of the Forest
The Queen tells her story of her life to all English-speaking children.
I HAVE very often been asked how I came to take the name of Carmen Sylva as my nom de plume, and now I will tell you, dear children, all about it. For children always want to know much more than grown-up people, and are never tired of asking. But if the grown-up people only knew one-half as much as the little ones think, there would not be so many new discoveries and inventions every year.
When I was small no one knew much about Electricity, and there were no telegrams at all. Then all the news was brought by messengers on horseback. All at once in the middle of the night one would hear the posthorn sounding—first quite in the distance, then gradually drawing nearer—and the estafette, as he was called, in his uniform, with high yellow hat, would pull up before the house; and there was great excitement, especially if he were the bearer of a letter from the King. For those letters might not be kept waiting; they had to be carried on night and day until they reached their destination.
There were hardly any lucifer matches when I was a little girl. I remember still, how in my grandmother's house there was a little machine, dipped in some liquid, on which one pressed to make a flame. And in the nursery we had neither wax nor composite candles—those were only for the drawing room. We, however, had tallow candles, which constantly required trimming with the snuffers, and it was a great amusement to try to snuff the wick without extinguishing the light.
There were so few railways at that time that I have travelled almost all over Germany with horses. I had a little tiny chair fastened high up in the window of my parents' travelling-carriage, so that I could look out all the time, and then I would stretch my little curly head out of the window and call to the postilion: "Postboy! blow your horn!" And then he put the horn to his lips and blew a lovely tune. When the horses were tired we stopped in any strange place, and changed horses and postilion, and the new postilion always had a new tune he could play.
When my mother was a child the first steamer was seen on the Rhine, and those who had not yet seen it refused to believe it, and said mockingly,—"There will be steamers going on land next!" They thought the idea too absurd, not knowing how soon there would be railways everywhere.
By this one may see that the big people do not know so much as the little ones think. But they, too, are always learning. We learn much from the animals. Without them many things would not have occurred to us. Think of the medicinal plants and herbs we have learned to know from their example. Just watch a dog or a cat when it feels a little out of sorts, how carefully it seeks its remedy among the grasses in the meadows.
I passed my childhood in the forest—the loveliest beech-forest—trees far higher than our castle, and growing so close up to it their shadow fell right across the threshold. From my window I so often imitated the cry of the cuckoo or the wood-pigeons that they would fly quite near, and call louder and louder, growing quite angry at the strange bird.
Sometimes in an autumn evening we went after dusk with a dark-lantern into the woods to a most beautiful spot—from which in the day-time there was the loveliest view—to hear the stag bay. It is a most impressive sound—a sort of deep, long-drawn out roar, broken by fitful starts—as it is taken up by one fierce magnificent creature after the other, and they answer one another defiantly from all the hill-sides round, till the whole forest rings with the challenge. We did not speak, we hardly dared to breathe, and the lantern, too, had to be muffled, so that the moonbeams falling aslant the boughs and bushes alone lighted up the scene. It was almost uncanny to hear the mighty voices echoing through the night, and if they came too near I sometimes crept a little closer to my father's side, and clutched at his hand in the darkness, lest a stag should bear down upon me. One must not make the slightest sound, because the stags have such quick hearing they would notice it in the midst of their own tremendous baying, and then they would stop at once or go much further off.
In autumn, too, both hoot-owls and screech-owls were to be heard close round the castle at night, and often when a little owl screeched, my mother has come running into the nursery, thinking it was one of us children crying.
And on the moonlight nights in winter the hares would come up to the very door and sit up on their hind-legs in the snow and play together.
The squirrels, too, were on the best of terms with us all. They came quite near because they were so inquisitive. Once one of them, holding a nut between its sharp little teeth, ran right up against my father, and when it saw itself reflected in his boot it was very much surprised, and stopped for a long time to contemplate itself in the polished leather. But at last my father made a little movement, and it turned tail and fled at full speed.
Birds I had by hundreds at my windows, for I fed them through the whole winter. For that reason I could never bear to have a caged bird. Had I not the whole wood full of birds if I wanted any? They came boldly into my room or tapped on the window-pane outside with their little beaks, to remind me of my duty if they found nothing to eat. And the twittering, and the fluttering, and the singing, and the piping! How pretty it all was! Many of them I knew quite well. I could tell which were the more impertinent and which the more timid of all the blackbirds, thrushes, linnets, robins, tomtits, and finches, and whatever the rest of them might be called. How they pushed one another in their haste to peck the crumbs! I gave them bread-and-butter, too, and nuts, and almonds. Ah, it was a pretty sight! The window is still there at which I fed them, and the same wild vine still twines around it, although it is thirty years I have been away.
Now you can imagine how much the forest told me, especially on my solitary walks. The storm-wind was a special friend of mine. When it made the oaks and beeches sway and groan, sawing the branches asunder till they came crashing clown; then I would tie my little hood over my brown hair—it was not white in those days—and with my two big St. Bernard dogs by my side I would race through the forest, avoiding all the beaten tracks, and listen to its voices. For the forest told me stories all the time. The forest sang the songs to me which I wrote down afterwards at home, but which I never showed to any one. It was our secret, the wood's and mine. We kept it to ourselves. No one else should know the songs we sang together, we two, for no one else would understand them as we did. But the songs poured from my pen, and if my thoughts do but go back to the woods again they come like a far-off greeting from my childhood's days.
How often have I flung my arms round a tree to embrace it, and kissed the rough bark! for if my fellow-creatures thought me too wild and impetuous, the forest never did. The trees never complained that my young arms hugged them too violently, or that I was too noisy when I sang my songs at the top of my voice, for I could never think my songs to myself unsung. I sang them over and over again hundreds of times, and always to new melodies.
Flowers I scarcely ever gathered; I am much too fond of them, and should have been afraid of hurting them. And then the flowers also talked to me: foxgloves that were almost as tall as I, and shepherd's staff—royal taper it is called in Germany—that grew to twice my height, with its broad velvety leaves and rich dead-gold blossoms, campanulæ of all sizes—every sort of flower, great and small, down to the tiny little blood-red pimpernel. I still know the exact spot where the finest specimens of each kind grew.
With my two St. Bernard dogs I would race through the forest.
Then there were ponds in the middle of the wood, that looked as if they were little pieces cut out of the sky and fitted into the ground there.
The dead leaves had a special music of their own, as they crackled beneath my tread, and with the tip of my toe I made them fly whirling and eddying up into the air. How glorious that was! No royal mantle ever rustled in such fashion: but then this was the mantle of his Majesty the Forest!
Within the forest the ground itself has a peculiar tone, it almost echoes back, when one treads firmly, as if it were hollow underneath. This made me wonder to myself what might not be living down there. And I lay down in the moss to watch the ants and other little insects at their work. It seemed to me as if they all knew me. Never have I been stung by a wasp or a bee. Even in the very worst summers for wasps, when in lunching out-of-doors our table was covered with them, and every one else was stung, they never hurt me. The blind-worms, too, were great friends of mine. If one talks to them in a low voice, they lift their heads and look at one so intelligently with their bright little golden eyes. And the lovely glow-worms! How often, in the season when they abound, on our way home through the forest in the evening, after some longer excursion, have I picked up several of these starlike little creatures, and placed them in my hair! They flashed and sparkled round my head in the days when I possessed no other diadem; and never has one made of diamonds pleased me so well as that formed by these living jewels, which I always carefully replaced in the grass before they lost their brilliancy. For if one keeps them too long the light grows dim, the little lamp no longer burns. I think it is that they are sad at being carried so far away, for their lamp is no thing but a love-signal which they light to let their true lover know where his little lady - love is to be found. And then we thoughtless beings carry them off, and the poor true lover waits and waits in vain for the signal, and the little lady-love pines away. And there again one sees how much cleverer such little creatures are than any of us. It took men centuries and centuries to find out such a light as this, and then they call it electricity. These little insects found it out by love, and give it no name at all.
I have lovely woods also here in Roumania, but fir-trees are mixed with the other trees, and there are no lofty spacious beech avenues like the aisles of a Gothic cathedral as in my woods beside the Rhine. And quite a different set of wild animals—bears, lynxes, chamois, eagles and moor-fowl—inhabit these forests. It is almost another world here, but very beautiful nevertheless.
I was once laughed at for saying in one of my stories, that in May the leaves of the beech are so shining the blue sky is reflected in them. They are covered then with a delicate silvery bloom, and if one wants to paint them one must put on a coating of gum-lac to obtain the same brilliant effect. Often and often have I observed how the sky was mirrored in the young beech-leaves.
Then again what enthusiasm was mine at seeing the splendours of the autumn foliage reflected in the Wiedbach, making the whole stream run liquid gold! Gold overhead, gold underfoot, gold everywhere—but not the gold that calls forth human greed. This gold seemed to have a pink reflection, a roseate haze, so that the atmosphere of the yellow beech wood was actually rose-coloured. And how delicious it all smelt! That is regal splendour, before which all the splendours of a court—rich dresses, blaze of jewels and of lights—turn pale and fade. I could never take much pleasure in pomp and parade, for human pomp always seemed to me so unutterably poor and insignificant beside the glories of God's own halls of state, raised on the pillars of the stately trees, whose ever-changing colours adorn them continually anew!
I must not forget the spiders' webs. I do not suppose many of you have been as often as I have been in the woods at sunrise, to see the spiders' webs hung with dew. If you have not seen that, then you have never seen any real chains of diamonds! No ball room ever held half so lovely a sight as a spider's web full of dew-drops sparkling in the sunlight! Every delicate little thread, however fine, is spangled with diamonds, that take all the colours of the prism, as they catch the first rays of the morning sun.
Instead of ropes of pearls I had the whole ground at my feet smothered in lilies-of-the-valley. Oh! what an exquisite scent they gave! For rubies there were the young leaves of the copper-beech, glowing red as the sun shone through them. And as for emeralds, why, the whole forest was full of them! No, I have never been able to take pleasure in precious stones, because they are always the same, so cold and lifeless. Flowers are much, much more beautiful. And when I saw the copper-beech turn almost black as though it draped itself in mourning garments because the spring was over, and then when it grew green again, just when all the other trees were changing to red and green and yellow—ah! that was worth living for!
The linden-tree was one of my great favourites, and it told me its story one day, because I begged so to hear it.
It was at first only quite an ordinary tree; it had no perfume, its leaves were nothing remarkable and nobody took the slightest notice of it. So it begged that God would take pity on it and endow it with some special gift like all the rest, some having lovelier blossoms—others stronger fragrance, some leaves that rustled melodiously, others denser shade, while still others gave refuge to great swarms of bees or birds. Thus the linden tree put up her prayer, telling her wrongs, and God listening compassionately, saw her complaint was justified, and made answer: "Tis true My hand has been perchance more sparing in its gifts towards thee than towards thy sister trees, but I will compensate thee now. Thou shalt henceforth be fragrant, and have leaves such as no other tree can boast of, and they shall rustle to thy heart's content, and all thy branches shall be full of bees and birds, and all thou couldst wish for shall be granted thee, because thou hast borne thy homeliness uncomplainingly so many, many years!"
And in that self-same night the angels came. They came in hosts, all round the linden-tree. First they took the leaves and pulled at them. Each angel took a separate leaf and pulled it hard, fluttering his wings, just as the birds pull when they want to tear a piece of wool out from a hedge, or a hair from off my head, to make a nice soft bed for their children in the nest! They tug, and tug, and flutter their wings and make the most terrible exertions. Just in the same way did the little angels flutter and strive and strain, until they had drawn the leaves out to thrice their former size. Then they took their paint-brushes and paints—their little jars of colour were slung round their waists, and for brushes they had pulled a few feathers from the birds' tails, and they set to work to silver the inside of the broad leaves, so that it might never be gloomy in the linden-shade. The effect was splendid—on the one side the soft, warm green, and underneath the delicate silver, that showed itself with the quivering of the leaf at the least breath of wind. And as the colours the angels use are good and lasting, and will stand the rain and the roughest weather, they remain on the leaves till this day. After this other angels came and stroked the boughs caressingly, and at their touch little blossoms began to sprout everywhere; little buds that made no great show enveloped in their long green sheaths; but when they opened, such an exquisite perfume came out it filled the whole wood, and all the other trees looked at one another and asked; "What is it smells so good? We have never smelt anything like it before! Not even the wood-strawberries, nor the wild thyme, smell half so sweet."
In that self-same night the angels came.
It was the clustering blossoms of the silver-linden scenting the air. Now when the birds saw the wide- spreading shade, so cool and inviting, they came flying in great numbers to nestle in it, and sang their sweetest songs. Then the bees in their turn perceived that there was something quite peculiarly fragrant about this tree, and they came by thousands, and sipped and sipped, and drew the sweetest honey from the blossoms. And whenever the sound of village church-bells streamed up from the valley, the tone was caught and held fast within the leafy dome, forming the key-note to the trill of the birds and the humming of the bees. The squirrels, too, were always leaping from branch to branch, and from bough to bough, so that there was one perpetual round of mirth and song and dancing in that hospitable shade.
In autumn the linden-leaves turn such a bright yellow; it is as if they had drunk in the sunbeams to make the birds believe it is still warm. With all this the linden-tree became the richest tree in all the world. And as it lives to a very great age—a linden-tree is often many hundreds of years old it is the great friend of all the country-side. Here is where the village-folk meet to rest and chat, and smoke their pipes. Here is where games are played, and songs sung, and counsel held, and sentence passed. The village linden-tree is held by all the peasantry in high. esteem, since it knows and takes part in all their concerns, both sad and joyous. Its blossoms furnish them with the best and most valuable honey, and its thick luxuriant foliage yields the surest protection from the rain—not a drop can penetrate that close roof of leaves. I have had somewhat the same experience as the linden-tree. As a child I always thought I was not so good as the others, and not so well loved, because I was less lovable. And how I prayed that I might be come better and more worthy of being loved, and that God would also grant me the power in some way or other to set forth His praises, because my heart was always overflowing with thankfulness to see the world so beautiful and to feel myself so full of youthful strength! And there in secret, unknown to everyone, He planted in my breast the power of song. But at first I did not rightly understand how glorious a gift God had given to me. I did not value it at all I fancied everyone could do just the same if they only cared to try. And when I grew older and saw that it was really a gift bestowed upon me from on High—then I became still more afraid to speak of it, lest I should be thought vain and boastful. I did not dare to learn the rules of my art, nor to correct mistakes that I had made—I felt as if that were scarcely honest and sincere. When I married, I had already written a large volume of poems, and had tried my hand as well at the Drama and at prose writing—my first story at eleven years of age, and my first play at fourteen. But I knew quite well that it was all very poor stuff! Not till I was five-and-thirty did I let anything be printed, and that was only because so many people took the pains to copy verses from my scrap-book that I wanted to spare them the trouble, and simplify matters. After a time I began to search for a name under which I could hide myself, so that nobody might ever suspect who I really was. One morning I said to the doctor: —" I want a very pretty poetic name to publish under, and now that I am in Roumania and belong to a Latin people, it must be a Latin name. Yet it must have something in it to recall the land I came from. How do you say ' forest' in Latin? "
"The forest is called Silva—or, as some write it, Sylva."
"That is charming! And what do you call a bird?"
"I do not like that, it is not pretty. What is the word for a short poem or song?" "In Latin that is Carmen."
I clapped my hands together. "I have my name! In German I am Waldgesang, the Song of the Woods, and in Latin that is Carmen Sylvæ. But Sylvæ does not sound like a real name; so we must take a trifling liberty with it, and I will be called Carmen Sylva."
Since then I resemble the linden-tree more and more. Many songsters come and take shelter under my branches, and sing beneath my roof, and the bees are countless who work in my house, for it is no home for idlers; work is going on there from early morn till evening, my bees are always flying in and out. But I myself begin work earlier than any of them, for, winter and summer, I am up before the sun, and at work. Winter and summer the hand that writes the stories never rests, winter and summer my busy fingers ply the shuttle that builds the groundwork of my altar lace, or guides my brushes, painting Church books with flowers and ornament. Then my dearly-loved flowers are brought in to be my models, and I talk to them, and tell them how beautiful they are, whilst I am painting them upon the parchment leaves. That pleases them, and they watch with great curiosity to see if the portrait is going to be a good likeness. But some flowers are so dreadfully lazy, they want to go to bed at five o'clock, and will not get up before ten. I have tried every means to rouse the fiery little alpine flower, the hawkweed, somewhat earlier, but all in vain; the obstinate little blossoms remained tightly shut, and I had to await their small ladyships' pleasure till the sun was already high in the heavens! Others, such as the sword-lilies, open so quickly I could hardly make sufficient haste to paint them, for in an hour's time they change, and look quite different.
What pleasure the young beeches have often given me! Once, as I was walking through the woods in May-time, I found the whole ground thickly covered with tiny beech seedlings. There they were, crowded together, with their two broad-folded leaves, and with the little red stalk that has made a way for itself through the dead leaves to reach the earth, and on the top of each the little triangular beech-nut was perched like a small three-cornered hat. Some wore their hats quite straight, some cocked on one side, some seemed quite firmly fixed, others as if a puff of wind would blow them away. I was so enchanted, I pulled up several carefully by the roots and painted a whole page full of them before they had time to throw off their jaunty little hats. Close beside them some baby firs had shot up too, with their first tiny little five fingers folding themselves together into a cap with plumes, and I painted them on the same page; so there they stand—little three-cornered hats and plumed caps, side by side—in my illuminated Gospel-book; and whenever I look at them I fancy that they talk to me, and tell me stories once more. For the whole time while I was painting them they told me stories, each one prettier than the last, of wood and wold, of meadows and of bumble-bees. One day, as I was painting some roses on a black marble slab, ten bumble-bees came in at the window and plunged into the roses, and one of them was polite enough to fly to a painted rose as if it thought honey were to be had there also. It noticed, however, very quickly, that it smelt of turpentine and oils, and it could not carry its politeness quite so far as to pretend to revel in the horrid smell. I painted it into the calyx of a lily, and have thus preserved the portrait of the polite bee that pretended to be deceived by my roses, and to think that they also contained honey.
Yes! If my painted flowers contained honey, that would certainly be very nice; but should be asking rather too much if I wished for that. We all know, by the story o "Puttche Puttche, in de See," what happen! to those who raise their pretensions quite sc high! So I will content myself with tha which God has given me, and as man; singers and as many bees as possible shall rejoice with me and share in my work. That is our honey, the work we know how to per form. Birds can make no honey, nor ant build nests, nor bees spin fine webs. Each one must accomplish that for which he wm born, and praise God in his own fashion, For it is not alone the poets and singers who can do this—everything one does must be tc the praise and glory of God, and in thankfulness to Him alone one can do it.
Woodsong, Carmen Sylva, is my name—the name under which I hid myself so long. And if to-day I come forth from that shelter that was like the broad leaves of the silver linden spread over me, it is because so many dear children have asked it of me, and because I have white hair now, and would so gladly be a grandmother, if only God had granted me that blessing. I must e'en be all children's grandmother, and never refuse them anything they ask. The Woodsong is indeed for all children, if they will only listen to it; and it will gladden them all alike, whether they be rich or poor, well cared for or in want, whether they go barefoot or wear boots lined with costly fur. The Woodsong loves all alike that come to her, and pours out her whole soul for their delight. And her white hair is like the silver lining of the linden leaves; it gives a bright sheen to thoughts which would otherwise be too grave, and she desires that within her shadow it may always be light.
What is it then to be a queen if it is not like the silver linden-tree, to cast a protecting shadow over the world's sweetest song-birds, to offer shelter and refuge to all those whose finely wrought workmanship vies with the spider's skill, to be the providence of the industrious lest they perish in the winter? If all this be done, then indeed may life's autumn be as sunny as that golden foliage which seems to have retained the whole summer's warmth and light, and to radiate it forth again.
But it is harder for poor Carmen Sylva than for any other silver linden; for God had once given her the loveliest song of all, and then He took it away from her again, because He wanted it in His own heaven. That song was her only child. A little girl, whose name was Marie, but who called herself Itty when she was so small that she could not yet say "little," and so the name Itty clung to her. She glided about like a little fairy, as if she had had wings the whole of her short life long—she said the sweetest things—she would throw herself on the earth and kiss the sunbeams, she loved the trees and the flowers, and the water; she danced along the steepest mountain paths as if there were no danger, no precipice below. And if ever I was sad, she sprang up behind me in the big armchair and turned my face round to her and looked in my eyes to ask, "Are you not happy, mamma?"
But God called her back to heaven because the little angel was missing there which He had lent for a short while to earth, and it seemed to the poor linden-tree as if it stood there desolate, and as if there were no voice to be heard in its branches, and no honey to be found in its blossoms, and as if the sky had suddenly darkened overhead, and the sun gave no warmth.
But years afterwards all at once a soft low murmur penetrated the sorrowing tree and stirred it to the very core; and then the sky grew bright again, and the birds sang once more, and the dried blossoms filled with honey. For it was the voice of song and story—the nearest approach this world can offer for the voice of Itty, consoling and gladdening the heart by giving comfort and joy to others.