After the service Blanka asked Aaron and Berthold to go with her to the preacher as witnesses while she announced her purpose to join the church. After making this declaration in due form, she was reminded that she had two weeks in which to consider the matter carefully, at the end of which, if she was still of the same mind, she was to come back again and renew her declaration.
"Two weeks longer," sighed Blanka, "and then six weeks more for the divorce!"
Aaron heard her sigh, and hastened to say: "If we make a special effort we can shorten this period. Our law directs that an applicant for a divorce must either be a resident of, or own an estate in, Transylvania. Therefore, if you could acquire a piece of land here, we should only have to wait for the consistory to assemble and ratify the divorce already granted by the Roman Curia, with the added permission to marry again. That done, nothing further remains to hinder the marriage. So you must manage to buy a house-lot or something of the sort in Toroczko."
"Have I money enough, do you think, to purchase an iron mine?"
"What, do you really propose to buy one?"
"Yes,—as my dowry to bring to Manasseh. He said he wished to begin a new career and turn miner."
"Very well, then, we'll buy a mine and call it by your name, and it can't fail to turn out a diamond mine."
The purchase was made on that very day, and in the evening the transfer of the property was solemnised with a banquet. It will be noted here that there is a great difference between the Hungarian Unitarians and the English Puritans. The strict observance of Sunday by the latter presents a marked contrast to the joy and freedom with which the day is celebrated by the former. The people of Toroczko gather in the evening for social intercourse, and even join in the pleasures of the dance, to the music of a gipsy orchestra, until the ringing of the vesper bell. Taverns and pot-houses are unknown in the village.
A MIDNIGHT COUNCIL.
While blood was being shed on the banks of the Theiss, on the slopes of the Carpathians, and in the mountains of Transylvania, life at the Austrian capital went on much as usual. A grand ball given by the Marchioness Caldariva made its due claim on the attention of the fashionable world. After the last note of the orchestra had died away and the last guest had departed, Prince Cagliari led the fair hostess to her boudoir.
"How did it please you?" asked the prince, referring to the evening's entertainment.
"Not at all," replied the other, throwing her bracelets and fan down on the table. "Didn't you notice that not one member of the court circle was present? They all sent regrets."
"But the court is in mourning now, you know," was Cagliari's soothing reminder.
"And I am in mourning, too," returned Rozina, in a passion. "How long must I submit to this humiliation?" she demanded, compressing her lips and darting a wrathful look at her devoted slave.
"I swear to you," replied the latter, vehemently, "as soon as I get word of my divorced wife's death, our engagement shall be announced."
"And how long is that woman to live?" demanded the angry beauty, in a tone that startled the listener.
"As long as God wills," was all he could say in reply.
The fair Cyrene drew nearer and laid her cheek caressingly against his shoulder. "Do you know where your wife is now?" she asked softly, and when the other shook his head, she went on: "You see, I don't lose sight of her so easily. As for you, you could only shut her up in Rome and leave her there; but I knew how to go to work to rid ourselves of this obstruction. The dogs of Jezebel were howling under her very windows, when there came a man blundering on to the scene and spoiled everything,—a man who is a man, who is more than a prince, a man from top to toe, in short, who carried off the woman from Rome. I hoped they would take flight to some foreign land, whence we might have obtained an official announcement of her death. Of course it might not have been true, but the fugitives would have changed their names, in all probability, and an official certificate would have answered our purpose. Did you receive Blanka's letter,—the one she wrote you from Trieste in November?"
"No," replied the prince, much astonished at what he had just heard; "and I recently sent to her, by Vajdar, her allowance of fifteen thousand scudi for the current quarter."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the marchioness, "a most affectionate and devoted foster-son you have there! Your letters pass through his hands and are, according to your directions, opened by him. As to this last letter of Blanka's, however, he must have forgotten to deliver it, and he counts himself blameless if a remittance of fifteen thousand scudi, directed to a person whose address cannot be found, goes astray. Really he has a genius for roguery. But you needn't get angry with him. The money has not gone out of the family: he spent it on diamonds for me. I learned all about that letter, too, a month ago."
"And may I inquire what the princess wrote me?"
"She begs leave to discontinue the enjoyment of your bounty, and announces her intention of marrying again; and to that end she declares her purpose of embracing the religion of her betrothed."
"The most pleasing result of which will be the saving to me of sixty thousand scudi a year, which I will henceforth bestow on you." The speaker laid a caressing hand on the woman's shoulder.
"Don't touch me, sir!" cried the marchioness, drawing back. "If one woman has had the spirit to say to you, 'There is your coronet and your gold; pick them up. I need them no longer, for I am going to marry a man, who shall be my lord and king,'—why, you may find that another woman can do the same."
"But what would you have me do?" asked the other, helplessly; "follow Blanka Zboroy's example and turn Protestant with you, so that we might marry each other?"
"Really, I have a good mind to say yes. What you propose in jest, sinful as it is, may be more to your liking than what I have to suggest."
"You have a plan, Rozina?"
"Yes. Before our loving couple can gain their end they must first reach Toroczko. There, high up in the mountains, lies the dove-cote where they hope to do their billing and cooing. But the surrounding woods are at present full of birds of prey, and—"
"Do you dare to think of such a thing?" interrupted the prince, with a start. The old roue had a dread of ghosts by night; he was full of all sorts of superstitions; he disliked to have a beautiful woman allude to certain unpleasant themes in his presence.
"I am only letting my fancy play a little," replied the marchioness, "but perhaps what I have in mind may come to pass. If not, then will be the time for action."
She fetched from her bookcase a military map of Transylvania. It gave in minute detail the mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, towns, and villages of the country.
"Here in this valley," she resumed, pointing with her finger, "lies Toroczko, and these positions that I have marked are held by the Wallachian insurgents. Have you heard about their doings?"
"Yes, frightful accounts."
"Well, then, what if our runaway couple should stumble upon the scene of some of these horrid deeds? Possibly your wife is even now lying in the bed of one of these mountain streams."
"Horrible only if it were really so and we had no proof of it. But I have guarded against that. The war office receives detailed reports of all that is going on in Transylvania, and a transcript of those reports is furnished me."
She produced a roll of manuscript and read a line or two, laughing as she did so. She might have been reading Sanskrit, for all the prince could understand of it. Then she nestled softly at her listener's side and began to stroke his chin with one velvet finger.
"If you wish to make me very happy—to make us both very happy," she murmured, "bring me from the war office the key to this mysterious manuscript. Then we will sit down and decipher it together; and if it contains the name I am so anxious to hear, you shall see how a lioness can kiss her tamer's feet."
The prince listened in silence. What effect her words were producing in his bosom, she could only conjecture. She threw herself back on her sofa with a smile on her face.
"What do you say?" she asked. "It is not yet too late to find some one at the war office to do your bidding. Indeed, the hour is well suited for a confidential mission of that sort. And when you come back, if you find me asleep, just whisper in my ear, 'News from Transylvania!'—and I will wake up at once. So good-bye for the present. I shall expect you back again soon."
Prince Cagliari took leave of the enchantress and made his way to the carriage that awaited him below. Entering it, he gave a direction to his coachman, and the carriage rolled rapidly down the street.
Soon after the fair Cyrene—or Rozina, to call her by her real name—found herself alone, the tall clock in her boudoir struck ten, although the hour was nearer two. She rose at once, and taking a little key from her bosom, unlocked and opened the door of the old-fashioned timepiece. But instead of hanging weights and a swinging pendulum, the opening revealed another open door beyond, through which stepped a young man,—Benjamin Vajdar.
"So you've come at last?" the marchioness exclaimed.
"Yes, and I have the key to the cipher despatches, too!"
All smiles and caresses, the siren led her visitor to the table on which lay the mysterious correspondence. But before the two begin their clandestine work, let us say a few words concerning the relations between them.
Months before, at a court ball to which Prince Cagliari's influence had procured the Marchioness Caldariva a much-coveted invitation, Benjamin Vajdar, who then occupied a subordinate government position, was also present. Struck with the beauty of the marchioness, he sought an introduction, and, to make a long story short, was soon enrolled among her willing slaves. Not long after this first meeting he threw up his modest position and became Prince Cagliari's private secretary. A day had already been set for his marriage with Anna Adorjan, but he had the hardihood to write and beg to be released from the engagement. He did not, however, think it necessary to announce in his letter that he had changed his religion and turned Roman Catholic.
A desire to shine in society, meanwhile, and the difficulty of doing so on a small salary, had led him to employ dishonest and criminal means for replenishing his purse. He had raised money on his friend Manasseh's forged signature. After entering the prince's service and finding himself amply supplied with means, he went to his broker to redeem the false note, but, to his consternation, was informed by the money-lender that, in a moment of financial embarrassment, although the note was not yet due he had presented it to Manasseh, who had promptly discounted it. Benjamin Vajdar felt capable of murdering the broker. A noose now seemed placed around his neck, and the end of the rope was held by the man whose sister he had just wronged so shamefully.
The new secretary's appearance in the prince's household served to hasten the impending outbreak between the recently married couple. One afternoon Blanka left the house and fled to a friend of hers in Hungary, whence her petition for a divorce soon led her, her friend, and her lawyer, as we have already seen, to Rome. The decree which was in due time issued from the Vatican, that, so long as his divorced wife lived, the prince might not marry again, was a serious check upon certain pet schemes cherished by the Marchioness Caldariva.
* * * * *
To return to the latter's boudoir, where she and her willing tool were bending over the cipher despatches, after long and fruitless search they came upon a name familiar to them both,—Adorjan. It appeared that a certain Adorjan of Toroczko had gone out to parley with the insurgent forces then besieging the town, and they had seized him and held him prisoner. A second Adorjan had followed to ransom his brother, but he too was detained. Finally there came a third brother,—Manasseh.
"Ah, at last!" cried the marchioness, eagerly.
It appeared that this third Adorjan was on his way home from Italy, and was accompanied by his fiancee, whom he left in care of his brother Aaron while he himself sought the insurgents' camp. He too was seized and imprisoned, and preparations were made for the execution of the three brothers; but in the morning, by some means or other, he succeeded in persuading his captors to release all three of their prisoners and to give the whole party, including the young lady, Princess Blanka Zboroy, a safe-conduct to Toroczko, while the insurgents themselves dispersed to their homes.
"But go on!" urged Rozina; "what occurred after that in Toroczko?"
"Nothing further is said about Toroczko," answered the other.
"Have you no spies there?" demanded the marchioness.
"No, there are no informers in Toroczko. There was one, but you have made him your slave."
"And you can sit there so calm and cool!" cried the woman, in a passion. "Just think, there is a man in that town in whose hand your good name and your freedom lie. If he but takes a fancy, he can drag you in the mud. You can count on no happiness, no security, without his consent. Remember, too, there is a woman with him who has smitten you in the face and made you recoil, who is perhaps even now laughing at you, who is the object of my deadly hatred, and during whose lifetime the door is closed to me into the world I wish to enter. So long as that woman lives the sun does not shine for me: I can show my face only at night. And can you sit there while those two are happy in each other's embraces? Oh, coward! How long are you going to let them live?"
Benjamin Vajdar did not venture to open his mouth. The marchioness drew a key from her bosom and held it before him. "Do you see that?" she whispered, while for an instant a smile lighted up her face. "This key belongs to the man who first brings me word of that woman's death." So saying, she kissed the little key and held it to the other's lips to kiss also. "What do you say?"
"I am wont only to think and to act, not to promise," was his reply.
"Very well. Au revoir!"
The marchioness pulled her bell-cord three times for her maid,—a signal for her visitor to retire. He hastened to the secret door, accordingly, and disappeared. Calling a cab, he ordered the driver to take him to the Cafe de l'Europe. The head waiter told him, in answer to his inquiries, that Prince Cagliari was there also,—was, in fact, taking supper with two ladies in a private room. The secretary asked to be shown thither.
"I knew you would turn up here before the night was over," cried the prince, with a laugh, as the young man entered. "I had a cover laid for you."
The two young women were costumed as fleurs animees,—the one as a violet, the other as a tulip. The remains of a generous meal were on the table. The newcomer held out his glass to the tulip and begged her to pour him some champagne.
"One moment!" interrupted the prince. "First let me ask a question. How much have you left of my wife's quarterly allowance that I sent her by you?"
"That is exactly what I was going to speak to you about," returned the young man. "I have to ask you for the next quarter's allowance also."
"Indeed! And must you have it immediately?"
"If you please."
"But haven't you already learned, from her letter which she wrote me in November, that she is about to change her religion and marry again, and that consequently she declines all further assistance from me? Didn't this letter come into your hands?"
Benjamin Vajdar shrugged his shoulders and calmly proceeded to squeeze lemon-juice on his oysters. "I assumed without question," he rejoined, "that a man of Prince Cagliari's chivalrous nature would merely reply to this letter: 'It is a matter of indifference to me how the princess orders her life; but so long as she bears my name she must not be forced to go on foot and soil her shoes.'"
"Bravo!" cried the prince. "And you would have me give her a dower for her second marriage, would you, and a quarter's allowance into the bargain?"
"Let us not discuss that at present," returned the other, "it would only spoil our evening. Time enough for serious matters to-morrow."
"But I wish to discuss it now."
"Very well. The truth of the matter is, the beautiful Princess Blanka is at this moment lying dead in the mountains of Transylvania."
The prince recoiled. "Young man, I forbid you to indulge in such ill-chosen jests."
Benjamin rose and made a low bow. "Such a lack of respect as a jest of that sort to my master and benefactor is an utter impossibility."
"Well, then, sit down, and let us have no play-acting. Where do you say this thing occurred?"
"Somewhere on the highway between Nagy-Enyed and Felvincz. She is lying there in the snow, transfixed with an insurgent's lance." The speaker therewith proceeded to relate several episodes in the bloody drama then enacting in Transylvania.
"But why are you so sure that the princess is one of the victims?" asked the listener.
"The names are all recorded," was the answer. "The first thing, therefore, for Prince Cagliari to do is to order the recovery of his wife's body, that it may receive proper interment in his family vault. If you wish to convince yourself of the truth of my statements, I will give you the key to the cipher despatches. The despatches themselves you will find in a place that is always open to you. Go and read for yourself."
"No, no," cried the prince, "I will not look at the papers. What you have said is enough for me."
"Very well," rejoined the secretary, quietly. "Then I will go and make ready to start at once for Transylvania. I am determined to find and bring back to you the remains of the Princess Blanka. It is a grim task, and calls for a heart of iron."
"And a purse of gold," added the other. "Here is my pocketbook to begin with, and I will open an account for you with a Czernovicz banker."
What was most important of all, the smooth-tongued secretary had entirely omitted,—namely, that the subject of his ingenious story was at that moment alive and well, and waiting to see the sun rise over the Toroczko hills.
After the prince had somewhat recovered from the effect produced upon him by Benjamin Vajdar's announcement, he gave himself up to the rapturous thought that now at last he could carry word to Rozina of his wife's death. He sought her presence without delay.
The marchioness, cosily ensconced on her sofa, was either asleep, or feigned to be, when Cagliari entered and whispered in her ear:
"Rozina, my wife is dead!"
Her eyes opened and a quick flush of pleasure overspread her face. "How? When? Where?" she asked eagerly.
"At Nagy-Enyed—killed by the insurgents."
"Nonsense!" cried the marchioness. "Who told you so?"
"My private secretary, your favourite, Benjamin Vajdar. He has just read it in the despatches received at the war office."
The listener's eyes flashed with scorn.
"I am telling you the truth," asserted the other, vehemently. "I give you my word of honour, it is as I say. I have this moment given Vajdar my purse and despatched him to Transylvania to bring the poor woman's body back to Vienna." The prince seated himself in an armchair opposite the marchioness, and continued: "I am even more eager than you to see her laid to rest in my family vault. My motives are deeper and stronger than yours. You have been longing for Blanka Zboroy's death because her existence meant humiliation to you. This thought has brought unrest to your pillow, but a legion of demons chases sleep from mine. Shall a Cagliari suffer any living woman to drag his name in the mire before all the world—to laugh to scorn the decree of the Roman Curia—to scratch out his name after her own and replace it with that of a Szekler peasant? That may be allowed to pass among common people, but the descendants of the Ferraras will find a way, or make one, to prevent such a scandal. It has become a necessity in my eyes that she should not walk the same planet with me."
The marchioness was listening by this time with wide eyes, flushed cheeks, and parted lips.
"Of late I have suffered heavy losses," the speaker continued. "Formerly my income amounted to a million and a half; now it is barely half a million. My estates in the Romagna have been confiscated, my serfs in Hungary freed, and I have lost frightful sums by my investments. I know many a poor devil has been forced to wont himself to rags and poverty, but for one who has been a leader among men to debase himself and drag out a miserable existence in obscurity—never! Shall I, forsooth, suspend the erection of the votive church which I began at the seat of my ancestors twelve years ago? Or shall I, discarding the masterpieces of a Thorwaldsen, embellish the sacred edifice with the rude productions of a stone-cutter? Would you have me say to the woman I adore, 'My dear, hitherto we have lived in two palaces; henceforth we must be content with one'? But most impossible of all would it be to confess my pecuniary embarrassments to my banker and my major-domo, and to direct them to cut down my future expenditures by a third, to sell my picture-gallery, my museum, and two-thirds of my collection of diamonds. No, no! What I am now telling you has never passed my lips before, nor ever will again; for I know how to apply the remedy, and I will not submit to humiliation, even though it should cost human blood to prevent it."
The speaker bent forward and went on in a more guarded tone:
"Now as to the woman of whom we were speaking. When her brothers gave her to me in marriage, we entered into a contract which stipulated that the property of the one who died first should go to the survivor. She was young, I was old; the advantage was all on her side. Our divorce has not annulled this contract. If Blanka Zboroy dies, her brothers must deliver her property over to me."
"But her fortune is only a million."
"Don't you believe it. To be sure, her brothers paid her the interest on only a million, but her property really amounts to five times that sum. My part thus far has been simply to await the turn of events. In Rome, as it appears, this woman's fate hung by a thread; but all at once she took the insane notion of marrying again. However, that does not invalidate the contract between us, as the Roman Curia, though it granted her a divorce, did so on terms that will make it impossible to recognise her marriage with a Protestant. When death overtakes her, it will be as the Princess Cagliari that she leaves this world. One thing we must remember, however: the Protestant Church will require her to renounce her former faith in order to render her separation from her first husband valid. Yet, if she does this she will forfeit all claim to her property, which, by the testator's will, can descend only to Roman Catholic heirs."
With both hands Rozina drew the prince's head down and whispered in his ear:
"She must die before this second marriage takes place."
"I shall not meddle with destiny," returned the prince, straightening up again. "I shall be satisfied and ask no questions if Vajdar brings back a leaden casket containing the unhappy woman's remains. I shall render her the last honours with princely pomp, and shall then give orders to pursue and punish the insurgents who were responsible for her death."
Rozina burst out laughing. It is always too irresistibly funny to see the devil trying to wash himself clean. Even Cagliari himself was forced to smile.
"Yes," said he, "that is a joke we may laugh at, if you like. But now hear what I have to say further. If Blanka Zboroy renounces the faith of her fathers and marries again, it will not suffice for her only to die. The man she marries must die also, the parson who joined their hands at the altar, the witnesses of the ceremony, the whole family that received her in its midst, the schoolchildren that sang the bridal hymn, the guests who sat around the wedding-table, the people who looked out of their windows and saw the bridal procession pass,—yes, the whole town where this marriage took place must be destroyed, and I have it in my power to accomplish this. Now are you satisfied?"
MIRTH AND MOURNING.
Meanwhile preparations were going forward in Toroczko for the approaching nuptials. All preliminaries had been duly attended to, Blanka had joined the Unitarian Church, and nothing now stood in the way of her marriage to Manasseh.
In the courtyard to the rear of the Adorjan family mansion stood a little house, containing two rooms and a kitchen, which Aaron secretly fitted up in genuine Toroczko style, with carved hard-wood furniture, a row of pegs running around the wall and hung with a fine array of glazed earthenware mugs, and an old-fashioned dresser filled with pottery and a dazzling display of bright new tinware. In the sleeping-room bedclothes, canopy, and curtain were embroidered by peasant maidens. This little house was not to be shown to Blanka until her wedding day.
During these preparations Aaron climbed the Szekler Stone every evening and surveyed the horizon in search of any beacons blazing on the surrounding hills. "If only no mishap befalls, to spoil everything!" he would murmur to himself as he came down again.
On the Sunday when the banns are published for the last time it is customary for all the friends of the young couple—and there is sure to be a whole army of them—to assemble at the bridegroom's house, which in the present instance was also the bride's. The banquet on this occasion is not furnished by the bridal pair: it is a farewell supper given by the guests of the bride and groom, each of the company contributing a roasted fowl and a cake. The groom merely supplies the wine, but not gratis, as all pay for what they drink, and the sum thus collected goes into the village school fund.
On Monday morning the wedding festivities begin in earnest. At an early hour people are awakened by the firing of cannon, after which young men mount their horses and gallop hither and thither, and two others, accompanied by trumpeters, go forth to invite the village folk to the wedding and to bear the bridal gifts through the street. Then the nuptial procession moves, amid the glad ringing of bells, from the house of the bride to the church. The old men head the line, the young men come next, and the women follow, while the bridegroom with his escort, and the bride with her bridesmaids, are given a place in the middle of the procession. On coming out of the church, the newly married pair receive a shower of flowers from the hands of the maidens gathered at the door. But the ceremonies at the church by no means end the wedding festival. What follows is peculiarly characteristic and important. First the young men bearing the bridal cake run a race from the church to the bridegroom's house, the victor winning a silk neckerchief embroidered by the bride. Then comes the rhymed dialogue, in which the representatives of the bride and of the groom chaffer with each other over the bride, but always with the result that the bridegroom's deputy gets the better of his opponent—yet only after the bridegroom himself has promised to be father and brother to his young wife, and to cherish her as the apple of his eye. Thereupon the maidens form a ring around the bride, sing songs to her to conquer her bashfulness, and so induce her to yield her hand to the bridegroom. After this the bridesmaids escort her to her new home—which in this case was represented by the little house that Aaron had secretly furnished for her. Neither Blanka nor Manasseh had even suspected what he was about.
Blanka found herself in the paradise of her dreams, and when her attendants had placed a gold-embroidered cap on her head, and she came forth again into the courtyard,—which was now crowded with eager friends,—her hand in that of the man whose wife and queen she was thenceforth to be, it seemed to her that the happiness of heaven itself was her portion.
Five hundred guests partook of the wedding feast. Food and drink were provided in plenty, and every heart was filled to overflowing with the joy of the occasion. And yet, to Blanka herself, something was still lacking. "If Jonathan and Zenobia were only here!" she could not but say to herself, and her happiness was not quite complete without them.
Toward evening Aaron himself began to feel uneasy at their non-appearance. He had nearly exhausted his ingenuity in quieting Blanka's anxiety. Finally he played his last card.
"Now, my angel," said he, "you remember I promised you I would dance the Szekler dance at your wedding. Have the goodness to pay attention, and you will see something that is not to be seen every day."
The Szekler dance resembles no other terpsichorean exercise, nor is it by any means easy of execution. It calls for sinews of steel and great suppleness of limb. To make it still more difficult, the performer is obliged to provide his own music by singing a merry popular ballad while he dances. He throws himself first on one leg, then on the other, bending his knee and sinking nearly to the floor, while he extends the other leg straight before him, raises one hand above his head, and rests the other on his hip. His heels must never touch the floor, nor may he, while bobbing thus comically up and down and trolling his lively ditty, suffer his face to relax from that expression of sober and dignified earnestness which marks the true Szekler. It is a dance and a display of great physical strength and endurance at the same time.
While Aaron's performance was still in progress, his brother Alexander broke through the circle of spectators and whispered something in his ear, whereupon the dancer immediately ceased his exhibition with the cry, "They have come!"
With an exclamation of joy Blanka sprang up from her seat. She wished to be the first to welcome the long-awaited pair.
"Sister-in-law," cried Alexander, "don't go out! Don't let her go out!"
But it was too late. Two horses stood before the door, and on one of them sat Zenobia. Blanka ran to her and took her hand.
"Have you come at last?" she exclaimed. "Oh, how long we've been looking for you! Let me help you down."
Zenobia, however, sat silent and made no move to dismount.
"Where is Jonathan?" asked Blanka.
"There he is." Zenobia pointed to the other horse, on whose back was bound a swathed form—a corpse.
"Jonathan!" cried Blanka, wildly.
"Your brother killed my father," Zenobia continued in a monotone, "and my brothers killed your brother; and so it will go on now for nobody knows how long."
Blanka was stricken speechless with horror, but Anna, who followed her, broke out in lamentations, until a strong hand was laid on her from behind and Aaron's voice was heard saying:
"Don't cry, don't make a noise! If the people inside hear you, they'll come out and tear Ciprianu's daughter to pieces; and she is now our guest."
Anna buried her face in Blanka's bosom.
"Alexander," said Aaron, softly, turning to his brother, "go in and tell the gipsy band to play a lively reel. The company must be kept amused."
Meanwhile Manasseh had appeared.
"Manasseh," whispered Aaron, "come and help me lift our brother down from the horse."
These words were to Manasseh like a dagger-thrust in his heart. His knees trembled under him. But presently he manned himself and hastened to untie the ropes that held the inanimate form on the horse's back.
Zenobia meanwhile went on talking in a low tone to Blanka. "In the skirmish at Felvincz, the Hungarians had one man killed, and he was the man. His horse carried him until I found him. You invited us to your wedding, and here we are. Now you may, if you wish, take me in and say to your guests, 'This is the daughter of that Ciprianu whose sons laid waste Sasd and Felvincz and killed Jonathan Adorjan.'"
"Away, away!" stammered Blanka, waving her hand. She was terrified at the thought of Zenobia's being found there by the people of Toroczko, and perhaps suffering violence at their hands.
"Go in peace," said Aaron. "My people will not pursue you. Let bygones be bygones between us. We owe each other nothing now."
"I owe you nothing, Aaron, but I owe something to your sister and your sister-in-law for the very kind invitation they sent me; and that is a debt which I will yet repay. To you, Manasseh, I have to say, remember those parting words on Monastery Heights: 'We make peace with you and swear to keep it; but if a traitor from your own number stirs up dissension between us, then tremble!' Think of those words often. And now farewell, and God bless you!"
With that she turned her horse about and rode away, breasting the wind, which blew the snow into her face.
"Where shall we lay the body?" asked Aaron. "The house is full of guests."
"Here, in our little cabin," said Blanka.
"What, in your bridal chamber?" gasped Aaron. "Oh, Father in heaven!"
But there was no other way. The two brothers bore Jonathan into the little house, unswathed his cold limbs, and laid him in the bridal bed until his coffin should be ready for him. So death entered the little abode and was the first guest.
Blanka sat down on the edge of the bed and gazed at the dead face. The resemblance between Jonathan and Manasseh was striking. This lifeless image of her husband suddenly revealed to her all that had hitherto been so carefully kept from her knowledge. When she met Jonathan in Kolozsvar she had conceived of the war, to which so many stately cavaliers were turning their horses' heads, as a kind of splendid tournament. She remembered now the promise she had made to give the young soldier a kiss on his return home, and recalled how he had begged her to keep her word even though he came back dead. And he had come back dead, and now claimed the fulfilment of her promise. She bent down over him, and as she did so the illusion that it was Manasseh himself lying lifeless before her, grew stronger still. She trembled as she touched her lips to the dead man's marble brow, and with an outburst of sobs and tears she called aloud, "Manasseh!"
He was at her side in a moment, bending over her and pressing her to his heart. So he was not dead, after all. She recovered her self-control, but she murmured in his ear:
"Oh, do not die! Never let me see you lying like that before me!"
Then she gave place to the three brothers, who likewise embraced the dead man. One by one the other brothers came out of the house of rejoicing and entered the chamber of mourning. Alexander had summoned them. The guests, however, found nothing strange in their disappearance, but merely gave themselves up the more unrestrainedly to the gaiety of the occasion. That the bride and groom should have vanished so suddenly was entirely in accord with established usage: the loving pair had, it was taken for granted, sought the spot where all the delights of paradise awaited them. How different was the reality from these conjectures!
Blanka watched through the long hours by the dead man's couch. So passed her wedding night.
At early dawn the tolling of bells announced to the people of Toroczko that death had laid his cold hand on one of their number. Those who had been wedding guests the day before now came as mourners to the house of the Adorjans.
The brothers were out on the mountainside. Graves for the dead in Toroczko are hewn out of the solid rock, and the side of some bare cliff serves the people for a cemetery. Here each family has a vault, which, as years pass, penetrates more and more deeply into the mountainside, until in many cases it becomes a veritable tunnel. No name is carved over these vaults, and only the memory of the survivors serves to distinguish one tomb from another. When a man dies, his relatives take it on themselves to hollow out his grave in the cliff. This is an old and pious custom. If, however, there is no man in the family to render this last service, the neighbours gladly offer their help. It would be a grievous thing in Toroczko to have one's grave dug by a hired grave-digger.
In the afternoon the catafalque was erected in the church, and the entire population assembled to pay the last honours to the deceased. The people sang, and the pastor delivered a funeral discourse. Then all accompanied the remains to the rock-hewn cemetery. Men bore the coffin on their shoulders, and on the coffin lay the dead man's sword, crowned with garlands, and his shako pierced with a bullet-hole. Leading the procession marched a student chorus singing a dirge, while weeping women brought up the rear. When the family vault was reached, the seven brothers of the deceased took the coffin and laid it in the niche prepared to receive it; then they rolled a great stone before the opening, came out of the vault, and kissed one another.
After that a plain villager, an old and gray-haired man, mounted a stone pulpit and addressed the assembly, telling them who it was they were burying, how he had lived, how he had been loved, and in what manner he had come to his end. The speaker closed with the hope that the memory of the departed might last as long as there were dwellers in the valley to speak his name. The pastor then blessed the grave and pronounced a benediction on the company before him. Finally the student choir rendered a closing selection, while the women and children left the place in groups, and only the men remained behind.
Aaron now ascended the stone pulpit and spoke. "Brothers and friends," he began, "we have done our duty to the dead; now let us discharge our obligations to the living. Enough of funeral dirges for the present! Let us now to arms!"
Three hundred men echoed his words. "To arms!" they cried, "to arms!" They were ready and eager to go in quest of the foemen at whose hands their fellow-townsman had met his death. "Come, let us go home and arm ourselves!" said they, one to another.
"We will meet in the marketplace!" called out Aaron from the stone pulpit, when suddenly he felt a strong hand on his belt behind, and he was lifted down bodily from his place. He did not need to ask who dealt thus summarily with him; he knew that only his brother Manasseh was capable of such a feat of strength.
"What are you thinking of?" cried Manasseh, in a voice that all could hear. "Have I not made peace with our neighbours and sworn in the name of the one living God to maintain it, and would you put me to shame?"
"Have they not murdered our brother Jonathan?" demanded Aaron.
"No; our brother fell in battle like a brave soldier, with his sword in his hand. And others of our land are fighting now for their country and will die for her. We shall mourn them and honour their memory, but we are not wild Indians to exact a bloody vengeance for those fallen on the battle-field."
"Very well, brother Manasseh, but you need not charge us with being wild Indians. I do not ask that we should fall upon our neighbours and burn their houses over their heads, but that we should be on our guard and defend ourselves and our families the best we know how. Believe me, brother, I am as good a Christian as the next man; I go to church every holy day, even when I am ill; but I feel easier, when I pray for my soul's salvation, if I know my gun is loaded and primed."
"Then you are no true believer in God," returned Manasseh, in a tone of reproof. "You worship that Jesus in whose name the massacre of St. Bartholomew was perpetrated, the burning of heretics sanctioned, and the crusades undertaken; but you are no true follower of that Jesus who came with a message of peace and good-will to mankind, and who said to Peter, 'They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'"
"I am not so sure that he really said that," rejoined Aaron, shrewdly. "Matthew has it that he did, but Mark and Luke make no mention of it, and, according to John, Jesus simply said to Peter, after the latter had cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest's servant, 'Put up thy sword into the sheath.' At any rate, I am not clear what I should have done had he said it to me; but I know one thing, if I had been there when the Saviour handed the sop to Judas, I should have dealt Iscariot such a blow on the head that he wouldn't have had wit enough left to betray his master. And just so I will strike down the traitor who leads a foe against Toroczko, if he once comes within my reach."
"What traitor do you mean?"
"The one that the girl spoke of yesterday when she said, 'If a traitor rises up from amidst your own people, then tremble!' I know whom she meant now: with the insurgents is a man, lately come into notice, who surpasses all his fellows in cruelty. He is our Iscariot."
"What makes you think so?"
"Because he calls himself Diurbanu. No genuine Wallachian would have taken the nickname of his king, Decebalus. It is as if one of us should call himself Attila. Now, then, Manasseh, I love you and am ready to follow your lead. I shall never forget how you went up to Monastery Heights and came back with our two brothers. You knew how to serve them better than I. I would have avenged their death merely, but you saved their lives. So, as you made peace with Moga and his people, you have a right to ask us to keep it. Therefore we will demand no atonement from them for Jonathan's death. But when we hear that Diurbanu and his men, who know nothing about that peace and are no parties to it, are advancing on Toroczko, then will be the time for us to act."
"And I will take a hand with you," declared Manasseh.
Therewith the two brothers clasped hands and embraced each other, after which the men all returned to their homes.
Albeit the earth reeked with blood in those days, yet the spring of 1849 saw the flowers blooming in as great profusion as ever, as if God's blessing had been vying with man's curse to see which should outdo the other.
On a beautiful afternoon in May, Blanka and Anna, with Manasseh and Aaron, were climbing a steep and tortuous mountain path. Manasseh had his portfolio and some few other implements of his craft, while Aaron carried the ladies' wraps and lunch-basket. With the exception of iron-shod alpenstocks, none of the party were armed. The two men walked on ahead, side by side, leaving the young women to loiter behind and pick mayflowers. Rhododendrons, orchids, and epigonitis rewarded their search in abundance. From the valley below came up the bleating of goats and the flute-like notes of the blackbird.
"Are you really in earnest, Aaron, about defending the town from this position in case of an attack?" asked Manasseh.
"Wasn't it from the Szekler Stone that our fathers repulsed the whole Mongolian horde?" was the rejoinder.
"But that was in the old days, in old-fashioned warfare."
"Well, the Wallachians are now no further advanced in military science than were the Tartars then."
"Yes, but at that time the Szekler Stone was in a condition for defence," objected Manasseh.
"And how do you know I haven't put it in such a condition again?" asked the other.
"I should like to see how you have accomplished it."
"I shall not show you, for you are not a soldier, and no civilian shall see my fortifications. I will show them to the two young ladies; they count as combatants. The other day they coaxed Alexander to lend them his pistols, and since then they have been practising shooting at a mark in the garden behind the house."
"What, does my wife know how to handle a pistol?"
"To be sure; and it's no elderberry popgun, either. You may depend upon it, she'll sell her life dear. You needn't laugh."
The rocky height known as the Szekler Stone commands a view of vast extent. Nestled among the hills, twenty-two villages may be counted from its summit, with the Aranyos River winding this way and that among them, like a ribbon of silver, until it empties into another tortuous stream which carries its waters to the Maros. But on the opposite side, toward the northwest, in striking contrast with this picture of happy human industry, a boundless waste of rugged, forest-clad mountain peaks meets the eye, with no sign of house or hamlet.
From the side toward Toroczko, which lay smiling in the valley, its fruit-trees in full bloom, its fields looking like so many squares of green carpet, and its church-spire rising conspicuous above the foliage, one could hear, like the throbbing of a giant's heart, the heavy beating of steam hammers. There the scythe and the ploughshare were being fashioned, and all the implements wherewith the hand of man subdued to his use those rugged hillsides.
"If I could only paint that picture!" sighed Manasseh.
"You succeeded with the Colosseum," was Blanka's encouraging rejoinder.
"That was Rome, this is Toroczko. I could hit my sweetheart's likeness; my mother's is beyond me."
Nevertheless he was determined to try his hand; so the others left him at work and went on to view the curiosities of the Szekler Stone.
"Take good care of my wife," Manasseh called to his brother, "and don't let her fall over any precipice."
"Never fear," Aaron shouted back. "The whole Szekler Stone shall fall first."
"Promise not to take Blanka and Anna up Hidas Peak."
"On your honour as a Szekler and a Unitarian?"
"On my honour as a Szekler and a Unitarian."
With that Manasseh let them go their way. But in the midst of his sketching it occurred to him that Aaron had only promised not to "take" the ladies up Hidas Peak, which might mean that he would not carry them up, but was at liberty to lead them; for Aaron was full of all such quips and quibbles as that. Manasseh closed his portfolio, picked up his things, and followed the path taken by the others.
Yet there was no mischievous intent in Aaron's mind. He conducted Anna and Blanka to the verge of the gorge that separates the so-called Hidas Peak of the Szekler Stone from the Louis Peak. This ravine is a deep cutting, down which a steep, breakneck path leads directly to Toroczko, but is very seldom used. On the farther side of the gorge may be seen a cave in the rocks, popularly known as Csegez Cave. A rude stone rampart guards its mouth, and, as only a very narrow path along the brink of the precipice leads to this cavern, it could be easily held against an assault.
On the summit of Hidas Peak was planted a bundle of straw, which was visible from a considerable distance, and served as a warning not to ascend. Was it meant as a protection to the single fir-tree left standing there in lonely majesty, or to deter hay-thieves from cutting the grass that grew there? Perhaps it was a friendly caution to sightseers not to hazard the ascent, as it might cost them their lives.
The two young women recognised at once the inadvisability of their attempting this dangerous climb, but to Aaron the ascent was mere sport. He had often been up there before. Promising his companions that, if they would be on their good behaviour, and not stir from the spot, he would climb the rocky height, blow a blast on his horn that should awake the echoes, and bring them back a twig from the solitary fir-tree, he left them seated on the grass and busy arranging the flowers they had gathered.
It seemed a long time before he gained the summit, and the young women grew tired of sitting still in one place. Anna, true miner's daughter that she was, spied some scattered bits of carnelian in the rubble near by, and pointed them out to Blanka. Agate and chalcedony were also to be found among the loose stones, and often the three occurred together. Both Anna and her companion were soon busy gathering these treasures and pocketing the rarest specimens. Indeed, so intent were they on their work that they failed to note the approach of a strange man, until he stood within fifty paces of them. Whence could he have come? Had he been concealed behind some rock? What was his purpose in thus stealing on the two unprotected women? He wore the Wallachian peasant costume,—a high cap of white lamb's wool, from beneath which his long, black hair hung down over his shoulders, a leather dolman, without sleeves, a broad belt with buckles, under which his shirt extended half-way to his knees, and laced shoes. He carried a scythe over one shoulder, and stood with his back to the sun, so that his features could not be clearly distinguished.
The young women seized each other by the hand, and uttered a cry of alarm. The sight of the strange figure seemed to work on them like a nightmare, or like the ghost of some one known in life, but long since laid to rest in the grave. At first the man appeared to be as badly frightened as the young ladies. He halted, gave a start as of surprise, opened his mouth to speak, and then stood dumb, with staring eyes. For several seconds he seemed undecided what to do next. Then he put himself in motion and advanced toward the ladies, his face at the same time assuming a wild, demoniac expression. He lowered his scythe from his shoulder, and grasped it in his right hand.
At that moment there sounded from the height above the trumpet-like peal of Aaron's horn.
"Aaron! Aaron!" cried both young women in concert and with all their strength.
The intruder, taking fright at sound of the horn and at the name, stood still and threw a look behind.
"Run, frate!" shouted Aaron from above, already descrying the man.
[Footnote 1: Rumanian for "brother."]
But the latter, counting with safety on a considerable interval before Aaron could descend, started once more toward Anna and Blanka. Only twenty paces now intervened between him and them. His eyes glowed and his face was distorted with a horrid expression, more brutal than human. His appearance might well have made the boldest recoil. Anna planted herself before her companion, as if to shelter her, while Blanka felt only a mad desire to run and throw herself over the precipice. But suddenly, when the man was only a few steps from them, he halted and drew back as if some one had smitten him in the face, his knees trembled, and an inarticulate cry escaped his lips. He seemed to have encountered something from which he drew back in dismay, as the leopard, when pursuing a deer, turns tail at sight of a lion. Blanka and Anna gave a backward glance and then started to run. Fear now left them, and as they ran they called aloud, in the glad assurance of help near at hand, "Manasseh! Manasseh!"—until they reached him and threw themselves into his arms.
Meanwhile the strange man, looking over his shoulder and seeing Aaron descending upon him with bold leaps and bounds, did not pause long to consider, but dropped his scythe and ran for his life, down the steep side of the gorge, over rubble-stones and slippery boulders.
"What are you so frightened at?" asked Manasseh, taking the matter lightly and kissing back the roses into the ladies' pale cheeks.
Panting and gasping for breath, they could hardly stammer out the cause of their alarm, but managed to explain that a "terrible man" had suddenly come upon them and chased them. Yet neither Blanka nor Anna went on to say of whom this strange figure had reminded her.
"You little geese!" cried Manasseh, laughing, "it was only a hay-thief. Grass grows on Hidas Peak, and ever since the days of King Matthias the Szeklers on the Aranyos have quarrelled with their neighbours over the cutting of it. The man who is on hand first with his scythe carries it off. So that bugaboo of yours was merely a harmless peasant in quest of fodder for his cow, and he took fright at sight of us and ran away. Look there, will you, he has dropped his scythe in his eagerness to escape."
The two young women, still clinging to Manasseh, went with him to examine the Wallachian's scythe.
"A tool of our own make!" he cried, lifting it up and inspecting it. "It has our trade-mark. The snath is full of notches—probably the owner's record of work done and of his share in the harvest."
The said owner was by this time far down the steep path. Aaron now joined his companions, much out of breath, red in the face, and without his hat, which he had thrown away in order to run the faster. He shouted to the fugitive to stop, and, going to the edge of the ravine, snatched up a great stone and hurled it after him.
"Oh, heavens!" cried Anna, "what have you done? What if it should hit him?"
"If it hits him it will help him along the faster," was Aaron's reply as he caught up a second stone, smaller than the first, and sent it to overtake its fellow. But the fleeing form was too far down the hill to serve as a good target, and Aaron's stones bounded harmlessly by.
"You might have killed him!" said Anna, reproachfully.
"And that would have been the best thing for all concerned," answered Aaron, giving his moustache a fierce pull.
"But it would have been a piece of needless cruelty," remarked Manasseh,—"and merely on account of a little hay that has not been touched, after all."
"He didn't come up here to steal hay; he is one of Diurbanu's spies."
"But what, pray, could he spy out here?"
"What could he spy out? Oh, just see how sharp my brother Manasseh is! My fortifications and armament are on the Szekler Stone. Yes, you may laugh now, but you won't laugh when you come to learn their value. I will show the ladies my cannon, but I won't let you see them, Manasseh."
"Cannon, brother?" repeated Manasseh, laughing. "How in the world did you ever get them up here?"
"My business is with the ladies now," was all Aaron would say. "You sit down on a stone and paint the beautiful view. My battery is not for you to see. Yes, I have a battery, all complete. If Aaron Gabor could fit out his Szeklers with artillery, why should not his namesake be able to do the same? You young women may see my big guns; I'll show them to you. But first promise me solemnly not to tell any mortal soul what you see—not even Manasseh."
Blanka and Anna both pledged themselves most solemnly to secrecy, whereupon Aaron led them up to a height on which stood the ruins of Szekler-Stone Castle, one of the oldest monuments to be found in all Hungary.
After a short interval the three rejoined Manasseh, the two ladies laughing and in the merriest of moods, scarcely heeding their conductor's solemnly raised forefinger and sober mien, which were meant to remind them of their promise. But they betrayed no secrets; they only laughed. Yet Aaron thought it betrayal enough for them even to laugh.
"That's always the way," he muttered, "when you let a woman into a secret!"
They soothed and caressed him, but only laughed the more as they did so.
"I wish you to understand that this is no trifling matter," he declared, "and that I had good reason to send those stones after that prying spy."
This allusion checked the young women's merriment at once, and a shudder ran over them at the remembrance of what had passed. "Did we both have the same thought?" whispered Blanka to Anna.
"Yes," returned the latter, with a sigh.
That night, before she lay down to sleep, Anna veiled the little portrait that hung in her room, as if to prevent her seeing it in her dreams.
THE HAND OF FATE.
Through the main street of Abrudbanya rode two men, one of them wearing an overcoat with silver buttons over his Wallachian dress, and a tuft of heron's feathers in his cap, while at his side hung a curved sword, pistols protruded from his holsters, and a rifle lay across his saddle-bow. His face had nothing of the Wallachian peasant in its features or expression. The other horseman, however, who rode at some paces' distance in the rear, was manifestly of the peasant class.
The horses' hoofs awoke the echoes of the vacant street. Silence and desolation reigned supreme. Half-burned houses and smoke-blackened walls greeted the riders on every side. High up on the door-post of a church appeared the bloody imprint of a child's hand. How had it come there? Grass and weeds were growing in the marketplace, and a millstone covered the village well. Here and there a lean and hungry dog crept forth at the horsemen's approach, howled dismally, and then retreated among the ruins.
After this scene of devastation was passed, the highway led the riders along the bank of a stream, on both sides of which smelting works had been erected, as this region is rich in gold-producing ore; but nothing except charred ruins was now left of the buildings. At intervals a deserted mill was passed, its wheel still turning idly under the impulse of the tireless stream. Leaving this mining district behind, the two riders came to a settlement of a different sort, which had not been given over entirely to destruction. Only occasionally a house showed windows or doors lacking, while many were wholly unharmed. Among the latter was one building in whose front wall a well-preserved Roman gravestone was set, its carving in high relief being still clearly outlined. Here had once been entombed the ashes of Caius Longinis, a centurion of the third legion. Sit sibi terra levis! One of the door-posts had in ancient times served as a milestone, and the broad bench before the house was made from the lid of a sarcophagus, bearing an inscription which informed the archaeologist what saffron-haired Roman beauty had, centuries before, been laid to rest beneath it.
The riders drew rein before this house, and straightway an old woman of extraordinary ugliness stuck her head out of the little door. Among the Wallachians one meets with the comeliest young women and the ugliest old hags. Knock at any door, and it is sure to be opened by one of these ancient dames.
"He isn't at home," called out the old woman, without waiting to be addressed. "He has gone to the 'Priest's Tree.' You'll find him there."
"Well, then, if you know where this 'Priest's Tree' is, go ahead and show us the way," commanded he of the silver buttons, unwilling even to halt long enough to water his horse, so pressing was his errand.
The way led through a vast forest, and when the riders reached their destination it was late evening, the darkness being further increased by gathering thunder-clouds. The so-called "Priest's Tree" is a giant beech standing in a broad open space and fenced around with a hedge planted by pious hands. Under this tree have been sworn the most solemn of oaths, and the ground shaded by it is hallowed. Near by stands a wooden church, exactly like the churches to be seen in all Wallachian villages, its steep roof and sides covered with shingles, and a pointed turret surmounting the whole. The belfry has no bell, and the windows are unglazed, so that the breezes blow at will through the deserted building.
Our riders found a dozen or more horses tethered at the foot of the tree and watched by a few Wallachian lads, who were muffled in fur coats against the approach of the storm. The beech furnished a good shelter: lightning could not strike it, as it was the "Priest's Tree."
Leaving his horse in charge of his attendant, he of the silver buttons hastened on to the church door, where an armed sentry demanded his name.
"Diurbanu," was the reply, whereupon he was admitted.
The interior of the church was very dark. Two wax tapers, indeed, burned on the altar, but they flickered and flared so in the wind as to furnish a very insufficient light. The thunder-clouds without, however, were now rent with frequent flashes of lightning, which served to illumine the scene within. About a dozen men were assembled there, sitting on the benches that had once been occupied by worshippers, some wearing the costume of the country, while others were dressed in military uniform. Before them, with his back to the altar, sat a man of commanding appearance, attired in a clerical gown with long, flowing sleeves. In his lap he held a little fair-haired boy, covering the child with one of his wide sleeves, and giving it the golden crucifix that hung from his neck to play with. At times his long black beard completely concealed the child's face. The little one was playing and prattling, giving no heed to the talk of the men about him and betraying no alarm at the tumultuous approach of the storm.
The newcomer advanced and addressed the group:
"Gentleman and friends, glorious descendants of Decebalus and Trajan!"
"Never mind ceremony now, Diurbanu," interrupted the wearer of the gown, in a deep, commanding voice. "What news? Let us hear your errand."
"I am the bearer of instructions."
"Out with them, then!"
"We must prosecute the war with might and main. There is no time to lose. Bem regards the Transylvanian campaign as ended, and has set out with his whole army for the Banat, leaving only a few regulars to guard the passes and to prosecute the siege of Karlsburg. Our part is to check him in his march on Croatia."
"Or, in other words," interrupted the man in the gown, "to prevent him from dealing Jellachich a fatal blow, we are to throw ourselves in Bem's way."
"The victors of Abrudbanya and Brad will not shrink from the undertaking, I should hope," was Diurbanu's response.
"Let us understand each other," said the other, setting the little boy on his knee and trotting him up and down as he spoke. "Is it reasonable to suppose that we could, without cavalry, artillery, or experienced commanders, attack a fully equipped force with any hope of success, especially after that force has driven an Austrian army corps out of the country and shown itself able to repulse the Russian auxiliaries?"
"No one expects that of us. Our operations are to be confined to raids in the mountains."
"But no enemy is to be found now in the mountains. Don't you know that? You have just come over the mountains. Did you see any sign of the enemy?"
"We have foes enough there still. There is Toroczko." Diurbanu's face, as he said this, was suddenly illumined by a blinding flash of lightning.
"And Torda!" cried a voice from the benches.
"No, we have nothing against Torda," declared Diurbanu, almost angrily.
"But what have we against Toroczko?" asked another voice. "The men of Toroczko have never done us any harm. So far we have received their iron only in the form of ploughs and shovels, scythes and wheel-tires."
"Their sons are serving under Bem," was the rejoinder, "and it is from them that we have received their iron in other shapes. Yet that is not the main reason. Toroczko is a breeding-place of Magyar ideas and Magyar civilisation, an asylum open to Protestant reformers, the pride of a handful of people who hope to conquer the world by dint of their science and industry. The fall of Toroczko would spread a wholesome fear far and wide; it would be almost as if one should report the overthrow of Pest itself. Bem's men would halt on the march, panic-stricken at the news, and Bem himself would be forced to yield to their desires and return to Transylvania. And the more terrible our work of devastation, the more brilliant will be the military success that must follow as its result."
The thunder-claps came at such frequent intervals that the speaker could with difficulty make himself heard. When he had ended, the deep voice of him who wore the clerical gown began in reply:
"Listen to me, Diurbanu. You are deceived on one point. Those on whom you count in this bloody work are sated with slaughter. So long as they thirsted for revenge they were eager to shed human blood; but now they have slaked their thirst and are beginning to rue their deeds. I saw a family being cut down in the open street, and I rushed forward and snatched this little flaxen-haired boy from the murderers' hands and hid him under my cloak. At that a young man, the most furious one of the party, aimed such a stroke at my head with his scythe that he would certainly have split my skull had not my cap deadened the blow. But three days later this same young man came to see the child whose rescue had filled him with such fury that he had lifted his hand with murderous intent against me, his anointed priest; and because the little boy cried for his lost blackbird, the young man went into the woods and caught another for him. More than that, he would now gladly restore the boy's parents to him if he could. Ever since I saved the little one's life he has clung to me and refused to be parted from me."
The priest spoke in a tongue strange to the little boy, who consequently understood not a word of what was said, but went on with his innocent prattle and laughter.
"Comrades," resumed Diurbanu, addressing the group before him, "all this is wide of the mark. We are in the midst of war, and in war-times the soldier must go whither he is sent."
"Very well, Diurbanu," was the reply, "our soldiers will go whither they are sent. The wind can direct the storm-cloud whither it shall go, but cannot compel it to flash lightning and hurl thunderbolts at command."
"But I know one storm-cloud," rejoined Diurbanu, "that has not withheld its thunderbolts."
"You mean Ciprianu and his men?"
"But Ciprianu and both his sons are now fallen."
"So much the better. He left a daughter who thirsts for revenge."
"Do you know her?"
"She is my sweetheart."
"And have you picked out the village whose destruction is to be her bridal gift? Which one is it?"
"I have told you already,—Toroczko."
"But I say it shall be Torda!" cried a determined voice.
"Let us draw lots to decide it."
"Very well," assented Diurbanu, and, going to the altar on which stood the flickering candles, he wrote a name on each of two cards and threw the bits of pasteboard into his cap. "Now who will draw?" he asked; but no one volunteered. "It must be an innocent hand that decides the fate of these two towns," continued Diurbanu. "This little chap shall draw for us."
"What, this innocent child decide which town shall be given over to fire and blood and pillage!" exclaimed the priest. "An infernal contrivance of yours, Diurbanu!"
But meantime the child had reached out a tiny hand and clutched at one of the cards, which it handed to the priest.
"Bring me one of the candles," bade the latter.
But no candle was necessary, for even as he spoke a flash of lightning penetrated to the remotest corner of the little church. The group of men whose heads were bent over the bit of cardboard started and cried out in concert:
In the peal of thunder that followed the very ground shook under their feet and the building rocked over their heads.
The inhabitants of the doomed town were warned beforehand by a friendly informer what was in store for them. For two months they knew that they were standing over a mine which awaited only the proper moment to be touched off. Nevertheless, during this time they went about their usual tasks, digging iron out of the bowels of the earth, sowing their grain, planting and weeding their gardens, spinning their flax, tanning their hides, sending their children to school, and all betaking themselves to church on Sunday morning. The Sunday afternoon diversions, however, were suspended, and in their stead the entire male population practised military drill. Even the twelve-year-old boy cried if he was not allowed to take part. All were determined to shed their last drop of blood rather than let the enemy set foot inside their town. Even the women busied themselves sharpening axes and scythes, resolute in their purpose to defend their little ones or, if need were, to put them to death with their own hands and then slay themselves. No woman, no child, should fall into the enemy's clutches alive.
It was the very last day of July. The fields were dotted with sheaves of grain, and the farmers were hastening to gather them in. They had been surprised by countless numbers of crows and ravens which invaded the valley and filled the air with their hoarse, discordant cries. Those experienced in war knew that these birds were the usual attendants and heralds of armies.
More definite tidings were not long in coming. Messengers from St. George arrived breathless with the report that Diurbanu's troops were rapidly approaching. But no one was disconcerted by the news; all were ready for the enemy. Throwing scythes and pitchforks aside, they snatched up their firearms. Each battalion of the national guard had its assigned position. The streets were barricaded with wagons, and the road toward Borev was laid under water by damming the brook, to prevent a surprise from that direction. Aaron, with forty other men, clambered up the steep slope of the Szekler Stone to repulse the enemy from this commanding height,—forty men against as many hundred. They would have laughed at their own folly had they but stopped to think.
Toward noon the sturdy little band of defenders was increased by the coming of fugitives from St. George. For these, too, there were arms enough in Toroczko. The effective force now in the village amounted to nearly four hundred.
Manasseh was at home with the women of the family. They had declined Aaron's offer to conceal them in Csegez Cave, preferring to remain under the family roof and there await what God had appointed them. Manasseh now embraced Blanka and Anna and bade them farewell.
"Where are you going?" asked Blanka, in alarm. Jonathan's pale face seemed at that moment to float before her vision, and she feared to part with her husband, lest he should not return.
"I am going to the enemy's camp."
"No, not alone. I am well attended: Uriel goes before me, Raphael is on my right hand, Gabriel on my left, behind me Michael, and over my head Israel."
"But you are going unarmed."
"No, I am armed with the peace treaty which our foes concluded with me, swearing not to attack Toroczko. That is my weapon, and with it I will win a bloodless victory."
Blanka looked sorrowfully into her husband's face, and in that look was expressed all that her tongue was powerless to utter,—her infinite love for the man and her deep despair at the thought of perhaps never again meeting those eyes so full of love and tenderness for her.
"I tried it once before, you know," he reminded her, "and you know how well I succeeded then. The leader of the Wallachians is an old acquaintance of mine." But this last was true in a sense that the speaker little dreamed—as he was to learn later.
Blanka pressed her husband's hand. "Very well," said she, with a brave effort at cheerful confidence, "do as seems best to you, and Heaven will care for us."
Manasseh could not suppress a sigh as he kissed his wife on the forehead. Anna, who could read her brother's face, knew what that sigh meant.
"You need not be anxious about us, dear brother," she said. "We are under God's protection, and are prepared for the worst. We decided long ago what we should do if we were forced to it. When all is lost that is dearest to us,—our loved ones, our home, our country,—we shall not wait tamely for the enemy to break into the house. Here are two pistols: each of us will take one of them and point it at the other's heart, each will utter the name that is last in her thoughts, and that will be the last word that will ever pass her lips. Now you may go on your errand and need not fear for us."
Manasseh's feelings were too deep for utterance. Without a word he kissed the dear ones before him and then left the house and hastened away. He turned his face toward St. George. He was alone and had not even a stick in his hand.
It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. To a good pedestrian St. George is only half an hour's walk from Toroczko. On the outskirts of the village Manasseh met scattered bodies of soldiery who surveyed him in much surprise; but, as he was unarmed, they offered him no injury. His calmness of bearing and the cool, collected look with which he met their scrutiny completely disarmed them. Besides, they were busy cutting up slaughtered cattle and cooking their supper in the open fields. As was usual among such irregular troops, no outposts had been set to challenge the approach of strangers.
Manasseh accosted the first man whose face impressed him favourably, and asked for guidance to the commander's quarters. The man willingly gave him his escort. On the way he went so far as to unbosom himself to Manasseh, complaining that, at this busy season of the year, when all ought to be at home, men were forced to make so long a march. After showing the way to the house where the commander was to be found, he received a cigar from Manasseh, and acknowledged himself amply repaid for his trouble.
Manasseh advanced to the door and announced to a group of armed men lounging about it that he wished to see Diurbanu.
"The general is not to be seen just now," was the reply; "he is at dinner, and will not leave the table for some time yet."
Manasseh drew a visiting-card from his pocket, and, first bending down one corner, sent it in to the general. The bearer of it soon returned with the announcement that Diurbanu bade the visitor wait awhile, and meantime he was to be bound and confined in the cellar. Manasseh assented to this peculiar reception. "Many men, many manners," said he to himself. It would have been easy enough for him to leap the railing of the porch and flee to the woods before the others could lay hands on him, but he had not come hither merely to run away again the next moment.
"Very well, go ahead and bind me," said he, good-humouredly, to the guards. But they looked at one another in helpless inquiry who should undertake to manacle this large, strong man. When at length two had volunteered to essay the task, it appeared that there was no rope in readiness. "Go and get one," commanded the prisoner; and when a stout cord had been procured, he went on with his directions: "Now take my pocketbook out; you'll find some loose change in it which you may divide among you. There is also a folded paper in the pocketbook; deliver it to the general and ask him to read it. Then take a cigar out of my waistcoat pocket, light it and stick it in my mouth."
These commands having been duly executed, two of the guards led their prisoner down into the cellar, which appeared to be Diurbanu's antechamber for such visitors as came to him with troublesome petitions. Not satisfied with conducting him to the main or outer cellar, Manasseh's escort opened the iron door leading into an inner compartment, pushed him through it, and closed the portal upon him, after bidding him take a seat and make himself comfortable.
Manasseh found himself in almost total darkness. Only an air-hole over his door admitted a very feeble light from the dimly illumined outer cellar. He began to consider his situation, comforting himself with the reflection that at Monastery Heights he had been treated in much the same fashion, except that there his hands had not been bound. He had been kept in confinement all night, and in the morning his terms of peace had been accepted. This time, too, he hoped for a like issue.
When a cigar is smoked in the dark it lights up the smoker's face at each puff. Suddenly a voice from out of the gloom called, "Manasseh!"
"Who is there?"
It was a gipsy, whose voice Manasseh recognised. "How came you here, Lanyi?" he asked.
"Diurbanu had me locked up—the devil take him!"
"What grudge had he against you?"
"He ordered me to play to him while he sat at dinner," explained the gipsy; "but I told him I wouldn't do it."
"Because I won't make music for my country's enemies."
His country, poor fellow! What share had he in that country beyond the right to tramp the public highway, and make himself a mud hut for shelter?
"Then he gave me a cuff," continued the gipsy, "had me shut up here, and promised to hang me. Well, he may break me on the wheel, for aught I care, but I won't play for him even if he smashes my fiddle for refusing."
"Well, don't be down-hearted, my little man," said Manasseh, cheerily.
"I'm not a bit down-hearted," declared the other. "I only thought I'd ask you not to throw away your cigar-stump when you've finished smoking. You can walk, your feet are free; come here when you are through with your cigar, and let it fall into my mouth, so that I can chew it."
"But you'll find it a hot mouthful."
"So much the better."
This cynical gipsy phlegm exactly suited Manasseh's mood, and he exerted himself to cheer the poor fellow up, promising to secure his release as soon as he himself should gain an audience with Diurbanu.
"But you won't get out of here yourself in a hurry," returned the gipsy. "Once in Diurbanu's hands, you might as well be in the hangman's. Already he has put to death seven envoys who came to treat for peace, and they were only St. George peasants. So what will he do to you who are an Adorjan and wear a seal ring? But you've a breathing-spell yet. The others served him as a little relish before dinner; you are to be kept for dessert. One drinks a glass of spirits at a gulp, but black coffee is to be sipped and enjoyed. I know this Diurbanu well, and you'll know him, too, before he's through with you. I'll bet you my fiddle, Manasseh, you won't live to see another day; but it serves you right! You could handle three such men as Diurbanu in a fair fight; yet, instead of meeting him on the battle-field, you walk right into his clutches and let him bind you fast—like Christ on the cross."
"Take not that name in vain, you rogue!" commanded Manasseh, sternly, "or I'll let you feel the weight of my foot."
"Kick me if you wish to," returned the vagrant, imperturbably; "but, all the same, if I had been Christ I wouldn't have chosen a miserable donkey to ride on, but would have sent for the best horse out of Baron Wesselenyi's stud; and as soon as I had the nag between my legs, I would have snapped my fingers at old Pontius Pilate."
The gipsy's eloquence was here interrupted by the sound of a key turning in the outer door of the cellar.
"They're coming!" cried the fiddler; "and I sha'n't get your cigar-stump, Manasseh. They'll take me out first."
Through the hole above the iron door a reddish light could now be seen. Presently the iron door itself was opened, and two men, bearing pitch-pine torches, entered, and then stood one on each side of the door. Diurbanu came last, dressed in the costume of a Wallachian military commander, his face flushed with wine and evil passions, and his long hair falling over his shoulders. Despite his disguise, Manasseh recognised him at once. He saw that the gipsy's words had conveyed no idle warning. The man before him was none other than Benjamin Vajdar. Yet the prisoner lost nothing of his composure, but with head erect and unflinching gaze faced his deadly enemy.
"Well, Manasseh Adorjan," began the other, "you asked to see me, and here I am. Do you know me now?"
"You are called Diurbanu," replied Manasseh, coldly.
"And don't you know another name for me? Don't I remind you of an old acquaintance?"
"To him whom you resemble, I have nothing to say. I have come to you as to Diurbanu, I have placed in your hands the peace-treaty which your people made with my people, and I demand its observance."
"To convince you that I am not merely Diurbanu, but also another, look here." With that he called one of the torch-bearers and held to the flame the paper he had received from Manasseh.
The latter shrugged his shoulders and blew a cloud of cigar-smoke.
"Do you understand now," continued Diurbanu, "that there is one man in the world who has sworn to march against Toroczko, treaty or no treaty, to leave not one stone on another in that town, and not one of its people alive to tell the story of its destruction? My day has come at last—and Toroczko's night." The speaker's features took on at these words an expression more like that of a hyena than of a human being.
"Idle threats!" muttered Manasseh, scornfully, between his teeth.
"Idle threats, are they?" retorted the other, striking the hilt of his sword and raising his head haughtily. "You think, do you, that I am joking, and that I will take pity on you?"
"Oh, as for me, you may do what you please with me—torture me, kill me, if you choose. I am ready. But that will not help you to take Toroczko. All are in arms there and waiting for you. Go ahead with your plan. You'll find many an old acquaintance to receive you there. Our defences are abundantly able to withstand your soldiers, who, you know well enough, are tired of fighting and have no love for storming ramparts. Kill me, if you wish, but there will be only one man the less against you; and all the satisfaction you and your men will get from Toroczko will be broken heads. Not one stone will you disturb in all the town."
"We'll soon make you sing another tune," returned Diurbanu, and he began to roll up his sleeves, like an executioner preparing to torture his victim. "You shall hear our plan. I will be perfectly honest with you. While a part of my forces conduct a feigned assault in the valley, and so engage the attention of your men, my main body will descend on the town from the direction of the Szekler Stone, and will assail it in the rear, where none but women and children are left to receive the attack. What the fate of these women and children is likely to be, you may conjecture from the fact that the assaulting party is led by a woman,—a woman whose heart is full of bitter hatred, a maiden whose father and two brothers have been killed before her eyes, a proud girl whom your brothers have driven from their door with insulting words. This woman is Zenobia, Ciprianu's daughter, once your brother Jonathan's sweetheart, but now betrothed to me—or, at least, she fancies she is. While I keep your armed forces busy, she will knock at the door of your house. At her signal the work of carnage and destruction will begin. Your whole family will fall into her hands."
Manasseh shuddered with horror, and drew a deep breath. His head was no longer proudly erect, his self-confidence was gone. "God's will be done!" he murmured.
"So I've found your tender spot, have I?" cried the other, with an exultant laugh. "Just think what is in store for your wife (but what am I saying? She is not your wife)—your mistress."
At this insult to his adored Blanka, Manasseh's wrath blazed up and mastered him. He spit his burning cigar stump into the speaker's face. It was the utmost he could do. The other swallowed his rage at the indignity and wiped the ashes from his face, which presently broke into a smile—a hideous smile.
"Very good, Manasseh! One more score to charge up against you. I don't attempt to even the account on your unfeeling body, but on your soul, which I know how to torture. For this last insult, as well as for a hundred former injuries, I shall wreak ample revenge on Blanka Zboroy, before your own turn comes."
"Do not count too confidently on that," rejoined Manasseh. "The moment your ruffian crew break into our house, two women will put their pistols to each other's hearts, and your men will find only a couple of dead bodies."
"Ha, ha! To deprive you of even this last consolation, I beg to assure you that the two women will not lay a finger on their pistols, because Zenobia is to gain entrance to them before the men appear. She will come to them in the guise of a friend and deliverer, promising to rescue them for Jonathan's sake. She will furnish them Wallachian peasant clothes, help them about their disguise, and, amidst the general confusion, bring them away with her, alive and unharmed, to St. George, so that you will have the pleasure of seeing Blanka Zboroy in my power. Further details I will leave to your own imagination; and to enable you to pursue these pleasant fancies undisturbed I will now say good night."
"Manasseh!" called a voice from the darkness, when Diurbanu had gone.
"Who calls? Or is it only a rat?" Manasseh had forgotten that his dungeon contained another prisoner beside himself.
"Yes, it's a rat," answered the voice. "I heard my schoolmaster tell a story once about a lion that fell into a snare, and a mouse came and gnawed the ropes so as to set him free. If you will bend down here I'll untie your knots with my teeth."
Manasseh complied. The gipsy had splendid teeth, and he bit and tugged at the knots until the prisoner's hands were free, and he felt himself another man altogether.
"Now pull this stake out from under my knees," directed the fiddler, whose hands were tied together and passed over his bent knees, where they were held fast by a stick of wood. His legs being freed, he slipped the cords from his hands like a pair of gloves. He was no little elated over his achievements. "And now we will sell our lives dear!" he cried, with a glad leap into the air.
The rattle of small arms in the distance began to be heard, and through the little opening over the iron door a ruddy light as from a fire became visible. At first Manasseh thought some one was coming again with a torch; but as the iron door did not open, and the red light grew constantly brighter, he finally guessed the cause of the illumination. Those who were now assaulting Toroczko must have set fire to St. George first, to furnish the people of the former place an example of what they were themselves to expect, and perhaps also to supply a light for the attacking party. The whole village was in flames. So it appeared that Diurbanu's words had conveyed no empty threat. The work of revenge had begun with St. George, and now came Toroczko's turn. That the latter place was offering a spirited resistance could be inferred from the lively firing that was to be plainly heard. But how would it be when the attack in the rear should begin, from the direction of the Szekler Stone? Could Aaron and his forty men offer any effectual opposition to the invaders?
Night must have fallen ere this. Manasseh paced his prison cell in almost unbearable impatience, as he listened to the distant firing, and watched the red glow over the door growing gradually brighter. A heavy booming as of cannon was heard from the Szekler Stone. So the attack in that quarter had begun, and Aaron's battery was at work. Zenobia must be leading the enemy into the town, for surely no means at Aaron's command could repulse the assaulting party.
Manasseh was fast losing all self-control. "I will find a way out of this!" he cried, in a frenzy.
Running to the door, he seized its iron ring and shook the heavy portal in impotent fury. Then he turned back and surveyed his place of confinement with searching eyes. It was now fairly well lighted by the ruddy glare that came through the air-hole. The place had formerly been a wine cellar, but every cask and barrel was now gone. The support on which they had rested, however, remained behind. This was a massive oak beam which had served to keep the wine casks from the damp earthen floor of the cellar.
"Lanyi," commanded Manasseh, in quick, energetic tones, "take hold of one end of this beam, and we will batter the door down."
"I'm your man!" responded the gipsy, with alacrity. He was small of person, but every sinew in his wiry frame was of steel. He grasped the beam behind while Manasseh carried the forward end, and so they converted it into a Roman battering-ram.
The booming of cannon was drowned now by the pounding on the iron door. The two prisoners wondered that no one in the house seemed to hear them. But those who might before have heard were engaged elsewhere, while to those outside the noises in the street drowned all tumult in the cellar.
At length the lock gave way under the tremendous battering to which it was subjected, and soon the door flew open. The outer door was of wood, and yielded readily.
"Hold on, stand back!" cried the gipsy, as Manasseh was about to run up the stairs. "Wait until I take a peep and see if the coast is clear. I'll mayhap find a gun that some one has thrown down."
"But I can't wait," returned the other, brushing him aside. "I need no gun. The first man that dares get in my way shall furnish me with arms. I am going to seek my wife! Let him who values his life run from before me!"
He burst through the door, and sprang up the steps. No sooner was he in the open air than an armed figure confronted him. But Manasseh did not strike down this person, for it was a woman,—Zenobia. A dirk and a brace of pistols were stuck in her belt.
"Take care!" she cried to Manasseh, and she made as if to shield him from view with her cloak. "Stay where you are!"
But Manasseh seized her by the wrist and shouted hoarsely in her ear:
"Where are my wife and sister?"
Zenobia understood his tone and the frenzy with which he grasped her arm. With a sad smile she made answer:
"Calm yourself. They are well cared for. They are at home in their own house, where no one can harm them."
He looked at her, in doubt as to her meaning. Zenobia handed him her weapons.
"Here, take these," she commanded. "You may need them. I have no further use for them." Thus, disarmed and in Manasseh's power, she stood calmly before him. "Now be quiet and listen to me," she went on.
The cannon thundered on the Szekler Stone in one continuous roar, while fiery rockets shot from Hidas Peak in a wide curve and fell into the valley below, hastening the mad flight of routed and panic-stricken men, who fled as if for their lives to Gyertyamos, Kapolna, and Bedelloe, to the woods, and into the mountain defiles. The burning village of St. George no longer offered them an asylum, and its streets were by this time nearly deserted.
"That is over," said the Wallachian girl, calmly, and she led Manasseh into the empty house. "Aaron might as well stop now," she murmured to herself; "for there are no more to frighten." Then to Manasseh: "You know it takes two to get up a scare,—one to do the frightening and the other to be frightened. If I had but said to our men, 'Stop running away! Those are not the brass cannon of the national guard, but only Aaron Adorjan's holes in the side of the rock, where he is harmlessly exploding gunpowder; and that roll of drums that you hear on the Csegez road does not mean an approaching brigade of Hungarians, but is only the idle rub-a-dub of a band of school children,'—if I had said that, Toroczko would now lie in ashes. But I held my tongue and let the panic do its work. With this day's rout all is ended, and in an hour's time you can safely return home. When you meet your wife and sister, tell them you saw me this evening, and let them know that the Wallachian girl has forgotten nothing—do you hear me?—nothing. They wrote me a beautiful letter, both of them on one sheet of paper, a letter full of love and kindness. They called me sister and invited me to your wedding, promising me that Jonathan should be there, too, and making me promise to come. And when they had written the letter they even coaxed the stiff-necked Aaron, who hates us Wallachians like poison, to add his signature to it, though I could see in the very way he wrote his name how he disliked to do it. I promised to come, and I kept my word. And Jonathan came with me—I brought him. That night I told your wife and your sister that I should come to Toroczko once more, and not with empty hands, but should bring them something. I have come, and I bring them—you, Manasseh, alive and unharmed. That is how a Wallachian girl remembers a kindness."