Familiars Of The Old Royal Court

excerpt "…sage citoyen du vaste univers."[1] La Fontaine With you I liked to live through, in the memory, my thirty years of voyages, with you, again, should you not feel bored, I shall live through, in the memory, my childhood and early youth. This will entail returning to Bucharest, for I actually come from Bucharest; I saw the light of day on the Podul-de-pămînt Turnpike, in the family household off the Viişoara. But I come from foreign stock, – here, he suddenly picked himself up and his voice was suddenly filled with a royal pride. …I am Greek, he continued, and a nobleman, a Mediterranean, too; those of my remotest ancestors I know of were, after the sixteenth hundred, water thieves, daring freemen, insatiable sea roamers, in search of their prey from Jaffa to the Balearic Islands, from Ragussa to Tripoli. It is from Zuani the red that the two branches of our kin derive, through two of his sons. Whether or not we were originally barbarians, as I have found myself assiduously persuaded by the head of the Sicilian branch, when I visited him in his palace of Catania (this branch was termed the branch of the pard, for they had added to our old escutcheon: on a shield supported by two chained unicorns, against a blue field, the silver swan taking wing with her neck pierced by a scarlet arrow – they had added, in honor of an illustriously acquired kinship, a black pard against a golden field bordered by a Turkish green frame); whether or not, again, we were Normans, who knows? It might well be so, for we had all of us retained, to the very last two of our kin, he and me, that is, the reddish hair and blue eyes, as steady marks of our stock. But one thing is sure, I come from a people of seamen, and this marks me with an only strong vanity, for, could one choose one's ancestors at one's will, as they do in the best families of noblemen today, I'd be dead set on having as my first ancestor a seaman, too; I'd love to descend from that Thamus[2] who had a secret voice coming to him over the waters one endlessly solitary evening at sea and compelling him to go and prophesy the death of the Great Pan. For the rest, I am not vain in any other respect, I do not even take pride in the blood that was shed, under the banners of the libertarian Hetairie, by my kin, those of the branch with the swan, who crossed over from Candia and the Constantinopolitan Fanar to Russia and the Romanian principalities. But if I do not take pride in my people, they should take pride in me instead. Our kin could not possibly end any more beautifully than this. Its endowment in point of generosity and enthusiasm, the self-sacrifice spirit, the natural aspiration towards whatever is great, not to mention that particular brand of "glue" that has always helped it take to a place and soar high, wherever fate cast it – all these concur in me in an exquisite harmony; this, I believe, owing to the fact that in my veins there do not contend various blood tinctures: my parents were close relatives, first cousins. Both of the same age and orphaned, they'd been raised together and so an idyll had been weaving like a net between the two of them since very early in their lives, an idyll that they saw fit to hallow by marriage, in spite of all prejudice. I was an only child. Their keen love was wholly lavished on me; they could fondly see, as if reflected in a mirror, how their twin souls had merged in myself, they would surround me with a thousand tokens of their care. Not even the milk I was fed with as a baby was foreign. Blessed be the heavens for granting me a happy infancy. Every time I set my mind on it, it appears to me as the fluttering flight of white doves in the serene air of a clear spring morning. It is the remotest memory I have. And I cherish it as a symbol. But this very spoilt child was not merry; my soul has always had that web-like touch of melancholy pertaining to sensitive natures, so sensitive that even caresses can make them suffer and even pleasure may hurt them. Oh, how well I'd known, even long before reading Lucretius, that from the very quickening of voluptuousness there stems something bitter which is hiding in the midst of the flowers' fragrance! I cannot think of too many people as little changed by life and age as I am. I shall remain the same until the hour of my death: an unrepenting dreamer, for ever drawn away by the remote and the recondite. I was very young when, forgetting all about play, I'd steal out into the garden to give my ear from behind the fence boards to the voice of a lisping woman who mumbled in a low voice, in the next yard, an air; I seem to hear it even now: "A bird in the arbor, this pleasure stream,/ I come by singing my spirit grim"…then she'd heave deep sighs. After a while, the song stopped ringing in the garden next to ours…When night was closing in, I liked to sit down in the porch with Osman, the dog, watching the stars rising. From the first years of my life, now that I have returned here, where I spent these years, and maybe also as a sign that old age is coming in, memories of this sort are aroused a thousand times livelier, sometimes becoming almost like airy visions. It has happened to me to have such a vision of myself as the child I was half a century ago, when, under these same trees, I was walking held by the hand by Mama Sia. Alongside my parents, Mama Sia has her sure place in my heart, our good Mama Sia, the well-trusted woman who saw about my parents and educated them, just as me. She was regarded as a relative, it was even whispered that she really was one: she did not even get paid for what she did; she'd sit with us at table and she called us by our names; she'd mutter and scold everyone in the household, whose real mistress she actually was; mother was not up to date with things, not in the least. Mother was a doll, the cutest doll and the sweetest. Her beauty made her be the talk of all people; you should have seen her letting loose her long, thick hair, the color of burnt honey and you should have been given the chance of looking into the deep glance of her blue eyes with black eyebrows – then you'd think you'd met one of those white Magdalenes painted in the most languid period of the decadent Italian painting school, you'd think she'd come to life and had just stepped down over the painting frame. Although I loved her idolatrously, almost, I still think I might not perhaps have loved her enough, and at this thought I feel overcome with remorse. The dying down of the air someone's singing, the withering of a flower deprived of its petals, a falling star, all remind me of her and then, her icon gets covered by the sweet gossamer woven over the absence of all those who passed away untimely, and my sweet fondness prevents me from descrying her otherwise than through the welling tears. I was fond of my father in a quite different way; the feeling for him that defined itself gradually, started from the judgment, it was based on admiration. In the young dressy master with a woman's hands, who had been taken for an Englishman in Paris, judging by his appearance and his behavior, there were eventually revealed some rarer virtues, those of a man of character. His learning and the protection of the country's regent, Alexandru Ioan [Cuza, translator's note], had brought about his immediate nomination for the Court of Appeal then, soon, his promotion to the Supreme Court. Then he'd been a lower chamber MP. The bills for the return to private ownership of the monastery lands and goods and for the granting of land to the Romanian peasants were his merit, mainly. He was the youngest, if not also the most significant of those few notable men who withdrew from political life for good in response to the overthrow of Vodă Cuza. I was quite a big boy the day when, one afternoon, two unknown noblemen [boieri] came to our place and remained locked with him in the drawing-room for more than an hour. Before they went away, father left them alone for a little while and went to my mother's chambers, then returned to see the unexpected guests off into the street and to their carriage. That night I found out that father had gone asking for mother's assent before refusing to be nominated minister. Actually, for fear of upsetting in the least the peace and quiet that reigned in our nest, father made no decision without previously asking mother's opinion, which had, of course, its own shortcomings. It was thanks to her that, though we enjoyed enough wealth, we lived much beyond our means, and the life we led was not that of men of status, as it should have been; in addition mother was terrified at even the slightest change brought to her own affairs. She had never wanted to get away from Bucharest; it was absolutely out of the question to make her visit the country, the vineyards, the fashionable resorts, and I guess these trips in the caravan to the Borsec resort or to the Zaizon had their indisputable charm. She'd even have a hard time leaving the home. So who could have foreseen that the man destined to travel around the earth several times over would spring from her stock? Poor mother, how many things ailed her! She was always cold, heat made her suffer, she would not have the sun or wind touch her face, light did her harm, she felt oppressed in the dark, she started at the tiniest noise. On seeing blood, she'd always faint. When it came to parties – and there were so many parties held in her honor – these only exhausted her. She was not keen on any lady-friends of her own age; but in our house there assembled daily a flock of other female birds: petty fastidious mistresses from the suburbs who liked visits more than anything else but who were indecorously marked by poverty; priests' wives; midwives; fine jam-makers; plain women who were extremely skilled in reading your luck in cards and coffee-grounds. It was her pleasure to dress as a peasant-woman, with sophisticated aprons and very thin raw silk headkerchiefs, to hang pearl necklaces or strings of solid gold coins around her neck, and she made it no secret that she preferred gypsy bands to Italian opera. "Anicuţa has plebeian tastes, she does," Aunt Smaranda would say about my mother. And when, on the latter's death we inherited the big houses with a chapel in their midst situated by the Cişmeaua Roşie fountain[3], it was again mother who refused our moving in there, saying that it was more charming to dwell at the Podul-de-pămînt turnpike or the Podul-de-pastramă, by its older name. And maybe she was right, for at the time, in our part of the town, between the St. Constantine and St. Elefterie Churches, from Giafer to the Great Pricopoaia, there were lush gardens, with fruit trees, lilacs and vines richly growing and covering the whole place; today, all this has been left to seed and turned into a heath. But then the chamomile and the hollyhock had invaded the yards, there were laurels, pomegranate trees and hyacinths everywhere, on the window sills there were thick-set pots of carnations, lilies-of-the valley and clematis on trellises. And across the river[4], as if posted there to buckle the horizon, the Cotroceni hill rose in the distance suffused in the splendor of its own vegetation!
[1] "… wise citizen of the vast universe" (Fr.)[2] Thamus (Thamuz or Tammus) – Babylonian divinity.[3] The name of a fount and a by-word quarter (mahala) in 19th century Bucharest, situated off the Podul Mogoşoaiei (Calea Victoriei) road, abreast of today's Nuferilor road. [4] The Dimboviţa river. (translator's note)

by Mateiu Caragiale (1885-1936)