Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Happier Times

Marche-les-Dames is forever associated with the tragic death of Albert I and all the ominous consequences for the Belgian monarchy. Nonetheless, it is also the place where the roi alpiniste spent some of the happiest hours of his life. In her memoirs, the Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, a friend of the Belgian royal family, describes such a joyful outing:

I was working in the bungalow one day with the Queen when I received a telephone call from my husband, who was spending a week at Namur as the guest of the Baron Carton de Wiart, whose wife was one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. She was a violinist and extremely musical.

"You ought to come here," my husband told me. "It is divine. Why don't you ask the Queen to come with you?"

I laughed, and the Queen asked, "What is the joke?"

"Alexandre wants your majesty and me to come to Namur."

She smiled and with her light quick steps crossed the room and disappeared into the park. A few minutes later she returned, radiant, and declared, "Tomorrow morning I shall take Madame Barjansky and my violin and go to spend a day in Namur."

When I reached the palace at Laeken the next morning, there was another surprise. The King had decided to accompany us, and he was waiting in front of the palace with his blue Ford. It seems the Queen had telephoned to the baroness:

"I am going to bring Madame Barjansky and my chauffeur, and I would like to have my chauffeur join us for lunch."

"Of course, your majesty," the surprised baroness had replied.

"And I want your husband to show my chauffeur the cliffs on the Meuse River." The baroness laughed as she realised who the chauffeur was.

The King wore civilian clothes and one of the large hats made for him in Egypt. He drove extremely fast, faster than I have ever ridden before or since. As we crossed the bridge at the entrance to Namur, a detachment of soldiers was going over. They glanced at the car without recognizing the King. The Queen laughed. "Your army ignores you, my dear," she said mischievously.

The Baron Carton de Wiart owned a beautiful old castle on the bank of the Meuse, and we were very gay at luncheon. The only solemn face was that of the butler who served us.

After lunch, the King, the baron, his daughter, and a cousin of hers took a boat across the Meuse to climb the sheer chalk cliffs that bear the curious name of Marche les Dames. The Queen, the baroness, my husband, and a viola player went indoors to play quartets. It was a beautiful autumn day, and I sat down on the bank of the river with a pair of binoculars, watching the climbers on the other bank of the river. Even with these strong glasses, they were only small black silhouettes that appeared and disappeared. And I was afraid, so afraid that it amazed me to think the Queen could be playing serenely, without anxiety. Whenever any of the climbers disappeared from view my heart stopped beating.

It was all imagination, I thought. Of course there was no danger. There could not possibly be any danger. But there was danger, for six months later the King lost his life in those tragic mountains.

That afternoon we were all waiting as the mountain climbers rowed back across the river. For fun we waved a Belgian flag and sang the Brabanconne, the Belgian anthem. The baron and the girls were exhausted, tired, dirty, their clothes torn. The King was as fresh as though he were just starting. He did not even need to change his collar. Indeed, he seemed more rested than when he had started out, for mountain climbing was his favorite form of relaxation.

"Imagine!" the baron said, "He climbs a mountain the way I would walk down the street. He handled the ropes; he pulled us up; he is really amazing."

The giant King, pleased and smiling timidly, decided it was much too beautiful a day to go back to Brussels.

"We'll remain here at the castle for dinner," he decided.

At once the whole place began to stir with uneasy movement, because the King and Queen had been expected only for lunch.

It was midnight when we reached Brussels, again traveling at the same dizzy pace, and they drove me back home before going back to Laeken.

~Portraits with Backgrounds, 1947, pp. 147-149

Photograph of the Meuse in Namur, courtesy of Jean-Pol Grandmont


May said...

One extravagant rumor that swirled around after Albert's death accused Carton de Wiart, of all people, of murdering the King. Laughable.

Anonymous said...

These stories are so interesting. Can just imagine the King (the "chauffeur") getting himself invited and then making a great day for himself doing some (to him anyways) relaxing mountain climbing. And speeding to get to his destination!

And the Queen being so calm about it all.

May said...

Both Albert and Elisabeth were very brave, intrepid people. Both in wartime and in peacetime...