Timar's Two Worlds, by Mór Jókai

Chapter iii.

A Dangerous Leap with a Mammoth.

Indeed Timar had but little time for story-telling; for he had hardly got his breath after the exertions of his perilous achievement, before Euthemio gave him the glass and pointed where he was to look.

“Gunboat — twenty-four oars — brigantine from Salonica.”

Timar did not put down the telescope till the other vessel was hidden from him behind the point of the Perigrada Island.

Then suddenly he let it fall, and, putting the horn to his lips, blew first three, then six sharp blasts, at which the drivers whipped up their horses.

The rocky island of Perigrada is surrounded by two branches of the Danube. The one on the Servian side is that by which cargo-ships pass up; it is safer and cheaper, for half the number of horses suffice. By the Roumanian shore there is also a narrow channel, with just room for one vessel, but here you must use oxen, of which often a hundred and twenty are harnessed. The other arm of the river is again narrowed by the little Reskival Island, lying across the stream. (Now this island has been blown up in part, but at the time of our story the whole still existed.) Through the narrows between the two islands the river shoots like an arrow; but above, it lies between its rocky walls like a great lake. Only this lake has no smooth surface, for it is always in motion, and never freezes in the very hardest winter. Its bottom is thickly sown with rocks; some are under water, while other uncouth monsters project many feet above it.

This is the most dangerous part of the whole voyage. To this day, experienced seamen, English, Turks, Italians, at home on all seas, adventure themselves with much anxiety in this rock-strewn channel. Here the majority of shipwrecks occur. Here in the Crimean War the splendid Turkish man-of-war “Silistria” was lost. She had been ordered to Belgrade, and might have given a new turn to affairs if she had not received a thrust in the ribs from one of the Reskival rocks, so enthusiastic in their peace policy that they obliged her to stay where she was.

Yet this lake, with its dangerous bottom, has a passage through it which but few ships know, and still fewer care to use.

This short cut enables mariners to cross from the channel on the Servian side to the Roumanian shore. The latter channel is divided by a ledge of rock from the Upper Danube, and you can only enter it at Szvinicza, and come out at Szkela–Gladova.

This is the dangerous leap with a floating mammoth.

The captain blows first three, and then six blasts on his horn; the drivers know at once what it means, the leader of the team has dismounted — with good reason too — and they all begin with cries and blows to hurry on the horses. The vessel goes swiftly against the stream.

The horn blows nine times.

The drivers flog the horses furiously: the poor beasts understand the call and the blows, and tug till the rope is nearly strained to breaking. Five minutes of such effort are more exhausting than a whole day’s labor.

Now twelve blasts of the horn sound in rapid succession. Men and horses collect the last remnant of their strength. Every moment one fancies they must break down. The towing-rope, a three-inch cable, is as taut as a bow-string, and the iron bolt round which the rope is wound is burning hot with the friction. The captain stands by with a sharp ax in his hand.

When the vessel gained its greatest impetus, with a single blow he severed the cable at the bow.

The tense rope flew whistling like a giant fiddle-string into the air; the horses of the towing-team fell down in a heap, and the leader broke its neck — his rider had wisely dismounted. The ship, relieved of the strain, altered its course suddenly, and began, with its bow to the northern shore, to cut obliquely across the river.

Sailors call this bold maneuver the “Cross-cut.”

The heavy bulk is now propelled neither by stream nor oars; even the current is against it. Merely the after effect of the shock it has received drives it over to the other bank.

The calculation of this impulse, with the distance to be traversed and the resistance which lessens the speed, would be a credit to any practical engineer. Common sailors have learned it by rule of thumb.

From the moment when Timar cut the tow-rope, the lives of all on board were in the hands of the steersman.

Johann Fabula showed now what he could do. “Help, Lord Christ!” he muttered, but he did not keep his hands in his lap. Before him the ship rushed with winged speed into the lake formed by the Danube. Two men were now required at the tiller, and even these could hardly bridle the monster in its course.

Timar stood on the prow and sounded with the lead, in one hand holding the line; the other he stretched up, and showed the pilot with his fingers what water they had.

The steersman knew the rocks they were passing over just as well as he could have told exactly how much the river had risen in the last few weeks. In his hands the helm was safe; if he had made a single false movement, if only by an inch, the vessel would have received a shock which would stop her for a moment, and then she and all on board would have been driven head over heels into the Perigrada whirlpool, where the ship and the beautiful white girl would have joined the mill and the beautiful white cat.

Safely past the shallows of the Reskival rapids! Yet this is a bad place. The speed is less, the effect of the motive power already paralyzed by the force of the stream, and the bottom sown with sharp rocks.

Timéa leaned over the bulwarks and looked down into the water. Through the transparent waves, the bright-colored rocks, a huge mosaic of green and yellow and red, looked quite close. Between them shot silvery fishes with red fins. She was fascinated.

Deep silence fell over the scene; each knew that he passed over his grave, and would owe it to God’s mercy if he did not find his monument down below. Only the girl felt no emotion of fear.

The vessel had arrived in a bay of rocks. Sailors have given them the name of “gun-stones”; perhaps because the sound of the breakers reminds one of the cracking of musketry fire.

Here the principal branch of the Danube concentrates itself in a deep bed. The sunken rocks are too far under water to be dangerous. Below, in the dark-green depths, one may see the slow and indolent forms of the dwellers of the sea — the great sturgeon and the hundred-pound pike, at whose approach the bright shoals of small fish scatter in haste.

Timéa gazed at the play of the aquatic population; it was like a bird’s-eye view of an amphitheater.

Suddenly she felt her arm seized by Timar, who dragged her from the bulwarks, pushed her into the cabin, and shut the door violently.

“Look out! Halloo!” shouted the crew as with one voice.

Timéa could not imagine what was happening that she should be so roughly treated, and ran to look out of the cabin window.

It was only that the ship had passed safely through the “gun-rocks,” and was about to enter the Roumanian channel; but from the little bay the water rushes so furiously into the canal that a regular water-fall is formed, and this is the dangerous moment of the “Leap.”

When Timéa looked out of the cabin window, she only saw that Timar stood at the bow with a grappler in his hand. Then suddenly a deafening noise arose, a huge foam-crowned mountain of water struck the fore part of the vessel, splashed its spray right against the window, and blinded Timéa for a moment. When she looked out again, the captain was no longer to be seen.

There were great cries outside. She rushed out of the door and met her father. “Are we sinking?” she cried.

Timéa had seen that: the big wave had washed him away before her eyes. But her heart beat no faster when she heard it.

Curious! When she saw the white cat drowned, she was in despair, and could not refrain from tears, and now when the water had swallowed up the captain, she did not even say “Poor fellow!”

Yes, but the cat had cried so pitifully, and this man defies the whole world; the cat was a dear little animal, the captain only a great rough man. And then the cat could not help itself; but he is strong and clever, and can certainly save himself. That’s the only good of a man.

After the last leap the ship was safe, and swam in the smooth water of the canal. The sailors ran with grappling-irons to the boat to seek the captain. Euthemio held a purse up as a prize for the rescue of Timar. “A hundred ducats for him who rescues the captain!”

“Keep your hundred ducats, good sir!” cried the voice of the man in question from the other end of the ship. “I’m coming.”

Then they saw him climbing up the stern by the rudder-chains. No fear of his being lost!

As if nothing had happened, he began giving orders. “Let go!”

The three hundred-weight anchor was thrown over, and the ship brought up in the middle of the channel, so as to be hidden by the cliffs from the upper reaches of the river.

“And now ashore with the boat,” Timar ordered three oarsmen.

“Change your clothes,” advised Euthemio.

“Waste of time,” answered Timar. “I shall soon be wet again; now I am thoroughly soaked. We have no time to spare.”

The last words he whispered into Euthemio’s ear.

The man’s eyes glittered as he agreed. The captain sprung into the boat and rowed himself, so as to get quicker to the post-house on the bank, where towing-teams could be engaged. He collected hastily eighty oxen. Meanwhile, a new towing-rope was attached to the vessel, the oxen harnessed, and before half an hour had passed, the “St. Barbara” was on her way again through the Iron Gate, and on the opposite side of the stream.

When Timar returned on board, his exertions had dried his clothes.

The ship was saved, perhaps doubly saved, and with it the cargo, Euthemio, and Timéa.

But what are they to him that he should work so hard? He is only the captain and supercargo, and receives a scanty salary as such. It can not matter to him whether the vessel’s hold is full of wheat or contraband tobacco or real pearls; his wages remain the same.

So also thought the “purifier,” who, when they reached the Roumanian canal, resumed his interrupted conversation with the steersman.

“You’ll allow, neighbor, that we were never nearer all going to destruction together than we were today.”

“There’s some truth in that,” answered Fabula.

“But why should we try the experiment whether we could get drowned on St. Michael’s day?”

“H’m!” said Johann, and took a short pull at his brandy-flask. “What salary do you get, sir?”

“Twenty kreutzers a day,” answered the purifier.

“Why the devil do you come here to venture your life for twenty kreutzers a day? I didn’t send for you. I get a gulden and my food; so I have forty kreutzers more reason to venture my life than you. What does it matter to you?”

The health-officer shook his head, and threw back his hood, so as to be more easily heard.

“Listen,” he said; “it strikes me the brigantine is chasing you, and the ‘St. Barbara’ is trying to escape.”

“H’m!” coughed the steersman, clearing his throat, and becoming suddenly too hoarse to make a sound.

“Well, it doesn’t matter to me,” said the purifier, with a shrug. “I’m Austrian born, and I don’t like the Turks. But I know what I know.”

“Well, then, will the gentleman listen to what he doesn’t know?” said Fabula, who had suddenly recovered his voice. “Certainly the gunboat is chasing us, and that’s why we are showing him our heels. For, look you, they wanted to take the white-faced maiden into the sultan’s harem, but her father would not consent; he preferred to escape with her from Turkey, and now the object is to reach Hungarian territory as quickly as possible — there the sultan can’t touch her. Now that’s all about it, so no more questions, but go to St. Barbara’s picture, and light the lamp again if the water has extinguished it; and don’t forget to burn three consecrated willow-twigs, if you’re a good Christian.”

The purifier drew himself up slowly, and looked for his tinderbox, and then he growled in his beard —

If I am an orthodox Catholic? But they say you are only a Papist on board, and a Calvinist directly you set foot on shore; that you pray in the ship, and can hardly wait for dry land before you begin cursing and swearing. And they say too that your name is Fabula, and that Fabula means just the same as a pocketful of lies. But of course I believe all you have told me, so you need not be angry.”

“You’re quite right there; but now you be off, and don’t you come back till I call you.”

The twenty-four rowers in the gunboat required three hours to get from the point where first the “St. Barbara” was seen to the Perigrada Island, where the Danube divides into two arms. The cliffs of the island masked the whole bend, and on board the brigantine nothing of what had passed behind them could be seen.

Even below the island the gunboat had met with floating wreckage, which the eddy had thrown to the surface. This was part of the sunken mill, but could not be distinguished from the remains of a vessel. When the brigantine had passed the island a reach of a mile and a half lay open before her; neither in the stream nor by the bank was any large craft to be seen; near the shore were only barges and rowing-boats.

The man-of-war went a little higher, cruised about in the river, and then returned to the shore. There the Turkish first-lieutenant inquired of the watchmen about a cargo-vessel passing by. They had seen nothing, for the ship had not got so far. Presently the brigantine overtook the “St. Barbara’s” towing-team, and of them also questions were asked. They were all good Servians, and explained to the Turks where they could find the “St. Barbara.”

“She has gone down at the Perigrada Island with her cargo of fruit and all her crew; you can see here how the tow-rope parted.”

The Turkish brigantine left the Servian drivers, who were all lamenting because no one was left to pay their wages. (In Orsova they know full well they will come up with their ship and tow her on.) But the commander, being a Turk, of course turned about and went down-stream.

When the brigantine got back to the island the sailors saw a board dancing on the water which did not float away. They fished it out: a rope was fastened to it by an iron hook, for the board was a float from the mill-wheel. Then they heaved up the rope, which had an anchor at its other end. This also was got in, and on its cross-piece, painted in great letters, there was the name “St. Barbara.”

Now the whole catastrophe was quite clear. Her towing-rope had broken, she cast her anchor, but it could not hold her, she drifted into the whirlpool, and now her timbers float on the surface, but her crew rests below in the deep pool.

Mashallah! We can not follow her there.


Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11