Operation "Eleonora"

by Anton Hykisch

"She’s not pretty. Not one bit."

"Forgive me, Your Highness. You may be mistaken. Princess Eleonora is very pretty. She has a striking profile."

"She’s older than me."

"One year. But nobody would think so."

"That spinster look. Haughty. Why’s she looking down her nose?" Ferdinand said, examining the photo of Eleonora von Reuss.

"She has beautiful expressive eyes, Your Highness. And that look? A born tsarina."

"She’s too tall for me."

"That’s the tall hairstyle. The princess has beautiful thick black hair. Like women from the south. You’d never know she wasn’t Bulgarian."

"A Protestant to boot. A Lutheran. Haven’t we already had enough trouble with my Catholicism and Boris’s Orthodox faith, damn it?!"

"That can all be sorted out. We’ll find experts in church law."

"Roman canon law, perhaps. Protestant – who knows? But Orthodox?"

"The Orthodox synod is just round the corner from here. Your Highness. Let’s be optimistic."

Ferdinand waved his hand in irritation.

"The exarch hates me."

"No one can expect you to marry… you to receive an offer from some Orthodox princess from Serbia or Russia. The only offer you have received is from someone very close to the Russian tsar. The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna…"

"You’re right, dear H. The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna kept her word and got hold of this Eleonora von Reuss-Köstritz, her friend apparently. For heaven’s sake, a forty-eight-year-old woman. Would you marry a woman getting on for fifty?"

Anton H. Jr. did not reply. He glanced at the increasingly plump figure of his boss. And that bald patch! What did he expect?

"Princess Eleonora has a regal bearing. You can see from her eyes that she’ll be devoted to you."

"I know what that means. When at long last someone takes notice of a spinster, it’s hardly surprising she’s devoted."

"According to our information, so far she’s dedicated her whole life to charity. Dedication to social work is something protocol requires of the wife of a Bulgarian ruler."

Ferdinand shook his head.

"Are you sure there’s nothing to worry about? I’m being led to the slaughter."

"The announcement of Your Highness’s engagement to Princess Eleonora von Reuss-Köstritz has already spread like wildfire in the European press. It’s a good decision, sir."

"That’s what my new personal secretary, Monsieur de Chévremont claims, too. And Frenchmen know what they’re talking about when it comes to women, don’t they?"

"Princess Eleonora is Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’s best friend. It’s unlikely she would recommend you someone unworthy and unsuitable, Your Highness."

"Dear Toni, don’t let’s be naïve! Who wouldn’t want to put their friend on what promises to be the Bulgarian throne?" Ferdinand replied, stroking his beard. His sensual nature was reluctant to give in. "But why am I getting worked up? After all, what I’m looking for is a woman who suits the protocol. And most important of all, a mother for my four children."

"Quite right, Your Highness. The rest is just a question of diplomatic effort. Your political skill, experience of life and personal charm guarantee that this…" he paused, searching for the right expression, "…project will be successful."

Ferdinand laughed heartily.

"Well done, boy! Project! More like a military operation! …Long live Operation Eleonora! If it turns out to be a success, you’ll not go without a medal, Toni!"

"Congratulations, Your Highness," exclaimed the courier of the secret cabinet, Anton H. Jr., jumping up as the prince entered his office.

"Do they appreciate the fact that I’ve appointed pro-Russian Alexander Malinov as prime minister and have re-opened the university in Sofia?"

"Those were brilliant measures. The Bulgarians have never supported you more than now. But I’ve got more good news for you. From the Vatican."

"The Pope has agreed to my marriage?"

"Yes. The Holy See has agreed to your getting married in a Catholic church. Your excommunication has been temporarily suspended."

Ferdinand clapped his hands. "Excellent. We’ve been able to take advantage of that gap in canon law."

"The Holy See has acknowledged that a church wedding is essential in this case and therefore, under canon law, justifies a temporary suspension of Your Highness’s excommunication during the ceremony. After the marriage has taken place Your Highness will once more be excluded from church rites. Unfortunately."

"I see. I’ve got used to not being allowed to take the sacraments. Ehm… At least that allows me greater freedom… And what about the second wedding ceremony in the Protestant church?"

"The Holy See insists that the Protestant wedding can only take place after you are officially married in a Catholic church. And during the Protestant ceremony Your Highness must maintain a purely passive stance."

"Of course. I understand that. Excellent!"

"But who knows whether the Protestant minister will understand?"

"That will depend on your skill, my friend."

By the end of the twentieth century European supplies of usable blue blood for new thrones were limited, but they were still to be found in the tiny princedoms within the German empire. These were towns and villages covering an area of no more than a district. Ferdinand looked into the delighted eyes of the old man in the palace in Gera, who was giving him his none-too-young daughter to be his second wife.

"I was among the candidates for the Great National Assembly in Tarnovo, when they were looking for a prince for Bulgaria. Immediately after the Berlin congress."

Ferdinand considered this to be a tactless remark. Prince von Reuss did not mention that thirty years ago he had been an unsuccessful candidate, the winner then being Sandro, Alexander of Battenberg a protégée of the Russian tsar and Queen Victoria.

"That was many years ago. Bulgaria has changed since then."

"I know," smiled the old man. "Thanks to you. I’m very glad," he said, once more squeezing Ferdinand’s hand in his bony fingers. Ferdinand shivered. He didn’t like shaking hands with strangers without his gloves on.

The old man, officially Henry XIV, by the grace of God ruler of the Younger Line, Prince Reuss, Count and Lord of Plauen, Lord of Greiz, Kranichfeld, Gera, Schleiz and Lobenstein, etc., etc., then ushered widower Ferdinand into the salon.

The exuberant, raven-black hair of Princess Eleonora stood out against the scarlet-red curtains in the salon. Damn it, in the dim light she didn’t look that bad. Tall, with slow movements, as if she wanted to emphasise the exuberance not taken advantage of (was it really so?) over long years of spinsterhood.

They sat down at a little Chinese table (I should get a Chinese salon for Sofia or at least for the manor house in St. Anton). The maid quietly brought in tea and served it in cups of almost transparent porcelain. The slim maidens on the porcelain had witnessed Eleonora’s youth.

They sipped English tea and in response to a sudden decision, he reached out his hand to Eleonora. She did not withdraw hers, but responded with a gentle smile. Ferdinand’s ouroboros on his left hand seemed to come to life in its own muzzle, it tingled. Then Ferdinand lightly passed on to the history of the Reuss princedom, pointed out the vital role of the little German princedoms in maintaining the noble spirit of aristocratic and royalist Europe. As if just by the way, he mentioned the princess’ special hair style, which (this hairstyle) he considered very elegant, but not too flamboyant, and suitable for wearing – if God so wished – a queen’s – or, in accordance with Bulgarian tradition – a tsarina’s crown. We’ll have it made here by Saxon goldsmiths. Then he took out of his pocket-book a photograph of his four children, Boris and Cyril in student’s uniforms (not military ones!), Nadezhda and Eudoxia in delightful white skirts. He watched Eleonora’s face. It seemed to light up in a way that could not be ascribed to the reflection of the silver candlesticks or the snow-white porcelain. Would she make a good mother? He observed her large eyes. At least those eyes, full of sympathy, those eyes at least spoke in her favour.

The hand resting in his moved slightly.

"I want to be a good mother to your children. They’re lovely."

He gently let go of the woman’s hand and touched the back of it with his fingers. She glanced up at him briefly, but her gaze immediately returned to the photograph lying between the cups.

"Everyone without a mother suffers," she said quietly. Ferdinand remembered his Clem; pity he couldn’t confer with her, he didn’t yet dare to have a spiritualist séance. "Everyone needs a mother. I saw that with the soldiers."


"I nursed dozens of them. Hundreds, maybe."

"Soldiers? Where, for… for God’s sake?"

"At the front, of course. A long way from here."

"Ah, yes. I heard about that. You visited the soldiers during the Russian-Japanese war."

She smiled and reached out for his hand.

"I didn’t visit them. I was on the staff of the Red Cross train in Manchuria. I was with a group of girls and ladies who nursed dozens of wounded Russians every day. Poor boys. When they were dying, they often called for their mothers. Do you see? They had the name of God on their lips all the time, but they called for their mothers at the moment of death. Forgive me."

Ferdinand felt the womanly fingers on his and a kind of shudder ran through his body.

"You say, Princess, that every day you nursed, bandaged, cleaned…"

"Of course, dear Prince, with these hands I cleaned wounds, washed away blood. If you’d heard those terrible screams…"

"Blood? You, a princess… you can stand the sight of blood?"

She burst into a strangely quiet laugh, her powerful body hardly shaking.

"How else could I be a hospital nurse? You have to make a bit of an effort to suppress your reactions, but it’s possible."

Ferdinand’s mouth twitched, he could not suppress the grimace on his face, he covered his mouth with his left hand, swallowed hard and an expression of panic appeared in his eyes.

"Are you all right, Your Highness?" She jumped up, her powerful body bending over him. His nose was almost in her décolletage.

"No, no! It’s nothing."

I need a towel, a handkerchief, a napkin, anything! He kept his left hand over his mouth. With his right hand he tried to pull his silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket. He looked very uncomfortable, as if he was choking.

Suddenly he got up, muttered, "Excuse me, please!" and, head down, ran out of the room.

On the Chinese table lay an abandoned hand and behind it, Eleonora, looking as if she had been turned to stone.

The wedding first took place in Coburg, according to Roman Catholic ritual and in the presence of European royalty. Immediately afterwards the whole company journeyed to Gera, the capital of the Reuss princedom, where the wedding ceremony was to take place before the Protestant minister.

"You must understand, Sir! Prince Ferdinand can’t say yes in this church."

"Then he can’t be married."

"He has already been married. In Coburg."

"Then why do you want a ceremony in a Protestant church? On account of the noble bride, I suppose?"

"We must find a compromise."

"This is not the marketplace, this is a Lutheran Church of the Augsburg confession, sir. Both the bride and bridegroom must answer my question separately. The prescribed question is: Ferdinand, do you wish to take this… And likewise: Eleonora, do you wish to take this…."

"Prince Ferdinand can’t answer a question put like that. The canon of the Catholic Church does not allow him to do so. We must find another solution. Not a compromise."

Ferdinand’s entourage argued with the minister for hours, but he remained obdurate. In the end all those present, tired of waiting for good food, liqueurs, wine and champagne, desserts and tiered wedding cakes, agreed on a compromise.

Smartly dressed Ferdinand and radiantly white Eleonora stood side by side in the Lutheran Church. The minister’s voice spoke out:

"Do you, noble Ferdinand and Eleonora, wish to become man and wife, here before God?"

In answer to this joint question, Eleonora replied in a quiet voice: "I do."

Ferdinand’s answer somehow could not be heard. Perhaps those at the back were hard of hearing.

The organ blared out Bach.

Operation Eleonora was a success. Ferdinand was satisfied. Eleonora clearly felt she was making a sacrifice. She thought she was used to making sacrifices.

On their way back from Germany the princely couple stopped in Bucharest at the invitation of King Carol I and his original Queen Carmen Sylvia, the well-known poetess.

When the royal butler showed the married couple into an elegant bedroom, with a double bed the size of a town square in the middle, the Bulgarian guest almost had a fit.

"I want," Ferdinand, dressed in uniform with a sword buckled to his waist, managed to utter, "our highnesses to be accommodated separately, in two apartments. Do you understand me, sir?"

Eleonora stood in the background, pale as death. Half an hour later, Ferdinand personally escorted her to her apartment. He symbolically touched her white forehead with his lips. He avoided her hands.

"Good night, dear. Sleep well."

With a light step he strode to the other end of the corridor to his private apartment.

Eleonora guessed that her life full of sacrifices would not change in the years to come. She would be lonely until she stopped founding hospitals and nursing the last wounded soldier in future, as yet unforeseen wars at the beginning of this insane century. This time not in the Far East, but in Europe, in the Balkans.

(Extract from novel: Anton Hykisch, Remember the Tsar)

Translation: Heather Trebatická)