Correspondence with a Queen
I can best tell the tale of Ray by switching the clock forward eight years, to a quiet corner of a New York restaurant. The year is 1936; the days of the American Sketch are long past; Ray has a respectable position in the Library of Congress; and even I have at last begun to show signs of a dawning adolescence.
We have been laughing a good deal at old memories, and indulging in fanciful speculations about the sort of magazine we should really like to produce one day. Coffee is finished; it is time to pay the bill.
Suddenly Ray says: 'By the way, there's something I would like to show you.'
He leans over the back of his chair and reaches for his attaché case. It is a pretty bulky object, but that is only to be expected from a librarian.
He undoes the straps and slowly opens the case. There is revealed a mass of letters.
'Not exactly. You can read one, if you like. You'll be the only man who's ever done so.'
Puzzled, and not a little intrigued, I choose a letter at random. The envelope bears a foreign stamp but the postmark is so black and heavy that I cannot trace its origin. The handwriting seems vaguely familiar; it is bold, free and highly individual; one would have said that the writer had used a thick quill, one would also have guessed that he—or she—had been trained to write in the German script.
I open the letter and begin to read. At once I feel in the grip of a powerful personality. The writer is a woman—and she is in deep distress. But there is more to it than that. For as I read on, I gather that she must also be a person of very exceptional status; the scenes she is describing are such as few could be privileged to witness. A phrase catches my eye: 'As I stood by the bier of the dead King . . .'
I can no longer contain my curiosity. I turn to the end of the letter.
It is signed with the single word, 'Marie'. And underneath are the words: 'I wonder if you realize how much I am trusting you?'
'Not . . . not Marie of Roumania?' He nods.
'All those letters?'
'Yes.' And then . . . 'May I have it back, please?' I hand it to him. He smoothes it out, and returns it, reverently, to the attaché case.
'One day,' he says, 'those letters will be part of history.'
And this is how it all began.
One day, towards the end of the First World War, an overworked schoolmarm was sitting in a certain obscure classroom in New York City, racking her brains trying to think of a subject for the weekly essay. 'My ideal holiday?' No, they'd done that. 'What I shall be when I grow up?' They'd done that too—and anyway, who cared?
Then she had a brain-wave. After all, there was a war on, and though the children would never be involved in it, they ought to be made to think about it occasionally. So she cleared her throat, and announced that the subject for the weekly essay would be: 'The most interesting personality of the world war.'
Whereupon, twenty-nine out of the thirty boys and girls in the class immediately dipped their pens in the inkpot and began to write about General Pershing.
But the thirtieth boy happened to be Ray, and he had other ideas, for he was an incurable romantic. You would not have thought so to look at him. He had a pleasant, open face, with big brown eyes, but he was not especially handsome. He was neither very tall nor very short, neither very dark nor very fair. His voice was gentle; his manner diffident; he was the last person whom you would pick out from a crowd.
Yet he had this queer romantic streak, and with it, an extraordinary capacity for hero-worship. If he had been born in another age he might well have been a troubador—singing softly, in the shadows, outside windows whose bars would never be lifted. And now -as he held his pen over the paper—he knew very well that there was only one person of whom he could write. He must write of the woman whose lovely face had bewitched him in the newspapers, whose stormy legend had captured his imagination. He must write of Queen Marie of Roumania.
It was a good essay, for though it was written in the language of a schoolboy, it was fired with the ardour of a man. It was so good that the schoolmarm decided that she would send it to the Queen. (To none but an American schoolmarm could such an audacious idea have occurred.) So she put it in an envelope, addressed it to 'Her Majesty the Queen, Roumania', and that—one would have thought—would have been the end of it.
But it was not the end of it. For the envelope made safe passage across the perilous waters of the Atlantic, and through the embattled lands of Europe, and eventually landed on the Queen's desk in Bucharest. She read it, and was touched. What a charming little boy! He deserved a photograph. She reached for one from the nearest pile, scribbled her signature across it, and dropped it in the 'out' tray.
Little did she realize that with that careless gesture she was beginning the most prolonged, the most intensive, and the most profoundly revealing correspondence of her life. For when Ray received that photograph, something happened to him. The little schoolboy became a man—a man, moreover, devoted to a single ideal, with one absorbing and passionate loyalty. He replied to her letter, and evidently something of his adoration must have betrayed itself, for she wrote back. Again he wrote, and again she replied; little by little this strange intimacy became more and more precious to her, until, in the end, when she felt the need of pouring out her most secret thoughts, it was not to her husband that she went, nor to her son, but to this obscure young American, sitting quietly at his desk in Washington, worshipping her in secret.
They never met; they had not even the desire to meet; theirs was a completely spiritual relationship. Years later, when I was passing through Bucharest, Queen Marie summoned me to see her; we dined alone and talked far into the night. And it was largely of Ray that we talked.
'I have never even seen a photograph of him,' she said. 'I have often wondered how he looks. No ... please do not tell me. It does not matter, anyway.' She smiled to herself, as though conjuring up a picture of him in her mind's eye.
Then she said: 'When I am dead, I have told him that if he ever comes to Europe I would like him to come to Roumania, and to go out to Balcic, where I have my palace by the Black Sea. There is a little private chapel there. And I would like him to toll the bell, just once, in memory.'
But it was not to Roumania that Ray went, when he took his next trip to Europe. It was to France, as an ordinary G.I. And now he is back again in the Library of Congress, middle-aged, scholarly—and as diffident as ever. You would not think that he, and he alone, had been chosen to keep the secrets of one of the loveliest and most spectacular women of the twentieth century.
Yes. A very American story.