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Crown Of Thorns (Prologue)

Stephane Groueff

 PROLOGUE

 

He had just taken off his dusty boots and the

wrinkled colonel's uniform and was about to

change into civilian clothes, when the aide-de-camp

knocked at the door and - announced: "Your Royal

Highness, His Majesty wants to see you in about half an

our, at the end of the audience. He will call you

before the visitor leaves." "Is the visitor already

here?" "He has just arrived. " Prince Boris had been

informed about the unusual meeting his father was to

have in the Red Salon in the other wing of the palace,

and knew how distasteful it was for King Ferdinand

to receive "that man." The crown prince, too, had no

reason to like the sworn enemy of the dynasty, but he

was far more tolerant than his father and had always

been intrigued by the crude flamboyance of this

outspoken adversary, whom he had met three years before.

Boris was very tired that afternoon of September 25,

1918, physically and morally exhausted from his trip to

the front. The heavy-heartedness he had felt for several

months was turning into a mild depression, and the

events of the past few days were only making it worse.

Alarming rumors were spreading all over Sofia and

the country. A creeping feeling of insecurity was

permeating the palace, one could detect it in

the voices, see it in everybody's eyes. Certain words

that people whispered didn't sound so abstract anymore

"abdication," "dethronement," "exile"... or worse ? The

martyrology of uncles, granduncles and other

relatives was long, and Boris, the descendant of the

Saxe-Cyborg-Gothas, the Bourbon-Paras and the Orleans,

did not have to look as far back as Louis XVI and

Marie-Antoinette. the family chronicle abounded with

tragic episodes: Emperor Maximilian of Mexico facing

the firing squad in 1867... the nihilists' bomb killing

tsar Alexander 11 in 1881... Elizabeth of Austria

killed in 1898... King Umberto of Italy murdered in

1900... Serbia's King Alexander I and his paramour Drag

assassinated in 1903... King Cargos of Portugal and the

crown prince killed in 1908, and two years later the

deposition of Mantel of Portugal... King George of

Greece in 1913... the 1914 assassination of Archduke

Francis-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, triggering World War

I... and since the beginning of thewar, the

expulsion of King Constantine of Greece in

1917... finally, only two months had passed since the

abominable crime in Ekaterinburg, the massacre on July

17, 1918, of Tsar Nicholas 11, Boris' godfather,

together with his entire family, by the Bolsheviks-the

tsarina, the four daughters, the They kill crown

princes too... but, strangely enough, during those

gloomy September days Prince Boris was not overly

worried about his personal security. A fatalist, he had

learned to accept tragedies and dangers as "les risques

du metier." Violent death was one of these risks.

Boris was seventeen years old when the Russian prime

minister Peter Stolypin was assassinated before his

eyes. He could still see the glittering theater house in

Kiev; the royal box with the emperor, the grand dukes

and the grand duchesses; the splendor of

uniforms, decorations and jewels; then the sound of two

gunshots . . . Young Boris was visiting his

godfather, Tsar Nicholas 11, on his first official trip

outside Bulgaria. The occasion was the inauguration in

Kiev of the monument of tsar Alexander II, the...

wearing the grand collier of the

decoration of Saint-Andre that the Russian emperor had

just bestowed on him. In the small foyer of the royal

box, he was engaged in polite conversation with

the members of the imperial family with whom he had

spent the previous day at the military maneuvers outside

of Kiev and at the lavish garden party that had

followed. Then suddenly a young man in a black dress

coat rushed toward Stolypin, who was seated in the first

row of the pit, pulled out a Browning and shot twice,

almost pointblank- Boris remembered the echo of the

two shots in the crowded theater house, the screams, the

uproar, the blood reddening the white plastron of the

prime minister. It was the first time he had seen blood

run profusely from a dying man. What should be the right

behavior in such circumstances for a prince on an

official occasion? Boris looked around. In the emperor's

box, hands were trembling and tears rolled down

ashen faces. But,as the victim was carried out and the

assassin seized, they were all the tsar, the grand

dukes and the grand duchesses standing in attention,

erect and solemn. as the audience and actors burst into

"God Save the Tsar." Stolypin died. Death had been so

close, only a few yards away. "Nous I'avons tous echappe

belle!"'We were lucky to escape," Boris wrote later that

evening in the coded telegram in which he described' the

event to his father. Now in 1918, seven Septembers

later, as the war was turning into disaster, the

twenty-four year old crown prince had no fear of death.

Since Stolypin's murder, he had seen, touched, and

smelled blood in battlefields and military hospitals

hundreds of times. The war only reinforced his

fatalistic convictions. What he worried about was

the probability of his family being forced to leave

Bulgaria. What happens to a crown prince in such a case?

Normally, he becomes the next king, of course. But did

he want to become king? Having such doubts is very

painful. But not everybody is born to be king. Not

everybody is like King Ferdinand-so happy and eager to

rule, delighted with his destiny and sure of himself, a

true born monarch. Was Boris meant to be monarch? At

times, his own father seemed to have doubts. Boris's

insufficiently "regal" posture, his lack could lose

patience with his modesty and his overly

democratic ways. She thought that he was the brightest

in the family, but sometimes she wished that he were

more assertive and acted with more authority and

majesty. His father's fate was going to be decided very

soon, this week maybe, or even this day, and none of

the rumors that circulated in Sofia were reassuring.

If Ferdinand were forced into exile?... Boris's first

impulse would probably be to renounce all rights to the

crown and leave with the rest of the family. What a

relief that would be! But, in fact, the never

considered this option seriously. The notions of duty,

the responsibilities which had been nurtured in him had

become irremediably his second nature from which there

was no possible escape. Moral codes impressed in infancy

on malleable souls become an inseparable part of the

character, to the point where trying to imagine a person

without it is as futile as visualizing an ugly Venus or

a poor Croesus. A crown prince from his kind of lineage

who would abandon his obligations to country and throne?

Unthinkable! To betray what he was taught was his

predestination and sacred mission? All the ideas about

duty that he had ever heard-from his father,

from Granny Clementine, and every teacher and military

instructor he had had-coincided and were in total

accord. He had never known any other values. Every book

he had read and word he had heard reinforced these

values, and each one of the solemn portraits of his

ancestors hanging on the palace walls reminded him daily

of them. If there were other values, they certainly did

not apply to honorable men. It was not necessarily a

particular merit, nor a question of great moral

fortitude; Boris simply did not know any

alternative. Could a dishonored samurai no matter how

afraid of dying, not commit harakiri? Could a young man

who is a real man not run with the bulls in the

streets of Pamplona? Could Prince Boris abandon the

sinking ship? Apart from duty leaving Bulgaria was

unthinkable for him for another, very personal reason.

The young prince was incurably enamored to the country

in which had been born and raised. When Bulgarians talk

about their attachment to their land, the talk may sound

exaggerated and overly emotional to a foreigner. Yes, of

course they love it, but who doesn't love his homeland?

For the Bulgarians, however, the attachment has a

different meaning. The feeling has such intensity that

it can only be compared to the state of being in

love, an obsessive, romantic, exhilarating,

possessive feeling, a source of pride and jealousy,

of continuous inspiration and reassurance. It comes

partly from the physical beauty of the land.

True, Bulgarians are rather chauvinistic and absolutely

convinced that their country is the most beautiful in

the world. But, quite objectively, there is no foreigner

who wouldn't agree that its mountains remind him of the

Swiss Alps, that the lush valleys and the unspoiled

golden Black Sea beaches have no rival on the Riviera.

But there is something else, something intangible and

yet unmistakably and unforgettably Bulgarian, that

inspires a unique fascination with the country. No

man knew Bulgaria better than Prince Boris, a hunter,

hiker, and motorist, but even he would have been hard

put to define the mysterious attraction of this land.

Maybe it was the air, an incredibly fresh and

invigorating air that one never forgets, and one never

finds elsewhere. Maybe it is the colors, or the way the

sun shines and the wind blows. Poets and romantics speak

of the brooks and the wild flowers, of the fragrance of

"zdravetz," the exclusively Bulgarian wild geranium that

covers acres of meadows and woodland. They speak of the

hundred-mile-long Valley of Roses, another

unique phenomenon, or of the smell of freshly cut hay.

They insist that they would recognize the sound of

native cowbell out of thousands in foreign pastures. The

skies in Bulgaria have a different color, they like to

say, the water tastes different. They describe the crow

of roosters at sunrise in the villages and become

nostalgic over the sound of dogs barking

somewhere far away in the darkness of the night, as

if roosters and dogs are different in other countries It

is, doubtless, a biased and romantic outlook. But

who knows Bulgarians may be, objectively speaking,

right. Maybe it is a special country or in any case, a

different one. Less sentimental words - latitude and

longitude, soil, climate, altitudes, oxygen of the air,

chemistry of the water. Be this as it may, the

undeniable attraction of nature of Bulgaria is there,

and countless men, far tougher and less sensitive to

Prince Boris, have succumbed to it. King Ferdinand,

the calculating and scornful westerner, lost his heart

to it only a few years after his arrival. For the crown

prince, nature was the passion of his young life,

probably the only real one, the place where he looked

for peace, warmth, and reassurance. He was also

attached to the Bulgarian people and felt closer and

more comfortable with them than with his foreign

relatives and friends In fact in this period of his

life, he tended, somewhat naively, to idealize the

so-called "simple people," attributing to them some

marvelous purity and nobility of the soul, which is not

uncommon with young men who have grown up in seclusive

privilege, especially those deprived of family intimacy

and affection, as had been the case with Boris. No,

there was no chance of Boris abandoning Bulgaria.

Anyhow, things were still not at that point, the

question had not been raised. But fall is conducive to

this kind of meditation, and the frail prince

with the purebred face and the extraordinary gray-blue

eyes was a natural worrier. In Bulgaria, September is

the time when the first signs of sadness appear in the

air. At the beginning, it is still very subtle, just

ephemeral warnings of things coming to an end, momentary

twinges drowned immediately in the summer

brightness before they have a chance to take shape. It

could be a whiff of longer today than it was yesterday;

or a different cloud over Mount Vitosha or a nostalgic

sound in the cathedral's carillon when the solemn bells

ring for the evening Mass. For an instant, one

realizes that summer is over, the hot, radiant

Bulgarian summer. Soon the skies will change color, and

their grayness will descend over the red-tiled roofs of

villages and towns. The streets' pavements will shine

sadly in the rain, and mud will reclaim the harvested

fields. It will be a different land, sadder, shabbier,

and darker, as if the lights had dimmed over the set of

a cheerful stage, and gloomy music had interrupted a

happy festival.

Bulgarians do not always dislike this sadness. Although

less than other Slavs and notably less than the

Russians (who never pass up an occasion to enjoy a good

sob, preferably in company), Bulgarians often

indulge in melancholy. In fact, sadness is at the

root of their esthetic life. Most Bulgarian art -

music, poetry, painting-reflects a fascination with

the beauty of sadness. While gaiety, humor, and

joie-de-vivre in Bulgaria are earthy, lively and

sensual, romance, dreaming, and meditation have

invariably a touch of melancholy about them. September

is, nevertheless, usually a delightful month, the month

of the pastel colors, the season of ripened vineyards

and lush autumn flowers, the time when red-cheeked

children flock happily back to school. Before getting

ready for the winter sleep, the country basks in the

mild September sunshine and seems to indulge in a last

voluptuous stretch. Not this year. The year of the

collapse, the end of all dreams and and hope. Bulgaria,

the kind of Bulgaria Boris had known, was about to die.

"Your Royal Highness, His Majesty is expecting you.

Mr. Stambolisky is about to leave." There was a

special way army officers, and for that matter many

Bulgarians who considered themselves true

patriots, pronounced the name "Stambolisky." If

intonation could kill, the notorious peasant tribune

would have been a dead man a long time since.


Last modified: September 22, 1997

p-miltenoff@nwu.edu