My Country by Marie Queen of Rumania

It were impossible to describe all I have seen, heard, or felt whilst moving amongst these simple, warm-hearted people; so many vivid pictures, so many touching scenes have remained imprinted on my heart. I have wandered through villages lost in forsaken spots, upon burning plains; I have climbed up to humble little houses clustering together on mountain-sides. I have come upon lovely little places hidden amongst giant pines. On forlorn seashores I have discovered humble hamlets where Turks dwelt in solitary aloofness; near the broad Danube I have strayed amongst tiny boroughs inhabited by Russian fisher-folk, whose type is so different from that of the Rumanian peasant. At first sight one recognises their nationality—tall, fair-bearded giants, with blue eyes, their red shirts visible from a great way off.

It is especially in the Dobrudja that these different nationalities jostle together: besides Rumanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Tartars, Russians, in places even Germans, live peacefully side by side.

It is especially in the Dobrudja that these different nationalities jostle together.

I have been to a village in the Dobrudja which was part Rumanian, part Russian, part German, part Turkish. I went from one side to another, visiting many a cottage, entering each church, ending my round in the tiny rustic mosque hung with faded carpets, and there amongst a crowd of lowly Turks I listened to their curious service, of which I understood naught. A woman who is not veiled has no right to enter the holy precinct; but a royal name opens many a door, and many a severe rule is broken in the joy of receiving so unusual a guest.

On a burning summer's day I came to a tiny town almost entirely inhabited by Turks. I was distributing money amongst the poor and forsaken, and had been moving from place to place. Now it was the turn of the Mussulman population, therefore did I visit the most wretched quarters, my hands filled with many a coin.

Such was their joy at my coming that the real object of my visit was almost forgotten. I found myself surrounded by a swarm of excited women in strange attire, prattling a language I could not understand.

They called me Sultana, and each one wanted to touch me; they fingered my clothes, patted me on the back, one old hag even chucked me under the chin. They drew me with them from hut to hut, from court to court. I found myself separated from my companions, wandering in a world I had never known. Amongst a labyrinth of tiny mud-built huts, of ridiculously small gardens, of hidden little courts, did they drag me with them, making me enter their hovels, put my hand on their children, sit down on their stools. Like a swarm of crows they jabbered and fought over me, asking me questions, overwhelming me with kind wishes, to all of which I could answer but with a shrug of the shoulders and with smiles.

The poorer Mussulman women are not really veiled. They wear wide cotton trousers, and over these a sort of mantle which they hold together under the nose. The shape of these mantles gives them that indescribable line, so agreeable to the eye, and which alone belongs to the East. Also the colours they choose are always harmonious; besides, they are toned down to their surroundings by sun and dust. They wear strange dull blues and mauves —even their blacks are not really black, but have taken rusty tints that mingle pleasingly with the mud-coloured environment in which they dwell.

When attired for longer excursions, their garb is generally black, with a snow-white cloth on their heads, wrapped in such manner that it conceals the entire face, except the eyes.

Indescribably picturesque and mysterious are these dusky figures when they come towards one, grazing the walls, generally carrying a heavy staff in their hands; there is something biblical about them, something that takes one back to far-away times!

On this hot summer's morn of which I am relating, I managed to escape for a moment from my over-amiable assailants, so as to steal into a tiny hut of which the door stood wide open.

Irresistibly attracted by its mysterious shade, I penetrated into the mud-made hovel, finding myself in almost complete darkness. At the farther end a wee window let in a small ray of light.

Groping my way, I came upon a pallet of rags, and upon that couch of misery I discovered an old, old woman—so old, so old, that she might have existed in the time of fairies and witches, times no more in touch with the bustle and noise of to-day.

Bending over her, I gazed into her shrunken face, and all the legends of my youth seemed to rise up before me, all the stories that as a child, entranced, I had listened to, stories one never forgets. . . .

Above her, hanging from a rusty nail within reach of her hand, was a curiously shaped black earthenware pot. Everything around this old hag was the colour of the earth : her face, her dwelling, the rags that covered her, the floor on which I stood. The only touch of light in this hovel was a white lamb, crouching quite undisturbed at the foot of her bed.

Pressing some money between her crooked bony fingers, I left this strange old mortal to her snowy companion, and, stepping back into the sunshine, I had the sensation that for an instant it had been given me to stray through unnumbered ages into the days of yore.

From the beginning of time Rumania was a land subjected to invasions. One tyrannical master after another laid heavy hands upon its people; it was accustomed to be dominated, crushed, maltreated. Seldom was it allowed to affirm itself, to raise its head, to be independent, happy, or free; nevertheless, in spite of struggles and slavery, it was not a people destined to disappear. It overcame every hardship, stood every misery, endured every subjugation, could not be crushed out of being; but the result is that the Rumanian folk are not gay.

Their songs are sad, their dances slow, their amusements are seldom boisterous, rarely are their voices loud. On festive days they don their gayest apparel and, crowded together in the dust of the road, they will dance in groups or in wide circles, tirelessly, for many an hour ; but even then they are not often joyful or loud, they are solemn and dignified, seeming to take their amusement demurely, without passion, without haste.

Their love-songs are long complaints; the tunes they play on their flutes wail out endlessly their longing and desire that appear to remain eternally unsatisfied, to contain no hope, no fulfillment.

For the same reason few very old houses exist; there is hardly a castle or a great monument remaining from out the past. What was the use of building fine habitations if any day the enemy might sweep over the country and burn everything to the ground?

One or two strange old constructions have been preserved from those times of invasion: square, high buildings with an open gallery round the top formed by stout short columns, and here and there, in the immense thickness of the walls, tiny windows as look-outs. Primitive strongholds, half tower, half peasant-house, they generally stand somewhat isolated and resemble nothing I have seen in other lands.

Square, high buildings with an open gallery round the top.

With an open gallery round the top formed by stout short columns.

Primitive strongholds, half tower, half peasant-house.

I have lived in one of these strange houses. The gallery, that once was a buttress, had been turned into a balcony, and from between the squat pillars a lovely view was to be had over hill and plain. The rooms beneath were small, low, irregular, behind great thick walls; a wooded staircase as steep as a ladder led to these chambers.

Both outside and inside the building was whitewashed, and so primitive was its construction, that it had kept the delightful appearance of having been modelled by a potter's thumb. There were no sharp angles, but something rounded and uneven about its corners that no modern dwelling can possess. The whole was crowned by a broad roof of shingle, grey, with silver lights.

It had kept the delightful appearance of having been modelled by a potter's thumb.

But it is the old convents and monasteries of this country that have above all guarded treasure from out the past.

From the very first these secluded spots of beauty attracted me more than anything else; indescribable is the spell that they throw over me, almost inexplicable the delight with which they fill my soul!

As in many other countries, the Rumanian monks and nuns knew how to select the most enchanting places for their homes of peace.

I have wandered from one to another, discovering many a hidden treasure, visiting the richest and the poorest, those easy of access and those hidden away in mountain valleys, where the traveller's foot but rarely strays.

Some I was only able to reach on horseback, having climbed over hill and dale, up or down stony passes, followed by troops of white-clad peasants, mounted on shaggy, dishevelled ponies, sure-footed as mountain-goats.

Once at dusk, after a whole day's riding over the mountains, I came quite suddenly upon one of these faraway sanctuaries, whitewashed, strangely picturesque, half-hidden amongst pines and venerable beech-trees with trunks like giants turned suddenly to stone—giants that in their last agony are twisting their arms in useless despair.

On my approach the bells began ringing—their clear and strident voices proclaiming their joy to the skies.

I rode through the covered portal into the walled-in court. Before I could dismount I was surrounded by a dark swarm of nuns making humble gestures of greeting, crossing themselves, falling to their knees, and pressing their foreheads against the stones on the ground, catching hold of my hands or part of my garment, which they kissed, whilst they cried and murmured, mumbling many a prayer.

Dazed by such a welcome, I was seized under the elbow by the mother abbess, a venerable, tottering old woman, whose face was seared by age as a field is furrowed by the plough.

Half leading me, half hanging on to me for support, she conducted me towards the open church-door. From time to time she would furtively kiss my shoulder, and in a sort of lowly ecstasy press her old, old face close to mine.

All the other nuns trooped after us like a flock of black-plumed birds, their dark veils waving about in the wind, the bells still ringing in peals of delight !

Within the dim sanctuary the lighted tapers were as swarms of fire-flies in a dusk-filled forest; the nuns grouped themselves along the walls, their dark dresses becoming one with the shadow, so that alone their faces stood out, rendered almost ethereal by the wavering candle-light.

They were chanting—fain would I say that their singing was beautiful, but that were scarcely the truth! Not as in Russia, the chanting in the Rumanian churches is far from melodious—they drone through the nose long-drawn, oft-repeated chants, anything but harmonious, and which seemingly have no reason ever to come to an end.

But somehow, that evening, in the forlorn mountain convent far from the homes of men, there, in the low-domed chapel, filled with those sable-clad figures whose earnest faces were almost angelic in the mystical light, the weird sounds that rose towards the roof were not out of place. There was something old-time about them, something archaic, primitive, in keeping with the somewhat barbaric paintings and images, something that seemed to have strayed down from past ages into the busier world of to-day. . . .

More pompous were the receptions I received in the larger monasteries.

Here all the monks would file out to meet me—a procession of black-robed, long-bearded beings, austere of appearance, sombre of face.

Taking me by the arm, the Father Superior would solemnly lead me towards the gaily decorated church, whilst many little children would throw flowers before me as I passed.

Not over-severe are the monastic rules in Rumania. The convent-doors are open to all visitors; in former days they were houses of rest for travellers wandering from place to place.

Three days' hospitality did the holy walls offer to those passing that way; this was the ancient custom, and now in many places monks or nuns are allowed to let their little houses to those in need of a summer's rest. This, however, is only possible where the convents are real little villages, where more or less each recluse possesses his own small house.

There are two kinds of convents in this country: either a large building where all the monks or nuns are united beneath the same roof, or a quantity of tiny houses grouped in a large square round the central church.

The former alone are architecturally interesting, and some I have visited are exquisitely perfect in proportion and shape.

One of these convents above all others draws me towards it, for irresistible indeed is its charm.

A convent . . . white and lonely, hidden away in wooded regions greener and sweeter than any other in the land. Perfect is the form of its church, snow-white the colonnades that surround its tranquil court. A charm and a mystery envelop it, such as nowhere else have I felt. Sober are its sculptures, but an indescribable harmony makes its lines beautiful, and such a peace pervades the place that here I felt as though I had truly found the house of rest. . . .

A convent... white and lonely, hidden away in wooded regions greener and sweeter than any other in the land.

An indescribable harmony makes its lines beautiful.

Whenever I go there the nuns receive me with touching delight, half astonished that one so high should care about so simple a place. I go there often, whenever I can, for it has thrown a strange spell over me, and often again must I return to its whitewashed walls.

The building forms a quadrangle round the church, three sides of which are composed of a double colonnade, built one above the other, the upper one forming an open gallery running round the whole. Behind these colonnades are the nuns' small cells: tiny domes, little chambers, whitewashed, humble, and still. . . .

Composed of a double colonnade... Behind these colonnades are the nuns' small cells: tiny domes, little chambers.

Large is the church, noble of line, rich of sculpture, fronted by a large, covered porch supported by stone pillars richly carved. Like the interior of the building, this porch is decorated all over with frescoes, artless of conception, archaic of design, and harmonious, the colour having been toned down by the hand of time.

This porch is decorated all over with frescoes.

Within, the church is high, dim, mystical, entirely painted, with strange-faced saints, who stare at one as though astonished to be disturbed out of their lonely silence and peace.

Many a treasure lies within these walls: ancient images, crumbling tombstones, a marvellously carved altar-screen, gilt and painted with incomparable skill, all the colours faded and blended together by the master of all arts—Time.

In shadowy corners, heavily, chased lamps, hanging on chains from above, shed a mysterious light upon silver-framed icons, polished by many a pious kiss. In truth a holy sanctuary, inducing the spirit to soar above the things of this earth.

The fourth side of the quadrangle is shut in by a high wall, with a door in the centre opening upon a narrow path that leads towards a second smaller temple, as perfect in shape as the greater building of the inner court. Here the nuns are buried; an idyllic spot enclosed by crumbling walls that wild rose-bushes, covered with delicate blooms, hold together by their long thorny arms. The strangely shaped wooden crosses that mark the graves stand amidst high, waving grass and venerable apple-trees that age seems to incline tenderly towards those slumbering beneath the sod at their feet.

All round—beech forests upon low, undulating hills; as background to these, mountains—blue, hazy, unreachable, forming a barrier against the outside world. . . .

A place of beauty, a place of rest, a place of peace. . . .

Many sites of beauty rise before my eyes when I think of these hidden houses of prayer. Countless is the number I have visited in all four corners of the land, and again I turn my feet towards them whenever I can.

Hard were it to say which are the more picturesque, the convents or the monasteries; both are equally interesting, equally quaint.

I remember a small monastery, nestling beneath the sides of a frowning mountain, surrounded by pine forests, dark and mysterious. The way leading there was tortuous, stony, difficult of access, yet the place itself was a small meadow-encircled paradise of tranquillity, green and reposeful as a dream of rest.

Strange old monks inhabited it—silent recluses, buried away from the world, shadowy spectres, almost sinister in their aloofness, their eyes having taken the look of forest-dwellers who are no more accustomed to look into the eyes of men.

Strange old monks inhabited it.

Silent recluses, buried away from the world.

Noiselessly they followed me wherever I went, heads bent, but their eyes watching me from beneath shaggy brows, their hands concealed within their wide hanging sleeves; it was as though dark shadows were dogging my every step.

I turned round and looked into their obscure faces—how far-away they seemed! Who were they? What was their story? what had been their childhood, their hopes, their loves? For the most part, I think, they were but humble, ignorant beings, with no wider ideals, no far-away visions of higher things. Some were so old, so bent that they could no more raise their heads to look up at the sky above; their long, grey beards had taken on the appearance of lichens growing upon fallen trees.

Some were so old, so bent, that they could no more raise their heads to look up at the sky above.

But one there was amongst them, tall and upright, with the pale, ascetic face of a saint. I know not his name, naught of his past; but he had a noble visage, and meseemed that in his eyes I could read dreams that were not only the dreams of this earth.

Tall and upright, with the pale, ascetic face of a saint.

I cannot, alas! speak of all the convents I have seen, but one I must still mention, for indeed it is a rare little spot upon earth.

Hidden within the mouth of a cavern, lost in the wildest mountain region, there lies a tiny wee church, so small, so small that one must bend one's head to step over the threshold; it appears to be a toy, dropped there by some giant hand and forgotten. Only a tiny little wooden chapel guarded by a few hoary old monks, creatures so old and decrepit that they seem to have gathered moss like stones lying for ever in the same place. . . .

There lies a tiny wee church.

Guarded by a few hoary old monks.

Creatures so old and decrepit that they seem to have gathered moss like stones lying for ever in the same place.

No road leads to this sanctuary; one must seek one's way to it on foot or horseback, over mountain steeps and precipitous rocks. There it lies in the dark cave entry, solitary, grey, and ancient, like a hidden secret waiting to be found out.

Behind the wee church the hollow stretches, dark and tortuous, running in mysterious obscurity right into the heart of the earth. When the end is reached a gurgling of water is heard—a spring, ice-cold, bubbles there out of the earth, pure and fresh as the sources in the Garden of Eden. . . .

I have known of passionate lovers coming to be married in this church, defying the hardships of the road, defying nature's frowning barriers, so as to be bound together for life in this far-away spot where crowds cannot gather.

On the way to this church, not far from the mouth of the cave, stands a lonely little cemetery, filled with crosses of wood. Here the monks who have lived out their solitary lives are finally laid to eternal rest. Dark are those crosses, standing like spectres against the naked rock. The summer suns scorch them, the winds of autumn beat them about, and ofttimes the snows of winter fell them to the ground. But in spring-time early crocuses and delicate anemones cluster around them, gathering in fragrant bunches about their feet.

A lonely little cemetery, filled with crosses of wood.

Meseems that, in spite of its solitude, it would not be sad to be buried in such a spot. . . .