Queen Chiajna


IThe Tomb The Royal Church bells of the townlet of Bucharest were pealing rhythmically in a mournful voice, whilst, from the hillock in sight, the small-rounded belfry of Bucur's little church was echoing back the toll in a wailing-remote fashion.It was at the end of February of the year 1560, and, of late, the remains of Voivode Mircea, the one they nicknamed "the Swain," who had passed away on his way back from Transylvania, had been brought into the city.Maybe the boyars exiled there, whom he had attempted to lure back into the country with false promises and shrewd vows, had contrived his peril by poison; maybe God Almerciful had finally taken heed of the needs of the poor Christians oppressed by the cruel master and appointed the hour of his harsh judgement.Four times had Mircea been enthroned by force by the Porte, and only curses and hatred had he brought upon himself with his persecutions and oppressions; above all, it was the boyars that he malevolently racked and tortured, so that with pain and grief they pay for the murder of his father, Voivode Mihnea, and for the long-lasting banishment of his kin, and for their cruel jealousy. As a revenge, many of them had been felled by the swords of the Turkish cavalry and many others, driven away into Transylvania, sat awaiting their turn at the changing wheel of Vlach fortune.It was, therefore, clear, that, after the king had died, their hopes should rekindle and their covetings come to life again.But Mircea had passed away while on the royal throne, at the peak of his strength; thus on his death, all the stately pomp of a royal funeral seized the townlet with deep and troubled woe.The New Court in Bucharest, erected amidst the willows on the left bank of the river Dâmboviţa and surrounded by stout high-crested walls with narrow merlon windows, was filled by a gloomy crowd, barely kept in check by a compact file of gendarmes and bailiffs. Up in the royal manors, with ample tiled roofs stretching right round with overhanging eaves, all the high councilors of the country were gathered in pious humbleness around the decked body of the late king.The priests firstly came down the stairs and commenced the burial ceremony, with their soft customary chants; on both sides, the host of the foot soldiers, with their banners stricken and their flints pointing downwards; mourningly amidst them walked the high boyars; some were shouldering the coffin of His late Majesty, others were holding the lid, with the royal sword and scepter placed crosswise. At a close distance, with a firm and heavy pace, followed the late king's widow, Lady Chiajna, on whose ever-stern brow no-one could read the sorrows of her heart; her hair started to turn gray, but her body was tall, her demeanor unbent and stately, her eyes terrible severe and resolute; her head was haughtily lifted, showing no care or shyness. For the last time she had put on the white bridesgown, to lead thus clad her husband to his final abode, for from that day on the bewidowed was only to be clothed in mourning attire. That was a custom from the olden days.On her right two princes about 14 and 15 of age, were walking, black attires and distraught faces. Those were the now impoverished heirs of Mircea. The oldest of them, Peter, crippled and stunted in his growth, was advancing with great difficulty with the aid of a crutch; his brother, tear-stained Alexander, was escorting him; both bewept and silent, seemed to be seized by terrible thoughts.On Chiajna's left, two maids, perhaps a trifle older than their brothers, and wearing black headkerchiefs fully concealing their face, were shewing their deep grief solely by sobbing and weeping quietly.After the mourning family, the procession resumed with the members of the household, whose lamentations intermingled with the sorrowful-weakened beating of drums; then came the royal cavalry, who had scrupulously made their horses' eyes water with gunpowder, then, at last, came the city crowd, bare-headed for mourning.The procession took to the precipitous lanes of the tiny city that had just started to grow on the left bank of the little river, here with a fence of a neighborly hut or that of a guildman's or a tax-exempt peasant's home, or further off with the mansion walls of a boyar or a landowner's who had come into his own. Then the funeral train proceeded through the Great Market, where the vendor's booths and the butchers' blocks, and the stalls of Turkish, Armenian or Greek cattle tradesmen were closed for the day.The procession then returned to the King's Court, where the bells of Ghica Church were chiming. That church, erected by the Voivode Mircea the Swain himself, was to become his place of eternal rest, him, the first amongst all kings to be buried there.One by one, they entered the Holy Church; the bier was placed down next to the royal pew; the Requiem and the liturgy were performed according to the full rite; but when, in the final part, the archbishops, then the priests and diakoniki, approached the departed one to kiss his right and the cross placed therein, a handful of boyars, mostly youthful and newly arrived at the ceremony, whose horses and guns could be heard trampling and clanking outside the church during mass, boldly advanced, and, placing themselves in front of the coffin, spoke in a loud voice unto the terrified community:" Fie unto you, brethren, that you infect your lips with such profane hands! It is foul to worship the body of a man who has been a curse to his kind and the devil's instrument! Are you not weary of the countless twelvemonths this knave has clung to the throne until his death; nay, even you crawled at his feet and licked his boots and his dull claw, for you did not dare bite it? At least now, hearten yourselves! Cast off this debasing servility! You can see his eyes are faded; the arrows of his power are broken; now, at least, dare do like I, Badea the Lord Steward, and my companions. All of them are country noblemen, exiled amongst strangers by the fierce oppression of the Swain. Come and worship the Cross of Redemption that I rightfully tear from the villain's hand; come and join me, spit on his carcass and cast stones at him!."On hearing these bold words, accompanied by feats, all stood dumbfounded and vexed. Chiajna alone dashed at the haughty young men and fixed them with her glaring look:"Stand back, you rascals! she cried in a powerful voice. Is this your poorly valor, thou shameless heathen tomb-profaners? Speak! What can you, that see the grief of the land but with a weak eye, you, who run for the catch, like hounds, do other than conspire and sow the seeds of discontent, you knaves? Nay, you think that now the shepherd gone, you can prey upon the flock as you please? Ho, boys, grin and bear it! Mircea is gone, but his son is here, and Chiajna, who has mothered him, shall protect him from you.The eyes of the exiles turned to Peter Chiajna was pointed at, while she was speaking those words, but when they saw the sad and bent appearance of the youth, a smile of disdain appeared on their face and Badea the Lord Steward added smilingly:"Alas! Woe, if the poor land is going to be stunted in its growth like Prince Hunchback here! But hold your tongue, don't talk uselessly, lady, for we will not be the laughing stock of the world, that no-one should prove worthier of the throne amongst us than this deformed and dwindling dwarf!"The noblemen guffawed, as Chiajna, enraged, tore the royal scepter and sword from the lid with a heavy hand, and reached them unto her son: "If he is crippled and scrubby" she said, "behold the crutch that shall support his imperfections and the sword that shall lift his head above all your heads. I am but wasting my words on you. Attack them, children," she shouted, approaching the mercenaries; then she turned to the priests: "Holy fathers, pursue your duties."Then the clashing of arms from the attacking warriors, the uproar of the mad crowd that jostled against each other, the hymns of the priests that hastened to end the liturgy, the ringing of bells, the roaring of cannons, all these produced a confusing hubbub, a kind of chaotic combat, in which each sought to escape death. Thus, shortly, they had all stolen out of the church, which then lay empty.In the dead of the silence that followed the unfamiliar uproar, a youth with a stately and agreeable appearance emerged from a secret pew, where he had been keeping to himself, a heart filled with pious grief. A black, braided jacket with tight trousers alike with embroided arms, a short mantle on his shoulders, silver-spurred jack boots, a short broadsword round his thigh; in his hand – a plumed sable cap with precious stones: that was his apparel.He was about to leave the church when, on the freshly piled dust of the newly grave, he observed a woman covered in a long black crape headkerchief; he approached her and felt towards a delicate and cold hand, and lifted the headdress from her cheeks. For the first time ever, at the sight of a stranger, his heart felt the thrills provoked by the proximity of a beloved creature. Never before had he seen such gentle and sweet traits struggling with sorrow; never had his soul been filled with a livelier and more doubtful care for a precious and desirable life. He knelt down as if spellbound at the feet of the sweet-smelling fairy, his veins throbbing rapidly and his soul outgrowing his bosom, as if it longed to share with her the life that had multiplied within it.Bye and bye, the maid came to her senses; her blue eyes were twinkling beneath the fair eyelashes and – lo, the secret and unpredictable power of love – the young princess, who had fainted away at the sight offered by the terrible feats of the exiles, wasn't frightened at the sight of a man standing before her, who was evidently of the same cast. Still, at that moment, such equanimous generosity, such humble subduance prevailed upon his face, that her soul sensed no harm, and her lips, slightly blushed, whispered softly: "I thank thee for showing mercy upon me, in saving me from those lawless villains." Then, realizing that she was in the presence of a stranger, she stood up gently and, still with a wavering gate, walked unto the royal apartments.Radu (for that was the young man's name) stood dumbfounded; he followed the gentle virgin with his eyes until she had vanished swiftly like a specter, and pressing the headkerchief – that had remained in his hands – against his chest, he swore to surrender all of his life to the angel of that enchanting dream. From that moment he, who had fed on the milk of enmity, seeking cruel revenge, he, who, at the news of Mircea's death, had hastened along with a handful of exiles, trespassing into the homeland with a hating heart, with the victor's scorn on his lips, seeking to shed blood, instantly felt all his covetings disperse and his passions and ways in life take a dramatic turn.Radu was the son of the ex-Minister of Internal Affairs, boyar Socol, once high and mighty in the country. Old Socol had been sent by Voivode Pătraşcu as an emissary to the queen of Hungary, Isabel, on her victorious entry into Cluj (on the 22nd of October 1556). The envoy had returned with rich gifts and high ambitions. Secretly coveting the crown itself, the minister had noble Peter (Pătraşcu) poisoned. Yet, Suleiman and his army, who wanted to enthrone Mircea in his stead, drove him out of the country and forced him to take refuge in Transylvania. Upon that, Socol entrusted his fortune and family to count Francis Kendi and left for Istanbul, to seek favor with the Porte; but Mircea had outplayed him, and his grave already lain, the unfortunate suitor was, at the Sultan's command, thrown into the sea. Later, his wife and children had tried in vain to re-claim their fortune from Kendi; the Hungarian denied having received a thing and kept the treasury, the herds, and the food supplies of the Valach boyar to himself.Thus, his son had now returned to lay claim on the parental assets; he had confederated with several exile boyars, who, anxious to see their homes anew, had arrived on horseback on the precise day of the king's funeral. They had unwisely schemed to take the rule by force out of the widow's hands; but Mircea's widow was ready to brave them. Some of the adventurers were apprehended and locked away, others escaped in the bustle and prepared to attack anew with a Transylvanian host.Learning of the renewed trespass of the exiles, Chiajna, who, without much ado, had put her son Peter the Cripple on the kingly throne, was not so much distressed at the thought of the bitter boyars having risen a riff-raff in Transylvania, that she could triflingly scatter away with her army. She therefore sent the High Commander with some of his cavalry to meet them.Both parties clashed in the village Româneşti in Dâmboviţa, but the valiance of the exiles defeated the royals, and the victors rushed off to Bucharest.The entire royal family, escorted by the remaining noblemen, fled to Giurgiu, where the queen herself crossed the Danube to seek help from the bashaw of Rusciuc. Summoning then the entire indigenous manpower – redcoats, the light infantry, mercenaries, and all the trooplets of footmen – aided, on the other side, by Turkish spahi, Chiajna, fronting her army, headed back for Bucharest, therewith sowing horror with her fiery host. The exiles, on learning about that, drew back on the passage to Craiova, awaiting help from across the river Olt; but the royal host hit them in the hillside of the village Serbăneşti.A rivulet meandering under a slope was separating both camps. Lord Steward Badea, the chieftain of the exiles, was driven into straits at the foot of the hill and without any chance of escape. In the meantime, Chiajna, mounted in the manly fashion, mail-clad and bedaggered, inspected the files, heartening the Vlachs with flattering words and the Turks with rich promises, instilling everybody her harsh bravery. The soldiers, astounded and prompted by the rabid valor of that sturdy woman, roaring at them and serving them lessons of the fashion in which they ought to hit the foe, pounced upon the outnumbered exile host, crossed the rivulet in the blink of an eye and in a fierce onslaught crushed out the enemy. They perished in a valiant combat, Lord Steward Badea and many of the outcasts.In this wretched battle, the boyars sadly recalled the countless number of sturdy companions slaughtered like lambs – enslaved and killed on the day of their thoughtless act of bravery in the church; amongst these, they deemed young Radu Socol on whom they had pinned their faith, and who, at that time, was, unbeknown to the world, living recluse and privily on the bank of the Motru, amidst the ruins of a family citadel in Socoleşti, torturing his soul, torn between hatred and love. "The significance of the short story [Queen Chiajna] lies, first and foremost, in the accomplished beauty of style, artfully crafted, which includes the entire power of expression, vividness, versatility, and, to our mind, the freshness of the vernacular." N. IORGA: The History of Romanian Literature in the XIXth century, vol. III, 1909.   "The Historical Scenes constitute a distinct moment in the development of Romanticism within our literature. Typical scenarios and elements are to be abundantly found in the stories written by Odobescu. The strongly contrasting characters (the demoniacal Chiajna and the angelic Ancuţa, the noble youth Radu and the unsightly and insatiable Andronic Cantacuzen), abductions and conspiracies, nightly assaults, drawing-room ballads and serenades, the cavalcade of embraced lovers, ruins, nocturnal moonlit enchantment, romance, murder and madness. The Romantic stock is fully put into requisition by Odobescu." Tudor VIANU: Introductory Study to Works, vol. I., 1955.   "Odobescu primarily makes accounts of artistic impressions. This becomes apparent in his two historical narratives, Voivode Mihnea the Evil-Hearted and Queen Chiajna,. Here, the description of moods and tribulations is conventional, given in a key which often strikes the reader as strained and artificially romantic exaltation, as it is inconsistent with the writer's inward nature. On the contrary, when it comes to depicting places, more specifically, human dwellings in all their variety, domestic interiors, vestments, ornaments, tools, i.e. anything that constitutes an artifact or a product of art, the style becomes sober, minute, almost scientifically accurate, and the sentence instantly regains its slow and temperate flow, so characteristic of Odobescu, balanced even in his digressions. I would exemplify with the depiction of the royal manors in Bucharest, in Queen Chiajna, and with the arrival of the Greek sons-in-law of Mircea the Swain, and with the description of their clothes and adornments, in the same narrative." Al. PHILIPPIDE: The Classical Equilibrium, in Cronica, no. 9, 1972.

by Alexandru Odobescu (1834-1895)