Chapter IX. The Road To Constantinople

Rumania and Bulgaria

The express left Budapest in the evening, all night and all next day rolled eastward across the Hungarian plain, and toward dusk climbed up through the cool Carpathian pines and over the pass into Rumania.

Vienna and the waltzes they still were playing there, Berlin and its iron exaltation, slow-rumbling London - all the West and the war as we had thought of it for months was, so to speak, on the other side of the earth. We were on the edge of the East now, rolling down into the Balkans, into that tangle of races and revenges out of which the first spark of the war was flung.

Since coffee that morning the lonely train had offered nothing more nourishing than the endless Hungarian wheat-fields, with their rows of peasants, men and women, working comfortably together, and rows of ploughs creeping with almost incredible leisure behind black water-buffalo cattle; but as we rolled down into Predeal through the rain, there, at last, in the dim station lamps, glittered the brass letters and brown paint of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits - and something to eat.

The cars of this beneficent institution - survivors of a Europe that once seemed divided between tourists and hotel-keepers - outdash the most dashing war correspondents, insinuate themselves wherever civilians are found at all, and once aboard you carry your oasis with you as you do in a Pullman through our own alkali and sage-brush. The steward (his culture is intensive, though it may not extend beyond the telegraph- poles, and includes the words for food in every dialect between Ostend and the Golden Horn) had just brought soup and a bottle of thin Hungarian claret, when the other three chairs at my table were taken by a Rumanian family returning from a holiday in Budapest - an urbane gentleman of middle age, a shy little daughter, and a dark-eyed wife, glittering with diamonds, who looked a little like Nazimova.

"Monsieur is a stranger?" said the Rumanian presently, speaking in French as Rumanians are likely to do, and we began to talk war. I asked - a question the papers had been asking for weeks - if Rumania would be drawn into it.

"Within ten days we shall be in," he said.

"And on which side?"

"Oh!" he smiled, "against Austria, of course!"

That was in April. When I came through Rumania three months later soldiers were training everywhere in the hot fields; Bucarest was full of officers, the papers and cafes still buzzing with war talk. Rumania was still going in, but since the recapture of Lemberg and the Russian retreat the time was not so sure - not, it seemed, "until after the harvest" at any rate.

I asked the Rumanian what he thought about Italy. "Italy began as a coquette. She will end" - he made the gesture of counting money into his hand - "she will end as a cocotte." He waved a forefinger in front of his face.

"Elle n'est plus vierge!" he said.

The wife demurred. Italy was poor and little, she must needs coquette. After all, il faut vivre - one must live.

Something was said of America and the feeling there, and the wife announced that she would like of all things to see America, but - she did not wish to go there with her husband. I suggested that she come with me - an endeavor to rise to the Rumanian mood which was received with tolerant urbanity by her husband, and by the lady who looked like Nazimova with very cheering expressions of assent.

"When you return from Constantinople," she flashed back as they left the table, "don't forget!"

These were the first Rumanians I had met. They were amiable, they spoke French - it almost seemed as if they had heard the tales that are usually told of their little capital, and were trying to play the appropriate introduction to Bucarest.

Here it is, this little nation, only a trifle larger than the State of Pennsylvania, a half-Latin island in an ocean of Magyars and Slavs. On the north is Russia, on the south the grave and stubborn Bulgars (Slav at any rate in speech), on the west Hungary, and here, between the Carpathians and the Black Sea, this Frenchified remnant of the empire of ancient Rome. Their speech when it is not French is full of Latin echoes, and a Rumanian, however mixed his blood, is as fond of thinking himself a lineal and literal descendant of the Roman colonists as a New Englander is of ancestors in the Mayflower. At the Alhambra in Bucarest next evening, after the cosmopolite artistes had done then-perfunctory turns and returned to their street clothes and the audience, to begin the more serious business of the evening, the movie man in the gallery threw on the screen - no, not some military hero nor the beautiful Queen whose photograph you will remember, but the head of the Roman Emperor Trajan! And the listless crowd, drowsing cynically in its tobacco smoke, broke into obedient applause, just as they would at home at the sight of the flag or a picture of the President.

Bucarest, like all the capitals of Spanish America, is another "little Paris," but the Rumanians, possibly because unhampered by sombre Spanish tradition or perhaps any traditions at all, succeed more completely in borrowing the vices and escaping the virtues of the great capital they are supposed to imitate. It would be more to the point to call Bucarest a little Buenos Aires. There is much the same showiness; a similar curious mixture of crudeness and luxury. But Buenos Aires is one of the world's great cities, and always just beyond the asphalt you can somehow feel the pampa and its endless cattle and wheat. The Rumanian capital is a town of some three hundred thousand people in a country you could lose in the Argentine, and there is nothing, comparatively speaking, to offset its light-mindedness, to suggest realities behind all this life of patisserie.