Pilgrim Sorrow / A Cycle of Tales

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Carmen Sylva







ROUMANIA, Bulgaria, Servia, and the other new countries situated in the far East of Europe, are so apt to be associated in our minds with the tiresome and unanswered Eastern question, that we certainly give both land and people less attention than many of them deserve. And not least interesting among them all is Roumania, which during the Turkish war gained for itself the respect, and admiration of its stronger brothers and sisters; and which has, in a graceful fairy tale, been described as “the spoiled child of Europe” by the lady who sits upon its throne. Writing fanciful stories, aphorisms, novelettes, and poems is this queen’s delight, and she has, within the short time since she began to publish, acquired for herself a name among German authors. For she writes in German, which is her native tongue, and under the pseudonym of Carmen Sylva, in which she seeks some reminiscence of the forests that were her earliest and dearest friends. It was amid the green woods and the vine-clad hills of the Rhine that her young intelligence was unfolded; she was born in this much-sung region, indeed in its fairest part, and has a true German’s pride in that noble river. As a child she sat for hours upon the lap of the aged patriot-poet, E. M. Arndt, and he stimulated in her that love of her native land which was also hers by birthright, for her princely forefathers had fought and suffered in the cause of German liberation, and had never joined the Confederation of the Rhine.

Carmen Sylva, or, more properly, Queen Elizabeth of Roumania, is the only daughter of Prince Hermann of Wied Neu-Wied, a tiny principality situated between Coblenz and Andernach; and here, surrounded by a devoted, simple, and cultured family, she spent her girlhood, whose quiet, even course was only interrupted at rare intervals by visits to the Berlin court and travels with her aunt, the Grand Duchess Helena of Russia. Her parents were anxious she should be taken out of the mournful home surroundings, where Sorrow had taken up an abode she rarely quitted. Sickness and suffering among those around her had made Princess Elizabeth early acquainted with pain.

In the last number of the present cycle the reader may notice that the tone changes and becomes elegiac and subjective. Though slightly veiled, it is impossible to ignore that this is an autobiography, that the soul of the queen is laid bare before us; and a fair and noble soul it is. Indeed, those who are best acquainted with the details of her life, can best see how exactly they have been reproduced. There is, to begin with, her undaunted courage and desire to know, her love of music, in which she attained a certain proficiency under the tuition of Madame Schumann and Rubinstein, but whose execution she has had to abandon owing to weakened health, though the listening to music remains to her a source of keen delight and enthusiasm. The woods that surrounded her castle home were, as we have seen, her earliest and most intimate friends, to whom she confided all her childish griefs and aspirations, who alone were allowed to listen to the lyrics she sang and penned in secret, who told her fairy tales in the rustling of their leaves, and who comforted her sorrows. At the age of eleven (not two years, as the fable says) it was her lot to witness the nobly borne death struggles of a most gifted and lovable younger brother, whose memory has remained to her a religion, and whose life she has written for her family, illustrated with over two hundred paintings from her own pencil. For five years after the boy’s death her mother was prostrated upon a couch of sickness, while the Prince, her father, was a permanent invalid, suffering from chronic lung disease that grew yearly more hopeless. Her girlhood’s friend, too, “the fair maiden flower,” she saw fade and die. No wonder her eyes grew weak with weeping! It was then she was sent traveling to distract her. While at St. Petersburg she had a severe attack of typhus fever, and before she was convalescent she was told that during her absence her beloved father had been laid in the grave. Then she grew homesick for the old house in which she had seen so many die, and for a long time she was sad and weary of her life. “Must every thing I love be borne to the grave?” she asks in a plaintive little song, written in her diary at that time. In poetry she found her only outlet, her only consolation; but as yet she did not publish; these utterances were for herself alone, to give herself relief and voice. Then at last she was aroused to work and duty by the claims of matrimony, which for a long while she had resisted. Her desires had not been towards marriage, and she had once playfully said that the only throne that could tempt her would be that of Roumania; there she could find something for her hand to do. In 1869 Prince Charles of Hohenzollern asked her to be his bride, and share with him that newly-founded throne. And here she did find the work “mountains high,” of which Sorrow tells her; and how nobly, admirably, wisely she has attacked these labors, what she has done and does towards civilizing and educating her half-barbarian subjects, that lives in their hearts, is repeated by their tongues, and has already found echo in song and story.

There stands in the public place of Bucharest a statue representing the queen in the act of giving a draught of water to a wounded soldier. It was subscribed for by the wives of the officers of the Roumanian army, and intended as an enduring testimonial of their gratitude to her whom the popular voice names muma rantilor, that is, mother of the wounded. For what she did during the war of 1877-78 is unforgotten, unforgettable, by her subjects. She met every train of wounded that came from the battle-field, she organized hospitals and convalescent homes, she was present at operations, she comforted the dying and wept with the survivors. No wonder her people adore her, no wonder that it is greatly due to her that King Charles is a popular sovereign although he reigns over a people alien to him in blood and language. “You will have a noble mission,” he said to her on the day of their betrothal; “you must comfort tenderly when I have been too harsh, and you may petition for all.”

But even after her marriage Sorrow did not depart from Carmen Sylva’s side. She was to know the joy of being a mother; but not for many years, as she says, was this high dignity to be hers. She had to see the grave close over her child’s golden head, and no other has ever come to comfort her for this loss. Her greatest treasure, her greatest earthly happiness, and all her hopes were buried with this little girl. The sorrow that sprung thence made her truly a poet and an author. She translated and published the Roumanian nursery songs that had been beloved of her child, hoping that other children in her distant German home might love them too. She put into verse the delicate little sayings of her babe, but those have not been permitted to see the light of day; she poured into song the whole depth and agony of her grief. And after having years ago renounced all such hopes, she found that Sorrow had made her an artist, and that the world cared to listen to her speech.

Since 1878 the queen’s pen has been most productive, although indeed what she has given to the public was not all written since that date. The stones here reproduced in English dress quickly gained for her warm friends upon the Continent, many of whom asked themselves, how comes it that a woman who occupies a throne beside a beloved husband; who is young, beautiful, and courted; who surely has beheld life only from its most brilliant side, can have looked so deep into the human soul, and learnt to know so well its woes and struggles? The answer lies in the brief sketch I have above given of her life. She has drunk deep from the cup of suffering, and therefore she could write the tales of “Pilgrim Sorrow.”

H. Z.


October, 1883.



The Child of the Sun.

LIFE was a radiant maiden, the daughter of the Sun, endowed with all the charm and grace, all the power and happiness, which only such a mother could give to her child. Her hairs were sunbeams, her eyes gleaming stars. Flowers dropped from her hands, seeds sprang into life from beneath her footsteps; sweet scents and songs of birds floated around her; from her lips uncounted songs welled forth. Sounds like the gurgling of a thousand streams were heard from out her garments, and yet they were only made of flower petals and covered with tender webs, in which numberless dew-drops twinkled. Glow-worms encircled the royal brow like a diadem; birds bore her train over rough paths. When her foot touched thorns they grew green and blossomed; when she laid her soft hand upon the bare rock it became covered with moss and fern. The Sun had bestowed on her glorious child power over all things, and as companions and playfellows she had given to her Happiness and Love. In those days there was much joy and blessedness on earth, and no pen can recount, no pencil paint, how glorious it all was. It was just one eternal May day, and the august mother looked down from afar upon her daughter’s glad games, and blessed the earth upon which her child was so happy.

But deep down in the earth there lived an evil spirit called Strife. The Kobolds brought him news of all the beauty that was outside, and of the young sovereign who reigned so proudly and lovingly over the whole world, and who played so sweetly with Happiness and Love. First he was angry at the tidings, for he desired to be sole ruler of all things; but after a while a great curiosity took hold of him—and something beside, something hot and wild, he knew not himself what. Only he wanted to get outside at all costs. So he began to move a mighty rock from the center of the earth, and he cast it up on high. Then he kindled a great fire, so that all the rocks and the metals above him melted and poured their glowing, scorching streams over the paradise of earth. And in the midst of these flames Strife rose up, clothed in dazzling armor, with flowing locks and contracted brows. In his hands he held a great block of stone, and he peered around him with his piercing black eyes, seeking what he should destroy first. But of a sudden he let fall the rock, crossed his arms over his breast, and stared down upon the garden of earth, like one in a dream. He stood thus a long, long while, gazing down, silent with wonder, like to a statue. Suddenly he struck his brow with his fist.

“What! I have lived down there, among cold stones, in the darkness, and outside is such beauty! What must the sovereign be like to whom all this belongs?”

The thought brought life once more into this Titanic figure. He stepped with giant strides down into the blooming, scented world, treading through it like a storm-wind, stamping down the flowers, breaking down the trees, without knowing it. He must find the mistress of all this fair earth. He even passed across the sea, making it pile up waves tower high, and once more he climbed a lofty mountain, in his hot impatience to gain a survey. Then he saw upon a meadow-side that which he sought so ardently. Resting her foot upon cloudy, silver-feathered flower seeds, her garments gathered up around her, Life was floating by upon her journey from flower to flower, singing as she went. Upon her shoulders twittered a pair of birds; upon her finger she bore a bee, to whom she showed where the best honey lay hid. She had left Love behind her in a wood, busy building a nest, while Happiness was sleeping upon a mossy bed beside a waterfall after having played antics innumerable. Therefore Life was floating forth alone, singing a morning carol to her mother the Sun. Of a sudden she beheld something gleam and glitter in front of her, and when she raised her eyes, she saw Strife planted before her, gazing at her fixedly. His bright armor reflected her glistening tresses. Life quailed at the sight of this mighty man with the burning eyes, her foot slipped from its seed-cloud, which sped on without her. She would have fallen had she not grasped a birch branch and slid herself down by it upon a mossy rock.

“Aha!” cried Strife, “have I found you at last, you who dispute my empire, you who wield the scepter here on earth? Who are you, little maiden, who venture upon such liberties?”

These haughty words restored to Life all her pride and loftiness.

“I am the child of the Sun, and the earth is mine; it was given to me by my royal mother, and all bends before my power.”

Speaking thus she threw back her fair head proudly, so that the Sun lighted up all her face. Strife saw it and was drunk with love.

“If I overcome you so that you are mine, then you and the earth will both belong to me.”

“Try,” said Life, “I am stronger than you.”

“I am to wrestle with you, you tender flower! Well, if I do so I must put aside my armor, or I shall crush you.”

And he did so, laying his shield and armor upon the grass. Then he sprang at her to encircle her waist and to lift her into the air. But at that moment roses sprang forth from her girdle, and their thorns pricked him so sharply that he had to let her go. He tried to catch her by the hair, but this scorched him. Then he tore off his golden chain and tried to bind her hands with it. She only bowed her head; then the chain melted in his grasp. Suddenly he felt his wrists clasped by her tender fingers. He tried to shake her off, but she would not let go. He lifted her from the ground; she only floated but would not let him loose, and as often as she grew weary the Sun gave her new strength. Then he strove to draw her under the shade of the trees; but these inclined to one side that the Sun might protect her darling. A whole day did this wrestling last. At last Strife saw that the Sun inclined towards setting, and though she lingered she had to depart. Then Life lost her strength, but Strife grew doubly strong. He shook her off and rushed upon her. Soon her garments lay torn upon the sward, her hair lost its scorching might, and before dawn broke the chaste maiden knelt trembling and red with shame upon the earth, entreating forbearance and mercy with sobs and tears. At this Strife set up a laugh that made the earth quake, and the rocks re-echoed it like to pealing thunder.

Terrified, Life sank to earth in a swoon. Strife raised her high in air in his mighty arms and bore her away. Her lovely head was bent back, her hair swept the ground, her lips were half opened as though no breath were in them, the wondrous limbs that had resisted him so long hung faint and powerless, and wherever he bore her there the grass faded, the leaves decayed and fell from off the trees, and there blew a storm wind that froze the limbs of Life.

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