Monday, August 4, 2014

A Talk with a Queen

In another chapter of Kings, Queens, and Pawns, Mary Roberts Rinehart brings Queen Elisabeth of Belgium to life. This is how she describes her meeting with the Queen in the royal villa at La Panne:
...The royal villa at La Panne faces the sea. It is at the end of the village and the encroaching dunes have ruined what was meant to be a small lawn. The long grass that grows out of the sand is the only vegetation about it; and outside, half-buried in the dune, is a marble seat. A sentry box or two, and sentries with carbines pacing along the sand; the constant swish of the sea wind through the dead winter grass; the half-buried garden seat- that is what the Queen of the Belgians sees as she looks from the window of her villa.

The villa itself is small and ugly. The furnishing is the furnishing of a summer seaside cottage. The windows fit badly and rattle in the gale. In the long drawing room- really a living room - in which I waited for the Queen, a heavy red curtain had been hung across the lower part of the long French windows that face the sea, to keep out the draft. With that and an open coal fire the room was fairly comfortable.

As I waited I looked about. Rather a long room this, which has seen so many momentous discussions, so much tragedy and real grief. A chaotic room, too, for in addition to its typical villa furnishing ... an ordinary pine table by a side window was littered with papers.

On a centre table were books- H. G. Wells "The War in the Air", two American books written by correspondents who had witnessed the invasion of Belgium, and several newspapers ...

The door opened and the Queen entered without ceremony. I had not seen her before. In her simple blue dress, with its white lawn collar and cuffs, she looked even more girlish than I had anticipated. Like Queen Mary of England, she has suffered from the camera. She is indeed strikingly beautiful, with lovely coloring and hair, and with very direct wide eyes, set far apart. She is small and slender, and moves quickly. She speaks beautiful English, in that softly inflected voice of the Continent which is the envy of all American women. I bowed as she entered, and she shook hands with me at once and asked me to sit down. She sat on the sofa by the fireplace. Like the Queen of England, like King Albert, her first words were of gratitude to America.

It is not my intention to record here anything but the substance of my conversation with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Much that was said was the free and unrestricted speech of two women, talking over together a situation that was tragic to them both; for Queen Elisabeth allowed me to forget, as I think she had ceased to remember, her own exalted rank, in her anxiety for her people.

A devoted churchwoman, she grieved over the treatment accorded by the invading German Army to the priests and nuns of Belgium. She referred to her own Bavarian birth, and to the confidence both King Albert and she had always felt in the friendliness of Germany.

"I am a Bavarian," she said. "I have always, from my childhood, heard this talk that Germany must grow, must get to the sea. I thought it was just talk- a pleasantry!"

She had seen many of the diaries of German soldiers, had read them in the very room where we were sitting. She went quite white over the recollection and closed her eyes.

"It is the women and children!" she said. "It is terrible! There must be killing. That is war. But not this other thing."

And later on she said, in reference to German criticism of King Albert's course during the early days of the war:

"Anyone who knows the King knows that he cannot do a wrong thing. It is impossible for him. He cannot go any way but straight."

And Queen Elisabeth was right. Anyone who knows King Albert of Belgium knows that "he cannot go any way but straight."

The conversation shifted to the wounded soldiers and to the Queen's anxiety for them. I spoke of her hospital as being a remarkable one-practically under fire, but moving as smoothly as a great American institution, thousands of miles from danger. She had looked very sad, but at the mention of the Ocean Ambulance her face brightened. She spoke of its equipment, of the difficulty in securing supplies, of the new surgery, which has saved so many limbs from amputation. They were installing new and larger sterilizers, she said.

"Things are in as good condition as can be expected now," she said. "The next problem will come when we get back into our own country. What are the people to do? So many of the towns are gone; so many farms are razed!"

The Queen spoke of Brand Whitlock and praised highly his work in Brussels. From that to the relief work was only a step. I spoke of the interest America was taking in the relief work, and of the desire of so many American women to help.

"We are grateful for anything," she said. "The army seems to be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, but the people, of course, need everything."

Inevitably the conversation turned again to the treatment of the Belgian people by the Germans, to the unnecessary and brutal murders of noncombatants, to the frightful rapine and pillage of the early months of the war. Her Majesty could not understand the scepticism of America on this point. I suggested that it was difficult to say what any army would do when it found itself in a prostrate and conquered land.

"The Belgian Army would never have behaved so," said Her Majesty. "nor the English, nor the French. Never!"

And the Queen of the Belgians is a German! True, she has suffered much. Perhaps she is embittered, but there was no bitterness in her voice that afternoon in the little villa at La Panne - only sadness and great sorrow, and, with it, deep conviction. What Queen Elisabeth of Belgium says, she believes, and who should know better? There, to that house on the sea front, in the fragment of Belgium that remains, go all the hideous details that are war. She knows them all. King Albert is not a figure-head, he is the actual fighting head of his army. The murder of Belgium has been done before his very eyes...

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