Wallachian troops were holding the mountain passes about Torda, and had even threatened Toroczko; but thus far the inhabitants had not allowed themselves to be frightened. Now, however, there was a report that General Kalliani was approaching from Hermannstadt with a brigade of imperial soldiery. Consequently it was to be feared that a general flight from Torda to Kolozsvar would soon follow; and, when once the stream of fugitives began, it would be impossible to make one's way in an opposite direction. Therefore our travellers had not a moment to lose.
Blanka was by this time well used to travelling by night, and she entered cheerfully and without question into the proposed plan. A longing to reach "home," and perhaps a vague suspicion of the perils that threatened her party, made her the more willing to push forward. When danger braces to action, a high-bred woman's power of endurance is almost without limit.
Aaron drove, Manasseh sat beside him, and thus the entire rear seat was left to Blanka, who was so swathed and muffled in wraps and furs that she was well-nigh hidden from view. Despite all the plausible explanations, she came very near guessing the well-meant deceit that was practised upon her.
"Why, your horses are saddled!" she exclaimed to Aaron.
"Yes, to be sure," calmly replied the mountaineer. "That's the custom in Transylvania; we put saddles on our carriage-horses just as in Styria they buckle a block of wood over the horse's neck."
Blanka appeared satisfied with this explanation of Transylvanian usage. Aaron gave his good Szekler steeds a free rein. They were raised in the mountains and could, if need were, trot for twenty-four hours on a stretch without food or water; then, if they were unharnessed and allowed to graze a little, they were able to resume the journey with unslackened pace. The driver had no occasion to use reins or whip: they knew their duty,—to pull lustily when the road led up-hill, to hold back in going down-hill, to trot on a level, to overtake and pass any carriage in front of them, to quicken their pace when they heard one behind, and to halt before every inn.
Aaron, turning half around on his seat, beguiled the time by telling stories to his fair passenger, to whom his fund of amusing anecdotes seemed inexhaustible. When at length, as they were ascending a long hill, he noticed that she ceased to laugh at his tales, but sat inert and with head sunk on her bosom, he put his hand into his waistcoat pocket and, drawing out an enamelled gold watch, pressed the stem and held it to his ear.
"Half-past twelve," he murmured.
The man himself was a gold watch encased in a rough exterior, a noble heart in a rude setting. His horny hands were hardened by toil, but he had a clever head on his shoulders; he was well endowed with mother-wit, quick at repartee, merciless in his satire toward the haughty and overbearing, cool and good-humoured in the presence of danger,—in short, a genuine Szekler, heart and soul.
When, then, his repeater had told him the hour, Aaron turned and addressed his brother. "The young lady is asleep," said he, "and now you and I can have a little talk together. You asked me how our two brothers came to be captured. Let me begin at the beginning, and you shall hear all about it. You know when freedom is first born she is a puny infant and has to be suckled. That she cries for blood instead of milk is something we can't help. So all the young men of Toroczko enlisted in the militia,—every mother's son of them,—and they are now serving in the eleventh, the thirty-second, and the seventy-third battalions. You ask me, perhaps, why we mountain folk must needs take the field when already we are fighting for our country all our life long in the bowels of the earth. You say it is enough for us to dig the iron in our mountains without wielding it on the battle-field; else what do the privileges mean that were granted us by Andreas II. and Bela IV., by which we are exempted from military service? It's no use your talking, Manasseh; you've been away from home. But had you been here and seen and heard your brother David when he stood up in the middle of the marketplace, made a speech to the young men around him, and then buckled on his sword and mounted his horse, you would certainly have mounted and followed him. How can you quench the flames when every house is ablaze? All the young men were on fire and it was out of the question to dampen their ardour. Besides, this is no ordinary war; freedom itself is at stake, and that is a matter that concerns Toroczko. All the Wallachians around us, stirred up by imperial officers sent from Vienna, took up arms against us, and nothing was left us but to defend ourselves. The people took such a fancy to our brothers that there was no other way but to make them officers. You cry out against the good folk for letting their commanders be taken prisoners. But don't make such a noise about it." (Manasseh had thus far not once opened his mouth.) "You shall soon see that your brothers were no fools, and did not rush into danger recklessly. You know that soon after the Wallachian mass-meeting at Balazsfalva came the Szekler muster at Agyagfalva, and presently we found ourselves like an island in the midst of the sea. A Wallachian army ten thousand strong, under Moga's command, beset us on all sides, while we had but three hundred armed men all told,—just the number that Leonidas had at Thermopylae. Our eldest brother, Berthold, who, since he turned vegetarian, can't bear to see a chicken killed for dinner, and is dead set against all bloodshed, advised us to make peaceful terms with the enemy. So we drew lots to see who should go out and parley with them, and it fell to our brother Simon. He took a white flag and went into the enemy's camp; but they held him prisoner and refused to let him go. Then David started up and went after him, with an offer of ransom for his release. But they seized him, too, and so now they have them both. Meanwhile the Wallachs are threatening, if we don't surrender to them and admit them into Toroczko, to hang our two brothers before our eyes. We on our part, however, turn a deaf ear to the rascally knaves, and would perish to the last man before we would think of yielding. It's no use your screaming in my ears, you won't make me change my mind. I'm ready to treat with people that are reasonable, but when they bite me I bite back. I agree with you it's a hateful thing to have two of our brothers hanged; noblemen are not to be insulted with the halter; their honour should be spared and their heads taken off decently. But what can we do? Can we hesitate a moment between two noblemen's deaths and the destruction of all the peasantry? One man is as good as another now. So you may make as much rumpus as you please, it won't do any good. I am taking you to Toroczko, and as our two brothers are as good as lost to us, you must take the command of the Toroczko forces. You have seen the barricade fighting in Vienna and Rome, and you understand such things. So, then, not another word! I won't hear it."
Manasseh had not uttered a syllable, but had permitted his brother to argue out the matter with himself.
"I don't gainsay you, brother Aaron," he calmly rejoined, "not in the least. Take me to Toroczko, the sooner the better; but we shall not get there by this road. Do you see that great cloud of dust yonder moving toward us?"
"Aha! What sharp eyes you have to see it, by moonlight too! I hadn't noticed it before. All Torda and Nagy-Enyed are coming to meet us. They must have set out about the same time we did, to make the most of the night. We can't get through this way, that's sure. But don't you worry. It's a sorry kind of a fox that has only one hole to hide in. Do you see that gorge there on our right? It leads to Olah-Fenes. The people there are Wallachs, it is true, but they side with us; to prove it, they have cut their hair short. Next we shall come to Szent-Laszlo, where Magyars live. So far we can drive, though it's a frightful road and one of us must walk beside the carriage and keep it from tipping over. We must wake up the young lady, too, and tell her to hold on tight, or she'll be thrown out. But never fear. The horses can be depended on, and the carriage is Toroczko work and good for the jaunt."
There was a halt, and Blanka awoke of her own accord. Manasseh turned to her, chatted with her a moment on the brightness of the stars and the clearness of the sky, then kissed her hand and bade her draw it back again under her furs, else it would get frost-bitten. Thereupon Aaron reined his horses toward the mountain gorge he had pointed out, and they began their dangerous journey over a rough wood-road that led through the ravine. At one point it ran along the brink of a precipice, and as they paused to breathe their horses the rumble of wagons on the highway from Torda fell on their ears, sounding like distant thunder in the still night. Then, to the north and south, red lights began to glimmer on the mountain peaks.
"How beautiful!" exclaimed Blanka, as she gazed at them. Little did she suspect that they were beacon-fires calling to deeds of blood and rapine.
A turn in the road at length conducted the travellers through a gap in the mountain range, and they had a view of the moonlit landscape before them. A noisy brook went tumbling and foaming down the ravine, and over it led a wooden bridge, at the farther end of which could be seen a rude one-story house surrounded by a palisade. Five smaller houses of similar architecture were grouped about it. The barking of dogs greeted the travellers while they were still some distance off, and the crowing of cocks soon followed.
"Do you hear Ciprianu's roosters?" Aaron asked his brother.
"So you are acquainted with Ciprianu and his poultry?" returned Manasseh.
"Yes, I know them well. Ciprianu is a Wallach, but a nobleman of Hungary for all that, and his poultry unique of its sort. The cocks are white, but in head and neck they bear a strong resemblance to turkeys, and they gobble like turkeys, too. They are a special breed and Ciprianu wouldn't part with one of them for a fortune. He guards them jealously from thieves, and that explains why he has so many dogs. As soon as he hears our carriage-wheels he'll come out on his veranda and fire off his gun—not at us, but into the air, to let us know he's awake and ready to meet friend or foe."
The barking increased, the dogs sticking their noses out from between the stakes of the palisade and joining in a full chorus. Presently a shot was heard from the front porch of the house.
"Oh, they are firing at us!" cried Blanka, startled.
"Don't be afraid, sister-in-law," Aaron reassured her; "that shot wasn't aimed at us." Then he shouted, in stentorian tones: "Don't shoot, Ciprianu, don't shoot! There's a lady with us, and she can't bear the noise."
At this there was heard a great commotion among the dogs, as of some one quieting the unruly beasts with a whip. Then the gate opened and a six-foot giant in a sheepskin coat, wool outward, and bearing a club, appeared. He exchanged greetings in Rumanian with Aaron, and the conversation that followed was likewise in that language, so that Blanka could not understand a word of it. The Wallach pointed to the signal-fires on the mountains, and his face assumed an expression of alarm. Finally he took one of the horses by the bridle, and conducted the carriage through the gate and into his stronghold.
"Why are we stopped here?" asked Blanka.
Aaron gave her a reassuring reply. "Ciprianu says it is not best for us to go any farther to-night, as the rains have washed out the road in some places, and we might get into trouble in the dark. So we must accept his invitation and spend the rest of the night under his roof."
Aaron had explained the situation only in part. The Wallachian's argument for detaining them had much less to do with water than with the fires on the mountain tops.
The dogs were kicked aside to make room for the strangers, and sundry villagers appeared out of the gloom to reconnoitre the new arrivals. The country peasantry never give themselves a regular night's sleep, but lie down half-dressed in order to get up occasionally and look around in house and stable, to make sure all is as it should be.
Ciprianu had a handsome daughter, as tall as himself and with regular features of the old Roman cast. At her father's call she came out, lifted Blanka like a child from the carriage, and carried her into the house. It was a pleasant little abode, built of smoothly planed oak beams and planks. The kitchen, which served also as entrance hall, was as neat as wax and cheerfully adorned with brightly polished tinware. The fire on the hearth was still smouldering, and it needed only a handful of shavings to make it blaze up and crackle merrily. The wall which separated the great fireplace from the next room was of glazed tiles, and thus the adjoining apartment was heated by the same fire that warmed the kitchen. Both the master of the house and his daughter were most cordial toward their guests. The father spread the table, while the girl put on the kettle and brought out the best that the house had to offer of food and drink, pressing the refreshments upon Blanka in words that sounded to her not unlike Italian, but were nevertheless quite unintelligible.
"They can both speak Hungarian," whispered Aaron, when father and daughter were out of the room for a moment, "but these are times when they choose to forget all tongues except their own."
Blanka soon learned that her hostess's name was Zenobia. When they sat down to the table, Zenobia made as if to kiss her fair guest's hand; Blanka, however, would not allow it, but embraced the young woman and kissed her on the cheek.
This act was noted by the father with no little pride and satisfaction. Blanka could not understand his words; she could only guess his meaning by the gestures and the play of countenance with which a Wallachian knows so well how to convey his thoughts. Thus, when Ciprianu put his hand first to his head, then tapped Aaron on the shoulder, kissed his own fingers and then stretched them heavenward, made a motion with his head and raised his eyebrows, bowed low, stood erect again, thumped his bosom, and finally extended his great, muscular hands toward Blanka as if to caress her, she could not but infer that the Wallachian-Hungarian nobleman was proud of the courtesy shown to his daughter.
After this bit of eloquent pantomime, Ciprianu turned and hastened out of the room and into the courtyard, whence he soon reappeared amid a great cackling of poultry. He brought with him, tied together by the feet, a cock and a hen of that splendid breed that so strangely resembles, in head and neck, the proudest of Calcutta turkeys. This pair of fowls he presented to Blanka. She smiled her pleasure, and gladly accepted the gift, mindful of the new duties soon to be imposed upon her as a young housewife, and thinking that this present would be a welcome addition to her establishment. The generous host did not wait for his guest's thanks, but disappeared again from the room.
"Sister-in-law," said Aaron, "you little suspect the value of the present you have received. Even to his bishop Ciprianu has never given a cock and a hen of this breed at one time. So now we can sleep soundly in this house, for we have a sure proof that you have won its master's heart. With Ciprianu's cock and hen we can make our way unchallenged through the whole Wallachian army. They are as good as a passport for us."
Blanka laughed, unaware of the full significance of his words. She was like a saint walking over red-hot coals without once singeing the hem of her robe.
Ciprianu's house was, as is usual among the Wallachian nobility, well fitted for the reception of guests. Everything savoured of the householder's nationality, but comfort and abundance were everywhere manifest. Canopied beds were provided for all, only the master of the house, according to established custom, lay down before the kitchen door, wrapped in his sheepskin, and with his double-barrelled musket by his side. In an adjoining room stood two beds for Blanka and Zenobia. Aaron and Manasseh were likewise given a chamber in common.
Curiously enough, one is often most wakeful when most in need of sleep. All her surroundings were so strange to Blanka that she found herself wide awake and listening to the barking of the dogs, the occasional crowing of the cocks, the snoring of the master of the house, and his frequent mutterings as he dreamed of fighting with thieves and housebreakers. Then her companion began to moan and sob in her sleep, and to utter disjointed sentences in Hungarian, of which she had so studiously feigned ignorance a few hours before. "Oh, dear Jonathan," she whispered, passionately, "do not leave me! Kiss me!" Then she moaned as if in anguish.
Blanka could not compose herself to sleep. Only a wooden partition separated her from the room in which the two brothers slept. She could hear Manasseh turning restlessly on his couch and muttering in his sleep as if in dispute with some one.
"No, I will not let you go!" she heard him exclaim. "You may plunge my whole country in blood, you may baptise my countrymen with a baptism of fire, but I will never despair of my dear fatherland. Your hand has girt it round about with cliffs and peopled it with a peaceful race. It is my last refuge, and thither I am carrying my bride. With your strong arm restore me to my beloved home. I will wrestle with you, fight with you; you cannot shake me off. I will not let you go until you have blessed me."
The fisticuffs and elbow-thrusts that followed must have all spent themselves on poor Aaron's unoffending person. At length the elder brother wearied of this diversion and aroused his bedfellow.
"With whom are you wrestling, brother?" he cried in the sleeper's ear.
"With God," returned Manasseh.
"Like Jacob at Peniel?"
"Yes, and I will not let him go until he blesses me—like Jacob at Peniel."
"Take care, or he will put your thigh out of joint, as he did Jacob's."
"Let him, if it is his will."
With that Manasseh turned his face to the wall, on the other side of which lay Blanka, who likewise turned her face to the wall, and so they both fell asleep.
And the Lord blessed them and spake to them: "I am Jehovah, almighty. Increase and be fruitful. From your seed shall spring peoples and races; for you have prevailed with God, and shall prevail also with men."
The sun rises late in November. When Blanka awoke, every one else in the house was already up. Manasseh met her with the announcement that their journey was thenceforth to be on horseback, at which she was as pleased as a child. So that explained why their carriage-horses had been saddled.
In the kitchen a plentiful breakfast stood ready,—hot milk, bacon spiced with paprika, snow-white mountain honey, long-necked bottles of spirits distilled from various fruits, cheeses rolled up in the fragrant bark of the fir-tree,—all of which was new to Blanka and partaken of by her with the keenest relish, to the great satisfaction of her host. What was left on the table by his guests he packed up and made them carry away with them, assuring them it would not come amiss.
Zenobia was to guide the travellers on their way. Blanka laughed with delight as she mounted her horse. At first she found it strange enough to sit astride like a man, but when she saw the stately Wallachian maiden thus mounted, she overcame her scruples and even thought it great fun. The little mountain horses were so steady and sure-footed that it was like being rocked in a cradle to ride one of them.
The two young women rode ahead, while the men lingered behind a moment to drink a stirrup-cup with their host, who would not let them go without observing this ceremony. Entering the forest, Blanka accosted her companion.
"Zenobia, call me 'Blanka,' and speak Hungarian with me. You spoke it well enough in your sleep last night."
The Wallachian girl drew rein abruptly and crossed herself. "Holy Virgin!" she whispered, "don't lisp a word of what you heard me say, and don't ask me about it, either."
They rode on side by side up the slope of the mountain. Blanka was in high spirits. The turf was silvered with hoar frost, except here and there where the direct rays of the sun had melted it and exposed the grass beneath, which looked all the greener by contrast. A stately grove received the travellers. A silence as of some high-arched cathedral reigned, broken occasionally by the antiphony of feathered songsters in the trees overhead. A pair of wild peacocks started up at the riders' approach and alighted again at a little distance. The ascent became steeper. Horses bred in the lowlands must have long since succumbed to the strain put upon them, but Aaron's good mountain ponies showed not even a drop of sweat on their sleek coats.
Gaining the mountain top at length, the travellers saw before them a wild moor threaded by a narrow path, which they were obliged to follow in single file, Zenobia taking the lead. The sun was high in the heavens when they reached the end of this tortuous path and found themselves at a point where their road led downward into the valley below. A venerable beech-tree, perhaps centuries old, marked this spot. It was the sole survivor of the primeval forest that had once crowned the height on which it stood. Held firm by its great, wide-reaching roots, which fastened themselves in the crannies of the rock, it had thus far defied the elements. Its trunk half hid a cavernous opening in the mountainside, before which lay a large stone basin partly filled with water.
"Here we will rest awhile, beside the Wonder Spring," said Zenobia, leaping from her horse and loosening her saddle-girth. "We'll take a bite of lunch and let our animals graze; then later we will water them."
"How can we?" asked Blanka. "There is scarcely any water here."
"There will be enough before long," was the reply. "That is why we call it the Wonder Spring: every two hours it gushes out, and then subsides again."
Blanka shook her head doubtfully, and, as if to make the most of the water still remaining in the basin, she used her hand as a ladle and dipped up enough to quench the thirst of her pair of fowls—for her valuable present had not been left behind.
Meanwhile Aaron had spread the lunch on the green table-cloth provided by good dame Nature, and had begun to cut, with his silver-mounted clasp-knife, a generous portion for each traveller. But Blanka declared herself less hungry than thirsty.
"The saints have but to wish, and their desires are fulfilled," was Zenobia's laughing rejoinder. "Even the barren rocks yield nectar. Hear that! The spring is going to flow in a moment."
A gurgling sound was heard from the cavernous opening behind the beech-tree, and presently an abundant stream of crystal-clear water burst forth, flooded the basin, and then went leaping and foaming over the rocks and down the mountainside into the ravine below. Blanka clapped her hands with delight at this beautiful appearance, and declared that if she were rich, she would build a house there and ask for no other amusement than to watch the spring when it flowed. She laughed like a happy child, and perhaps in all Transylvania, that day, hers was the only happy laugh that was heard.
Aaron gathered a heap of dry twigs and made a fire, at which he taught Blanka to toast bread and broil bacon,—accomplishments not to be despised on occasions like this.
In half an hour the spring ceased to flow. It stopped with a succession of muffled, gurgling sounds from the depths of its subterranean channel, ending finally with gulping down the greater part of the water that had filled the basin. Then all was still once more.
Meanwhile something had occurred to trouble Blanka's happiness. Two or three wasps, of that venomous kind of which half a dozen suffice to kill a horse, lured from their winter quarters by the smell of food, were buzzing about her ears in a manner that spoiled all her pleasure. Aaron hastened to her assistance, and suspecting that the intruders had their nest in the hollow beech, he made preparations to smoke them out. Setting fire to a bunch of dry grass, he inserted it in the hollow of the tree and confidently awaited results. A sound like the snort of a steam-engine followed, and presently flames were seen bursting from the top of the chimney-like trunk. The dry mould and dust of ages that had collected inside this shaft had now caught fire, like so much tinder, turning the whole tree in a twinkling into a mighty torch.
"Oh, what have you done?" cried Zenobia, starting up. "Do you know that you have killed my father and set fire to the house that sheltered you last night?"
Blanka at first thought the girl was joking, but when she saw Aaron's vexed expression and Manasseh's ruffled brow, she knew that the words must have a meaning that the others understood, though she did not.
"Quick!" exclaimed the Wallachian maiden. "Mount and away! You have not a moment to lose. I hasten back to my father. You can find your way down the mountain by following the bed of the brook. Night must not overtake you in this neighbourhood. Oh, Aaron, may God forgive you for what you have done this day!"
Out of the burning tree a pair of owls fluttered, blinded and panic-stricken, a family of squirrels scampered off to a place of safety, and a nest of serpents squirmed and wriggled away from that blazing horror. Yet neither owls nor squirrels nor serpents fled with more headlong haste than did our travellers. Zenobia galloped back the way she had come, while the two men took Blanka between them and clattered down the rocky bed of the now nearly dry mountain torrent.
Of all this Blanka could understand nothing. What great harm, she wondered, could come from the burning of an old beech-tree?
Toward evening the travellers found themselves on a height commanding a wide view of the surrounding country. To the north rose the cliff where they had lunched at noon, and where they could still see black smoke ascending in a column from the smouldering beech as from a factory chimney. To the southeast another column of smoke was visible, and toward the same quarter Torda Gap opened before them in the distance.
Aaron said they must halt here and rest their horses, whereupon all three dismounted and Manasseh spread a sheepskin for Blanka to sit on; but she chose rather to go in quest of wild flowers.
"Your Blanka is a jewel of a woman!" exclaimed Aaron to his brother. "From early dawn she sits in the saddle, bears all the hardships of the journey, and utters not a sigh of weariness or complaint. With that filigree body of hers, she endures fatigues that might well make a strong man's bones ache, and keeps up her good cheer through them all. Nothing daunted by danger ahead, she makes merry over it when it is passed. Yet once or twice I thought she was going to lose heart, but she looked into your face and immediately regained her courage. But the hardest part of the journey is still to come. Turn your field-glass toward Monastery Heights, yonder, where you see the smoke. Do you find any tents there?"
"Yes, and on the edge of the woods I see the gleam of bayonets."
"That is the camp of Moga's insurgents, and it lies between us and the Szekler Stone. Every road leading thither is now unsafe for us. But hear my plan. The insurgents hold Monastery Heights, and we must ride past them, through the Torda Gap. The millers of the two mills that stand one at each end of the Gap are my friends. The Hungarian miller at Peterd has shut off Hesdad Brook to-day, to clear out the mill-race. He does it once in so often, and I know he is about it now. So we shall have no trouble making our way up the dry bed of the stream to the farther end of the Gap. The miller there has promised to give a signal if the road through the Torda woods is clear, and unless it is blocked by the insurgents we can push on at once to the saw-mill on the Aranyos, where a four-horse team is waiting for us with twelve mounted young men from Bagyon as escort. But don't wrinkle your brow, we sha'n't come to bloodshed yet awhile. A dozen Bagyon horsemen make nothing of dashing through the whole Wallachian army, and not a hair of their heads will be touched. We shall be shot at, but from such a distance that we shall never know it. We will tell the young lady it is the custom in our country to receive bridal parties with a volley of musketry. When we reach the Borev Bridge we are as good as at home, and we shall be there before any one can overtake us, I'll warrant."
"But what if the Torda woods are held by the enemy?" queried Manasseh.
"Then we will take up our quarters for the present in Balyika Cave. Everything is provided there for our comfort, and we shall not suffer. We'll wait until the danger passes. Near the Balyika Gate we shall find a signal: a cord will be stretched from one rock to another, and a red rag hung on it if danger threatens, but a green twig if all is well."
"And when you first proposed in Kolozsvar that we should go home by way of Torda Gap, did you know the perils we should have to face?"
"Certainly," replied Aaron. "You can read my heart, brother, like an open book, and I need not try to conceal anything from you. Do you suppose we should ever have taken up arms unless we had been forced to do so, even as you will exchange the olive-branch for the sword as soon as you find what is dearest to you in danger? You cannot do otherwise; the iron hand of destiny constrains you. You have brought your sweetheart with you from Rome; your honour as a man obliges you to make her your lawful wife. Our law, our canon, compels you to make your way home with her, for nowhere else can your wedding be duly solemnised. Suppose the enemy block your way: you are given a good horse, a trusty sword and a brace of pistols, and then, with thirteen loyal comrades, including myself, you clear a path, through blood if need be, to the altar whither it is your duty to lead your betrothed."
While the two men thus discoursed on war and bloodshed, Blanka was enjoying the late autumn flowers that the frost had spared. Indigo-blue bell-flowers and red and white tormentils were still in bloom, while in the clefts of the rocks she came upon the red wall-pepper and a kind of yellow ragwort. She had gathered a great bunch of these blossoms when she had the good fortune to find a clump of bear-berry vines, full of the ripened fruit hanging in red clusters and set off by the leathery, dark green leaves, which never fall. The bear-berry is the pride of the mountain flora, and Blanka was delighted to meet with it.
"Are these berries poisonous?" she asked Aaron, with childish curiosity, as soon as she rejoined her companions.
He put one of them into his mouth to reassure her; then she had to follow his example, but immediately made a wry face and declared the fruit to be very bitter.
"But the berries will do to put in my bouquets for your two brothers who are coming to meet us," she said, as she seated herself on the sheepskin to rest a few minutes and to tie up her flowers.
At these words Aaron's eyes filled, but he hastened to reply, with assumed cheerfulness:
"In Balyika Glen we shall find a still more beautiful species of bear-berry. It, too, is a kind of arbutus, but of great rarity, and found nowhere else except in Italy and Ireland. We call it here the 'autumn-spring flower.' The stems are coral-red, the leaves evergreen, and the blossoms grow in terminal umbels, white and fragrant, late in the fall, while the berries do not ripen until the following autumn, so that the beautiful plant bears flowers and fruit at one and the same time, and thus wears our national colours, the tricolour of Hungary."
"Oh, where does it grow? Is it far from here?" exclaimed Blanka, eagerly, starting up from her seat. She had lost all feeling of fatigue.
"It is a good distance, dear sister-in-law," replied Aaron. "To the Torda Gap is a full hour's ride, and thence to Balyika Glen about as far; and I'm afraid somebody is tired enough already, so that we had best stay overnight in the mill and not push on until to-morrow morning."
"No, I am not tired," Blanka asserted. "Let us go on this evening," and she was ready to remount at once.
"But the horses ought to graze a little longer," objected Aaron, "and even then we shall fare much better if we walk down the mountain; it will be easier for us than riding."
With that he went off into the bushes and picked his hat full of huckleberries, returning with which he drew a clean linen handkerchief from his knapsack, used it as a strainer for extracting the juice of the fruit, and then presented the drink in a wooden goblet to Blanka. She left some for Manasseh, who drank after her and declared he had never tasted a more delightful draught. She seemed now fully rested and refreshed, and eager to resume their journey. Aaron put two fingers into his mouth and whistled, whereupon the three horses came trotting up to him. He called them by name, and they followed him as a dog follows his master, while Manasseh and Blanka brought up the rear. Thus the party descended the steep mountainside.
The Torda Gap is one of the most marvellous volcanic formations in existence. It is as if a mighty mountain chain had been rent asunder from ridge to base, leaving the opposing sides of the gorge rugged and precipitous, but matching each other with a rude harmony of detail most curious to behold. The zigzags and windings of the giant corridor, three thousand feet in length, have a wonderful regularity and symmetry in their bounding walls. The whole forms an entrance-way or passage of solid rock, the most imposing gateway in the world, and a marvel to all geologists.
The wonders of this mountain gorge, and the stories and legends that Aaron narrated as the travellers proceeded, made Blanka entirely unconscious of the difficulties of the way. After leaving the Peterd mill behind them, they were forced to use the bed of the stream for a road. Its waters were for the time being restrained, although numerous pools were still standing, in which numbers of small fishes darted hither and thither and crabs were seen in abundance. As the riders advanced through the rocky passageway, its walls came nearer and nearer together and left only a narrow strip of blue sky visible overhead, with a few slanting rays of the evening sunlight playing high up on one side of the gorge. At length the passage became so straitened that only three fathoms' space was left between the confining walls. When Hesdad Brook is at all full one can make his way through only with great difficulty and by boldly breasting its waters. Therefore it is that very few people have ever seen the gate of Torda Gap. Just above this narrow gateway is situated the natural excavation in the mountainside, called from its last defender, Balyika Cave.
As the travellers approached this spot, Aaron rode on ahead, ostensibly to ascertain whether the water was still shallow enough to wade through, but in reality to look for the preconcerted signal and remove it before Blanka should come up. He had agreed with Manasseh, if the signal was favourable, to offer to show her the flower garden of Balyika Glen and to discourage all desire on her part to visit Balyika Cave, by alleging that it was the haunt of serpents; but if the signal should be unfavourable, he was to employ all his arts to make the young lady eager to inspect the cavern and pass the night there.
He soon returned, and reported that it would be easy to wade their horses through the gateway, after which they could go and view the wonders of Balyika Cave.
"But aren't there any snakes in the cave?" was Blanka's first and most natural inquiry. Every woman in her place would have put the same question. Ever since Mother Eve's misadventure with the serpent in Paradise, women have cherished a deadly enmity toward the whole reptile family.
"Yes," was Aaron's reply, "there are snakes there."
Manasseh drew a breath of relief, but this time he had mistaken his brother's meaning.
"We need not fear them, however," the elder made haste to add. "We will build a fire and drive them out. Our fowls, too, will be a still better protection for us; with their naked necks they will be taken for vultures by the snakes, and we shall have no trouble whatever."
Manasseh now knew that dangers surrounded them, and that they must pass the night in the cave. Aaron, however, put forth all his eloquence to depict the charms of the place, likening its cavernous depths to the groined arches of a cathedral, and telling how his ancestors had maintained themselves there for months at a time in the face of a besieging force. He assured Blanka that she would find it most delightful to camp there by a blazing fire; he and Manasseh would take turns watching while she slept, her head pillowed on a fragrant bundle of hay.
They passed through the giant gateway, and clambered up to Balyika Cave, a spacious chamber in the side of the cliff, rudely but strongly fortified by a stone rampart that had been built to guard the entrance. A wild rosebush grew in the narrow doorway and seemed at first to refuse all admittance. Manasseh and Blanka waited without, while Aaron fought his way through the brambles, which tore at his leather coat without injuring it, and presently returned with three broad planks. He and Manasseh held the briers aside with two of them and laid the third as a bridge for Blanka to pass over unharmed. In a corner of the stone wall lay a pile of hay, and behind it a supply of pitch-pine torches, one of which Aaron now lighted. Then, like a lord in his own castle, he issued his orders to his companions. Manasseh was to lead the horses up, one at a time, and stable them in the rude courtyard, while Blanka was instructed to sit on a stone and arrange her flowers and feed her poultry. Meantime the master of ceremonies made everything ready for the other two within the cave.
The cock and hen were soon picking the barley from their mistress's lap, while she busied her fingers with the manufacture of a red necklace of the hips that grew on the wild rosebush. That other necklace, the dandelion chain, was treasured by Manasseh among his most precious possessions. Soon the horses were led up, stalled and fed, and then their groom drew in the wooden planks, according to his brother's instructions, and carried them into the cave, leaving the wild rosebush to resume its guardianship of the doorway. After this Aaron came out and offered his arm, like a courteous host, to escort Blanka into the cavern. She was no little surprised, on entering, to find herself in a stately hall, clean and comfortable, and lighted and warmed by a cheerful fire of fagots in its centre. Near the fire stood a table, neatly spread with a white cloth, on which were placed glasses and a pitcher of fresh spring-water. Beside the table a couch, rude but comfortable, had been prepared for her repose.
"Aaron, you are a magician!" cried the young girl. "Where did you get all these things?"
At this question the good man nearly let the cat out of the bag by explaining that everything had long since been in readiness for their coming. But he checked himself and considered his answer a moment. To say that he had brought all this outfit in his knapsack would have been too obviously a falsehood, so he sought another way out of the difficulty.
"I told the miller," he replied, with a jerk of his thumb over one shoulder, "that we should stay the night here, and he sent these things forward by a short cut over the mountain."
Thus it was only the speaker's thumb, and not his tongue, that lied, by pointing backward to the mill just passed, instead of forward to the other mill at the upper end of Torda Gap.
Aaron now offered to show the wonders of this rock palace, which, like the Palazzo Cagliari, consisted of two wings, from the second of which a low and narrow passage led upward to the mountain spring whence the thoughtful host had procured fresh water for their table. The previous occupants of this abode seemed to have been provided with not a few conveniences.
Returning to the fireside, Blanka was easily persuaded to try the couch that had been spread for her. The three planks, laid on some flat stones and heaped with sheepskins and rugs, made a very comfortable resting-place even for a lady. Blanka demanded nothing further, except a glass of water, and then begged Aaron to tell her some more stories, to which she listened with her chin resting in her hand and her eyelids now and then drooping with drowsiness, despite the interest she took in the narrator's ingenious farrago of fact and fiction, of romance and reality.
He told her how Balyika, the last lord of this castle, had held it for years against the imperial troops; even after Francis Rakoczy's surrender he had refused to lay down his arms, but had maintained his position with a sturdy band of a hundred mountaineers. With this little company he waged bitter warfare against his foes, losing his followers one after another in the unequal contest, until he alone was left. Even then he refused to yield himself, but outwitted all who strove to kill or capture him. Finally he met the fate of many another brave man,—he was betrayed by the woman he loved. He had been smitten with a passion for the daughter of the Torda baker, the beautiful Rosalie; but her affections were already bespoken by the butcher's apprentice, Marczi by name, a youth of courage and activity. However, she deigned to receive the outlawed chieftain's attentions, her sole purpose being to entrap him and deliver him up to his foes. One evening, when she went to keep an appointment with Balyika, she notified the village magistrate and the captain of the yeomen. These two took an armed force and surrounded the lovers' rendezvous, thinking thus at last to capture their man. But he cut his way through the soldiery, and, fleeing over the mountain, made straight for his cave in the Torda Gap, outstripping the pursuit of both horse and foot—with the single exception of the injured lover, Marczi, whom he could not shake off. The young man clung to his heels and chased him to the very entrance of his retreat, where, just as the robber chief was slipping through the opening of his cave, his pursuer hurled his hatchet with such deadly aim that it cleft the fugitive's skull, and he sank dead on the spot.
"And that was how the last lord of the cave came to his end," concluded Aaron.
"But what about Marczi and Rosalie?" asked Blanka.
The narrator proceeded to gratify her curiosity by making the young man fall into the hands of the Mongols, after which he was captured by a troop of Cossacks; and then, when Aaron was putting him through a similar experience with the dog-faced Tartars, his listener succumbed at last to the drowsiness against which she had been struggling, and the story was abruptly discontinued.
"I never heard that tale before, brother," said Manasseh, after assuring himself that Blanka was really asleep.
"Nor I, either," was Aaron's candid reply; "but in a tight pinch a man turns romancer sometimes. I don't know, though, what fables we can invent to keep the young lady here over to-morrow. You think up something, brother; don't let me go to perdition all alone for the lot of yarns I've been reeling off to your sweetheart."
"Very well," assented the other; "I'll set my wits to work. Now you lie down and rest a bit, while I stay up and tend the fire. At midnight I will wake you and lie down myself while you watch."
Aaron lay down with a bundle of twigs under his head for a pillow, and, muttering a snatch of a prayer, was fast asleep in a twinkling. Manasseh was now left undisturbed to devise something new and surprising against his brother's awakening. Tearing a leaf from his sketch-book, he wrote as follows:
"DEAR BROTHER AARON:—I cannot close my eyes in sleep while death threatens our brothers Simon and David. Nor can I endure the thought of my birthplace being turned into a bloody battle-field, and of the horrors of war invading the peaceful valley whither I am bringing my bride, and which has ever looked upon bloodshed with disapproval. It was my fond hope to give my wife a glimpse of mankind in something like its original sinless state, and to let her learn to know and worship the God of our fathers as a God of love and gentleness. I am seeking a way by which this cherished hope of mine may yet be realised. While the Lord watches over your slumbers, I go in quest of the insurgent leader. That which force and threats cannot effect may yet be accomplished by peaceful means. I go to rescue our brothers from imprisonment and death. No fears can hold me back, as no inducements could prevail on me to slip stealthily by their place of confinement and push forward to celebrate my wedding while they perhaps were being led out to execution. I go forth alone and unarmed, and I am hopeful of success. Meanwhile do you guard and cherish my beloved. Above all, take her away from this place early to-morrow morning. Our presence here is known to one man, and he may betray us. You know the way to Porlik Grotto; few people are even aware of its existence, so well is it hidden from the view of travellers. Thither you must conduct our companion, and I will join you there with our two brothers from Monastery Heights. I may perhaps be there before you. But if it should please God not to prosper my undertaking, take Blanka home with you, and, if the Lord preserves our family, treat her as a sister. She is worthy of your adoption. Break to her gently the news of my fate. In the accompanying pocketbook is all her worldly wealth, as well as my own savings. Take charge of it. My brother Jonathan resembles me in appearance, and is a much better man than I. To him I leave all that I now call mine.
"Do not betray to Blanka any anxiety on my account. If God be with me, who shall prevail against me?
"Your brother, "MANASSEH."
A DESPERATE HAZARD.
After finishing his letter, Manasseh took a number of banknotes out of his pocketbook and put them into his waistcoat pocket, and then softly slipped the pocketbook itself, with his letter, under Aaron's pillow. On Blanka's pure brow, as she lay asleep, he gently pressed a parting kiss, after which he heaped fresh fuel on the fire, stole out of the cave, saddled his horse, and rode away into the darkness.
The signal-fire on Monastery Heights showed him where to find the Wallachian camp. No outposts challenged his progress, and he made his way unmolested to the ruined monastery which sheltered the insurgents. Fastening his horse to a tree, he turned his steps toward the belfry tower that marked the position of the cloister and the chapel, which, as the only building on the mountain with a whole roof, served the Wallachian leader and his staff as headquarters.
Softly opening the door, Manasseh found himself in a low but spacious apartment. Twelve men were seated around a table on which stood a single tallow candle, whose feeble rays could hardly pierce the enveloping clouds of tobacco smoke. The company was engaged in that engrossing pursuit which, as is well known, claimed so much of the officers' time during the campaigns of the period,—they were playing cards.
One chair in the circle was empty. Perhaps its former occupant had gambled away his last kreutzer and left the room. At any rate, the newcomer advanced without hesitation and took the vacant seat. It may be that the players were too absorbed in their game to notice him; or possibly they had so recently come together that they were not yet sufficiently acquainted to detect a stranger's presence; or, again, the feeble light and the clouds of tobacco smoke may have rendered it impossible to distinguish one's neighbours very clearly. Whatever the reason, the stranger's advent elicited no comment. A pocketful of money furnished him all the language he needed to speak, and the cards were dealt to him as a matter of course. Opposite him sat the Wallachian leader.
The game proceeded and the stakes rose higher and higher. One after another the losers dropped out, until at last Manasseh and the Wallachian commander were left pitted against each other, a heap of coins and banknotes between them. Fortune declared for Manasseh, and he swept the accumulated stakes into his pocket. At this the others looked him more sharply in the face. "Who is he?" was asked by one and another.
"Why, you are Manasseh Adorjan!" exclaimed the leader at length, in astonishment. "What do you mean by this rashness?"
The faces around him assumed threatening looks, and more than one muttered menace fell on his ear; but the hardy intruder betrayed no sign of uneasiness.
"I trust I am among gentlemen," he remarked, quietly, "who will not seek a base revenge on a player that has won their money from them."
The words failed not of their effect. Honour forbade that a hand should be raised against the fortunate winner.
"But, Adorjan," interposed the leader, in a tone of mingled wonder and vexation, "how did you come here and what is your purpose?"
"Time enough to talk about that when we have finished playing," was the careless rejoinder. "First I must win the rest of your money. So have the goodness to resume your seats."
The company began to laugh. Clenched fists relaxed, and the men clapped the intruder jovially on the shoulder, as they again took their places around the table.
"Haven't you a spare pipe to lend me?" Manasseh asked his right-hand neighbour.
"Yes, yes, to be sure," was the ready reply.
Manasseh filled the proffered pipe, drew from his pocket a banknote which he rolled into a lighter, thrust it into the candle-flame, and so kindled his pipe, after which he took up his cards and began to play.
A faint-hearted man, on finding his own and his brothers' lives thus at stake, would have sought to curry favour by allowing his opponents to win. But not so Manasseh. He plundered the company without mercy, as before, and as before he and his vis-a-vis were at last left sole antagonists, while the others rose from their places and gathered in groups about these two. Manasseh still continued to win, and his opponent's supply of money ebbed lower and lower. The loser grew furious, and drank deeply to keep himself in countenance.
"Give me a swallow of your brandy," said Manasseh, but he had no sooner tasted it than he pushed the bottle disdainfully away. "Fusel-oil!" he exclaimed, making a wry face. "To-morrow I will send you a cask of my plum brandy."
"No, you won't," returned his antagonist.
"Why not, pray?"
"Because to-morrow you shall hang."
"Oh, no," replied Manasseh, lightly, "for that would require my personal presence, and I am needed elsewhere."
The Wallachian continued to lose. Finally, in his fury, he staked his last penny—"and your brothers' heads into the bargain!" he added, in desperation.
The other took him up and staked his own head in addition to the bundle of notes which he threw down nonchalantly before him.
They played, and again Manasseh won. A man less bold of temperament might have thought to gain his enemies' good-will by leaving his winnings on the table. But Manasseh knew better. His opponents, angered by their losses, called him a robber, but still respected him. Had he, however, been so timid as to leave the money lying there, they would have regarded his action as such an insult that he would have been compelled to fight the entire company, one after another, in single combat.
"Now, then," said the leader, "we have time to talk. Why are you here—to persuade us to release your two brothers and leave Toroczko in peace?"
"A man of your discernment can fathom my motives without asking any questions," replied Manasseh, with a courteous bow.
"Well, let us see how you are going to work to bring this about. Your brother David, like the simple rustic he is, thought to talk me over with Bible quotations. He preached me a sermon on the love of one's neighbour, Christ's commandments, the almighty power of Jehovah, and a lot more of the same sort, until at last I grew tired of it and had him locked up to keep him quiet. Your brother Simon is a shrewder man; he has been to school at Kolozsvar. He came to me with threats in his mouth, delivered a long harangue on the constitution, the powers of the government, our past history, and kept up such a din in my ears that finally I had to shut him up, too. But you are the cleverest of the three; you have been trained as a diplomat, and have taken lessons in Vienna from Metternich himself. Let us hear what you have to say."
"Set my brothers free," returned Manasseh, boldly, "and promise me not to attack Toroczko; then I will give you sixteen fat oxen and twenty casks of plum brandy."
The Wallachian sprang to his feet and clapped his hand to his sword. "If you were only armed," he exclaimed wrathfully, "you should pay for your insolence by fighting me. Do you take me for an Armenian peddler to be chaffered with in that fashion?"
Manasseh kept his seat on the edge of the table, swinging one foot carelessly to and fro. "If you were an Armenian peddler," was his cool retort, "you would be far more sensibly employed than at present. But why so angry? I offer you what you most need, food and drink; and I ask in return what we most desire, peace."
"But what you offer us we can come and take in spite of you. You three brothers are now in our hands, and we have only to send word to the people of Toroczko that, unless they lay down their arms and surrender the town, we shall hang you from the turret of St. George Castle."
"There are five more of us brothers at home, and, furthermore, in order to reach St. George Castle you must push through the Gap or make your way over the Szekler Stone, and you know well enough that the men of Toroczko have held this valley in times past against the whole invading army of the Tartars."
"You forget that there is still another way to reach Toroczko."
"No, I do not forget it. You mean the bridge over the Aranyos. But our iron cannon guard that bridge, and your bushrangers are hardly the troops to take it."
"Well, then, look out of yonder window toward the west. Do you see that signal-fire, and do you know its meaning? It means that a division of regular troops, with artillery and cavalry, is on the way hither from Szent-Laszlo."
Manasseh burst into a laugh. "It means that a merry company of picnickers took their lunch this noon at the Wonder Spring, at the foot of the great beech-tree. The wasps came out and plagued them, so they stuck burning grass into the hollow trunk, and consequently the whole tree was soon in flames. That is what you see burning now."
"Manasseh, if you are lying to me!"
"You know me. You know I never lie. What I say is true. When I choose not to tell the truth, I hold my tongue. Last night I slept at Ciprianu's. There are no imperial troops to be seen for miles around. What is more, the Hungarian forces have left Kolozsvar. Whither have they gone? I do not know; but it might befall you, while counting on meeting with help, to stumble upon an enemy. After the first three Adorjans, you will encounter a fourth, Jonathan, and he will give you something beside Bible quotations and Metternichian diplomacy."
The Wallachian was visibly affected by this speech, but he sought to hide his concern, and cried out, in a harsh tone: "If you are trifling with me, Adorjan, you'll find you have trifled with your own life. If you have told me a lie, God in heaven shall not save you."
"But as I have not told you a lie, God in heaven will save me, and I beg you to tell me where I may lie down and sleep, for I am very tired."
"Shut him up in the bell-tower," commanded the Wallachian.
"Good!" cried Manasseh, with a laugh. "At least I shall be able to ring you up early in the morning."
"Inasmuch as you have offered us a supply of brandy and eighteen oxen," were the leader's parting words, "we will have another interview in the morning."
"Sixteen was the number," Manasseh corrected him.
A bed of hay under the bell was furnished the captive, and he was locked up for the night, after which the company he had left held a council of war.
IN PORLIK GROTTO.
Complying with his brother's instructions, Aaron broke up his quarters at Balyika Cave early the next morning, and, descending with Blanka to the bed of the stream, led her up the valley to Porlik Grotto, one of nature's wonders known to few and seldom visited. From the top of its high-arched entrance hung cornel-bushes with brown leaves and red berries, while luxuriant wild grape-vines, with pendant clusters of ripe fruit, climbed upward from below to meet them, the whole thus forming an almost perfect screen before the opening. Through the screen, however, an observant eye caught the gleam of the stalactites within; the sun's rays, piercing the foliage, lighted them up like so many sparkling chandeliers. But our two travellers' thoughts were not on the beauties of the place.
"If Manasseh should only come out now to meet us!" they both exclaimed at once.
"There!" cried Aaron, "we both wished the same thing, and we have a sort of superstition here that a wish so uttered by two at the same time is bound to be fulfilled."
But Manasseh did not appear.
"Look there," said Aaron, with forced cheerfulness, pointing out the wonders of the grotto; "see how the limestone pillars grow together from above and below, till they meet and make one solid column." And all the while he was thinking: "What if Manasseh should come back, not alone, but with our two brothers! Yet is it right to ask so much of fate? Will not Heaven be angry with me for cherishing such a wish? Ah, let Manasseh himself come, even if he must come alone and with evil tidings!"
"See there, my dove," he continued aloud to his companion, "how the arches extend back, one behind another, with balconies along the sides, just like a theatre, and high up yonder a perch for the gallery gods." Meanwhile he was saying to himself: "Oh, that brother of mine ought to have been here long ago if he was coming at all." Then, aloud to Blanka: "Hear me play on the organ up there,—for theatres have organs sometimes. You notice the pipes, side by side, some longer and some shorter, each for a different note. But you stay here,—the rocks are wet and slippery,—while I go up and play you a pretty tune."
With that he clambered up the side of the cavern to a series of stalactites that presented somewhat the appearance of organ-pipes, and drew the handle of his hatchet across them, assuring his listener the while that he was playing a beautiful melody. Blanka was expected to laugh at this, and had Manasseh only been there, she could have done so with a light heart.
"Don't you think this back wall looks like a stage curtain?" Aaron went on. "With a little stretch of the imagination you might take it for the curtain in the Kolozsvar theatre, with Apollo and the muses painted on it. One feels almost like stamping one's feet, to make it go up and the play begin." But the undercurrent of the speaker's thoughts was quite different. "What if Manasseh shouldn't come by noon—by nightfall?" he was asking himself. "Then what is to become of this poor girl?" Aloud once more: "That lad Manasseh must have made a little mistake—just like these young men! He probably took the longer way, instead of following my advice. But just look out toward the entrance, and see how the sun shines in through the leaves and lights up the whole grotto like a fairy palace."
Blanka, however, was feeling so heavy of heart and, in a vague way, so fearful of impending misfortune, that she was in no mood to enjoy the splendours around her. She crossed her hands on her bosom and, in the half-light of this mysterious subterranean cathedral, yielded to the awe-inspiring influence of the place and gave utterance, in a subdued chant, to these words of the psalmist:
"Hear me, O God, nor hide thy face, But answer, lest I die."
Aaron could control his feelings no longer. Throwing himself down on his face, he began to sob as only a strong man can when he is at last moved to tears, not by any selfish grief, but by the very burden of his love and anxiety for others.
But at that moment the psalm was broken off, and Aaron heard himself called three times by name. He rose to his knees and looked toward the opening of the grotto, where a glad and unexpected sight met his eyes. Glorified by the flood of light that poured in from without, appeared the forms of three men, the middle one being the tallest and stateliest. They were Manasseh and his two brothers, David and Simon.
Aaron sprang up and threw himself on them with an inarticulate cry like that of a lioness recovering her lost cubs. Embraces and kisses were not enough: he bore them to the ground and thumped them soundly on the back in the excess of his emotion.
"You rascal, you good-for-nothing, you shameless rogue, to worry me like that!" he exclaimed, accosting now one, now the other of his two lost brothers, after which he embraced them both once more.
"And am I of no account?" asked Manasseh. "Have I no share in all this?"
"You are your brothers' father," Aaron made answer, "before whom they prostrate themselves, even as the sheaves of Joseph's brethren bowed before his sheaf. We are all your humble slaves." So saying, he threw himself at Manasseh's feet and embraced his knees. "Torda Gap is, indeed, a place of wonders, but the greatest wonder of all you have wrought in rescuing your brothers."
This unrestrained outburst of joy opened Blanka's eyes and made her see that there was far more behind the meeting of these brothers than she had at first suspected. She knew now that the vague dread which had oppressed her, and from which she had sought relief in sacred song, had not been unfounded. Thus it was that she felt all the more impelled to take up the psalm where she had broken off, and to pour out her gladness in the concluding lines:
"He hears his saints, he knows their cry, And by mysterious ways Redeems the prisoners doomed to die, And fills their tongues with praise."
Much rejoicing then followed, and the two brothers, whom Manasseh now presented to Blanka, told her all about the preparations made for receiving the bridal party at the Borev Bridge. Then all five sat down and emptied the lunch-basket with which Ciprianu had provided his guests; for thenceforth they would not need to carry their supplies with them. Toward noon they mounted their horses, David and Simon taking Blanka between them, and the other two bringing up the rear.
"Now tell me all about it," began the elder brother, as he rode a little behind with Manasseh. "You must have had the eloquence of Aaron and the magician's power of Moses, to prevail on Pharaoh to let your people go."
"I have wrought no miracle and used no eloquence," was the reply. "But I showed our foes neither fear nor haughtiness. I joined their circle, but did not spoil their entertainment. They questioned me, and I told them the truth. I asked them for peace, and offered them a price that I thought we were able to pay."
"How high a price?" asked Aaron.
"Sixteen oxen and twenty casks of plum brandy," was the matter-of-fact reply.
"If my arm were only long enough, wouldn't I box your ears!" exclaimed Aaron, by way of giving vent to his admiration.
"They wished to do something of the sort to me up yonder, too, when they heard my offer," returned the other. "But then they reconsidered the matter, and at last came to see that it was a very fair proposal, and one that needed no lawyer or interpreter to make clear to them. They all understood it, and finally declared themselves satisfied."
"But where did you get the two horses for our brothers?"
"I bought them, and I gave a price, too, such as is paid only for the best English thoroughbreds; but half of the money was what I won from the sellers themselves last night."
"So you have been playing cards with the Amorites, you godless man!"
"They held me prisoner till morning, while they took counsel together what to do with me and my two brothers. Some of them were for sending our heads, minus our bodies, to Toroczko, with a demand to surrender the town, else they would storm it and not leave one stone on another. But the upshot was that they led me out in the morning and told me my terms of peace were accepted. They abandon their plans against Toroczko, disperse to their homes, and promise henceforth to be our good neighbours, as heretofore."
"Did they swear to this?"
"Before the altar, and a priest administered the oath."
"With two candles on the altar?"
"Then they will keep their word."
"And I, as plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary, gave them a written and sealed pledge to restrain my people from all acts of hostility against them."
"That will cost you a hard fight when you get home."
"But I shall win. The Wallachians will respect the peace, and we shall avoid all contention with them. Their leader, when he handed me our passport, said to me: 'You now have no further cause for uneasiness so far as we are concerned. My comrades and I will do your countrymen no further harm. As to the supplies offered by you, we accept them as a gift, not as a ransom. One parting word I have to add, however, and I bid you mark it well: we cannot promise you that some day a renegade from your own midst may not plunge your town into war and bloodshed.' With that we shook hands and kissed each other; and I can assure you positively that from here to the Aranyos our way will be clear."
"But how did you win them over so easily, I should like to know? Surely, the sixteen oxen and a few casks of brandy could not have done it."
"I gained my end simply by telling the truth. I told them about our setting the beech-tree on fire. They had taken it for a signal, and the mistake might have cost them dear."
"And did they believe you?"
"No, they doubted my word and discussed the matter a long time in their council, one party being strongly opposed to any change in their preconcerted arrangements; and this faction pressed urgently for my immediate execution."
"What, then, was it that saved you?"
"A mere chance—no, it was Providence, rather. It was a heart that beat with warm human feeling and a will that was prompt to act. In the midst of their discussion a messenger came from Ciprianu and confirmed the truth of my words."
"From Ciprianu? Then the messenger must have ridden all night."
"Yes, through a trackless wilderness and over rugged mountains."
"I do not see how mortal man could have accomplished it!" exclaimed Aaron, shaking his head.
"It was not a man; it was a woman that effected the impossible. She came to Monastery Heights to attest the truth of my statement by assuring the insurgents that what they took for a signal-fire was merely the result of an accident. The woman who saved us three from death was Zenobia."
At this point Blanka interrupted the conversation of the two brothers. She laughingly demanded to know what they were so earnestly discussing together.
"We can't agree on what guests to invite to our wedding," was Manasseh's ready reply. "Aaron would have only the immediate family, but I am in favour of inviting all our friends. What are your wishes in the matter, my angel?"
"I have no relatives or friends that I can invite to my wedding," answered Blanka, gently, "but I shall feel very happy if all your family can be present, even to your youngest brother, whom we met in Kolozsvar. You must send for him to come home."
"He will be there, dear heart," Aaron assured her.
"And stay! I have a friend, after all,—a friend that I have made since coming into this country, and should much like to see at my wedding. It is Zenobia, Ciprianu's daughter."
* * * * *
At sunset they reached the Aranyos River, beyond which lay the longed-for home, the happy valley which, from Manasseh's description, had so often been the subject of Blanka's dreams. At last she was to see Toroczko.
It was a new world to Blanka,—that busy mining community, where clouds of black smoke from the tall chimneys of the smelting works and iron foundries met the eye in every direction, and the cheerful hum of toil constantly saluted the ear.
The Adorjan family gave the newcomer a most hearty welcome. With Anna, Manasseh's twin sister, the girl whom Benjamin Vajdar had so cruelly wronged, Blanka felt already acquainted. They embraced without waiting for an introduction, and when they drew back to scan each other's faces, they could hardly see for the tears that filled their eyes. Blanka was surprised, and agreeably so. She had prepared herself to see a face stamped with the melancholy of early disappointment, whereas she now beheld a fresh, rosy-cheeked countenance, golden locks, and blue eyes in which no tears had been able to dim the dancing light of a lively and cheerful temperament. Other women there were also in the family,—Rebecca, Berthold's wife, and Susanna, the helpmate of Barnabas, with a little circle of children around each.
The home-coming of the long-absent brother with his betrothed was celebrated, in accordance with time-honoured custom, with a great dinner that filled the spacious family dining-room to its utmost. Blanka could not sufficiently admire the skill and patience with which Susanna directed the feast and ministered to the varied wants and the individual tastes of so many guests. The eldest brother and his family were vegetarians and would touch no meat, but indulged freely in milk and eggs, butter and cheese. With them sat Doctor Vernezs, who was even stricter in his vegetarianism; the sole contribution from the animal kingdom that he allowed in his diet was honey. Brother Aaron sat beside Blanka, and partook freely of a dish of garlic that had been provided especially for him. He offered some to Blanka.
"I can eat this all my life," said he, with a roguish twinkle in his eyes, "but you only eleven weeks longer."
She understood the allusion. In Szeklerland a lover and his sweetheart bear themselves with much decorum and mutual respect throughout the entire period of their engagement. Only after the wedding do they exchange the first kiss.
Anna wished to come to her new friend's aid at this embarrassing juncture. "It won't be so long as that, Aaron!" she exclaimed.
"Let us reckon it up, my little turtledove," returned the brother. "To-morrow we will tell the parson that our sister Blanka wishes to join our communion. The law requires her to wait two weeks after this first announcement and then to go and declare her purpose a second time. After that follow six weeks for the divorce proceedings. That makes eight weeks. Then the banns have to be published three successive Sundays, and so we make out the eleven weeks, as I said. For seventy-seven days and nights, then, our peach-blossom will be your companion, sister Anna."
Anna and Blanka embraced each other with much affection. The latter showed no embarrassment at Aaron's plain speech.
"I will add five days to the seventy-seven," said she, with a smile.
"How so?" asked the brother and sister.
"Because I shall not go to the parson to-morrow, but shall wait until after Sunday. I am going to your church on that day, and till then I can't tell whether I wish to belong to it or not."
This prudent resolve met with Aaron's hearty approbation.
* * * * *
It was not long before Anna and Blanka became the warmest of friends. They shared the same room together, and the newcomer was allowed to look over all her companion's books, drawings,—for she, like her twin brother, was an artist,—keepsakes, and treasures of every sort. One day she came upon something that made her start back as if stung by an adder. It was a little portrait in an oval frame, a man's face, highly idealised by the artist, and yet strikingly true to life. Evidently the hand of love had depicted those lineaments. The eyes were bright, the lips wore a proud smile, the whole expression was one to charm the beholder. It was Benjamin Vajdar's likeness, and no ghost could have given Blanka a greater start. It was as if her most hated foe had pursued her into paradise itself, to spoil her pleasure there.
Anna noticed her friend's involuntary movement, and she sighed deeply. "Did Manasseh tell you about him?" she asked.
"I know him well," replied Blanka, and she could not control an accent of abhorrence in her voice as she spoke.
Anna clasped her companion's hand in both her own. "I beg you," she entreated, in tones at once sad and tender, "if you know aught ill of him, do not tell it me."
"You still love him?" asked the other, in compassion.
The young girl sank down on the edge of her bed and hid her face in her hands. "He has killed me," she sobbed; "he has done much that a man, an honourable man, ought not to do; and yet I cannot hate him. We may say, 'I loved you yesterday, to-morrow I shall hate you,' and we may act as if we meant it; but we cannot really feel it."
"My poor Anna!" was all Blanka could say.
"I know he is dishonourable," admitted the girl; "there are women here that report everything to me, thinking thus to cure me. But what does it avail? A sick person is not to be made well with words. How many a woman has waited for the return of an absent lover who may perhaps have gone around the world, or to the north pole, and who yet cannot get beyond the reach of her love and yearning!"
"If it were only the earth's diameter that lay between you!" murmured Blanka.
"True," replied Anna, resting her head on her hand; "the wide world is not so effective a barrier as a bewitching face that has once thrust itself between two loving hearts. That is harder to circumnavigate than the earth itself."
"If a pretty face were all that stood between you——" began the other once more, sitting down beside her friend and putting her arms about her.
"Yes, yes, I know," the poor girl interrupted; "the whole world and heaven and hell stand between us. All the laws of honour, of faith, and of patriotism, tear us asunder. I cannot go to him where he is, but yet it may be that he will come back to me—some day."
"Do you think so?"
"I believe it as I believe in one God above us. Not that I think we could now ever be happy together; but I am convinced that the road which he took on going away from here will some day bring him back again to our door. Broken and humbled, scorned and repulsed by all the world, he will then seek the one remaining asylum that stands open to him, and he will find one heart that still beats for him from whom all others have turned away."
The speaker rose from her seat and stood erect, her face all aglow with noble emotion. Was it an angel in love with a devil?
"See!" she continued, pointing to the little portrait, which was encircled by a wreath of immortelles, "this picture here in my room gives daily proof how lasting a thing love is in our family. My brothers all hate him with a deadly hatred, and yet they spare his likeness because they know that I still love him; they leave the little picture hanging in my room, nor offer to offend me by proposing another marriage for me. They know how deep is my love, and they respect my feelings. Oh, I beg you, if you have reason to hate this man, yet suffer his portrait to keep its place, and turn your eyes away from it if it causes you offence."
But Blanka hated the man no longer.
"Now I must not let you see me in tears," said Anna, briskly. "I must not make myself a killjoy in the family. I am naturally of a happy, cheerful temperament, and interested in all that goes on around me. My face shall never frighten people by being pale and wobegone. Just look in the glass! I am as rosy-cheeked as you."
With that she drew Blanka to the mirror, and began to dispute with her as to which could boast the more colour.
"You are happy," she continued, "and will be still happier. Manasseh will turn the earth itself into a paradise for you; just wait till you know him as I do, to the very bottom of his heart."
Blanka could not but smile at the sister's proud claim. Yet Anna was in earnest.
"Perhaps you don't believe me," said she. "Have you ever seen him in anger, with an enemy before him?"
"How did he look?"
"On his forehead were two red spots."
"Yes, and further?"
"His eyes glowed, his face seemed turned to stone, his bosom heaved, and he strove with himself until gradually he recovered his self-control; then his features relaxed, he smiled, and presently he spoke as coolly and collectedly as possible."
"Then you have never seen him really aroused," affirmed the sister, "as I saw him once, when with one hand he seized a strong man who had wronged him, and threw him down with such force that all his family had to hasten to help him up. When he speaks in wrath he can strike terror into a multitude, and he is such a master of all weapons of warfare that no one can vie with him. Now, then, have you ever really learned to know him?"
"Indeed, I think not," returned Blanka, in surprise.
"And hear me further," Anna went on. "When our house witnessed the sad event that spread a widow's veil over my bridal wreath, our whole family was terribly wrought up. My brothers swore to kill the man wherever they found him,—all but Manasseh. Nor did I seek to allay their wrath, knowing but too well that it was justified. But I also knew that they would never go forth into the world to hunt him down. To the people of Toroczko it is an immense undertaking to go even beyond the borders of Transylvania, and, as a general rule, no power on earth could drag one of them to Vienna or Rome. But Manasseh, I knew, must meet with the fugitive, as the two were to be dwellers in the same city and members of the same social circle. Manasseh, however, said not a word, and it was on him that I used all my influence. Still wearing my wedding-dress, I went to his room, where he was preparing for his journey. It happened that he was just putting a brace of pistols into their case; one of them he still held in his hand. I went up to him, threw myself on his bosom, and appealed to him. 'Manasseh,' I pleaded, 'my heart's treasure, unless you wish to kill me too, promise not to kill that man,—not to send his wretched soul out of this world.' Manasseh looked at me: his eyes glowed, as you have described, and two red spots burned on his forehead; his face turned hard, like that of a statue, and while he panted and struggled with the demon in his bosom, the pistol-barrel bent in his clenched hands like a wax taper, and so remained. I was wonder-struck. 'See!' I cried, 'you cannot shoot now any more with that pistol. So let him go; don't lay a finger on him.' Then my brother embraced and kissed me, and, lifting his hand to heaven, said, 'I promise you, sister Anna, that for your sake I will not kill the man, but will let him live.'"
How her lover's image grew in Blanka's heart and assumed larger proportions as she listened to this recital! The twin sister was the brother's complement. It was necessary to know the nature of the one in order to understand that of the other. Hitherto Manasseh's self-control in foregoing all revenge had excited Blanka's wonder only; she had thought that the secret of this self-mastery was to be found in a rigid dogma only, but now she perceived that what really shielded the wretched culprit was the magic influence of a woman's faithful heart that could cease to love only when it ceased to beat. The pledge won from him by his sister Manasseh had come to regard as no less sacred than the articles of his faith. Thenceforth he commanded not merely the love of his betrothed, but her adoration.
* * * * *
Blanka soon found herself leading a life that differed in every respect from that which she had so recently quitted. In the Cagliari palace she had been left entirely to herself, and when she went abroad it had been only to witness scenes of intrigue and envy, dissipation and frivolity, hypocrisy and deceit, on every side. But in her new home she found a large family of honest souls living in loving harmony under one roof, all its members engaged in active work for the common good, and sharing at a common table the bread that they earned. Every joy, every sorrow was common to all, and so the newcomer was at once claimed as a sister by all alike, and immediately became a universal favourite. Work was found for her, too, every one assuming that she would far rather work than be idle; and, indeed, she would gladly have engaged in any toil, however severe, but the others would not let her overtax her strength in labours for which they were much better fitted than she. A task was found for her, however, exactly suited to her capacity,—the keeping of the family accounts. She received a big book, in which she entered the current expenses and receipts, with all the details of the family housekeeping that called for preservation.
After the working days of the week came Sunday, the Lord's day. How Blanka had looked forward to that first Sunday, how often pictured to herself the Toroczko church and its Sabbath service! It was a simple structure, with four blank white walls, and a plain white ceiling overhead. A gallery ran across each end of the room, and in the middle stood the pulpit, with the communion table before it. Men and women, youths and maidens, entered the sacred house through special doors. First came the young men and took their places in the galleries, the students all gathering in a body on the same side as the organ. Next entered the married men in the order of their age, the wardens—or, as they were popularly known, the "big-heads"—taking their seats in the first pew facing the pulpit. On the left of the pulpit were seated the foremost families of the place, with the Adorjans at their head.
For the first time Blanka now saw the people assembled in their holiday attire, a costume peculiar to the place, and showing a mixture of Hungarian and German dress. The men wore black dolmans faced with lamb's fleece, and further decorated with rows of carnelian and amethyst buttons, the setting of the stones being silver. Under the dolman was worn a waistcoat of fine leather embroidered with threads of silk and gold, and around the waist was girt a belt, as broad as one's hand, of red leather handsomely trimmed with strips of many-coloured skins. To complete this imposing outfit, there was thrown over one shoulder a handsome cloak richly embroidered with piping-cord, and furnished with a high collar made from the fur of the fox. A large silver brooch held the mantle together at the breast, while six rows of silver clasps adorned it on each side. The whole costume was luxurious in its appointments, and yet no one would presume to find fault with it on that score. The wearer had earned his adornment with the work of his hands.
As soon as the men were seated, the women entered. A Parisian modiste would have been put to the blush by the ingenuity of design displayed by these countrywomen's costumes. The dazzlingly white linen, the tasteful combination of lace, embroidery, and furbelows, the handsome bodice and woven belt, the richly trimmed cloaks, the skirts hanging in many folds, the silk pinafores, the black lace caps set off by white veils disposed in picturesque puffs and creases,—all betrayed a wealth of fancy and nicety of taste on the wearer's part that would be hard to match.
After the matrons were seated, the maidens came in through the fourth and last door, entering now in pairs, now singly, and sat down on the two sides of the house, behind the married women. Finally the children were admitted,—a splendid phalanx, a company of angels of the Murillo and Bernini type.
The pride of the Toroczko church is its people. The churches of Rome boast many a masterpiece of early Italian art on their walls, but their worshippers are ragged and dirty. The walls of the Toroczko temple are bare, but the faces of its congregation beam with happiness. No works of sculpture, resplendent with gold and silver and precious stones, are to be seen there. The people themselves are arrayed in costly stuffs and furnish the adornment of the house.
After a simple opening prayer, the pastor ascended the pulpit and addressed his flock, in words intelligible to all, on such themes as patriotism, man's duty to his fellow-man, the blessings of toil, the recompense of good deeds in the doer's own bosom, and God's infinite mercy toward his children. In his prayer the preacher referred to Jesus as the beloved Son of God, the model for mankind to follow, but he did not deny salvation and paradise to those that chose other leaders for their guidance.