Timar's Two Worlds, by Mór Jókai

Chapter v.

The Ownerless Island.

The towing-team left behind on the Servian bank crossed over the same night in ferry-boats to the Hungarian side with their severed hawser, spreading everywhere the news that the tow-rope had parted of itself at the dangerous Perigrada Island, and the ship had gone down with every soul on board. In the morning there was no longer a sign of the “St. Barbara” in the harbor of Orsova. If by chance the commandant of the Turkish brigantine had had an idea of rowing up the channel from the Iron Gate to Orsova, he would not have found what he sought; and above, as far as Belgrade, only half the Danube belonged to him: on the Hungarian side he had no jurisdiction, but the fortress at New Orsova belonged to him.

At two o’clock in the morning the “St. Barbara” left Orsova. After midnight the north wind generally stops; the favorable time must be utilized, and the crew had received a double ration of brandy to keep them in a good humor.

The departure was quite silent: from the walls of the New Orsova fort sounded the long call of the Turkish sentries. The horn gave no signal till the Allion point had disappeared behind the new mountain-chain.

At the first blast Timéa came from her cabin, where she had slept for a few hours, and went, wrapped in her white burnoose, to the bow to look for Euthemio, who had never lain down all night, nor entered his cabin, nor even — which was more remarkable — smoked at all. He was not allowed to light any fire on board the ship, so as to avoid attracting attention to the vessel at the Orsova fortress.

Perhaps Timéa felt that she had to make up for a fault, for she addressed Timar, and asked him about the wonders of both shores.

The instinct of her childish heart whispered to her that she owed this man a debt of gratitude.

Dawn found the ship near Ogradina. The captain drew Timéa’s attention to a monument eighteen hundred years old. This was “Trajan’s Tablet,” hewn in the precipitous cliff, held by two winged genii and surrounded by dolphins. On the tablet is the inscription which commemorates the achievements of the godlike emperor. If the peaks of the great “Sterberg” have vanished from the Servian shore, there follows a fresh rock corridor, which confines the Danube in a ravine five hundred fathoms wide. This mountain hall goes by the name of “Kassan.” Cliffs of two to three thousand feet high rise right and left, their curves lost in opal-colored mist. From one precipice a stream falls a thousand feet out of a cave, like a delicate silver streak, dissolved in spray before it reaches the river. The two rock faces run on unbroken, only in one part the mountain is split, and through the rift laughs the blooming landscape of an alpine valley, with a white tower in the background. It is the tower of Dubova: there is Hungary.

Timéa never turned her gaze from this spectacle until the ship had passed, and the mountains had closed over the exquisite scene, hiding the deep chasm in their shadows.

“I feel,” she said, “as if we were going through a long, long prison, into a land from which there is no return.”

The precipices grow higher, the surface of the Danube darker, and, to complete the wild and romantic panorama, there is visible on the northern face a cave whose mouth is surrounded by an earthquake with embrasures for cannon.

“That is Veterani’s Cavern,” said the captain. “There, more than a century ago, three hundred men and five cannon held out for forty days against a whole Turkish army.” Timéa shook her head. But the skipper knew more still about the cavern.

“Forty years ago our people defended that cave in a bloody struggle against the Turks; the Osmanli lost over two thousand men among the rocks.”

Timéa drew together her delicate eyebrows and threw the narrator an icy-cold glance, so that all his eloquence died in his throat. She hid her mouth with her burnoose, turned from Timar, went into the cabin, and did not reappear till evening. She only looked through the little window at the toppling crags on the bank, the massive watch-towers now deserted, the wooded cliffs of the Klissura valley, and the rock-colossi projecting from the stream, as they swept by her. She did not even ask for the history of the octagonal castle-donjon, with three small ones beside it inside a bastion. And yet she would have heard the fate of the lovely Cecilia Rozgonyi, the danger of King Sigismund, and the defeat of the Hungarians. This ruin is the Galamboczer Tower.

From first to last this double shore is a petrified history of two nations, mutually shadowed by a mad vagary of fate with the lust of conquest, which makes them fly at each other’s throats directly a war begins.

It is a long crypt containing the bones of many a hundred thousand heroes.

Timéa did not come out that day or the next. She sketched little views in her book, which she could hold quite steady on the smoothly gliding vessel.

Three days passed before the “St. Barbara” arrived where the Morava falls into the Danube.

At the junction lies Semendria. On the thirty-six towers of this fortress have waved the banners sometimes of the Blessed Virgin and anon of the Crescent, and their circular brown walls are sprinkled with the blood of many nations. On the other shore of the Morava stand only the bare walls of the forsaken “Veste Kulics,” and beyond the Ostrovaer Island frown down from a peak the ruins of the castle of Rama, now only a monument.

But this is not the moment to stand gazing at them — no one is inclined to indulge in melancholy reflections on the vanished greatness of fallen nations, for there is more pressing work on hand.

As soon as the Hungarian plains open out, the north wind storms down on the ship with such force that the towing-horses can not make head against it, and the wind drives the vessel toward the opposite shore.

“We can get no further,” is the general opinion.

Trikaliss exchanges a few private words with Timar, who goes to the pilot. Master Fabula makes the tiller fast and leaves it. Then he calls the rowers on board, and signs to the shore to stop the team. Here neither oars nor towing are of use. The ship is above the Orsova Island, which stretches a long pointed tongue into the stream: its northern side is steep and rugged, overgrown with old willows.

The task now is to get over to the south of the island, where the “St. Barbara” can lie in a harbor protected from the north wind, as well as from the curious eyes of men; for the wider stream which circles round the island toward Servia is not used by sailors, being full of sand-banks and fords.

It is a work of skill to approach: cutting the cable is no use, for the ship could not carry any way against such a wind. The only solution is hauling to the anchor.

The vessel casts anchor in mid-stream: the towing-rope is brought on board; to its end a second anchor is attached and placed in the boat. The rowers go toward the island till the whole length of the cable is out, then cast anchor and return to the ship. Now they weigh the first anchor, and four men haul on the cable made fast to the windlass. Heavy work!

When the vessel is close up to the anchor, they put the other in the boat, row forward, cast anchor again, and haul up as before. So by the sweat of their brow they made their way up-stream step by step. It took them half a day of hard labor to work the heavy cargo-ship from the middle of the Danube to the point of the great island. A fatiguing day for those who had to work, and wearier still to look on at. The vessel had left the frequented branch, where, at any rate, one saw ruins from time to time, where one met other ships, or floated by long lines of clattering mills: it now passed through the unfrequented channel, where the view was hidden on the right by a long ugly island, on which only poplars and willows seemed to grow, nowhere a human habitation to be seen, and on the left the water was covered by a thick sea of reeds, among which the only sign of terra firma was a group of slender, silver-leaved poplars.

In this quiet uninhabited spot the “St. Barbara” was brought up. And now appeared a new calamity — the food was exhausted. When leaving Galatz, they had reckoned on the usual halt at Orsova for the purpose of shipping provisions; but after starting so suddenly at night, they found there was nothing on board when they reached the island of Orsova but a little coffee and sugar, and in Timéa’s possession a box of Turkish sweets and preserved fruits, which, however, she would not open, because it was intended as a present.

“Never mind,” said Timar; “somebody must live on one shore or the other. There are lambs and kids everywhere, and one can get anything for money.”

Another misfortune set in. The anchored ship was so rolled about by the wind-driven waves of the river, that Timéa got seasick and frightened.

Perhaps there was some house where she and her father could spend the night.

Timar’s sharp eyes discovered that above the tops of the poplars rising from the reeds a faint smoke hovered in the air. “There must be a house there. I will go and see who lives in it.”

There was a small skiff on board, which the captain used on sporting expeditions, at times when the ship was delayed by foul winds, and he had leisure for wildfowl-shooting. He lowered it into the water, took his gun, his game-bag, and a landing-net — one never knows what may come in one’s way, a bird or a fish — and went toward the bed of rushes, rowing and steering with one and the same oar. Being an experienced marsh-sportsman, he soon found the one opening in the reeds through which it was possible to penetrate, and recognized by the vegetation the depth of the channel.

Where the great leaves and snowy cups of the water-lily float on the surface, there is deep water which scours the weeds and mud away; in other places duckweed forms a green carpet on the top, and on this floating velvet cowers the poisonous water-fungus in the form of a turnip-radish, blue and round, and swelled like a puff ball — deadly poison to every living thing. When Timar’s oar struck one of these polyp-like fungi, the venomous dust shot out like a blue flame. The roots of this plant live in a fetid slime which would suffocate man or beast who should fall into it; nature has given this vegetable murderer a habitat where it is least accessible. But where the cardinal-flower spreads its clubbed suckers, and where the beautiful bells of the water-violet sway among the rushes, there is gravel, which is not always under water. And where the manna tendrils begin to form a thicket, in pressing through which the sailor finds the brim of his hat full of little seeds — the food of the poor, manna of the wilderness — there must be higher ground, so that only the root of the plant is submerged.

The boatman who does not know these vegetable guides might lose himself in the reed-beds, and not get out all day.

When Timar had worked his way through the brake, which formed a labyrinth of flesh-colored flower-clusters, he saw before him what he sought — an island.

No doubt this was a new alluvial formation, of which no trace was to be found on the latest maps.

In the bed of the right arm of the Danube lay long ago a great bowlder, at whose base the sluggish current had deposited a sand-bank.

During some winter flood, the ice-floes tore from the Ostrova Island a spit of land bearing earth, stones, and a small wood. This mingled deluge of ice, gravel, and trees flung itself on the sand-bank near the bowlder. Repeated inundations spread over it year by year layers of mud, and enlarged its circumference by fresh deposits of pebbles: from the moldering tree-trunks sprung a luxuriant vegetation as quickly as the natural creations of the New World; and so arose a nameless island, of which no one had taken possession, over which was no landlord, no king, no authority, and no church — which belonged to no country and no diocese. In Turco–Servian territory there are many such paradises, neither plowed nor sown, not even used for pasture. They are the home of wild flowers and wild beasts, and God knows what besides.

The northern shore plainly proclaims its genesis. The gravel moraine is heaped there like a barricade, often in pieces larger than a man’s head; between are tufts of rushes and rotten branches; the shallows are covered with green and brown river-shells; on the marshy parts round holes are washed out, in which, at the sound of approaching footsteps, hundreds of crabs rush to hide. The shore is covered along its whole length with prickly willow, which the ice-floes shave off every winter close to the root.

Here Timar drew his boat ashore and tied it to a tree. Pressing forward, he had to push his way through a thicket of huge willows and poplars — overthrown in many places by repeated storms — and there the fruitful bramble forms a thorny undergrowth, and tall valerian, shooting upward from the weather-beaten soil, mixes its aromatic scent with the wholesome smell of the poplar.

On a level depression where are neither trees nor bushes, luxuriant umbelliferous plants rise amid the grass over a swamp — hemlock and “Sison Amonum,” smelling of cinnamon. In an isolated tuft like a vegetable aristocrat glitter the fiery blossoms of the veratrum; among the grass the forget-me-not spreads rankly, and the medicinal comfrey with red flowers full of honey. No wonder if in the hollows of the old trees there are so many wild bees’ nests. And among the flowers rise curious green, brown and red capsules, the ripe seed-vessels of bulbous plants which bloom in spring.

On this flowery region follows more forest; but here the willows and poplar are mixed with wild apple-trees, and white-thorn forms the underwood. The island is higher here.

Timar stopped and listened. No sound. There can be no wild beasts on this island. The floods have exterminated them, and the place is only inhabited by birds.

Even among birds the lark and the wood-pigeon do not come here: it is no dwelling for them. They seek places where men live and sow and cultivate grain. But two creatures live here which betray the presence of man — the wasp and the blackbird; both of which come after the ripe fruit which they passionately love. Where the great wasps’ nests hang from the trees, and where the blackbird’s alluring whistle sounds in the hedges, there must be fruit. Timar followed the blackbird. After he had pushed through the prickly whitethorn and the privet-bushes which tore his clothes, he stood transfixed with admiration.

What he saw before him was a paradise.

A cultivated garden of five or six acres, with fruit-trees, not planted in rows, but in picturesquely scattered groups, whose boughs were weighed down by their sweet burden. Apple and pear-trees covered with glittering red and yellow fruit, plums of all colors looking as if the shining crop were turned to roses and lilies, the fallen surplus lying unnoticed on the ground. Beneath, a regular plantation formed of raspberry, currant, and gooseberry bushes, with their red, yellow, and green berries; and the spaces between the large trees filled by the hanging branches of the Sidonian apple or quince.

There was no path through this labyrinth of fruit-trees — the ground underneath was covered with grass.

But where you can see through, a flower-garden beckons you on. It is also a collection of wonderful field blossoms not to be found in an ordinary garden: the roots of blue campanula, swallow-wort, with its fleecy seed-vessels from which a sort of silk is collected, the spotted turban-lily, alkermes, with its scarlet berries, the splendid butterfly orchis — all of these raised to the rank of garden-flowers, bear witness to the presence of man. And this is further betrayed by the dwelling from which the smoke comes.

It also is a fantastic little refuge. Behind it stands a great rock, in which is an excavation, where the hearth must be, and another hole for the cellar. At the top is a chimney, from which a blue cloud arises. A building of stone and clay tiles is stuck on to the cliff; it has two rooms, each with a window. One window is smaller, and one room lower than the other; both are roofed with rushes; each has a wooden porch, forming a veranda, with fanciful ornaments made of little bits of wood.

Neither stone, clay, nor wood-work can be distinguished, so thickly is it covered on the south side with vines, out of whose frost-bitten leaves thousands of red and gold bunches peep out. On the northern side it is overgrown with hops, whose ripe clusters hide even the pinnacle of the great rock with their greenish gold; and on its highest point tufts of house-leek are planted, so that no spot may remain which is not green.

Here women live.

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