Timar's Two Worlds, by Mór Jókai

Chapter iii.

The Ice.

The Danube was completely frozen over up to Prestburg, and could be crossed anywhere. Still, in order to cross from Komorn to Uj–Szöny, he had to go round a long way by the point of the island, for sand-banks exist there on which in summer the miners wash their gold, and on these mounds the ice often lies in great heaps, forming barricades difficult to surmount. Timar had a plan ready; as soon as he came in sight of the Monostor, where stood his villa, he would strike out in that direction. But something intervened to upset his calculations. He had expected a starry night, but when he reached the Danube a fog came on. At first only thin, transparent mist; but while Timar was seeking a path on the ice, the fog became so thick that you could not see three steps in front of you. If he had given ear to the voice of reason, he would have instantly turned round and tried to find his way back to the bank. But he was in a frame of mind in which a man is inaccessible to reason; by fair means or foul he meant to get across. Apart from the fog, it was a dark night; and above the island the Danube is at its widest, and the passage over the ice-floes the most difficult. Monstrous heaped-up masses of frozen snow form oblique stretches of barricade, and in many places the ice takes the shape of capriciously cleft ridges, from which rise six-foot pinnacles of frozen water instead of fingers of rock. In coasting round these, Timar suddenly found that he had lost himself. He had already been an hour on the river; his repeater struck a quarter to three; he ought long ago to have reached the other side; he must have lost his reckoning.

He listened; no sound in the dark night. It was beyond question that he was not approaching the opposite village, but getting further away from it. Not even a dog could be heard to bark. He fancied that instead of crossing the river he must have been walking along it, and determined to change his course. The Danube was nowhere more than two hundred paces wide; he must reach the shore somewhere if he kept straight on. But in mist and darkness one does not know which way one goes; a barrier of ice which must be avoided takes one, in spite of every care, out of the right road — one walks in zigzags and comes back to the spot where one was before; even if you get into the right path, and would only have to walk on to reach the bank, you think of something else, deviate slightly, and get back into that confounded ice labyrinth again.

Past five. Nearly four hours already had he wandered about. He felt exhausted. He had not slept all night, nor eaten all day, but had struggled with the most enervating mental emotions.

His only hope was, that when day at last dawned he would be able to guess by the sun where the east lay, and then, as an old sailor, could ascertain his position. If he had come across a hole in the ice, the current of the water would have shown him in what direction to go; but the surface was entirely covered, and without an ax it was impossible to make a hole. At last it began to dawn, but the fog hid the sun. Nine o’clock, and he had not yet found the shore, though the fog seemed to grow less and the sun’s disk was visible, like a pale, colorless ball, a mere shadow of its glorious self. The air was full of countless glittering particles of ice, which melted into a dazzling vapor. Now he will discover where he is.

The sun was already too high to indicate the true east, but it showed something else. It seemed to Timar, as he peered through the brilliant mist, as if he could distinguish on his right the outline of the roof of a house.

Where there is a house there must be land. He walked straight toward it, and was careful to keep in a direct line; soon he found himself close to it — but the house was a water-mill.

The ice-floes had detached it from its winter refuge, or perhaps had found it belated, still chained to the shore, and carried it off. The shrouds were as neatly sawn asunder by the sharp ice-flakes as if a clever carpenter had done it: the wheels were shattered and the mill-house wedged into a mass of ice, forming a parapet round it.

Timar stood before it in horror. His head swam as if he had seen a ghost. The sunken mill in the Perigrada whirlpool occurred to him. Is not this the ghost of that mill which comes to visit him at the end of his career, or perhaps to take possession of him? A ruined mill amidst the ice! A house so near its downfall! He went in; the door was open, probably from the shocks received amidst the blocks of ice. The machinery was all complete, so that Timar felt at any moment the white miller’s ghost might enter and shake the meal into the sacks. On the roof, the beams, on every little ledge sat crows. A couple of them fluttered away when they saw him; the rest sat still and took no notice of him.

Timar was dead beat. For eight hours continuously he had wandered on the ice; the hinderances he had met with had fatigued him yet more; his stomach was empty, his nerves overstrained, his limbs stiff with cold. He sat down exhausted on a post inside the mill.

His eyes closed. And hardly had they done so before he saw himself standing at the bow of the “St. Barbara,” with the hatchet in his hand, and near him the girl with the pale face.

“Away from here!” he cried to her; the ship rushed down the cataract. The wave-curl came to meet them. “Into the cabin!” But the girl never stirred. Then the sea struck the ship. Timar fell from his seat: that woke him, and he realized his danger. If he fell asleep there, he would certainly freeze to death. No doubt that is the easiest way to take one’s life; but he had work to do in the world — his hour had not struck.

He went out of the mill — the fog was too thick to see anything; it was not day but night. The sighs which might go up to Heaven are swallowed in the dark clouds which will not let them pass. Was there nothing living near to help him in his extremity?

When the mill was carried away by the ice there were mice in it: they waited till the ice had set; then they left the mill and found their way to the shore — on the thin snow-covering their tiny footsteps were visible. Timar followed them. The smallest of all the mammalia in this way conducted the wise and strong human being for a whole half hour till he reached the shore. Thence he easily found the road, and arrived at the inn where he had left the post-chaise. Mist was behind and before him, and no one saw whence he came. In the parlor he devoured salt calves’-feet which had been prepared for the wagoners, drank a glass of wine, had the horses put to, lay down in the carriage, and slept till evening. He dreamed constantly that he was on the ice; and when the carriage shook, he awoke under the impression that the ice had broken under him, and that he was sinking into fathomless depths.

As he had started late from Szöny, he only reached his villa at Fured the next evening. The fog accompanied him the whole way, so thick that he could not see the Platten See. They were preparing for the first catch of the season next day; he gave orders to his steward to have ready plenty of wine and malt brandy.

Galambos, the old fishing overseer, predicted a large haul. One good sign was that the lake had frozen so early. At this time, just before spawning, the fish come up the gulf in shoals. It was a still better omen that Herr von Levetinczy had come himself. He always had luck.

“I— luck!” echoed Timar to himself, sighing heavily.

“I would almost venture to bet that we shall catch the king of the fogasch himself.”

“How do you mean, the king?”

“It is an old fogasch which every fisherman on the lake knows, for we have all had him in our nets in turn; but no one can land him, for when he finds he is caught he works a hole at the bottom with his snout, and manages to get out of the net. He is a regular rogue; we have put a price on his head, for he destroys as many young fry as three fishermen. He is a huge beast, and when he swims on the surface, one would think he was a whale; but we’ll get him tomorrow.”

Timar did not contradict, but sent every one away and lay down. Now he first felt how tired he was; and he slept a long and healthy sleep, undisturbed by dream-faces. When he awoke he was perfectly fresh; even the anxieties which occupied his mind had faded into the background as if they were a year distant. The small span of time between today and yesterday seemed like an eternity. It was not yet daylight, but it surprised him that the moon was shining through the frost-covered panes. He got up quickly, bathed as usual in icy water, dressed, and hurried out to see the Balaton.

This presents, when frozen — especially the few first days — a most enchanting sight. The huge lake does not freeze like rivers, on which the ice masses gradually collect: here in one moment of calm the whole surface is covered with a sheet of ice like crystal; and in the morning a smooth unruffled mirror is outspread. Under the moonlight it is a looking-glass in one piece without a flaw — only the tracks are visible upon it, by which the inhabitants of the contiguous villages communicate with each other. They traverse it like measuring-lines on some great glass table — you see the reflection of the mountains of Tihany, with the double tower of the church, as distinctly as if it were real, only the towers are upside down.

Timar stood long absorbed in this fairy picture. The fishermen woke him from his dream; they arrived with nets, poles, and ice-axes, and said the work must begin before sunrise. When all had assembled, they formed a circle, and the old chief intoned a pious hymn, which all repeated after him. Timar walked away; he could not pray. How should he address a psalm to Him who is omniscient, and who can not be deceived by songs and hymns? The music could be heard two miles away over the level surface, and the echoes of the shore repeated the sound. Timar walked a long way over the lake. At last it began to dawn, the moon paled, and the eastern horizon was tinted with rosy red, which caused a wonderful transformation in the color of the giant ice mirror, dividing it into two sharply contrasted halves. One side assumed a coppery-violet hue, while the other looked azure blue against the pink sky.

In proportion to the growing light, the splendor of the sight increased; the purple red, the gold of the sky, were repeated in the pure reflection, and when the glowing ball, radiant with fiery vapor, shot up from the violet mists of the horizon and shone down on the glittering surface, it was a spectacle such as neither sea nor land can show, as if two suns rose at once in two real skies. The moment the sun had passed through the earth-fogs, its glorious rays leaped forth.

The fishing-captain Galambos cried from the distance to Timar, “Now you will hear something. Don’t be afraid! Ho! ho!”

“Afraid!” thought Timar, shrugging his shoulders, incredulously. What in the world could frighten him now? He would soon know.

When the sun first shines on the frozen lake, a wonderful sound is heard from the ice, as if thousands of fairy harp-strings were struck. One is reminded of the tones from Memnon’s statue, only that it does not last so long. The mysterious cling-clang grows louder, as if the nixies down below struck their harps with all their force: then follows a droning and cracking, almost as loud as a shot, and on every snap follows a glittering fissure in the ice, which till then was clear as glass. In every direction the gigantic mirror is flawed till it is like a huge mosaic, formed of millions of tiny dice, pentagons, and many-sided prisms, and whose surface is of glass. This is what causes the sound. He who hears it for the first time finds his heart beating faster; the whole surface hums, rings, and sings under his feet. Some cracks are like thunder, and are heard miles away. The fishermen, however, proceed quietly with the spreading of their nets on the top of the groaning ice, and in the distance may be seen hay wagons, drawn slowly by four oxen across the surface. Man and beast are used to the ice-voices, which last till sunset.

This remarkable phenomenon made a curious impression on Michael’s mind. He was very sensitive to the great life of nature. In his emotional temperament the thought was implanted that everything living has consciousness — wind, storm, and lightning, the earth itself, the moon and stars. But who could understand what the ice under his feet was saying?

Then suddenly was heard a fearful detonation as if a hundred cannon had been fired at once, or a subterranean mine had been exploded — the whole surface trembled and shook. The effect of this thunderous convulsion was fearful — the ice opened in a cleft three thousand yards long, and between the edges of the floes yawned a six-foot chasm. “A Rianás! a Rianás!” (the ice-cleft), cried the fishermen, and ran to the place, abandoning their nets.

Timar stood only two paces from it. He had seen it happen. His knees trembled with the frightful shock, which had driven the two ice masses apart; he was stunned with the effect of this natural phenomenon. The arrival of the fishermen roused him; they told him that among the natives this fissure was called Rianás, a word unknown elsewhere. It was a great danger for travelers across the lake, for it was not visible far off, and it never froze over, because the water was always moving in it. It was therefore the first care of these good people, wherever a footpath led to the crack, to plant at both edges a pole in the ice with a bundle of straw at the top, so that those who approach might have warning. “But what is even more dangerous,” said the fisherman, “is when, under great pressure of wind, the separated floes again unite. Then there is such a grinding and crushing! Very often the power of the wind is sufficient to raise the edges of the two floes, so that there is an empty space between the water and the uplifted ice. God pity those who go over there without knowing it, for the ice which does not touch the water is certain to give way under them!”

It was nearly noon before they could get to work. It is capital sport, this fishing under the ice. In the bay, where the fishermen’s experience tells them the shoals of fish will lie, two large holes are made in the ice some fifty fathoms apart, and then a square of smaller holes is formed, so that the two large openings form the opposite angles. The pieces of ice hewn from the holes are piled round their edges, so that passengers may be warned of the danger of falling in. When the sun shines on these white heaps, they look like colossal diamonds. The fishermen sink the huge net sideways into the large hole, spread out its two ends, and fasten them on poles, each three and a half fathoms in length. One man pushes the pole with the net under the ice, while another waits at the next small hole, and when the pole appears there he pushes it on to the third hole, and so on, while the other side of the square is being treated in the same way with the second pole and the other end of the net. Both meet at the opposite large hole. The net, which is sunk to the bottom with lead weights, while its top edge is held up by ropes over the ice, forms an absolute prison for all the fish within the square, which usually swarm at this season. The fogasch and sheath fish leave their miry bed and come up to breathe at the ice-holes; they have their family festivals in the winter, when cold-blooded animals make love. The strong ice-roof protects them from the foreign element, but not from its inhabitants — men.

The ice now only assists in their destruction. When they discover that the net is pressing on them, it is already too late to find an outlet. They can not leap out, because the ice shuts them in, and even the fogasch can not as usual burrow in the mud, to get under the net, for the weight of his splashing companions leaves him no space to work. The fishermen lay hold on the rope and draw steadily. The united exertion of twenty men shows how great is the strain on them; it must be several hundred-weight. The surface of the large hole begins to be alive with the crowd of fishes pressing to the only outlet, there to meet their death. Various forms of fish-mouths peep out of the water — transparent jelly-fish, red tails, blue, green, and silver scales press up, and between them comes up sometimes a great silurian, the shark of the Balaton, a Wels of a hundred pounds’ weight, with wide jaws and horse-shoe mustache; but it disappears into the depths again, as if to find safety there.

Three fishermen dip the living crowd out from the top with large landing-nets, and throw the fish on to the ice without more ado, where old and young leap about together: thence they can not escape, for the holes are all surrounded with heaps of ice. It is a regular witches’ dance — wide-mouthed carp leaping high in air, the pike in its despair wriggling like a snake among the gasping heaps of perch and bass. One conger after another is hauled out with a hook and thrown on the frozen surface, where, laying down his ugly head, he flaps his fellow-prisoners into pieces with his heavy tail. The space around the hole is all covered with fishes. The carp jump like water-rats, but no one notices — they can not get away. The lazier fishes lie in heaps on both sides.

“I said so,” murmured old Galambos; “I knew we should have a good catch. Wherever our gracious master shows himself, luck comes with him. If only we could catch the fogasch-king.”

“If I am not mistaken, we’ve got him in there,” said the man who was next him at the rope. “There’s some great beast shooting about in the net; I feel it in both my arms.”

“Ha! there he is!” cried another, whose landing-net was full of fish, as an enormous head like that of a white crocodile appeared above the water. The whole head was white; in the open mouth were two rows of sharp teeth like those of an alligator, but with four fangs meeting like a tiger’s — a formidable head indeed. They may well call him the king of the lake, for there is no other creature in it, even of his own race, able to vie with him.

“There he is!” screamed three others at once, but the next instant the brute had sunk; and now began the struggle.

As if the imprisoned brute had suddenly given the word to his body-guard for a last and decisive combat, a dangerous tumult began inside the net. The skirmishing corps of pike and carp ran their heads against the tightly drawn meshes; the men were obliged to beat down the marine giants with loaded staves. The fishes became furious; the cold-blooded creation showed itself capable of heroic devotion, and rose against the invaders in pitched battle. The struggle ended in the defeat of the fishes. The dog-fish were knocked on the head, the net shook out many beautiful white fogasch and schille; but the fogasch-king would not show himself.

“He has got away again,” grumbled the old chief.

“No, no; he is in the net still!” said the hauling-men, clinching their teeth. “I feel by my arms how he is pushing and fighting; if only he does not break the net.”

The catch was enormous already; there was no room to stand without treading on fishes.

“There goes the net! I heard it crack!” cried the first man. Half the net was still in the water.

“Haul!” growled the old fisherman, and all the men put out their whole strength. With the net came the rest of the fishes, and the fogasch-king was among them — a splendid specimen indeed, more than forty pounds weight, such as is only seen once in twenty years. He had really torn the net with his great head; but he had caught his prickly fins in the meshes, and could not get free. When they got him out he gave one of the men a blow with his tail which knocked him backward on the ice. But that was his last effort; the next moment he was dead. No one has ever held a living fogasch in his hand. It is thought that his lungs burst as he is taken out of water, and he dies instantly.

The delight of the fishermen at the capture of this one was greater than over the whole rich haul. They had been after him for years; and every one knew the cannibal, for he had the bad habit of eating his own kind. That was why he was king. When he was opened they found a large fogasch in his inside, quite recently swallowed; his flesh was overlaid with a thick layer of yellow fat, and white as linen.

“Now, honored sir, we will send him to the gracious lady,” said the old fisherman. “We will pack him in ice, and your honor will write a letter and say he is the king of the fogasch. Whoever eats him will eat a king’s flesh.”

Michael approved the suggestion, and assured the men they should get a reward. When they had finished with the fogasch, the short winter’s day had come to a close; but only in the sky, not on the ice — there it was lively enough. From every village came the people with baskets and hampers and wooden kegs; in the kegs was wine, in the hampers pork, but the baskets were meant for the fish. When it came to the division of the spoil, a complete fair formed round the fishermen. After sunset, torches were made of dry osier-twigs, fires were lighted on the ice, and then began the bargaining. Carp and pike, conger and bass, are good enough for poor people. Only the fogasch and schille are sent to Vienna and Pesth, where they fetch high prices; all the rest go for a song — and even so there is room for a large profit, for in one haul they had caught three hundredweight of fish. This Timar is indeed a favorite of fortune! The unsold fish are packed in baskets and put in the ice-house, whence they will be sent to the Vessprimer market.

Timar wanted to give a feast to all the assembled crowd. He had a ten-gallon cask brought on to the ice and the top knocked out; then he begged the captain to prepare a fish-soup, such as he only could concoct. Certain selected fishes, neither rich nor bony, were cut in pieces into a great kettle; then some of the blood, and handfuls of maize and vegetables, were added. The whole art lies in the proper proportions of the mixture, which the uninitiated never understand. Of this delicious mess Herr Timar himself consumed an incredible quantity. Where good wine flows and fish-soup is brewed, be sure there will be gypsies to be found. Almost before they thought of it, a brown band of musicians appeared, who, as soon as the cymbal-player was seated on an upturned basket, began to play popular airs.

Where gypsies and rosy wenches and fiery youths get together, dancing will soon begin. In a twinkling a rustic ball was improvised on the ice, and rose to a frolicsome height. Round the bonfires circled the active couples, shouting, as they leaped, like King David, and before he knew where he was, Timar too, whom a handsome girl had caught by the arm, was drawn into the whirl. Timar danced.

In the clear winter darkness the cheery fires illuminated the ice for many a mile. The fun lasted till midnight. Meanwhile the fishermen had finished carrying the fish into the ice-house. The joyous crowd dispersed on their homeward way, not without cheers for the feast-giver, the generous Baron von Levetinczy.

Timar stayed till Galambos had packed the fogasch-king in a box, between ice and hay, and nailed the lid down. It was put into the chaise which had brought Timar, and the driver was told to get ready to drive for his life to Komorn: there is no time to lose in dispatching fish. He wrote himself to Timéa. The letter was written in an affectionate and cheerful mood. He called her his dear wife, and described the picturesque scene on the frozen lake, and the terrible cleft in the ice. (That he had been so near the Rianás he did not mention.) Then he gave a description of the fishing, with all its amusing details, and finished with an account of the night festival. He told her how much he had been entertained, and how he had quite lost his head, and even ventured on a dance with a pretty peasant girl on the ice.

Some men write these amusing letters when they are contemplating suicide. When the letter was ready he took it to the driver. The old fisherman was there too. “Go home now, Galambos,” Michael advised. “You must be tired.”

“I must go and make up the fire on the ice,” said the old man, lighting his pipe, “for the smell of fish brings the foxes and even bears from all the forests round, to fish on their own account: they watch for the fishes, which put their heads out of the holes, and drag them out, and that frightens away the others.”

“No, no!” said Michael, “don’t keep up the fire. I will keep guard — I often watch all night. I will go out now and then and fire my gun; that will send all the four-footed fishermen to the right-about.” This satisfied Galambos, who invoked God’s blessing on his master, and trotted away.

The deaf vine-dresser, the only other inhabitant of Timar’s house, had long been asleep. To add to his deafness, he had drunk so much good wine that one might be certain his night’s rest would be unbroken. Timar too went to his room and stirred up his fire.

He was not sleepy; his excited brain required no rest. But there is another form of repose; or is it not rest to sit near an open window and look out on dumb nature? The moon had not yet risen; only the stars of heaven shone down on the smooth ice. Their reflection was like rubies spread on a blight steel plate, or the lights which flicker over graves on Hallowe’en.

He gazed before him, and did not even think. He sat without any sensation, either of cold or of his own pulses, neither of the outer nor inner world — he only wondered. This was rest.

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