficient, communication interrupted; everywhere the snow shut us away behind relentless barriers, cutting us off from what we would reach!...

And there came a ghastly moment when the boards were insufficient for making coffins for the dead!

Oh! the melancholy of those funerals stealing through thy streets! How many of them have I met.... An old white horse, harnessed to a nameless something resembling a box the colour of night. Bump, bump! backwards and forwards it wandered over the uneven snow. Bump, bump 1—the white horse each day more weary, more bony, more like a phantom horse! And many who met this uncanny vehicle turned away their faces, unable to bear the sight... whilst overhead the crows darkened the heavens with their sinister flight....

I sometimes tried to get beyond the city, so as to relieve distress in other parts; but again and again did the snow-drifts baffle me, preventing my reaching the villages I had set out to seek.

Sadly I had to turn back, but not before having contemplated great wastes become pathless, studded with bodies of fallen horses with stiffly outstretched legs, and on the horizon huts of misery buried in snow. And I knew that over there beyond, where I could not penetrate, there were misfortunes I hungered to relieve, but had to abandon to Fate! And everywhere crows were feasting—they alone had enough to eat....

Thus was the winter, the winter I spent in Jassy; yet, endless as it was, it came to an end!...

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Doubly precious, because so ardently yearned for, spring at last dawned in glory over our distress—and then, oh, Jassy! how different was thy aspect; and, because of the sorrow shared with thee, we suddenly realized how close thou hadst grown to our hearts!

All of a sudden didst thou become beautiful, oh, town of hunger, pestilence and tears! Thy gardens filled with flowers, and these were brought to me in great bunches by those who wished me not to pine too grievously for the gardens I had lost.

Clusters of lilacs nodded to me over time-scarred walls, great beds of violet iris gladdened the humblest corner; once more, wherever I went, flowers were thrown into my carriage; even the trams had bouquets of blue scilla attached to their lanterns, and each passerby carried a blossom in his hand....

Like a dwindling nightmare, the dark hours rolled away; the most wretched, the most abandoned, crawling out to gaze at the sun, felt that somewhere there might still be hope!

No more did our soldiers slink through the streets, vagrants who had nowhere to go; their step became lighter, less dragging, till once again they trod the earth like warriors believing in victory, like heroes ready for battle and success....

Though my work was none the less arduous, it became sweeter; the horizons opened, the snow had melted—now I was free to wander far and wide. Then dear to me indeed became thy surroundings. Oh, Jassy! I discovered beauty in every place. Thy undulating hills were now a green glory; fresh and marvellous, teeming with fresh life, was God's good earth; death seemed to have been defeated. Yet, in a quiet corner, I knew of a thousand and more crosses bearing evidence that the past horror had been no dream!

Poor little forest of crosses, each marking the graves of ten men, a humble and insufficient memorial to those who had paid the price of war—bare mounds beneath the crosses, countless in number, which in vain I tried to cover with the sweet, bright flowers of spring...

But there were too many crosses, too many graves—I could not even count them! Overcome, I stood before them with bowed head.... And I knew that these were but a small number of those crosses, and that in all the four corners of our country, and of so many other countries, there were silent places where these rough wooden effigies did not even bear the names of the dead.

I know of many hidden cemeteries all around the town, where field had to be added to field, the space within the ancient boundaries having become too small. More than one pilgrimage have I made to these gardens of peace, and standing amongst the nameless mounds, with tears in my eyes, I have gazed towards the city, enwrapped in veils of mist—thinking of that other small grave I had to abandon over there with so much else! Ardent prayers have I breathed over those fallen sons of mothers who will never see them again.... But the lilacs were in bloom, the birds were singing, and new life was springing—even out of the graves of the dead.

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Everything had become easier since the snow no longer formed a barrier between us and the outer world; we were as prisoners released from bondage; something like sacred joy filled our souls that had been so troubled, and much good work was done. Indeed, we were struggling against a widespread epidemic of typhus, part of our country was invaded, and other terrors haunted our every step. But Spring had overcome Winter—was it not a sign that Life must overcome Death? Thus did each man go more lightly to work and new confidence fill every heart.

Verily it was resurrection, and all worked together so as to render it more complete, each man according to his means.

Every evening, when my work was over, I would have my horse saddled, and ride far out into the hills that surround Jassy, galloping for miles over unknown paths, coming to spots of green peace, wondrous in contrast with all the horrors I had seen. Each new beauty was as a balm to my sorrow-filled heart, yet awaking within me a fearful yearning for the home I had lost!

Full of almost painful emotion were these evening hours in silent communion with Nature's renewal; a great peace and at the same time an incommensurable sadness did I feel. God had made the world so beautiful, it was man who turned it into such a hell!

There upon those billowing heights, far from noise, labour, and suffering, I once again recognized the earth as Nature had made it, without the havoc man had wrought on its face.

Oh! The glory of the sunsets over those quiet spots! Their inimitable perfection was an answer to many a question that weighted my soul, and dear to me beyond words became these regions revealed to me with the year's new awakening to hope.

Later, when the ground became too hard for riding, it was by motor that I prolonged my evening wanderings far and wide. Each day I discovered new places, each one full of its own charm; picturesque villages, deep forests full of shade, rivers like silver ribbons, winding through mist-softened plains, lonely churches and old convents hidden amidst trees. In each hamlet the children became my friends; my hands were never empty; wherever I went eager faces met me, and many a blessing has made sweeter my road.... With the lengthening of the days, my drives also became longer, and ever more friendly these regions seemed to me. I began to love them dearly.

Day by day I saw the seed that had first resembled meadows of green grass grow taller and taller, ripening beneath the increasing heat of the sun, till the day came when cornfields in glorious abundance covered the low hills with their rippling oceans of gold.

One thing never seen elsewhere filled me with rapture; enormous fields of sunflowers, acres and acres of these giants, a blazing sea of colour, unlike aught else; I came upon them in many places, their resinous smell perfuming the air, whilst their large faces seemed eternally searching the great light which had given them their name; a glorious feast of colour delighting the eye.

Another discovery did I make: Jassy was the town of lilies! There came a season when this city, lately but a world of darkness and sorrow, turned into one great garden in which this flower of flowers ruled supreme!

Everywhere I found them in tall clusters of immaculate white—imparting a sacramental air to the poorest patch, giving strange dignity to the humblest cottage—their proud stems bending slightly beneath the wind's caress. Lilies having always been my favourite flower, this beautiful abundance was as a special revelation sent to endear the town to my heart; and all of a sudden my rooms that, in winter, had been so barren turned into a fragrant bower of the flower I loved best!

Beauty has a strange power over man's heart; it helps him over many a grief, leading him through this "valley of tears" towards the secrets of God.

When unexpectedly I come upon a bed of lilies sending up their proud glory out of a cracked and thirsting ground it is as though I must fall down and worship the Great Hand that creates such marvels; at those moments I suddenly seem to understand the mystery of hidden truths generally too deep for human hearts to conceive. At such hours no sadness seems to count, hope rises triumphant; the grave even loses its terror, and the infinite mercy of God lies like a benediction over the earth....

But haltingly can I speak of such wonders, my words are too small, the soul's emotion cannot be contained within the speech of man! Yet, ofttimes, has a revelation of Beauty lifted my heart above sorrow towards a deeper understanding lying beneath the dust that blinds our mortal eye. I cannot clearly explain why. But at such moments I have suddenly realized that suffering is the great master, and, as in a clear vision, I have understood that a people which has known how to suffer has also a right to live.

No fire purifies as the fire of sacrifice, no flame mounts straighter to the Heart of God.

Therefore, oh! my Country, never matter what thy tribulations have been, nor what they still may be! It is through the flame that the steel must pass before becoming a good strong sword. Let thy faith be unshaken and hold high thy hope; greater art thou because of thy troubles and because of the way thou hast borne them, more worthy art thou to win!

The souls of our dead heroes have built your road to fame, earthly success has no meaning unless the honour of a country stand mountain-high.

And if thou, Mircea, my little son, didst forsake me in an hour of darkness it was, perchance, so that those fallen heroes should find one of my children waiting to greet them in God's great sky above!

Still, many an hour separates us from victory, but sacrifices so great and suffering so heavy cannot be all in vain. My Country and people have passed through the fire, and because of their ever-growing heroism the day will come, little Mircea—of that I am certain—when, returning from exile, in an ecstasy of gratitude I shall fall down and kiss the stone of your grave.. Dear God.    Thus let it be...

1When Cuza Voda, in 1859, united Moldavia and Valachia, Bucarest was chosen as capital, much to Jassy's distress. She always has kept a feeling of resentment against Bucarest ever since.