The Illustrated American - August 8, 1884

Queen Elizabeth of Roumania


THIS is not a love-story. It is an episode in the life of a poetess.

The poetess is known professionally as Carmen Sylva, and in the world as Elizabeth, Queen of Roumania. Her career brings up the question whether it would not be wise to ordain that one woman should not be allowed to follow the two professions of poetess and queen. Carmen Sylva displays great power in reading her own poetry. It is related of her that on one occasion “she read for three hours in a smooth, clear, penetrating voice, without showing the slightest fatigue.” Of course, the courtiers who have to listen to her deserve no sympathy, for they undoubtedly knew what they had to expect when they became courtiers.

This three-hours effort was a play, which was produced at the Vienna Burg Theatre. The situation in Eastern Europe is very complicated. The big rulers are obliged to be very careful not to offend the little ones, or their most cherished combinations may fail. So when the Queen of Roumania announced that she had a play that would suit the Burg Theatre, the Austrian Government sighed and told the manager that he had better bring it out. The manager was willing to do so without hearing it read; but Queen Elizabeth had heard that Sardou and other great playwrights had the custom of reading their plays to the company who were to produce them, and she was willing to condescend to follow their example. The manager was obliged to agree, and his past offences toward aspiring dramatists were terribly avenged. The ordeal was all the worse, as a tenor in search of an engagement took advantage of the gathering to sing several of the queen’s poems set to music. Then everybody had the indiscretion to praise the play so highly that the queen graciously offered to read a little one-act tragedy that she had dashed off.

The play is a sort of nightmare. It is called “ Master Manolly.” As well as can be made out, this is its plot: Manolly, a master architect, is building a great cathedral. Midway in his work he becomes embarrassed by lack of money. Moreover, every morning he finds a bit of the work done on the preceding day destroyed by undiscoverable hands. The working-men become superstitious and are led by Manolly’s enemies to believe that the cathedral is cursed. The building may be made acceptable to God, they think, only by the entombment of a living human being within its walls. In despair, Manolly one day promises the workmen to entomb alive in the cellar the first person who appears before the unfinished cathedral the next morning. This person proves to be his wife, and, with great agony, he puts her into a cell in the cellar, and makes whole the wall with his own hands. The cathedral is completed. On the day of its consecration Manolly ascends the tower to admire its beauties. His dead wife’s spirit appears to him: he throws himself from the window and is killed.

This play conveyed the first hint to the world that it was not altogether desirable that a queen should be so poetic as Elizabeth of Roumania. What is going on now shows that the possession of a poetic soul by a queen may be a source of positive danger to the land over which she reigns.

Mlle. Helen Vacaresco is the daughter of a noble Roumanian. She, like the queen, has a poetic soul, and has written poems, a volume of which was printed for private circulation. More than that, her nature is without a particle of that envy which so often prevents one person of talent from appreciating the work of others. On the contrary, her impressionable soul rejoices in the beauties of poetry, by whomever produced. While living in France, this amiable young lady made the acquaintance of Victor Hugo, and, through her power of appreciating his poetry and her reverence for his genius, became a sort of pet of the master, who, as is well known, was utterly lacking in vanity or affectation.

Queen Elizabeth is just as free from vanity as M. Hugo was. After M. Hugo died, Mlle. Vacaresco began to appreciate the poetry and reverence the genius of Carmen Sylva. Queen Elizabeth found her adorable, sent for her to return to Bucharest, and made her chief maid of honor.

Mlle. Vacaresco, while continuing to appreciate her royal mistress’s poetry, developed a new faculty, that of talking in her sleep. It is not stated that the queen had been reading poetry to her, but one day she fell asleep, and began talking just at the moment the queen happened to enter the apartment, and her talk was all about the love of Prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, Crown Prince of Roumania, which was consuming her heart in secret.

The queen found this charming. She awoke Mlle. Vacaresco, and asked if it were really true. With tears, and smiles, and blushes, Mlle. Vacaresco confessed that it was. Thereupon the queen determined that Prince Ferdinand should marry Mlle. Vacaresco. The prince is several years younger than Mlle. Vacaresco, and not particularly clever. He was easily disposed of. So was the king. The queen wrote:

In this century of prose and reality, love has again manifested its power in spite of all opposition; and it is from the land of the sun, from the land of Carmen Sylva, who sings of the heart and soul—it is from Roumania that this ray of light comes. Down yonder a young man and a young girl love each other as in the days of chivalry. It is Prince Ferdinand and Mlle. Helen Vacaresco who set before us this precious example of valiant love braving the thousand storms raised by the shadow of that crown which hovers over the head of the young prince.

But the course of true love was not destined to run smooth. The ministers of state announced that they simply wouldn't have it. The leaders of the opposition backed them up, and while the people generally were disposed to revel in romance with their queen, some disagreeable persons began to make unkind remarks about Mlle. Vacaresco’s ability to say the right thing at the right time when she was asleep. A few cynics even questioned whether she were actually asleep at the time. They, in fact, accused her of buncoing the queen, and in support of the charge cited her alleged admiration of the queen’s poetry.

The queen made a vigorous fight for the cause of true love, going so far as to throw herself on her knees before the Prime Minister in the presence of his colleagues, and imploring the consent of the administration to the match. But in vain. The prince was packed off to Germany, and Mlle. Vacaresco, finding no consolation, perchance, in Carmen Sylva’s poetry, has returned to her parents.

The opposition to the match was on the ground that it would simply replunge Roumania into the disorderly condition from which it was rescued twenty-five years ago.