WORKS OF MAURUS JOKAI
THE DAY OF WRATH
Translated from the Hungarian
R. NISBET BAIN
NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1900, BY McCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO.
CHAPTER PAGE I. THE BIRD OF ILL-OMEN 11 II. THE HEADSMAN'S FAMILY 18 III. A CHILDISH MALEFACTOR 44 IV. A DIVINE VISITATION 56 V. THE UNBELOVED SON 62 VI. TWO FAMOUS PAEDAGOGUES 71 VII. A MAN OF IRON 93 VIII. THE POLISH WOMAN 121 IX. THE PLAGUE 175 X. A LEADER OF THE PEOPLE 189 XI. THE FIRST SPARK 210 XII. IN THE MIDST OF THE FIRE 236 XIII. THE LEATHER-BELL 25O XIV. THE SENTENCE OF DEATH 264 XV. OIL UPON THE WATERS 277 XVI. 'TIS WELL THAT THE NIGHT IS BLACK 291 XVII. THE VOICE OF THE LORD 326 XVIII. THE READY-DUG GRAVES 336
"Szomoru Napok" was written in the darkest days of Maurus Jokai's life, and reflects the depression of a naturally generous and sanguine nature bowed down, for a time, beneath an almost unendurable load of unmerited misfortune. The story was written shortly after the collapse of the Magyar Revolution of 1848-49, when Hungary lay crushed and bleeding under the heel of triumphant Austria and her Russian ally; when, deprived of all her ancient political rights and liberties, she had been handed over to the domination of the stranger, and saw her best and noblest sons either voluntary exiles, or suspected rebels under police surveillance. Jokai also was in the category of the proscribed. He had played a conspicuous part in the Revolution; he had served his country with both pen and sword; and, now that the bloody struggle was over, and the last Honved army had surrendered to the Russians, Jokai, disillusioned and broken-hearted, was left to piece together again as best he might, the shattered fragments of a ruined career.
No wonder, then, if to the author of "Szomoru Napok," the whole world seemed out of joint. The book itself is, primarily, a tale of suffering, crime, and punishment; but it is also a bitter satire on the crying abuses and anomalies due to the semi-feudal condition of things which had prevailed in Hungary for centuries, the reformation and correction of which had been the chief mission of the Liberal Party in Hungary to which Jokai belonged. The brutal ignorance of the common people, the criminal neglect of the gentry which made such ignorance possible, the imbecility of mere mob-rule, and the mischievousness of demagogic pedantry—these are the objects of the author's satiric lash.
As literature, despite the occasional crudities and extravagances of a too exuberant genius that has yet to learn self-restraint, "Szomoru Napok" stands very high. It is animated by a fine, contagious indignation, and its vividly terrible episodes, which appal while they fascinate the reader, seem to be written in characters of blood and fire. The descriptions of the plague-stricken land and the conflagration of the headsman's house must be numbered among the finest passages that have ever flowed from Jokai's pen. But the mild, idyllic strain, so characteristic of Jokai, who is nothing if not romantic, runs through the sombre and lurid tableau like a bright silver thread, and the denouement, in which all enmities are reconciled, all evil-doers are punished, and Gentleness and Heroism receive their retributive crowns, is a singularly happy one.
Moreover, in "Szomoru Napok" will be found some of Jokai's most original characters, notably, the ludicrous, if infinitely mischievous, political crotcheteer, "Numa Pompilius;" the drunken cantor, Michael Korde, whose grotesque adventure in the dog-kennel is a true Fantasiestueck a la Callot; the infra-human Mekipiros; the half-crazy Leather-bell; and that fine, soldierly type, General Vertessy.
R. NISBET BAIN.
THE DAY OF WRATH.
THE BIRD OF ILL-OMEN.
Whoever has traversed the long single street of Hetfalu will have noticed three houses whose exterior plainly shows that nobody dwells in them.
The first of these three houses is outside the village on a great green hill, round which the herds of the village peacefully crop the pasture. Only now and then does one or other of these quiet beasts start back when it suddenly comes upon a white skeleton, or a bleached bullock-horn, in the thickest patches of the high grass. The house itself has no roof, and the soot with which years of heavy rains have bedaubed the walls, points to the fact that once upon a time the place was burnt out. Now, dry white stalks of straw wave upon the mouldering balustrades.
The iron supports have been taken out of the windows, on the threshold thorns and thistles grow luxuriantly. There is no trace of a path—perhaps there never was one.
The land surrounding this house is full of all sorts of fragrant flowers.
The second house stands in the centre of the village, and was the castle of the lord of the manor. It is a dismal wilderness of a place. A stone wall, long since fallen to pieces, separated it at one time from the road. Now only a few fragments of this wall still stand upright, and the wild jasmine creeps all over it, casting down into the road its poisonous dark red cherries. The door lolls against its pillars, it looks as if it had once upon a time been torn from its hinges and then left to take care of itself. The house itself, indeed, is intact, only the windows have been taken out and the empty spaces bricked in. Every door, too, has been walled up, boards have been nailed over the ventilators in the floor, the white stone staircase leading up to the hall has been broken off and propped up against the wall, and the same fate has befallen a red marble bench on the ground floor.
Here and there the cement has fallen away from the front of the house, and layers of red bricks peep through the gap. In other places large heaps of white stone are piled up in front of the building. In the rear of it, which used to look out upon a garden, it is plain that a good many of the windows have also been built in, and, to obliterate all trace of them, the whole wall has been whitewashed. All round about many fruit-trees seem to have been rooted up, and for three years running, the caterpillar-host has fallen upon the remnant; nobody looks after them, and they are left to perish one by one, consumed by yellow mould.
The third house is a little shanty at the far end of the village, shoved away behind a large ugly granary, with its little yard full of reeds, in the midst of which is a crooked, dilapidated pump. The panes of glass in the lead-encased frames have been frosted over, the marl of the thatched chimney is crumbling away, and the whole of the roof is of a beautiful green, like velvet, due to the luxuriantly spreading moss.
It is thirty years since these three houses were inhabited.
In the little hut, on the reed-thatched roof of which the screech-owl now lays its eggs, dwelt thirty years ago, a crazy old woman, they called her Magdolna. She must have been for a long time out of her wits; some said she had been born so, others maintained that the roof had fallen right upon her head and injured her brain; others again affirmed that the marriage of her only daughter with the hangman was the cause of her mental aberration. There were some who even remembered the time when this woman was rich and respected, and then suddenly she had become a beggar, and subsequently a crazy beggar. Be that as it may, in those days this old woman exercised a peculiar influence over the superstitious peasantry.
A sort of awe-inspiring exaltation seemed to take possession of this creature whenever she stood at the threshold of her hut, within the walls of which she usually remained in a brown study insensible to her surroundings for days together.
When, at such times of exaltation, she stepped forth into the street, all the dogs in the village would fall a howling as they are wont to do when the headsman goes his rounds. All who met her timidly shrunk aside, for, not infrequently, she would foretell the hours of their death, and cases were known in which her prophesies had come true. She could tell at a single glance which of the young unmarried women did honour to their partas and which did not. She could read in the faces of the children the names of their parents, and she often gave them names very different from the names they bore. The maids and young married women of the village therefore, not unnaturally, trembled before her.
[Footnote 1: Parta—head-dress of the young peasant maids.]
She recognised the stolen horse in front of the cart, and shouted to the farmer who drove it: "You stole that, and it will be stolen back again!"
At other times she would sit in the church-door, lay her crutch across the threshold, and wait to see who would dare to step across it. Woe then to whomsoever had transgressed any of the commandments! All through the summer the ague would plague him, his oxen would die, the tares would choke his corn, his limbs would be racked with pleurisy, or he would be nearly mauled to death in the village tavern.
Often she sat for hours at home, among her thorns and thistles, sobbing and moaning, and at such times the common folks believed that the whole district would be visited by a hailstorm. Sometimes she roamed about for weeks, nobody knew where, nobody knew why, and during all that time the hosts of grasshoppers, wood-lice, spiders, caterpillars, and other Heaven-sent plagues, multiplied terribly throughout the land; but the moment the old woman returned they all disappeared again in a day without leaving a trace behind them.
At one time they fancied she was at the point of death.
She lay outside her hut close to the well and drank incessantly of its water. At last she collapsed altogether, she could not even lift her hands. The passers-by perceived that she was parched with thirst, was wrestling with death, and yet could not die. If they had but given her a drink of cold water, she would immediately have been freed from the torments of life, but nobody durst approach to give her to drink. On that same day the lightning thrice struck the village, and such a deluge of rain descended that the water flooded the roads and invaded the houses.
The next day there was nothing at all the matter with the old woman, but she went about bowed down, shaking and leaning heavily on her crutch as at other times.
When the spring of 1831 was passing away, all sorts of terrible premonitory signs warned the people of the frightful visitation which was about to befall humanity. Nature herself made the people anxious and uncomfortable. There were showers of falling stars, it rained blood in various places, death-headed moths flew about in the evenings, wolves, tame and fawning like dogs, appeared in the village and let themselves be beaten to death before the thresholds of the houses.
What was going to happen?—nobody could tell.
Everyone augured, feared, felt that mourning and woe were close at hand; yes, everyone.
The trees made haste to put forth their blossoms, they made even greater haste to produce their ripened fruit. All nature knew not what to do, man least of all.
In those days when a single good word spoken in season, a single lucid idea might have meant the saving of many lives, the sole prophet in the whole country-side was this crazy old woman, who, in the dolorous exaltation of her deranged mind, sometimes blindly blurted out things on which the future was to impress the seal of truth. But, for the most part, her multitudinous, ambiguous utterances might be interpreted this way or that, according to the liking of her hearers, and obscured rather than revealed the future.
When the summer came, with its terribly hot days, the woman's madness seemed to culminate in downright frenzy, for whole nights together she went shrieking through the village. The dogs crept forth from under the gates to meet her, and she sat down beside them, put her arms round their heads, and they would howl together in hideous unison. Then she would go into the houses weeping and moaning, and would ask for a glass of water, and would moisten her hands and her eyes therewith. In some of the houses she would simply say: "Why don't you smoke the room out, there's a vile odour of death in it;" in other places she would ask for a Prayer Book, and would fold down the page at the Office of Prayers for the Dead. Or she would send messages to the other world through people who were on their legs hale and hearty, and would tell them not to forget these messages.
"Get a cross made for you!" was her most usual greeting. And woe betide the family into whose windows she cried: "Get two crosses made! Get three made! One for yourself, one for your wife, one for each of your sons and each of your daughters!"
The people lived in desperate expectation; they would have run away had they known whither to run.
And what then were the wise and learned doing all this time, they who knew right well that a mortal danger was approaching; for they had read of its ravages, they had looked upon the very face of it in pictures, they knew the pace at which it was travelling day by day—what did they do to soothe the anguish of the people, and inspire them with confidence in the tender mercies of God?
All they did was to have a cemetery ready dug for those who were to die in heaps in the course of the year.
THE HEADSMAN'S FAMILY.
The house of the headsman is surrounded by a stone wall, its door is studded with huge nails, acacia trees rustle in front of it. Its windows are hidden by a high fence. On its roof from time to time something flap-flaps like a black flag; it is a raven which has chosen the roof of that house as a refuge. No other animal likes the hangman. The dogs bay at him, the oxen run bellowing out of his way, only the ravens acknowledge him as their host. They are his own birds.
It is late in the evening, the sun has long since set, it may be about nine or ten o'clock, and yet the sky is unusually bright. Everywhere a strange reflected glare torments the eye of man. Not a cloud is visible; there is not a star in the heavens, yet a persistent, murky yellowness embraces the whole sky like a shining mist, as if the night, instead of putting on her usual cinder-grey garment, had clothed herself in flame-coloured weeds. Any sounds that may be audible seem as if they come from an immeasurable distance, and are hollow and awe-inspiring.
Close to the horizon the pointed steeples of Hetfalu are visible, their black outlines stand out in sharp contrast against the burning sky.
The whole district is empty and deserted. At other times, in the summer evenings, one would have seen tired yet boisterous groups of peasants returning home from working in the fields and hastening back to their respective villages. The voice of the vesper bell would everywhere have been resounding, the sweetly-sad songs of the good-humoured peasant girls would have soothed the ear, mingled with the jingle of the bells of the homeing kine, and the joyous barking of the dogs bounding on in front of their masters. Now everything is dumb. The fields for the most part lie fallow and overgrown by weeds and thistles, never seen before. In other places the green wheat crop, choked by tares, has already been mown down. Means of communication have everywhere been interrupted by the sanitary cordons. The high road is covered with broad patches of grass on both sides. Men hold handkerchiefs to their mouths and noses, and do not trust themselves to breathe. The tongues of the bells have everywhere been removed. At the end of every village stands a good-sized four-cornered piece of ground surrounded by a ditch, and within it, here and there, graves have been dug well beforehand.
Throughout this lonely wilderness the furious barking of a watch-dog suddenly resounds, to which all the dogs in the distant village instantly begin to respond. Two men are fumbling at the latch of the headsman's door, and the chained dog within the courtyard, scenting a stranger, gives him a hostile greeting.
"Who is there?" inquires from within an unpleasant, hoarsely screeching voice, the owner whereof at the same time soothing the big dog which, snarling fiercely, thrusts his nose between the door and the lintel, and snaps from time to time through the opening.
"Open the door, Mekipiros, and don't bawl!" answers one of the new arrivals, impatiently beating with his fists upon the door. "There's no necessity for closing the door either, for who is likely to come? Even if you left it wide open, nobody would stray in, I'll be bound, save your pal, Old Nick, and here he is."
At this well-known voice the wolf-hound ceased to bark, and when the door was opened leaped joyously upon the neck of the new-comer, whining and sniffing.
"Send this filthy sea-bear to the deuce, Mekipiros, can't you? It's licking my very nose off."
The person so addressed was a curious sport of nature. It was a square-set creature dressed completely in women's clothes. Its features were those of a semi-bestial type. It had an immense round head covered with short, tangled, unkempt hair, a large broad mouth, a stumpy, wide-spreading nose, a projecting forehead furrowed with deep wrinkles, thick bushy eyebrows, and one half of the horny-skinned face was covered by immature furry whiskers. And this masculine creature wore women's clothes! On perceiving the new-comer, it seized the yelping dog, big as a calf though it was, by the chain with a bony hand and hurled it backwards, grinning and grunting all the time without any apparent cause.
"Come! go in and don't stand staring aimlessly about," said the new-comer turning to his comrade, who was standing in melancholy amazement on the threshold, wrapped up in a large mantle, with a broad-brimmed hat on his head.
The dog accompanied the guests as far as the door of his kennel, sniffing all the time at the heels of the stranger, whilst the gabbling Mekipiros tugged away at its chain. A hideous moustache had been painted on the monster's lip either with blood or red chalk, and he tried to call attention to it with extreme self-satisfaction.
"Is the master at home, or the missus, eh! Mekipiros?" inquired the first-comer.
"The master is singing and the mistress is dancing," replied the half-man with a bestial chuckle.
"Tell them that we have arrived, come! off you go, and look sharp about it," and with that he gave a kick accompanied by a vigorous buffet to the monster, who regarded him for a time with a broad grin, as if expecting a repetition of the dose, and then plunged clumsily through the kitchen door bellowing with mirth. Meanwhile the two men remained outside in the courtyard.
One of them was a tall fair youth clad from head to foot in a greasy leather costume. He had round washed-out features, a callous sort of apathy played around his lips, and a cold indifference to suffering was visible in his red-rimmed green eyes. What struck one most about him was the furtive, prying expression of his face; he was evidently a spy by nature, although he attempted to conceal his real character beneath a mask of stupidity and absent-mindedness. But he pricked up his ears at every word spoken in his presence. He reminded one of a snake which, when captured, stiffens itself out and pretends to be dead, and will let itself be broken in pieces before it will move.
The other youth was a pale-faced man, plainly a prey to the most overwhelming depression. The ends of his little black moustache straggled uncared for about the corners of his mouth, his hat was pressed right down over his eyes. You could see at a glance that his mind and his body were wandering miles apart from each other.
There they stood, then, in the courtyard of the headsman's house. The appearance of this courtyard formed an overwhelming contrast with the idea one generally pictures to one's self of such a place. A pretty green lawn covered the whole courtyard, clinging to the walls were creeping fig and apricot trees; in the background was a pretty vine; heart-shaped flower-beds had been cut out of the lawn, and they were full of fine wallflowers and the most fragrant sylvan flowers of every species; further away stood melon beds, sending their far-reaching shoots in every direction, red currant bushes, a weeping willow or two, yellow rose bushes, myriad hued full-blown poppies—and little white red-eyed rabbits were bounding all over the grass plot.
And yet this is the dwelling of the headsman.
"You can come in!" cried a strong, penetrating, sonorous woman's voice from within, and the same instant Mekipiros bounded through the door with his huge shaggy head projecting far in front of him. It was plain that he had not quitted the room voluntarily, but in consequence of a vigorous impulsion from behind.
The man in leather now shoved his melancholy comrade on in front of him, and the headsman's door closed behind them.
It was a kitchen into which they had entered, in no way different from the hearth and home of ordinary men. The plates and dishes shone with cleanliness, everything was in apple-pie order, the fire flickered merrily beneath the chimney, and yet—fancy was continually finding something in every object reminiscent of blood-curdling circumstances. That axe, for instance, stuck in a block in front of the fireplace? Two years ago the executioner had beheaded a parricide—perchance 'twas on that very block!
That rope, again, attached to that bucket, that curved piece of iron glowing red in the fire, that heavy chain dangling down from the chimney—who knows of what accursed horrible scenes they may not have been the witnesses at some time or other? Yet, perhaps, there may be nothing sinister at all about them; perhaps they are employed for quite simple, honest, culinary purposes. Still, this is the headsman's house, remember!
Here and there on the walls black spots are visible. What are they? Blood, perhaps. One's eye cannot tear itself away from them; again and again it goes back to them, and the mind cannot reconcile itself to the thought: perchance this may be the blood of some beast, the blood of some common fattened beast which man must kill that he may eat and live—for is not this the dwelling of the headsman?
A woman is roasting and frying over the hearth, a tall, muscularly built virago, to whose sinewy arms, dome-like breast, red shining cheeks, and burning eyes, the flickering flames gave a savage, uncanny look; her fine black locks are wound up in a large knot at the back of her head, her large eyebrows have grown together, and the upper surface of her red, swollen lips are amber-coloured with masculine down.
"Sit down!" she cries to the new arrivals with a rough growling voice. "You are hungry, eh? Well, soon you shall have something to eat. There's the table"—and she went on cooking and piling up the fire; as it roared up the chimney it gave her red face an infernal expression. This was the headsman's wife.
The melancholy youth sat down abstractedly at the table, the other strode up to the hearth and began whispering to the woman, whilst from time to time they cast glances at the stranger-guest.
The man's whispers were inaudible, but it was possible to catch every word the woman said, for, try as she might, she could not soften down her thunderous voice into a whisper.
"I know him," said she, "he will soon get used to this place.... Nobody will look for him here.... Get away from here? How can he?"
Presently she placed a dish of boiled flesh before her guests. The pale youth picked at his food slowly and sadly, the other attacked it with ravenous haste, throwing a word over his shoulder to the woman the while, or urging his comrade to eat, or flinging bones to the dog and kicking him viciously in the ribs when he snapped them up.
"Can one have a word with the old man?" he inquired of the woman.
"Let him bide, the old man is plagued with his devils again. Don't you hear how he sings? Why, he voices it as lustily as any Slovak student on St Lucia's day."
And indeed from some room far away now came this verse of a well-known hymn, sung in a deep vibrating voice full of a woeful, contrite tremulousness:
"Oh, Lord, the number of our sins And vileness, who shall purge? Withhold the fury of Thy wrath, Though we deserve its pouring forth, And stay Thy chastening scourge!"
Melancholy, heart-rending was the sense of penitence conveyed by this deep, vibrating, bell-like voice. A penitential hymn in the house of the headsman!
The sad-faced youth shivered at the sound of this voice and seemed to awake suddenly from out of a reverie. He passed his hand once or twice across his forehead as if to rally his wits and reduce the chaos within and around him to some sort of order, but gradually sank back again into his former lethargy.
A short time afterwards the same hymn was heard again; but the voice of the singer this time was not the sonorous, manly voice they had heard before, it was a heavenly, pure, childlike voice which now began to sing, full of the magic charm and sweetness of a crystal harmonica:
"Yet know we, Lord, whoso repents And turns his heart to Thee, Shall aye find favour in Thy sight; Nor wilt thou hide from him Thy light, Thy mercy he shall see."
Angels in Heaven could not have sung more sweetly than the voice that sang this verse. Who could it be? An angel proclaiming remission of sins in the house of the headsman!
"So the old cut-throat still keeps the girl under a glass case, eh?"
"He wants to bring her up as a saint on purpose to aggravate me, for he knows very well that I never could endure anything of the saintly sort."
"Apparently the old chap is stark staring mad."
"He is possessed by devils, I fancy. Last week three of his 'prentices bolted because they could not stand his sanctimoniousness any longer. Before dinner he would insist on reading to them out of the Bible for half an hour at a stretch, and if any of them dared to laugh he flung him out of doors like a puppy dog; you may imagine what a pretty figure a headsman cuts who is always preaching about the other world, and proclaiming the word of the Lord with his clenched fists."
"I'll be bound to say he has even taught Mekipiros to go down on his hams."
"Ho, ho, ho! Call him in! Come hither, Mekipiros, you bear's cub, you!"
Mekipiros came in.
"Come hither, I would box your chaps. There, take that! What, still grinning, eh? There's another then! Weep immediately, sirrah! can't you! Pull a wry mug! So! Put your hands together! Cast down your eyes! So! And now fire away!"
And the monster did indeed begin to recite a prayer. One might perhaps have expected him to mumble something altogether unintelligible. But no! He recited it to the end with a solemn voice, and his eyes remained cast down the whole time. His face even began to assume a more human expression, and when he came to the words which announced remission of sins to the truly penitent sinner, two heavy tear-drops welled forth and ran down his rough wrinkled face.
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the headsman's wife, and she smacked the forehead of the suppliant repeatedly with the palm of her hand; "a lot of good may it do you!"
Suddenly, like the rolling echo of a descending thunderbolt, a song of praise uttered in an awe-inspiring voice from the adjoining room cut short this inhuman mockery.
"Who thunders so loudly in the lurid heavens above? What means this mighty quaking? Why doth the round earth move?"
At the same instant the boiling water overflowed from the caldron and put the fire out, and they were all in darkness. There was a dead silence, when suddenly a blast of wind caught the half-open door and slammed it to violently, and in the dead silence that followed could be heard something like the cry of a bird of ill-omen or the yell of a maniac flying from the pursuit of his own soul: "Death!—a bloody death—a death of horror!"
Gradually the last sounds of this voice died away in the distance. The chained watch-dog sent a dismal howl after it.
And when the feeble light of the tallow candles shone again through the darkness, it fell upon three shapes which had sunk upon their knees in terror, the two 'prentices of the headsman, and the monster. But the proud, defiant virago turned towards the elder of the 'prentices, and looked him up and down contemptuously.
"Then you, too, are one of them, eh?" cried she.
"Did you not hear the cry of the death-bird?" stammered he.
"What are you afraid of? Tis only my half-crazy old mother."
* * * * *
At night the headsman's apprentices sleep on the floor of the loft. The headsman himself has a room overlooking the courtyard; Mekipiros slept in the stable outside with the watch-dog.
All was silent. Outside, the wind had died away, not the leaf of a tree was stirring; one could distinguish the deep breathing of the sleepers.
At such times the lightest sound fills the sleepless watcher with fear. Sometimes he fancies that a man hidden beneath the bed is slowly raising his head, or that someone is lifting a latch, or the wind shakes the door as if someone were rattling it from the outside. There is a humming and a buzzing all around one. Night beetles have somehow or other lit upon a piece of paper, and they crinkle it so that it sounds as if someone were writing in the dark. Out in the street men seem to be running to and fro and muttering hoarsely in each other's ears. The church clocks strike one after another, thrice, four times—one cannot tell how often. The time is horribly long and the night is an abyss of blackness.
On a bed of straw, with a coarse coverlet thrown over them, the headsman's two apprentices sleep side by side. Are they really asleep? Can they sleep at all in such a place? Yet their eyes are closed. No, one of them is not asleep. When he perceives that his comrade does not move, he slowly pushes the coverlet from off him and creeps on all fours into the inner room; there he lies down flat on his stomach and peeps through a crevice in the rafters. Then he arises, creeps on tiptoe to the chimney and knocks at the partition wall three times, then he climbs down from his loft by means of a ladder, withdraws the ladder from the opening, and whistles to the watch-dog to come forth. One can hear how the chained beast scratches his neck, and growling and sniffing lies down before the door of the loft.
Meanwhile the other apprentice has been carefully observing every movement of his companion with half open eyes. Whenever the first riser turns towards him he feigns to be asleep; but as soon as he takes his eyes off him he opens his own eyes again and looks after him.
When the last sound has died away, he also arises from his sleepless couch and looks through that crevice into the inner room through which his comrade had looked before. It was easy to find, the ray of a lamp pierced through the crevice in the beam, and that ray comes from the hangman's bedroom.
Carefully he bends down and looks through this little peep-hole.
He sees before him a room furnished with the most rigorous simplicity. Close to the wall stands a black chest, fastened with three locks; in the middle of the room is a strong wooden table; further away are two beds, a large one and a small one; there are also two armless four-legged chairs; in the window recess are a few shabby books; above the beds is a heavy blunderbuss. The pale light of the lamp falls upon the table. Sitting beside it is a child reading out of the Bible. At the feet of the child lies a man with his face pressed down to the ground.
The man is of mighty stature—a giant, and he lays down his head, covered with a wildered shock of grey hair, at the feet of a child whose beauty rivets the eye and makes the heart stand still.
It is a pretty little light-haired angel, twelve or thirteen years of age, her hair is of a silvery lightness, like soft feather-grass or moonbeams, her face is of a heavenly whiteness, she has the smile of an angel. The smile of this white face is so unearthly, that neither joy nor good-humour is reflected from it, but something of a higher order, which the human heart is not pure enough to comprehend.
The old man lies there on the ground, with his fingers clutching his grey locks, and the ground on which his face has rested is wet. But the little girl, with hair like soft feather-grass, reads with a honey-sweet voice verses full of mercy and pardon from the Holy Book. From time to time her little fingers turn a leaf over, and whenever she comes to the name of the Lord she raises gentle eyes full of devout reverence.
"Pray, pray, my angel, go on praying! God will hear thy words. Oh! thy father is indeed a sinner, a great, great sinner!"
The child leant over him, kissed his grey head, and went on reading.
The old man fell a-weeping bitterly.
"Oh! thy father's hands are so bloody! Who can ever wash them clean? I have killed so many men who never offended me, never did me any harm. Oh! how they feared death! how sad they were as they waited for me! how they looked and looked to see whether a white flag would not be hoisted after all! Oh! how they begged and prayed, how they kissed my hands in order that I might wait a moment, but one moment more—life was so sweet to them, yes, so sweet! And yet I had to kill them. I murdered them—because the law commanded it."
A deep and bitter sob choked the old man's voice.
"Who will answer for me when God asks in a voice of thunder: 'Who has dared to deal out death—the prerogative of God alone?' Who will answer for me, who will defend me, when my judges will be so many pale, cold shapes, me in whose hands were Death and Terror? And if we meet together above there—or, perchance, down below, we, the executioner and the executed, and sit down at one table! oh! those bloody souls!—moving about headless, perchance, even in the other world, oh! horrible, horrible! To have to answer for the head of a man! And what if he were innocent besides, what if the judge erred, and the blood of the condemned cries out to Heaven for vengeance? Alas! oh, Mighty Heavenly Father!"
The grey-headed giant writhed on the ground convulsively, and smote his bosom with his clenched fists. One could now catch a glimpse of his face. It was a hard, weather-beaten countenance, bronzed by the suns of many a year, large patches of his beard were grizzled, but his eyebrows were of a deep black. He was quite beside himself, every muscle writhed and quivered.
The little girl knelt down beside him and tenderly stroked his sweat-covered forehead, took his head into her lap, and did not seem to fear him terrible as he looked—like one of the damned on the verge of the grave.
The old man kissed the girl's hands and feet, and timidly, tenderly embracing her with his large, muscular, tremulous arms, bent over her, hid his face in her lap, and sobbing and groaning, spoke in a voice near to choking—it was as though his very soul was bursting away from his bosom along with these terrible words.
"Look, my little girl!—once the judges condemned a young man to death—my God! there was no trace of a beard upon his face, so young was he. For three days he was placed in the pillory, and everybody wept who beheld him—the youth was accused of having murdered his father. He could not deny that he slept in the same room, and a bloody knife was concealed in the bed. In vain he said that he was innocent, in vain he called God to witness—he must needs die. On the day when he was beheaded, two women, weeping and wailing, and dressed in deep mourning, ran beside the felon's car to the place of execution. One was his dear mother, the other his loving sister. In vain they screamed that he was innocent, that he ought not to die, and, even if he were guilty they forgave him the mourning dresses they wore, though they were the sufferers and had lost everything. It was useless, he must needs die. When he sat down in front of me in the chair of death, and took off his clothes, even then he turned to me and said: 'Woe is me that I must die, for I am innocent.' I bound up his eyes. But my hand shook as I aimed the blow at him, and the blood that spurted on to my hand burnt like fire. Oh, my child! that blood was innocent. A year ago I executed a notorious highwayman, and as I was ascending the ladder with him, he turned and laughed in my face: 'Ha, ha!' cried he, 'it was in this very place that you beheaded a fine young fellow whom they accused of having murdered his father; it was I who killed that father of his and hid the knife in his bed, and now hang me up and look sharp about it.' Oh, my child, thou fair angel, beseech God that He will let me forget those words!"
"Go to sleep, go to sleep, my good father. God is good, God is wrath with no man. Why dost thou weep? Thou art not a bad man, surely, else thou wouldst not love me. Look now! Last summer two children went from the village into the woods to pluck flowers, there Heaven's warfare overtook them, and when they sought a refuge beneath a tree to avoid the rain, the lightning struck both of them dead. Yet the lightning is God's own weapon, and both the children were innocent. God knows wherefore He gives life and death, we do not. Go to sleep, my good father! God is everywhere near us, and turns away from nobody who lifts up his eyes towards Him. Look, I see Him everywhere. He watches over me when I sleep, He holds me by the hand when I walk in the darkness; I see Him if I look up at the sky, I see Him when I cast down my eyes. He abandons nobody. Kiss me and go to sleep!"
The big muscular man slowly struggled to his knees. He pressed the fair child to his bosom and raised his hard rough face. He looked up, his lips quivered, he seemed to be praying, and his tears flowed apace. Then he stood up, and the little girl embraced his arm, that huge arm of his like the trunk of a tree. Fumbling his way along, he allowed himself to be led to his bed, and plunged down upon it fully dressed as he was. After turning about restlessly for a moment or two, a loud snore like thunder, which made the whole room vibrate, proclaimed that he had fallen asleep at last. But his slumbers were restless and uneasy. Frequently he would start and cry aloud as if in agony, or utter broken unintelligible half sentences and groan horribly.
But the fair little girl extinguished the lamp before she got ready to lie down herself. The pale light of the moon shone through the window and made her face whiter, her hair more silvery than ever, as if by enchantment. It shone right upon her snow-white bed. It shone upon her soft eyebrows, her smiling face, upon her sweet lips as they tremulously prayed.
So slumber came upon her in the shape of a snow-white moonbeam. With a smiling face, hands clasped together, and praying lips, she fell asleep—and her guardian angel stood at the head of her snow-white bed.
The youth had watched the whole scene through the rift in the door with bated breath and great amazement. When he rose to his feet, he remained for a long time, rapt in a brown study, leaning against the wall and staring blankly before him, lost in wonder that two such different beings should be slumbering together beneath the same roof.
He sighed deeply. In the stillness of the night it seemed to him as if he heard the echo of his own sigh coming back to him in whispering words. He listened attentively—he could plainly distinguish the deep droning voice of the headsman's wife, which seemed to him to come from somewhere below at the opposite end of the house.
He went in the direction of the voice, and when he came to the place where his comrade had knocked thrice on the boards near the chimney, he distinctly heard two people talking to each other in a low voice. It was the headsman's wife and her lover.
The youth turned away full of loathing. Nevertheless, it soon occurred to him that this tempestuous tete-a-tete could have little to do with love. The voice of the headsman's wife frequently arose in anger.
"Let him go to hell!" he heard her exclaim.
"Hush! hush!" murmured the young 'prentice, "somebody might overhear us."
"Pooh! God and men both slumber now."
What could they be talking about? Whom did they want to harm? Such folks had it not in them to love anyone. Woe to those whom they had cause to remember!
So he crept softly to the spot and listened.
"If these people should rise they will not leave one stone upon another," the headsman's apprentice was saying.
"And do you suppose they will rise up because you tell them to?"
"I have thought the matter well out. The common folks about here do not love their masters, there is no reason why they should. Their lords have kicked and cuffed and spat upon them, and treated them worse than dogs. You have but to cast a burning fagot into the mass of discontent, and it will flame up at once. Even the wisest among them who do know something about it, are the most narrow-minded. If there be two versions of a matter they always believe the most absurd one. I told them to be on their guard against danger. I told them to look after their wells and their granaries, as their masters wanted to poison them. When they asked why? I told them that the whole kingdom was surrounded on every side by enemies, and the gentry wanted to raise a pestilence in the kingdom to keep the enemy out of it. At my words the common people at once became suspicious, for they have heard for a long time that the gentry were expecting a pestilence, and as this was the first explanation of the prophesied epidemic that had come to their ears, they believed it at once. Suspicion is contagious. And as the gentry have since had the imprudence to order a separate graveyard to be dug for the corpses of those who may die of the cholera (naturally in order to prevent the dead bodies from spreading the contagion), the common folks have believed my words as if I were a prophet, and quite expect that the gentry are going to poison the poor people. The digging of the churchyard they take to be a first move in that direction."
"Devilish clever of you, Ivan, I must say."
"And then don't forget the announcement of the Kassa doctors to the effect that if the common folks will not take the salutary bismuth powder voluntarily, it must be forced upon them, thrown into their wells and scattered about their barns. It looks as if everyone was intent upon playing into our hands."
"Does the young chap upstairs suspect anything?"
"I don't think so, but let us speak in a lower tone. I promised to hide him here. He fancies he has shot his captain dead. He caught him with his sweetheart and banged away at him; the man fell to the ground, but he did not die. But the young fellow ran away and deserted his colours. I have been persuading him to desert for a long time, as I had need of him. This, in fact, is the third time he has deserted, and if they catch him now they will undoubtedly string him up. Not a bad idea for him to fly to the headsman's house, eh? They will seek him everywhere but under the gallows-tree. And if they find him here, they won't have very much more trouble with him, that's all."
"Ho, ho, ho! Suppose he were to hear you?"
And he did hear!
"You see, this was my object all along. I shall put his pursuers on his track in any case, and they will capture him here and take him to Hetfalu, where the court-martial will pronounce sentence of death, and then have him exposed in the pillory. All the common folk about Hetfalu love the youth as if he was their own son, but they hate his father like the devil. It will be no very great masterpiece to stir up the people in these troublous times, and when they see the young fellow led out to be hanged they will be quite ready to seize their scythes and dung-forks, set him free, raise him on their shoulders, and rush with him to the castle of his father (who, by the way, has done his best to hound his son to death), and level it with the ground, and there you have a peasant revolt in full swing straight off."
"But will the lad consent to be put at the head of such an enterprise?"
"Never fear! Death is an awful prospect. There is no road, however terrible, which a man will not take in order to avoid it. Besides, at such times a man is not himself, but does everything almost unconsciously, and thus our names will not appear in the business at all; and if it is put down, he will be looked upon as the ringleader. Not the shadow of a suspicion will fall upon us."
"Bravo, Ivan! I could kiss you for this."
"A more amazing popular rebellion than this will be has never been known. From village to village the rumour will fly that his own son has risen against his poisoner of a father at the head of the people, has cut to pieces every member of his family, and levelled his ancestral halls to the ground. He will be looked upon as a public avenger. Horribly black rumours will be noised abroad all over the kingdom, and at the tidings thereof the people will run downright mad with savage fury, and the gentry will not know which way to turn to escape the unforeseen danger which will suddenly break out at their very doors."
"You are the Devil's own son, Ivan; come and let me cuddle you."
The youth rose from the chimney-place trembling in every limb. He had heard every word they said.
For an instant he remained standing there quite beside himself, half mad, half senseless from sheer terror and amazement. Presently he began to gaze about him with desperate alertness, like a wild beast that has fallen into a trap and looks eagerly for a way out of it, rallying all its powers for a final struggle, becoming resourceful and inventive in proportion to its peril, and forgetting the very instinct of life in the longing for freedom, at last gets to fear nobody and nothing. After fruitless struggles it surrenders in despair, lies down, closes its eyes, and the next instant once more begins the hopeless fight for liberty.
The youth looked down through the opening in the floor. The ladder had been removed, and in the courtyard below a big shaggy dog was slouching surlily about and shaking its collar, and from time to time it would tear at its skin with its teeth or worry its tail and bay at the moon.
And now there is a good sharp knife in the youth's hands. He sticks it between his teeth and looks carefully around him. In case of need he would have risked a fight with the dog, and perhaps killed it; but this could not happen without a great deal of noise, and he wished, at any price, to escape unnoticed.
The fence, too, surrounding the enclosure, was very high, how was he to get over it? Nowhere could he see the ladder.
At the extreme end of the house, right opposite the windows of the headsman's bedroom, was a large mulberry tree, whose wide-spreading branches bent down over the roof of the house. With the help of these branches one could easily get to the fence, and then a bold leap down from the top of it would do the rest.
Like a panther escaping from its cage the young man crept along the narrow window-ledge of the garret with his knife between his teeth. Wriggling along on his belly he clutched hold of the ridge of the house, and crawled cautiously on till he came to the branches of the mulberry-tree, then he seized an overhanging branch, clambered up it and scrambled to the very end of it—and all so quietly, without making the least noise.
From the extreme edge of the branch, however, to the top of the fence he had to make a timely spring, and in so doing overestimated the strength of the branch on which he stood—with a great crash it broke beneath him, and he remained clinging like grim death to the fence half-way up.
At the sound of the snapping branch the watch-dog became aware of the fugitive, and rushed barking towards him; and while he was struggling with all his might to scramble up to the top of the fence it seized him by one of the tails of his coat and furiously tried to drag him down.
"Who is that?" a loud voice suddenly roared. The headsman had been aroused by the noise outside his window, and was now looking down into the courtyard. He there perceived a man quite unknown to him clambering up the fence, while the dog was tugging away at him to bring him down. "Ho, there! stop, whoever you are!" he thundered, and mad with rage he seized the musket and took aim at the fugitive. His eyes were wild and bloodshot.
Then a white hand lowered the weapon, and a clear ringing childish voice from behind him exclaimed:
"Wilt thou slay yet again, oh, my father?"
The man's hand sank down. For a moment he was motionless, and his face grew very pale. Then the calm look of self-possession came back to him. He embraced the child who had pushed the gun aside. Then he took aim once more. There was a loud report, and the watch-dog, without so much as a yelp, fell to the ground stiff and stark. The fugitive with a final effort leaped over the fence.
A CHILDISH MALEFACTOR.
That house which stands all deserted in the middle of Hetfalu was not always of such a doleful appearance.
Its windows which are now nailed up or bricked in were once full of flowers; those trees which now stand around it all dried up and withered as if in mourning for their masters, and with no wish to grow green again after the many horrors which have taken place among them, those trees, I say, once threw an opulent shade on the marble bench placed beneath them, where a grave old gentleman used to sit of an evening and rejoice in the splendid wallflowers with which the courtyard abounded.
Yes, he could rejoice in the sweet flowers although his own heart was full of thorns.
This old gentleman was Benjamin Hetfalusy.
In front of those two windows which look out upon the garden, and which are now walled up, a solitary vine had been planted, whose branches, crowded with fruit, climbed up to the very roof of the house. Now it lies all wildered on the ground, and its immature berries twine themselves round the nearest bushes.
Those windows were once thickly curtained. The yellow silk curtains inundated with a sickly light a room where everything was so still, so sad.
There was an invalid in the house, little Neddy, the son of Benjamin Hetfalusy's daughter, the son of that once so haughty gentlewoman, Leonora Hetfalusy.
This poor lady had been visited by many a terrible calamity. After a youth passed amidst feverish excitements, she had married Squire Szephalmi, and there had been two children of this marriage, a son and a daughter. Edward and Emma were their names. The children were constantly bickering with each other, but this after all is only what happens every day with brothers and sisters.
One day the little girl disappeared, nobody knew what had become of her. They searched for her in the woods and in the fields, and in the pond close by; they explored the whole country side, their little pet daughter was nowhere to be found.
From that very day Neddy fell sick. He lost his fresh ruddy colour. He could neither eat nor sleep. They laid him on his bed, a fever tormented him. At night he would wander in his speech, and at such times he would constantly be calling for his little sister Emma; he would cry out and weep, and his features would stiffen and his eyes would almost start out of his head till he looked like one possessed.
The doctors said that it was epilepsy. They treated him in every possible way. It was all of no avail. He grew worse from day to day, and his father and mother stood and wept by his bed morning after morning.
* * * * *
It was one of those evenings when the wind rages outside and dashes rain mingled with hail against the window-panes. The child was crying and moaning in his bed, out of doors the dogs were howling, the wind was whistling, and the freely-swinging pump-handle creaked and groaned like a shrieking ghost.
"Ah!" wailed the sick child in his sleep, half rising up. "Emma! Let in little Emma! Don't you hear how she is crying outside—she cannot get through the door ... she is shivering, she is afraid of the dark ... go out and look...!"
"There is nobody outside, my darling, nobody, my poor sick little son."
"There is, there is. I hear someone scratching at the door, fumbling at the latch; she is stroking the dogs; don't you hear how she is moaning, dear, dear mother, don't you hear it?"
"Go to sleep, my sick darling, nobody is coming here, the whole house is locked up."
"She is dead, she is dead," whined the little boy in his delirium. "Wicked men killed her when she went into the woods to pluck flowers. They tied a stone to her feet and sank her in the yellow pond. Oh! oh! why don't you make haste? She will be drowned directly. Oh! oh! how bloody her forehead is!"
In the corner of the room was the father on his knees praying. The mother with tearful eyes kept on spreading the bed-clothes over the sick child, and the grey-headed grandfather stared stupidly in front of him.
"Hark! Don't you hear little Emma weeping there again? She has not been properly buried beneath the ground, she wants to come out. Hush! hush! Don't go, don't go, then perhaps she will stop crying."
Outside the tempest was shaking the trees.
"Oh, oh! There's a knocking at the door! They have come for me. They want to kill me. They are bringing little Emma. Oh, do not let them in! Tell them that I am not here! Lock the door!——Father, father, don't leave me."
It was hideous to see the expression of despair on the round childish face all covered with sweat. They are wont to paint little children in the shape of angels. If it should ever occur to a painter to paint a four-year-old child as a devil, as a fallen accursed spirit, it might be such a face as his was.
"Oh, God, have mercy upon him, and take him to Thee," sobbed the grandfather, hiding his face on the table. He could not endure to look upon the superhuman torments of the child, while the weak, helpless father cried in the bitterness of his heart, "it is my only son, my dearest, fairest hope."
The child made as if it would fly or hide itself. It leaped up in its bed incessantly, and saw hideous shapes around it and raved about them, and writhed and struggled like one attacked by a serpent.
"Come, my daughter, come, my son!" sobbed old Benjamin, going down upon his knees. "Kneel beside me, let us pray for him; if our sins are ripe for punishment, let the punishment fall upon our heads, not upon the child's."
And the three elders knelt down beside the bed, and held each other by the hand and wept, and called upon God, and prayed Him to heal the child.
At that moment three violent blows from a clenched fist were heard upon the door. The dogs ran howling to the other end of the courtyard, and a shrill piping voice uttered the words:
The old grandfather leaped up from his knees like one beside himself with rage. Cursing aloud, he snatched his gun from the wall, rushed into the courtyard and looked about for whomsoever had uttered that cry that he might shoot the wretch down like a dog.
Perchance if that cry had come from Heaven he would have fired up at Heaven itself!
What! to cry out "Death" to the Amen of those who were praying for life!
And again that ear-piercing voice cried: "Death, death!"—it sounded like the whoop of a screech-owl.
The "death-bird," as they called her, was standing there in front of the trellised gate with her eyes fixed on the windows, her face was as pale as the face of a corpse, and her white hair was fluttering in the tempestuous night.
"It is thine own death thou hast prophesied, thou crazy witch, thou!" thundered old Benjamin, and he fired his gun at her at ten paces.
The "death-bird" stared at him without moving a muscle. Old Benjamin, in a sort of stupor, let the weapon fall out of his hand; it never occurred to him that he had extracted the bullet himself beforehand lest in a moment of distraction he might blow his own brains out.
"What dost thou want, Benjamin?" asked the old woman in a calm mocking voice. "Death comes not from thee, but to thee. Nobody can kill me. Death has passed me by, he does not think of me, he does not trouble himself about me, he has turned me into a living spirit. I am old and ugly, Death cares not for such as I. He too has a liking for youth and beauty, for pretty young women like thy daughter, for strong gallant young fellows like thy son-in-law, for tender, rosy chicks like thy grandchildren, and for fat ripe corn like thyself, saddled with more sins than the hairs of thy head. Benjamin Hetfalusy, I have looked upon thee as a young man, when thou didst chicane me out of my house, and tear from my hands the dry crusts I lived upon. And thou hast grown fat upon it too. But the bread that is wet with the tears of orphans cries to Heaven for vengeance, the blessing of God rests not upon it. Thou art old and thou wilt die. Thou shalt leave none behind thee, thou shalt bury all whom thou didst ever love. But I shall remain alive to see thy grave. I shall survive thee that I may see everything that once belonged to thee lie desolate. And this fine house of thine shall remain empty—these trees shall fade away and wither one by one—strangers shall divide thy lands among them. And now go home, for thou shalt not dwell there long. When thou liest outside I will come and visit thee yonder!"
The "death-bird" drew herself up straight at these words, she seemed as big again as her usual old shrunken self, and pointed towards the churchyard with her crutch.
The dogs howled dismally behind the house and durst not come forward.
The old woman collapsed once more. Close to the trellis gate stood a large heap of planks. She reached out and tapped them with her crutch. "Good timber here for ever so many nice coffins!" she mumbled to herself, and tripped away coughing and wheezing, and leaning heavily on her crutch.
Benjamin Hetfalusy lay senseless in his own courtyard, and when he came to himself he was unable to utter a word. He had had a stroke, and his tongue was tied.
Early next morning, while the whole house was still asleep, Mrs. Szephalmi, all alone, stealthily and unobserved, quitted the house and made her way across the park to old Magdolna's hut.
This great lady, despite an outward show of culture, believed in and made use of all sorts of charms and quackeries, and it was not the first time, so credulous was she, that she had turned to the old woman for counsel. She had made her tell her her fortune by means of cards, predict the future, brew potions for her which would make her husband faithful, teach her spells which would cause flies and other vermin to vanish, to concoct balsamic cakes to keep the skin white—in fact, she hung upon every word the old crone uttered.
Magdolna kept her waiting for a long time in the yard before she opened the door. She said, by way of excuse, that she had been praying, then she shut the door behind them.
The great lady sat down on a straw-covered chair and began to weep. The old woman crouched down upon a stool and cleansed some mushrooms which she held in her lap.
"Dame Magdolna, can you not help my son?" sobbed Mrs. Szephalmi.
"I will give all I have to whomsoever can cure him. Oh! if you could only see how much he suffers, nobody ever suffered so much before."
"I know it, and he will suffer still more."
"The doctors cannot cure him."
"No healing herb that ever grew in the field can heal him; it would be all one even if you bathed him in balm."
"He will die?"
"'Twould be good for his soul if he did die."
"What, is there then anything worse than death?"
"You are raving. A child who four years ago was an angel in Heaven, a child only four years of age—damned!"
"It has sinned enough to suffice for a long life, enough to merit damnation."
"Then for such a sin there is no name among men."
"There is a name for it, terrible and accursed—the murder of a sister."
"Merciful God!—I will not hearken to you."
"Why do you ask me, then? I have told nobody. Go home, my lady, you cannot buy the mercy of God for money."
"And yet there must be something in it. He is repeatedly mentioning his sister's name. And—oh! what a look he has at such times!"
"I know it. His groaning can be heard outside in the street. If a poor man's child wailed like that they would pitch it down a well."
"Speak! How and where did it take place?"
"The children were playing outside, close to the pond, I was on the opposite side plucking healing plants. Suddenly the two children caught sight of a pretty flower on a high rock. They both hastened to the spot to pluck it. The girl was the quicker, and got there first, and when she had plucked the flower the lad began to quarrel with her, and as they struggled the little girl fell off the rock, her head struck against the hard root of a tree, and she remained motionless on the spot. All pale and frightened little Cain stood beside her, and gazed stupidly at the blood flowing from his sister's forehead. He saw that he had killed his sister, and in vain he begged and prayed her to awake again, in vain he pulled her about. Then he began to cry like one who is desperate, and ran towards the lake. I saw him gazing into the water, and he gazed into it for a long time, perhaps he thought of drowning himself. He shrank back from the face that stared at him from the surface of the water, his own distorted face. Slowly he crept back again, his face was as white as death, and his lips were blue. He gazed around him in every direction to see if anybody was looking. Then he suddenly put his arms round the lifeless body, and with a strength incredible in one so young he dragged it to a ditch which was thickly overgrown with bushes, and covered it over with leaves and branches. There was still some life in the little girl, for when the lad began stamping down the heaped-up leaves with his feet, she groaned aloud and said: 'Oh, Neddy, Neddy, don't bury me. Emma won't cry. Emma won't tell mamma!'"
"Oh! my poor little girl!"
"On hearing these words the boy took to his heels—he ran and ran till he fell down senseless in the wood. There some swine-herds found him as they were gathering beech-mast, and since then he has been plagued by a burning fever-fit."
"It is like a frightful nightmare."
"I tell you the truth, and such a thing is only what your family deserves—a murderer of his sister only four years old! Sins like yours are enough to hasten on the end of the world."
"And where, then, is the poor tiny little body of my innocent child?"
"I sought for it next day, but I could not find it. On the very day of the evil deed I durst not go there, for I was afraid they might think I killed her. Here and there among the bushes were fragments of a little pink frock. I also came across a tiny red slipper with a golden butterfly on it, and some gay ribbons which must have tied up her hair. I have often heard the wolves howl at night in that very place. They can tell perhaps where she is."
"Would that my son might die also!" cried the mother in the anguish of her despair.
"He would die even if you did not wish it. An old man might live perhaps with such a mental cancer, but it will destroy a child. Ah! there is no remedy against the worms that gnaw away at the soul."
"Will he be tormented for long?"
"If you do not wish to see his torments, stand by his bed when nobody else is by, cross yourself thrice, and repeat the words which his dying sister said to him: 'Don't bury me, Neddy! Little Emma won't cry!'—and then he will die."
"How his father will weep! It is his favourite child—he loved him better than the little girl."
"How his grandfather will weep! For he loved them both, and they were both his pets."
A DIVINE VISITATION.
The whole region was pitch black, half the night was over, there was no sign of life anywhere.
But slumber was no dweller in that darkness, the terrible voice of God drove it far away from the eyes of men—Heaven was thundering as if it would have smashed this nebulous star of ours here below into fragments. Who could sleep at such a time?
One thunderbolt followed hard upon another. Whenever the crashing uproar ceased for an instant one could hear the ringing of bells, which the superstitious peasantry set a-going to charm away the terrifying tempest.
At such times every soul of man prays silently in its quiet place of rest. Not a single light is burning in any of the windows, the awakened sleeper lies with fast-closed eyes beneath his coverlet, all his sins rise up before him, all his sins and their punishment—death!
In one house, and one house only, nobody has gone to rest. Every living thing there is wakeful, from the master of the house to the watch-dog. It is the squire's house. All its windows are lit up and all its doors are locked.
In the room looking out upon the garden, the mother is alone with the sick child.
The child is delirious, he is gabbling terrible things, his features wear a different expression every instant.
And his mother understands every word of that mortal fever-born nightmare; she guesses at every thought which underlies all those varying expressions of countenance, the sight of whose horrible contortions are enough to make even the heart of a strong man break down.
How she must suffer!
He who takes poison dies a terrible death, his veins burst asunder one by one; his nerves and muscles strain and crack, his very marrow seems to be on fire. But, oh! what is all that compared to the death of a poisoned soul! A remedy may be found perhaps for bodily venom, but there is no remedy against spiritual venom. The grave may close upon the former, but never upon the latter. Both here and hereafter recollection and reprobation wait upon it.
God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children even to the fourth generation. They graft the evil qualities of their blood upon their sons; one generation passes on its wickedness to the next; man is vitiated when he is born; he sins as soon as he is conscious of his existence and he dies accursed.
The sweat streamed from the child's temples; for the last three days he has had the mark of death upon him.
The doctors say he may live, but if he lives he will be weak-witted.
What a future for a four-year-old child! A burden to the world, a burden to himself, to live on for years after the mind is dead! To be an idiot for ever! It would be good for him if he could be made away with, surely.
Will God take him? Or is it the Divine Will that he should live on as an example of a living curse, as a witness of the Almighty's chastising arm?
Does he bear so much suffering by way of ransom for the sins of his father, his mother, and his grandfather?—or must the years of punishment be as many as the years of sin?
Who will be merciful enough to put an end to his sufferings?
His mother sits silent and watchful at the head of the bed.
No, she cannot do it!
After all she is his mother. The roots of that young flower are still but half detached from the soil of her heart. Death would be a benefit to him. Perchance it might be easier to forget him if he were under the sod. But man who does not endow with life, must not distribute death. Man must wait till the last of his allotted days has come.
And yet only a few words would bring it to pass.
The "death-bird" has whispered the magic spell, and Death will obey the summons.
Yet she lacks the courage to summon him at a time when the very foundations of the earth are trembling at the voice of Heaven's thunder!
It is a marvel that she also is not mad. She cannot even weep now though her bosom heaves tumultuously—it were not good for a man to know her secret thoughts at this moment.
"They are calling me, they are calling me," stammers the child.... "Men without heads ... they are running after me ... the black dog is scratching up the ground ... the hand of the dead body is sticking out.... Poor Emma!"
The poor lady, all trembling, rose from her seat, very softly lest she should make a noise, she gets up, she cannot blow out the night lamp on the table, her breath is too feeble for that, she puts it out by casting it out of the room.
Then she approaches the window in the darkness to see whether the curtains are closely drawn, or whether anyone can look into the room from the outside. What a flashing past there was of fiery eyes amid the darkness of the night—Hah! What a blinding flash that was!—And then black darkness again.—No, nobody could see her—nobody—.
Can she make up her mind?
She goes slowly back to the bed. The lad is moaning fearfully. He is babbling dreadful words and his throat rattles painfully. "How blue...? her mouth ... how bloody ... her forehead ... poor little Emma."
The lady bends down over the bed. The ghost of a pale little face comes into sight now and then as the lightning flashes quiver past the windows.
Can she make up her mind?
"Poor little Emma," wails the lad.
This last pathetic wail was too much for her. The unhappy woman crossed herself three times and, in a dry, half-suffocated voice exclaimed: "Don't bury me, Neddy, little Emma won't cry!"
The lad uttered a cry like the scream of a wild bird when it is shot through the heart—then he drew a long deep sigh and was quite still.
"Oh!" cried the desperate mother, as if suddenly throwing off the oppressive influence of some magic trance, "help, help!" and like a mad creature she rushed towards the bell-rope which hung beside the hearth.
She seized the golden tassel, the bell rang out like a ghostly chime, when suddenly a fearful crash was heard, a thunderbolt came down the chimney, zig-zagging through the room like a fiery serpent, fusing the metal of the bell in its passage and flashing down the bell-rope to the golden tassel with a blinding glare, finally vanishing with a dull crackling sound.
The whole family rushed at once to the scene of this fearful crash.
With ghastly, frightened faces they came rushing in one by one, huddled up in sheets and counterpanes or whatever else came first to hand, like so many spectres in white mourning.
In the room lay two corpses, the mother and the child.
Bitter lamentations resounded through the house.
The father and the grandfather came hurrying along.
Howling and screaming like some wild beast never seen before, the father flung himself upon his dead, turning frantically from the mother to the child, and from the child to the mother, kissing and squeezing them constantly. And then he pressed them to his bosom and literally howled like one beyond the reach of the mercy of God.
But the grandfather groped his way along in silence, looking in his white nightdress and his dishevelled silvery locks like some spectral thing.
He could not speak. His palsied tongue could not utter a single cry for the relief of his agony. He knelt down in front of the dead bodies and raised his eyes aloft. Oh! how he strove to give expression to his grief, to utter one word, if only one, which might pierce Heaven itself. But he could not. He was dumb, his mouth moved as if it would speak, but his tongue was tied.
Oh! how much this family must have sinned, to suffer so much.
THE UNBELOVED SON.
The day dawned slowly and, as it seemed, with great difficulty. The morning was cold and cloudy as is often the case after a tempestuous night.
There was a great bustling about in the house of mourning. A bier and a coffin had to be made, and the dead clothed in their funeral finery. The old squire wished the funeral to be a splendid one.
The courtyard had been swept clean. Every household tool and implement of labour had been removed out of the way. They were preparing to keep one of those days of sad and solemn observance which must befall every household at some time or other.
At such times the street door is kept wide open. Let the country folks come in and look upon the dead, let them learn from the sight that Death is the judge of the gentry as well as of the serfs; let them see how the rich can be splendid even after death, how they embellish their coffins, how they fasten them with golden nails, how they embroider their palls with patterns of roses and gold filagree, how they spread the bed of death itself with the finest white watered silk and perfume it with the most fragrant balm.
Yet that fragrant balm cannot stifle the smell of the charnel house. Here, too, men must hold their handkerchiefs to their mouths as they do before the corpses of the poor.
For Death is a just judge.
A ragged man passes through the door. He is soaked through and through with mud and dirt, it was clear that no roof had covered his head during last night's tempest. His feet peeped from out of his boots, his damp hair seemed glued to his temples, his eyes were sunken, his cheeks were mere bone, his lips were blue and hollow.
He entered the courtyard falteringly like one who would steal something but does not know how to set about it, and there he stood at the entrance of the hall, leaning against the lintel, with eyes cast down upon the ground.
The dogs approached him, sniffed at his clothes all round, and began to growl at him.
Only one dog, an old boar-hound, would not be satisfied with sniffing impatiently among the others, but rushed upon the stranger, placed its two front paws upon him, licked his limp hand, and began joyously barking at him.
At this the major-domo, a sunburnt old man with a white moustache drew near, gave the speechless stranger a large piece of bread, and bade him go about his business.
"In God's name take yourself off," said he, "don't stand here in the way of everybody that comes out or goes in."
The new-comer did not move, but kept on looking straight in front of him, his chin and his lips trembled as if he were keeping back by force a torrent of tears.
The major-domo did not notice this, but the old dog kept leaping up at the stranger's hand, and yelped and yapped so persistently that it was plain he wanted to say something.
"Come, stir your stumps and look sharp about it, my good fellow, and don't set all our dogs barking for nothing," said the major-domo, and with that he seized the vagabond's hand and turned him round.
And now he saw his face for the first time.
The tears streamed from the eyes of the ragged man, sobbing and weeping he turned to the wall and hid his face.
The old servant stood there dumbfounded. At first he would not believe his eyes, then at last he clapped his hands together and exclaimed: "Why, if it is not young Master Imre himself. Good Heaven!" and deeply agitated he approached the young man and began to soothe him, finally falling upon his neck and weeping along with him.
"Nobody recognises me," sobbed the youth, whose left hand was bleeding badly. He had hurt himself somewhat severely when he leaped over the fence of the headsman's house.
"Oh, why have you come home just at this time?" lamented the old servant, "if only it had been any other day in the whole year but this; this house is a sad dwelling-place just now, there are two corpses in it."
"Who has died then?"
"Mistress Leonora and little Ned. How they are all weeping within there."
"I shall be the third."
The servant was silent. Perhaps he thought to himself: "Nobody will weep for you."
"I have deserted from my regiment a third time."
"Oh dear, oh dear! And why have you come home again?"
"I wanted to speak to my father once for all."
"From henceforth your father will speak to nobody but the Lord God."
"I don't ask him to be kind to me. I want to tell him that Death is very near him, and he must try to avoid it."
"Methinks the poor old man would rather seek out death than fly from it; but you may be seen and recognised here, young master, and taken away—and then..."
"They will hang me up, eh? Don't be afraid. The pistol with which I shot the captain is loaded, one shot will be sufficient to save me from the gallows-tree—show me where my father is."
"Go, then! Where the mourning is loudest there will you find him."
The youth went in the direction indicated and entered the room.
The room was wholly darkened, the mirrors and pictures were draped in black; in the midst of it stood two coffins, within which lay two pallid shapes like wax figures.
It was impossible to recognise them.
On a candelabra beside the coffins burnt four large wax candles, and a gilded crucifix had been placed on a little table right opposite.
Kneeling at the foot of the dead was a white-haired man. He glanced now at the one now at the other of the departed, and from time to time would press his clenched hands to his lips and moan softly like one in a troubled sleep.
It was a heart-breaking sight—this old white-haired man crushed beneath the hand of God, moaning like some wild beast dedicated to death, but unable to utter a word or shed a tear.
When God visits His people with affliction He also gives them tears that they may weep out their sorrow, and power of speech that they may talk of their griefs and so find relief, but even these things were denied to this old man. There he knelt, scourged by the wrath of God, humbled to the very earth, like a withered branch which stiffens into dry lifelessness without complaint.
The young man, groping his way along, with his soul benumbed with sorrow, approached the old man, and gently, noiselessly knelt down by his side.
The old man regarded him stupidly, and for some time seemed to be wondering who it was. He could not speak, for, though still alive, Death had already mastered his tongue, and his son fancied he did not recognise him. Perchance it was impossible to recognise that haggard distorted face, that ragged garb, those dishevelled locks.
"I am your son whom you drove away, and who will soon be your dead son too," he exclaimed, with deep emotion, trying to seize the old man's hand that he might kiss it.
But the old man drew back his hand with horror. One could see loathing in the expression of his face, just as if the Devil had extended his hand to him in the moment of his most sacred sorrow.
"I deserve your disgust, your repudiation. I sinned grievously against you. You have grown grey betimes because of me. But all this shall be atoned for by a death, my death. You never loved me, you drove me away from your house as you would never have driven a dog, you let me perish in want and wretchedness; from my childish years upwards I have never had a good word from you, had it been otherwise things might have been very different. Those whom you loved God took away from you, those you did not love you drove away yourself, and now you are alone in the world."
The old man signified to him in dumb show that he was to say no more.
"I have not come hither to ask anything of you, so short will be the remaining period of my life that I shall want no provision for the way. I only want to reveal to you a horrible diabolical plot which threatens your grey head, your family, and perhaps your very house. My father, in ten minutes' time I shall have ceased to live, and no more words of mine will ever trouble your soul again, do not repulse me in the very hour of my death!"
The old man slowly rose from his knees, surveyed his tatterdemalion son from head to foot with infinite contempt, and his lips moved and quivered as if they would have said something, but not a word fell from them.
The son did not know that his father had had a stroke and could not speak.
"Have you not one word for me?—bad or good, a curse or a blessing? Only a single word, father! before you see me die!" and he dragged himself on his knees to the feet of the old man, who supported himself tremulously against the altar that had been placed opposite the two coffins, his hair seemed to rise, his eyes started from his head. Then he seized the heavy gilded crucifix and slowly raised it aloft in his right hand as if he would have stricken to the earth with it his own son who knelt there embracing his knees.
During this painful scene the door opened, the clash of the butt ends of muskets brought sharply to the ground was heard, and a corporal and three soldiers appeared on the scene.
Imre looked round at this noise. For an instant his face turned deadly pale; behind the backs of the soldiers he perceived the grinning face of his evil angel, the headsman's 'prentice. He felt that he was lost.
He glanced around him. Whither should he flee for refuge? Close beside him were two corpses with cold unsympathetic faces—and there was also a third, a living face, still colder, still more unsympathetic than the faces of the dead, living and yet not loving, the face of his own father who still stood there with the large heavy crucifix in his uplifted fist.
The corporal approached the youth and seized him by the collar. What did it matter to him that the culprit was standing beside two corpses covered with a funeral pall? what did he care about the painfulness of the scene? Naturally he only saw before him a deserter, a deserter whom it was his duty to arrest.
At this the youth grew absolutely desperate, and at the same time the instinct of self-preservation arose within him. In one magical moment there flashed through his mind all the horrors which the future had in store for him—the cold dungeon wall, the narrow barred windows, the heavy rattling chain, the court-martial, the reading of the sentence, the pillory, the gaping crowd, the white shirt worn by the condemned, the man of death, the executioner, with a Prayer Book in one hand and a cord in the other, the ignominious death, the black carrion crows——
"Ah!" he roared in despair, and with the iron strength of frenzy he tore himself loose from the grasp of the corporal who fell prone into the fireplace with a fearful crash.
"Whoever touches me is a dead man!" screamed Imre, with a voice full of fury and defiance, and tearing open his vest he drew forth with one hand a dagger and with the other a large hussar pistol. The broken-winged young eagle had turned upon its pursuers, hacking at them with its wounded beak and flapping its still uninjured pinion in their faces.
The soldiers began to fall back before the infuriated youth, who, with bloodshot eyes and foaming mouth, followed hard upon them, and either from fear or compassion opened a way before him.
Then the white-headed old man seized from behind the youth's murderous uplifted arms, and held him back.
When the young man felt the touch of those cold tremulous hands upon his arm, he let fall the weapons from both his own hands, his arms fell down benumbed by his side, his whole body collapsed; nerveless and swooning he sank in a heap upon the ground. The soldiers lifted him upon their shoulders, removed him from the room, put fetters upon his hands and feet, and carried him off.
The old man looked coldly after them. When they had gone, he again knelt down close to the two coffins, his white locks falling about his face, raised his clasped hands to his tremulous but impotent lips, and kept gazing, gazing fixedly first at one of his dear departed and then at the other.
Not a tear, not a single tear fell from his eyes.
TWO FAMOUS PAEDAGOGUES.
The first of these famous paedagogues was the cantor, worthy Mr. Michael Korde.
The second was the rector, Thomas Bodza.
Apart from the fact that he had an extraordinary liking for wine and never could quite distinguish the forenoon from the afternoon, Mr. Michael Korde was a man of refinement to the very tips of his toes.
In his time he had worn out a great many stout hazel switches, it being the custom of his establishment to make each pupil provide his own rod. This was no doubt an extra item in the curriculum, but, on the other hand, there was something to show for it; all those who passed through his hands when they subsequently fell into the clutches of the Law could endure as many as five-and-twenty strokes from the hardest bludgeon without so much as wincing. They had been case hardened by their previous education.
The schoolhouse was the vis-a-vis of Mr. Korde's own private dwelling. It had never once been whitewashed since it was first built; but, on the other hand, it was richly adorned outside with the Christian names and the nicknames of all the urchins who had ever been inside its walls, names to which later generations of scholars had taken good care to add such distinguishing epithets as ass, swine, &c., &c. Those, moreover, who possessed a taste for art did not omit to paint on the wall, with red chalk, hussars, two-legged heads with six noses and one eye, large meerschaum pipes, &c., &c. Here and there, too, the remains of big black ink blots and red splodges, like hideous bunches of cherries, pointed to past combats in which inkpots had been hurled and fists used freely; these pictorial devices, however, were but fragmentary, as the various generations of students had from time to time dug large bits of mortar out of the walls with their nails to serve as sand for blotting their themes.
Inside the schoolroom the shapeless battered benches were also carved all over with names and emblems. The window panes had for the most part been broken to bits, and the gaps stuffed with closely written MS. torn out of old exercise books. Layers of dust met the eye everywhere, and there was a perfect network of dangling spiders' webs in all the corners.
Such, in all its beauty, was the academical emporium where Mr. Michael Korde for thirty years had been in the habit of regularly dispensing science and slaps—with what result we shall see later on.
Worthy Mr. Korde used regularly to return to his own honourable dwelling from the pot-house just when the night-watchmen were going home to sleep and the cocks were crowing in the morn, and at such times he would bellow forth ditties the whole way at the top of his voice to the accompaniment of the howling of all the watch-dogs in the village.
The object of this singing bout was to warn the honest tutor's better half that her lord was approaching, and give her time to open the street door for him.
On safely reaching home he would first of all knock his wife about a bit and break to pieces any odd articles which might stray into his hands, whereupon, after a little miscellaneous cursing and swearing, he would fling himself down upon the floor, light his pipe, fall asleep and snore like a wild hog.
Heaven only knows how it was that he did not burn his house over his head every day.
The following morning when the children assembled in the schoolhouse and began to kick up a most fearful din, the noble paedagogue would scramble to his feet, shake the straw out of his hair, smooth out his moustache, and gaze with a cannibalistic expression out of the attic window, not recognising for a moment exactly where he was.
After convincing himself by ocular demonstration that the schoolhouse had not taken wings unto itself and flown, but was still in the old place, he would shamble downstairs, stick a couple of canes under his arm, and go forth to teach.
His pupils meanwhile were engaged in frightful hand-to-hand combats with one another. There were scratched faces and bloody noses everywhere, and when the master entered he regularly found all the benches upset and everybody's hands tugging at his neighbour's hair.
The moment the facial portion of Mr. Michael Korde stumbled against the door, the little rebels instantly disentangled themselves from one another and attempted to reach their proper places, whence the grand inquisitor hooked them out one by one, and thwacked the whole class in turn with his own honourable hand.
This little commotion used generally to chase slumber somewhat from his eyes, and when the lads had left off howling a bit, he would measure out to each of them a big slice of catechism, or a similar amount of Huebner's "Short questions in geography," to be repeated aloud till learnt by heart, whilst he himself adjourned to the pot-house. From this place of refuge he would send a message to the urchins later in the afternoon that they might go home.
Thereupon there was a general rush for the door (just as when a herd of swine reaches home, and every one tried to get through first) to an accompaniment of kicks, cuffs, and the tugging and tearing of clothes.
On Sundays the lads did their best to ferret out where the Lutheran children were playing ball. Then they all consulted together, and set off for the same place with stout sticks in their hands and their pockets crammed full of stones, and a battle royal forthwith would ensue between the youths of the rival creeds. When, then, Monday morning came round again Mr. Korde conscientiously administered a dose of birch, previously soaked in salt water, to each one of his pupils who appeared in class with a swollen face or a damaged noddle.
On Sunday, moreover, he twice took them with him to church where, during the sermon, they either caught blue-bottles under the seats, or played at knucklebones, or (but this was only when they were particularly well behaved) lay down on the floor of the pews and slept like Christians.
And when they grew up and became full-blown louts, their actions still testified to the influence of the school in which they had been reared. Whoever was the most skilful farmyard pilferer in the village, whoever was the most thorough-paced loafer in the county, could infallibly be regarded as an ex-pupil of Mr. Korde's.
Whoever was regularly chucked out of the pot-house every Sunday evening, whoever brought a broken pate home with him the oftenest, whoever spent most of his time in the village jail, would be he, you might be quite sure of it, who had picked up the rudiments of learning at the feet of Mr. Korde.
Whoever lied and perjured himself most frequently, whoever could swallow most brandy at a gulp, whoever knocked his wife about the oftenest, whoever turned his father and mother out of doors, whoever was most slothful in business, whoever had the filthiest house, whoever was cruel to his horse, whoever sat in the stocks habitually, would be he, you might safely rely upon it, who had learnt the philosophy of life in the school of Mr. Korde.
Thus for thirty years had he spread the blessings of science in Hetfalu and its environs.
The second instructor of the people was Thomas Bodza, a panslavist incarnate.
He had but little mind yet much learning. He was one of those men who remembered all he read without understanding it, a semi-savant and one of the most dangerous specimens of that dangerous class. Of him, I shall have occasion to speak presently.
* * * * *
One day Mr. Korde had drunk himself into an unusual state of fuddle.
When I say unusual, I mean, that as early as midnight he did not know whether he was boy or girl, and took the starry firmament for a bass-viol.
He had made a little excursion with his friend the magistrate, Mr. Martin Csicseri, to a little tavern in the outlying vineyards to taste the new vintages, and there the two gentlemen got so drunk that they would have found it difficult to explain in what language they were conversing.
Finally they set off homewards, leaning heavily for support on each other's shoulders. His honour, Mr. Csicseri suddenly caught sight of a broad ditch by the roadside. He swore by heaven and earth that it was a nicely quilted bed, and there and then laid himself down in it and fell asleep.
For some time Mr. Korde kept on pulling and tugging at him to get him out, first by an arm and then by a leg. However, so far from giving his friend any encouragement, Mr. Csicseri only rebuked his wife for putting such a low pillow beneath his head, and then, without pursuing the subject further, went off as sound asleep as a humming top.
So the cantor found himself all alone in a strange world.
In front of him lay the high road, and the village was only three hundred yards further on; but wine is a bad compass in a man's noddle, and never points north in the same direction two minutes together.