The Country That I Love by Marie Queen of Rumania

CHAPTER 15


BEFORE closing these pages, I would paint a last picture, a new picture, an after-war picture, but with something of the peacefulness in it of those pre-war visions so dear to my heart.

On the other side of our mountains, now no more barriers separating our people in two halves, stands a small castle on a steep jutting rock.

It is but a rustic stronghold, in olden times a fortress, built perhaps by Crusaders, but more probably a point of defence from the days of the Turkish invasions.

Against a background of hills and mountains, of which the lower ones are thickly covered with forests of fir and beach; solid, stolid, and lonesome it stands, a watchman placed between plain and highland, guarding the entrance of a mountain-pass.

Its walls, which are high and several yards in breadth, are built according to the level and shape of the rock, and are so welded together with their foundation as to have actually become one. Several irregular-shaped towers rise from these immense impregnable-looking walls, whilst a narrow stone stairway, composed of many, many steps, runs steeply up to a heavily-barred door, sole entry to the fortress, a secretive, mysterious-looking little place.

It has no special pretensions to beauty, no distinctive architecture; it is just a solid, primitive, pugnacious-looking stronghold, and if it has a story it has kept it locked away in its solitary stone heart.

In former days, many years ago, when it was still on alien ground, I had once driven past this queer little fortress; its extreme loneliness had attracted me; I wondered to whom it might belong and why it looked so forsaken and uncared for; it filled me with the desire to possess it and to awake it to life.

It was but a fleeting vision, passed in a flash, effaced by the dust of my motor, just a dream-picture quickly left behind, but I never forgot it: strong, squat, uncommon of shape; standing out on its rock against a wooded background, guardian of the mountain road and of the several small villages lying at its feet.

When these regions became ours, one of my first visits was to this solitary fortress, which had made such a strong impression upon me, wondering if it still existed, fearing that it might have crumbled with so much else, since through this valley too the enemy had swept towards our plains.

To my intense relief, there it stood untouched with its air of pugnacious strength, a stolid, lonesome, lifeless, almost eyeless thing.

We decided to explore it; so, full of anticipation we climbed the precipitous road leading up to it, climbed its many steps of stone, and having secured its key, opened the secretive-looking door, sole entry to its mysteries...

What a quaint, delicious little place! A small inner court entirely shut in by high, intensely thick walls, pierced here and there by small loop-holes, rather shaky wooden galleries running round those walls somewhere near the top. Tiny disconnected stairs leading into the different towers, into several low-domed whitewashed rooms, others with heavily-beamed ceilings, the whole squat, incredibly solid, in good repair, not at all a ruin, but as bare and empty as a forsaken heart.

A silent, sad little place, but extraordinarily attractive, with a superb view from each wee window, and to me it seemed to have a sleeping soul longing to be awaked...

My children and I immediately began weaving dreams around Bran or Brana, the strange, solitary, fascinating little castle, which belonged to no one; whom nobody had ever cared for, which had never been loved nor inhabited as long as anyone could remember; Bran, Brana... that weird, picturesque, poetical, mysterious little place....

And one day... for such are the opening words to events big and small... one day... a deputation from the town of Brasov, to which it seems Bran belonged, came to me, and with words resembling words used through all ages when offering gifts to royal people, Bran was offered to me! Bran or Brana, the little castle, the solitary, rugged, pugnacious-looking little stronghold was offered to me!...

I could hardly believe my ears, but they had brought all sorts of papers with them, with seals and signatures and solemn-sounding formulas according to the law. I, too, had to sign my name; it was all done with much ceremony, many good wishes and blessings, and fine, kind words. Then the deputation departed, leaving me with that solemn, signed, sealed paper—and Bran was mine, was mine...

Like the old gentleman who once, many years ago, had left me his forsaken villa in the melancholy weed-grown park, had the town of Brasov been pleased with the thought that their lonesome little castle should be given over into the hands of one who would care for it, and awake it to a life it had never known? I cannot say, but the glorious fact remained; whatever may have been their motive, they had come and had offered it to me. Henceforth, Brana, the beloved, belonged to me!

That was a glorious moment when I went to take possession of my own little fortress, and all the peasants from miles around rejoiced with me, for my coming was a blessed event in their careworn, colourless lives. Now the lonesome, soulless, masterless little stronghold would awake to life, would look down from its height, would suddenly become a point of gravitation, a protector watching over their weal and woe.

They came in crowds to welcome me, all in their best Sunday costumes, to wish me good luck, good health, a long life; they came to express their satisfaction that the castle had become mine, they also came, of course, with their complaints and needs, and petitions, for one is not queen and mother of a people solely to receive congratulations and to hear expressions of content!

Oh! with what joy and interest I set about making my Bran livable, putting in certain comforts, letting in more light, repairing the shaky galleries, creating new rooms in odd corners; making use of the huge timbered loft, using waste spaces, digging out secret little passages and stairs, turning queer little dungeons into living-rooms, but withal taking greatest care to preserve the austere, primitive aspect of the place.

We have a dear old architect belonging to our household, inherited from King Carol's times. He, too, had always dreamed that one day it would be granted him to repair an old castle; now this quaint building has become his pet work. He has settled down there like an owl in an old wall and devotes all his love, all his skill, to make a real treasure out of my precious little place. But we are in no hurry to complete our work, we are like children with a beloved toy of which we never weary; each year we improve something, without allowing its original aspect to change. It is still the impregnable, pugnacious little fortress, but now it has been given a soul, its eyes are open, it is wide awake, joyfully alive....

Within, its walls are still severely whitewashed. Bran's rough, rustic appearance has been preserved, its several stairs are still steep and crooked, the rooms uneven of shape, built according to the rock beneath, nearly each one on a different level. You have to be careful not to stumble over the thresholds, not to hit your head against the low lintels of the doors; in fact, all the time you have to keep looking out because you are for ever turning unexpected corners and never know when you are going to encounter a step, a low ceiling, a projecting beam. Some of my own generation have shaken their heads, little approving of my taste for such an unpractical habitation; "at your age," they rather unkindly remarked!

But I love it! and with that all is said! Something of the child has remained in my heart perhaps, a love of romance, discovery, adventures; besides, I invite few of my own generation to live there with me, they only come to see it, when I inhabit it; I take my children, their friends, or younger friends of my own, who see nothing but the virtues of my treasure!

Behind its incredibly thick walls I have collected a strange medley of old things of a more or less rustic kind: quaint carvings, ancient figures in wood, stone, or metal; figures which do not feel out of place in such austere medieval surroundings; strange old icons upon golden background, deliciously mellowed by time, old carpets and rugs, stone jars and mortars, bronze, copper, and brass vessels, peasant pottery from many lands; quaint old chests and cupboards, heavy old oaken tables, settles, and stools; but there are also huge soft easy-chairs, sofas, and couches, which, if the right colours and stuffs are chosen, harmonize agreeably with the rest, blending perfectly with their more austere companions. And everywhere, flowers, flowers, the brightest, the simplest, marigolds, calendulas, sunflowers, rubechias, representing a complete scale of oranges and yellows; then roses and asters, dahlias, lupins, larkspurs, and delphiniums, great flaming bunches of nasturtiums, huge proud nosegays of tiger-lilies and the beloved white cottage lily, each colour finding its right background; taking a special value against the whitewashed walls, or on the time-blackened tables and chests, in the deep window embrasures, peeping from quaint little niches cut out in the tremendous thickness of the walls.

I never saw any house love flowers as my little old castle does; its every corner wants them, accepts them, asks for them....

All the galleries have boxes gorgeous with scarlet geraniums, and half of the inner court has been walled off separately and transformed into a little paved garden, one blaze of colour. This wee garden is also the proud possessor of a well several hundred feet deep.

My old architect has a special talent for building the most delightful fireplaces; every kind of shape, generally walled into each room according to the size and style of the room; they are mostly quite plain peasant-hearths, whitewashed, built of bricks with all sorts of odd corners and shelves jutting out from them, so that pots and jars and ancient icons can find the right little places to stand on, each object looking as though it had been there always, as though it had been made for that special place.

Below the castle lies an old orchard alongside of a damp emerald-green meadow, where forget-me-nots grow in masses. I am transforming the orchard into a sort of kitchen flower-garden, a veritable orgy of colour, upon which the little fortress looks down with what formerly would have been a frown, but which to-day certainly more resembles a smile.

At certain dates the poorest amongst the peasants climb the castle's steep stone steps and crowd into my fortress-enclosure, and there, feudal-wise, I distribute corn, maize, money and clothing. A more picturesque, tattered, end-of-the-world assembly can hardly be imagined; strange, long-haired old men with white shirts, broad leathern belts and earth-coloured coats; tiny wizened-faced old women, like uncanny witches, come down from their far-off mountain-sides; large-eyed pathetic war-orphans brought hither by careworn foster-mothers, already heavily burdened with innumerable children of their own; one and all, patient, respectful, all-enduring, full of quiet dignity in spite of their crushing poverty. They all crowd round me, kissing my hands, the sleeve or the hem of my dress, full of profuse thanks, which make my gifts seem much too meagre.

Then they all troop out again, old men and tottering old crones, careworn mothers and orphan-children, all calling down blessings on my head in the most picturesque language, wishing good luck, good health, long life, prosperity and a heart for their misery; begging me to come again, to come often, not to forget them, to descend from my height towards them and no end of other things, whilst I, feeling humbled, watch them climbing down my steep steps, limping off each with his small share, dispersing, going back to their poor little homes amongst the hills....

Occasionally, accompanied by one or the other of my children, or by some of my younger followers, clad in the bright costume of the country, astride a hardy mountain pony I ride up, up into the hills upon fearfully steep, uneven paths, in spring-time but torrent-beds. Then it happens that quite unexpectedly we come upon some of those weird, wizened, limping old men and women, who assemble in my castle courtyard to receive alms. They greet us joyfully but with slowly dawning astonishment, wondering what ever could have moved the Queen to wander into such far-off, never-visited corners, upon such ill-kept precipitous roads. I halt and hold converse with them, they shake their heads and sigh and smile, using quaint expressions which nearly always end in some blessing or good wish, and the petition that we should be sure and come again....

Up, up, beyond beaten trails into shadow-filled fir-forests, dark, mysterious, sweet with the pungent perfume of sun-warmed resin, through dense thickets full of night, opening out on to moss-coated glades shut in by sombre fir-trees, regular and magnificent, like an army of giants, the many-shaded indigo mountains forming a background, so magnificent, so perfect, so changeless in its strength and stability that gratitude rises suddenly from my heart like a prayer. Beauty, beauty! eternal, indestructible, beauty of form, colour, detail, ever again it is as a deep religion to me, making me believe in things beyond this life, making me believe in hope, truth, goodness, the conquering of evil, of death....

With dusk we return, picking our way carefully over rolling stones, our shadows lengthening weirdly as though we and even our ponies were walking on stilts.

I have also been at Bran, or Brana the Beloved as it sometimes amuses me to call my castle, who through me has gained a soul, on an early winter's night when the snow was on the ground, and a large moon was sending her ghostly beams stealthily into my carefully locked courtyard, as though trying to discover secrets we were anxious to conceal from the outer world.

The pugnacious small castle had that night a quite different aspect; it had suddenly become ethereal, bodiless, a sort of dream, a vision of my own fantasy.

A waxen taper in hand, a thick, dark yellow taper made by the nuns, smelling deliciously of honey, I began wandering all through my stronghold, up and down its many steep stairs, in and out of ridiculously low passages, carefully stepping over uneven thresholds, on to secretive-looking galleries leading to squat towers with wee windows, whence I could look down, down upon the peaceful valley beneath, with its river winding through it like a shimmering path.

There was no sound; only a deep silence, the world lying fast asleep, all white under its first coating of snow, silvered by the moon's intense light. A strange, incredible little place, hardly to be imagined in our teeming, striving, bustling times, a lost little corner of peace. I felt inconceivably far away from everyday life, almost a stranger to myself, but oh! so much in sympathy with this old-world, almost incongruous habitation, which I cared to share only with those who understood its charm as I did. I kept my life here jealously apart from all those who were too accustomed to a royal, conventional, over-comfortable way of living.

Huh! but how cold it was! how ghostly, looking down, suspended over such a giddy height, and how my honey-scented taper dripped in the sudden blasts of wind which caught me round each corner. I must hurry back to the big flaming fire crackling on the huge hearth in the long low room, which had once been a loft and where the others were assembled, chatting and telling tales, occasionally listening to the wind whistling round the ancient walls. Oh! how cozy it was round that giant fireplace, which made quite a room in itself, walled within the other, with a big roof under which one could creep close up to the flame.

But now to bed. We all scattered to our different apartments in the four corners of the castle. I climbed down my own secret stairs, a tiny, steep, stone flight hidden away in the thickness of the wall, with a niche at the top and another at the bottom, and a wee antique oil-lamp flickering in each, like those used centuries ago by Christians in the catacombs. There was something of the sensation of a catacomb about those dark little stairs leading down... down.      . as into a well.

How the wind howled round my bedroom, an isolated chamber in one of the towers. Low-domed and white, it has quaint, perforated marble windows, remnants of some ancient Byzantine church which I brought back from Greece and which seem perfectly at home here.

A fire was crackling in one of the little white hearths, characteristic of the house, the leaping flames filling the small room with ever-changing light and shade, gilding the white walls, making the old icons and the silver lamps hanging before them glow, throwing unexpected colours upon the soft, dark blue Chinese carpet.

In a nook between the two windows, upon an old stone capital of a church pillar, stands a monk carved in wood. An austere figure with a wonderful ascetic face; he is the silent guardian of this room, the companion of my hours of solitude. A taper burns beside him, and a blue Persian jar, full of flowers that are always fresh, stands at his feet. His attitude is one of prayer; with bent head and closed eyes he stands there, a perfect picture of patience and abnegation. Given to me once by my mother, he has been moved from house to house, but this low vaulted chamber, around which the four winds howl and whistle, chanting their dismallest dirges, is his right setting; here he has found his final home. He pays no attention to me whatsoever, but the ruddy glow from the flames gives him an uncanny look of real life. He watches over my sleep, and when I awake at dawn, there he is, praying still, his face pale and more austere than ever in the growing light....

Have I been able to describe some of the charm of Brana the Beloved? I fear not. The child who loves it best said: You will never be able to make anybody who has not seen it understand what it is really like! I am afraid this is true, but I have spoken about it as a lover singing of his love—it is the best I can do. You see, it is a love which has come to me in my riper years, on the other side of that chasm which cut my life in two—so it is something of a symbol to me, a sign that one can begin again... even after war and exile... a little differently no doubt, but with that ever young energy and that undying renewal of faith and hope, of which, thank God, the human heart is eternally capable…