Timar's Two Worlds, by Mór Jókai

BOOK FOURTH. — NOÉMI.

Chapter i.

A New Guest.

What rich bankers call business filled up the winter season, and Levetinczy began to enjoy his position. Riches bring pleasant dreams. He went often to Vienna and took part in the amusements of the commercial world, where many good examples were presented to him. A man who owns a million can allow himself the luxury, when he goes to the jeweler to buy New Year’s gifts, of buying two of everything to please two hearts at once.

One for his wife, who sits at home and receives guests or looks after the household — the other for another lady, who either dances or sings, but in any case requires an elegant hotel, jewels, and laces. Timar was so fortunate as to be invited to the parties given at home by his friends, where the lady of the house makes tea — as well as to those differently organized soirées, where a very unceremonious set of ladies preferred champagne, and where Timar was constantly attacked by the question whether he had no little friend at the opera yet.

“The pattern of a faithful husband,” declared his admirers.

“An unbearable prig,” was the verdict of his critics.

But he says nothing, and thinks of — Noémi. What an eternity to have been separated from her — six months; to think of her every day, and not dare to confide his thoughts to a single soul!

He often caught himself on the point of betraying his thoughts; once as he sat at table the words all but escaped him, “Look! those are the same apples which grow on Noémi’s island.” “When Noémi had a headache, it went away if I laid my hand on her forehead.” And if he looked at Timéa’s pet white cat, the exclamation hovered on his lips, “Narcissa, where did you leave your mistress, eh?”

He had every reason to be on his guard, for there was a being in the house who watched him as well as Timéa with Argus eyes.

Athalie could not but remark that since his return he was no longer so melancholy as before; every one noticed how well he looked; there must be some mystery in it. And Athalie could not bear any one in this house to be happy. Where did he steal his contentment? Why does he not suffer as he ought to do?

Business prospered. In the first month of the new year news came from the other side of the sea. The flour exported had arrived safely, and its success was complete. Hungarian flour had won such renown in South America, that now people tried to sell the native product under that name. The Austrian consul in Brazil hastened to inform his government of this important result, by which the export trade was increased in a marked degree. The consequence was that Timar was made a privy councilor, and received the minor order of St. Stephen, as an acknowledgment of the services rendered by him to his native land in the fields of commerce and philanthropy.

How the mocking demon in his breast laughed when they fastened the order on to his coat and called him “the right honorable!” “You have to thank two women for this — Noémi and Timéa.” Be it so. The discovery of the purple dye had its origin in the eating of a purple snail by the little dog of a shepherd’s mistress; but yet purple has become a royal color.

Herr von Levetinczy now first began to rise in the estimation of the people of Komorn. When a man is a privy councilor, one can not deny him a proper portion of respect. Every one hastened to congratulate him, and he received them all with a gracious condescension. Our Johann Fabula came too to wish him joy in the name of the fisher-folk. He was in the gala clothes of his class. On his short dolman of dark-blue cloth shone three rows of shell-shaped silver buttons, as large as nuts, and from one shoulder to the other hung a broad silver chain with a large medallion for a clasp, on which the Komorn silversmith had stamped the head of Julius Cæsar. The other members of the deputation were equally splendid. Silver buttons and chains were at that time still worn by the mariners of Komorn. It was the custom to keep the visitors to dinner, and this honor fell to Fabula. He was a very frank person, who spoke with complete unreserve. When wine had loosened his tongue, he could not forbear to tell the gracious lady that when he first saw her as a girl he would never have thought that she would have become such a good housewife and be the wife of Herr von Levetinczy. Yes, indeed; he was afraid of her then, and now see how wonderful are the ways of God’s providence, and how short-sighted are men; how everything has been ordered for the best: what happiness reigns in this house! If only a kind Providence would hear the prayers of those who entreat that a new blessing may be sent down from heaven to the good lord of Levetinczy, in the shape of a little angel.

Timar covered his glass with his hand; a thought started through his mind —“Such a wish might have an unlooked-for result.”

But Herr Fabula was not content with good wishes, he thought he must add some good advice. “But his honor rushes about too much. In good truth I would not leave such a sweet, pretty lady alone. But it can’t be helped if the master must see to everything himself, for that’s why it succeeds. Who would have thought of sending our flour across the sea? To tell the truth, when I heard it — excuse me for making so free — I thought to myself the master must have gone silly; before that flour gets there it will all be musty, while loaves grow out there on the trees and roll on the bushes. And now just see what credit we have all got by it. But it is the master’s eye that feeds the horse —”

This was to Michael an unwelcome irony, which he could not leave without contradiction. “My good Johann, if that was the secret of our success, you must bestow all your praises on my wife, for it was she who looked after everything.”

“Yes, indeed; all honor to the merits of our noble lady!” said Fabula; “but, with his honor’s permission, I know what I know. I know where his honor spent the whole summer.”

Michael felt as if his hair stood on end with horror. Could this man know where he had been? It would be awful if he did.

Michael winked with one eye over his glass at his guest, but in vain.

“Well, shall I tell our gracious lady where the master spent the summer? Shall I let it out?”

Michael felt every limb paralyzed by terror. Athalie kept her eyes fixed on his face; he durst not betray by a gesture that the gossip of the tipsy chatterer confused him. “Well, tell us then, Johann, where I was,” he said, with enforced calmness.

“I will complain of you to the gracious lady; I will tell her,” cried Fabula, putting down his glass. “His honor ran away without saying a word to any one. He went quietly on board a ship and sailed away to Brazil; he was over there in America and settled everything himself, and that’s why it all went so smoothly.”

Timar looked at the two women. On Timéa’s face was reflected pure surprise, Athalie was vexed. She believed as fully in the truth of Fabula’s tale as he did himself, and he would have staked his head on it.

Timar also smiled mysteriously at the story; now he was the one who lied, not Johann Fabula. The man of gold must go on lying.

 

The story was very useful to Timar. He had now a sufficient excuse for his mysterious disappearances, and it was possible for him to give such an air of probability to the story of his Brazilian voyage that even Athalie believed it. Indeed, she was the easiest to deceive. She knew what Timéa was feeling, and that she was glad to distract herself by absence and work from the thought of him on whose account her heart ached. If a wife can do so, why not the husband? It was even simpler for him to fly from his sorrows to another hemisphere, and in the pursuit of wealth to forget what his heart coveted. How should Athalie have guessed that it was the husband who had already found a cure for his mortal sickness, and who was happy away from home? What would she have given to him who should have revealed the truth? But the rushes round the ownerless island did not chatter like the reeds to which King Midas’s barber trusted his secret. Athalie was consumed with envy, while she vainly sought for a key to the riddle. At home and in public, Timar and Timéa presented the exemplary picture of a happy marriage. He heaped on his wife expensive jewels, and Timéa loaded herself with them when they went into society; she wished to shine by this means.

What could better prove the affection of the husband than the diamonds of the wife? Could Timar and Timéa really be a couple whose love consisted in giving and receiving diamonds, or are there people in this world who can be happy without love?

Athalie still suspected Timéa and not Timar. But Timar could hardly wait till the winter was over and spring had come: of course, because then the mills can begin to grind again — what else could a man of business have in his mind?

This year Michael persuaded Timéa not to try her health by the management of business; he would give it over to his agents, and she should go during the summer to some sea-bathing place, to get rid of her neuralgia.

No one asked him where he was going. It was taken for granted that he would again travel to South America, and pretend he had been in Egypt or Italy.

But he hurried away to the Lower Danube. When the poplars grew green, he could not stay at home: the alluring picture filled his dreams and took captive all his thoughts. He never stopped at Levetinczy, but only gave general instructions to his agent and his steward to do their best; then he went on to Golovacz, where he stayed a night with the dean; thence he had only a half-day’s journey to get to Noémi. He had not seen her for six long months; his mind was filled with the picture of the meeting. Awake and asleep he was full of longing, and could hardly wait for dawn. Before sunrise he was up, put on his knapsack, threw his gun over his shoulder, and without waiting for the appearance of his host, he left the presbytery and hastened to the wooded river-bank.

The Danube does a good work in widening the limits of the wood every year by retreating from its banks, for in this way the watch-houses built twenty-five years ago on the shore have now taken up a position much further inland. And he who wishes to cross the river without a passport finds in the young brushwood an entirely neutral territory.

Timar had sent a new boat to the hut, where he went on foot; he found it ready, and started as usual alone on the way to the reed-beds. The skiff floated like a fish on the water, and that it traveled so swiftly was not owing to itself alone. The year had grown to April, it was spring, and the trees at Ostrova were already in blossom. So much the more astonished was he at the sight which met his eyes on the other side. The ownerless island did not look green; it seemed to have been burned. As he approached he saw the reason; all the trees on the northern side were quite brown. The boat traversed the rushes quickly; when it touched the bank, Michael saw plainly that a whole long row of trees, Frau Therese’s favorite walnuts, were dead — every one of them. Michael felt quite downcast at the sight. At this season he was generally greeted by green branches and rosebuds. Now a dead forest welcomed him — a bad omen.

He pressed forward and listened for the bark of greeting: not a sound to be heard. He walked on anxiously; the paths were neglected, covered by dry autumn leaves, and it seemed to him as if even the birds were silent. When he drew near the hut, a dreadful feeling overcame him — where were the inhabitants? They might be dead and not buried; he had been busied about other things for half a year — with affairs of state, with showing off his young wife, and making money. And meanwhile Heaven had watched over the islanders — if it chose.

As he entered the veranda, a door opened and Therese came out. She looked serious, as if something had frightened her; and then a bitter smile appeared on her face. “Ah! you have come!” said she, and came to press his hand. And then it was she who asked him why he came looking so grave. “No misfortune has happened?” Timar asked, hastily.

“Misfortune? No,” said Therese, with a melancholy smile.

“My heart was sore when I saw the dead trees,” said Michael, to excuse his serious looks.

“The flood last summer did that,” answered Therese; “walnut-trees can not stand wet.”

“And how are you both?” asked Timar, uneasily.

Therese answered gently, “We are pretty well, I and the other two.”

“What do you mean? the other two?”

She smiled and sighed, and smiled again; then she laid her hand on Michael’s shoulder and said, “The wife of a poor smuggler fell ill here: the woman died, the child remained here. Now you know who the other two are.”

Timar rushed into the house: at the far end of the room stood a cradle woven of osiers, and near it, on one side, was Almira, on the other Noémi. Noémi rocked the cradle and waited till Timar came to her. In it lay a little baby, with chubby cheeks, which pressed the cherry lips into a soft pout; its eyes were only half shut, and the tiny fists lay over its face. Michael stood spell-bound before the cradle. He looked at Noémi as if to seek the answer to the riddle in her face, on which a sweet ray of heavenly light seemed to shine, in which modesty and love were combined. She smiled and cast her eyes down. Michael thought he would lose his senses.

Therese laid her hand on his arm, “Then are you angry that we have adopted the orphan child of the poor smuggler’s wife? God sent it to us.”

Angry? He had fallen on his knees, and held the cradle in his embrace, pressing it and its inhabitant to his breast; then he began to sob violently, like one who has kept a whole ocean of sorrow in his heart, which suddenly overflows its bounds.

Timar kissed the little messenger from God wherever he could — its little hands and feet, the hem of its robe, its rosy cheeks. The baby made grimaces under the kisses, but did not wake. At last it opened its eyes, its great blue eyes, and looked at the strange man with astonishment, as if to say, “Does this man want anything of me?” and then it laughed, as if it thought, “I don’t care what he wants,” and after that it shut its eyes and slumbered on, still smiling and undisturbed by the flood of kisses.

Therese said, smiling, “You poor orphan! you never dreamed of this, did you?” and turned away to hide her tears.

“And am I to have no greeting?” said Noémi, with charming anger. Michael turned to her, still on his knees. He spoke not a word, only pressed her hand to his lips and hid his face silently in her lap. He was dumb as long as the child slept. When the little creature awoke, it began to talk in its own language — which we call crying. It is lucky there are those who understand it. The baby was hungry.

Noémi said to Michael that he must now leave the room, for he was not to know what the poor little orphan was fed upon.

Michael went outside; he was in a transport. It seemed as if he was on a new star, from which one could look down on the earth as on a foreign body. All he had called his own on the terrestrial ball was left behind, and he no longer felt its attraction drawing him thither. The circle in which he had spent his former life was trodden under foot, and he had attained a new center of gravity. A new object, a new life, stood before him; only one uncertainty remained —— how could he contrive to vanish from the world? To pass into another sphere without leaving this mortal life behind; to live on two different planets at once, to mount from earth to heaven, to pass again from heaven to earth, there to entertain angels, and here to live for money — alas! this was no task for human nerves. He would lose his reason in the attempt.

Not without reason are little children called angels, or “messengers:” children are indeed messengers from the other world, whose mysterious influence is visible in their eyes, to those who receive them as gifts of God. A wonderful look often meets us in the eye of an infant, which is lost when the lips learn speech. How often Michael gazed for hours at this blue ray from heaven in the baby’s eyes, when it lay on a lambskin out on the grass, and he stretched himself beside it, and plucked the flowers it wanted —“There, then, here it is.” He had his work cut out to get it away, for the little thing put everything in its mouth. He studied its first attempts at language, he let it drag at his beard, and sung lullabies to put it to sleep.

His feeling for Noémi was quite different now; it was not desire, but bliss — the glow of passion had given place to a sweet contented calm, and he felt like one convalescent from a fever. Noémi, too, had altered since they last met; on her face lay an expression of submissive tenderness, and in all her conduct was a consistent gentleness, which could not have been assumed — a quiet dignity combined with chaste reserve, which surrounds a woman with a halo, compelling respect. Timar could not get used to his happiness: he required many days to be convinced that it was not a dream — that this little hut, half wood, half clay, and the smiling woman with the babbling babe at her breast, were reality and not a vision.

And then he thought, what will become of them?

He strode about the island and brooded on the future.

“What can I give this child? Much money? They know nought of money here. Great estates? This island suffices. Shall I take him with me and make him into a great and wealthy man? But the women could not part with him. Shall I take them too? But even if they consented, I could not do it; they would learn what I am, and would despise me. They can only be happy here: only here can this child hold up its head, where none can ask its name.”

The women had called it Adeodatus (Gift of God). It had no other name. What other could it have?

One day when he was wandering aimlessly, deep in thought, about the island, striding through the bushes and weeds, Timar came suddenly to a part where the dry twigs crackled under his feet. He looked round; he was in the melancholy little plantation of dead walnut-trees. The beautiful trees were all dried up: spring had not clothed them with fresh green foliage, and the dead leaves covered the ground.

An idea struck Michael in this vegetable cemetery. He hastened back to the hut. “Therese, have you still the tools you used in building your house?”

“There they are on the shelf.”

“Give them here. I have an idea; I will fell the dead walnuts and build of them a little house for Dodi.”

Therese clasped her hands in astonishment. But Noémi’s answer was to kiss her little Dodi and say to him, “Dost thou hear?”

Michael interpreted the wonder on Therese’s face as incredulity. “Yes, yes,” he persisted, “I will build the house myself without any help — a little house like a jewel-case, like those the Wallachians build, lined with beautiful oak; mine shall be of walnut, and fit for a prince. I will drive every nail myself, and it shall be Dodi’s house when he gets bigger.”

Therese only smiled. “That will be fine, Michael. I too built my nest as the swallows do; I formed the walls of clay, and thatched my roof with rushes. But carpentry is not one man’s work; the old saw has two handles, and one can not manage it alone.”

“But are we not two?” cried Noémi, eagerly. “Can’t I help him? Do you fancy my arm is not strong enough?” and she turned her sleeve up to her shoulder to show off her arm. It was beautifully formed, yet muscular, fit for Diana. Michael covered it with kisses from the shoulder down to the finger-tips, and then said, “Be it so.”

“Oh, we will work together,” cried Noémi, whose lively fancy had seized on Michael’s suggestion with lightning speed. “We will both go out into the wood; we will make a hammock for Dodi and sling it from the branches. Mother shall bring us out our meals, and we will sit on the planks we have sawn, and take our dinner out of the same plate: how good it will taste!”

And so it did. Michael took the ax and went out to the walnut-grove, where he set to work. Before he had felled and topped one tree his hands were blistered. Noémi told him women’s hands never got sore. When three trees were cut down, so that one trunk could be laid across the other two, Michael wanted Noémi’s help. She was quite in earnest, and attacked the task bravely. In her slender form lay stores of strength and endurance. She handled the great saw as cleverly as if she had been taught to do it.

Michael gradually got used to the dressing of the walnut planks; the ax, too, did good service, and Noémi admired him greatly. “Tell me, Michael,” she asked him one day, “have you never been a carpenter?”

“Oh, yes,” he answered, “a ship’s carpenter.”

“And tell me, how did you become such a rich man that you can stay away a whole summer from your work, and spend your time elsewhere? You are your own master, I suppose? You take orders from no one?”

“I must tell you all about it some day,” said Michael; and yet he never told her how he became rich, so as to be able to spend weeks on the island sawing wood. He often related to Noémi stories of his adventurous journeys through all lands, but in his romantic tales he never said anything about himself. He escaped inquisitive pressure by working hard all day; and when he lay down at night, it was not the time to tease him with questions, though many wives take advantage of the opportunity.

During the long time Timar spent in the ownerless island, he had gradually become convinced that it was by no means so concealed as to be unknown: its existence was known to a large class of visitors. But they never revealed it to the outer world. Smuggling, on the banks of this wooded river, was a regular profession, with its own constitution, its own schools, its secret laws, forming a state within a state. It often surprised Timar to find among the willow-copses of the island a canoe or a boat, watched by no one. If he came back a few hours later, it was no longer there. Another time he stumbled on great bales of goods, which also had disappeared when he returned. All the mysterious people who used the island as a resting-place seemed purposely to avoid the neighborhood of the hut; they went and came without leaving a footmark on the turf. There were cases, however, in which they visited the hut; and then it was always Therese who received their visit. When Almira gave the signal that strangers were coming, Timar left his work and retired into the inner room; he must not be seen by any stranger. It is true the beard he had grown had altered him considerably, but yet some one might come who had seen him elsewhere. The wild people always came to Therese if they had been hurt; they often frequented places where they were likely to be wounded. Sometimes they had deep, dangerous gunshot wounds, which they could not show to the regimental surgeon, for the result would be a court-martial; but the island lady knew of healing salves, could reduce fractures, bind up wounds, and prescribe medicines for fevers. She was sought by sick people who kept secret their abode, for they knew the physicians would never endure this quack-doctoring. She reconciled enemies who dared not go to law, and consoled criminals who repented of their sins, with the hope of God’s mercy. Often some fugitive, tired and exhausted with hunger and thirst, came to her threshold. She asked not, “Whence do you come or whither do you go?” She took him in, and let him go when restored and refreshed, after filling his pouch with food.

Many know her whose religion is silence, and there is no bond which binds master and disciple so closely as this. Every one knows that no money is to be found here; even avarice has no reason to wish her ill.

Timar could be certain of having found a place over which centuries might pass before the history of its inhabitants should be drawn into that chaos we call the world. He could go on with his carpentry without fearing that the news would leak out that Michael Timar Levetinczy, privy councilor, landowner, banker, had turned into a woodcutter in an unknown island; and that, when he rested from his hard labor, he cut willow branches to shelter a poor orphan child which had neither parents nor a name of its own. What joys he knew here! how he listened for the first word the child could speak! The little man had such trouble to shape his unskillful lips to the words. “Papa,” of course, was the first; what else could it be? The child learns also to understand the sorrowful side of life; when a new tooth comes, what pain and sleepless nights must be endured! Noémi remains at home with it, and Michael runs back from his work to see how little Dodi is. He takes the child from Noémi and carries him about, singing lullabies to him. If he succeeds in putting Dodi to sleep and soothing his pain, how triumphant he is! He sings —

“For all the gold the world could hold,

I would not give my Dodi’s curl.”

One day Michael suddenly found that he had grubbed up and cut down all the timber. So far the work had prospered; but now he found he could not get on. House-carpentry is a trade like any other, and must be learned, and he had not spoken the truth when he said he understood it.

Autumn drew near. Therese and Noémi were already used to think it quite natural for Timar to leave them at this season; he must of course earn his bread. His business is of a sort which gets on by itself in the summer, but in winter he must give himself up to it. They knew that from other tradespeople. But in another house the same idea reigned. Timéa believed Michael had business which obliged him to spend the summer away from home: at that season the management of his estates, of his building and export contracts, demanded all his attention.

From autumn to spring he deceived Timéa, from spring to autumn he deceived Noémi. He could not be called inconsistent.

This time he left the island earlier than in other years. He hastened back to Komorn, where all his affairs had progressed in his absence beyond his expectations. Even in the government lottery the first prize must needs fall to him; the long-forgotten ticket lay buried somewhere in a drawer under other papers, and not till three months after the drawing did he bring it out, and claim the unhoped-for hundred thousand gulden, like one who hardly cares for such a trifle. The world admired him all the more. He had so much money, people said, that he wished for no more.

What could he do with it?

He began by sending for celebrated cabinet-makers from Szekler and Zarand, who understand the building of those splendid wooden houses which last for centuries — real palaces of hard wood. The Roumanian nobility live in such houses as these, which are full of beautiful carving inside. The house and its furniture, tables, chairs, and wardrobes, are all the work of one hand. Everything in it is of wood — not a single bit of iron is used.

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