On the ocean this is managed very easily: the body is sewed up in a piece of sail-cloth, and a cannon-ball is suspended to the feet, which sinks the corpse in the sea. Corals soon grow over the grave. But on a Danube craft, to throw a dead person into the river is a great responsibility. There are shores, and on the shores villages and towns, with church bells and priests, to give the corpse his funeral-toll and his rest in consecrated ground. It won’t do to pitch him into the water, without a “By your leave,” just because the dead man wished it.
But Timar knew well enough that this must be done, and it caused him no anxiety. Before the vessel had weighed anchor, he said to his pilot that there was a corpse on board — Trikaliss was dead.
“I knew for certain,” said Johann Fabula, “that there was bad luck on the way when the sturgeon ran races with the ship — that always betokens a death.”
“We must moor over there by the village,” answered Timar, “and seek out the minister to bury him. We can not carry the body on in the vessel — we should be under suspicion as infected with plague.”
Herr Fabula cleared his throat violently, and said, “We can but try.”
The village of Plesscovacz, which was nearest at hand, is a wealthy settlement; it has a dean, and a fine church with two towers. The dean was a tall, handsome man, with a long curling beard, eyebrows as broad as one’s finger, and a fine sonorous voice. He happened to know Timar, who had often bought grain from him, as the dean had much produce to sell.
“Well, my son,” cried the dean, as soon as he saw him in the court-yard, “you might have chosen your time better. The church harvest was bad, and I have sold my crops long ago.” (And yet there was threshing going on in yard and barn.)
“But this time it is I who bring a crop to market,” Timar answered. “We have a dead man on board, and I have come to beg your reverence to go over there, and bury the corpse with the usual ceremonies.”
“Oh, but my son, that’s not so easy. Did this Christian confess? Has he received the last sacraments? Are you certain that he was not a heretic? For if not, I can not consent to bury him.”
“I know nothing about it. We don’t carry a father-confessor on board, and the poor soul left the world without any priestly assistance — that is the lot of sailors. But if your reverence can not grant him a consecrated grave, give me at any rate a written certificate that I may have some excuse to his friends why I was not in a position to show him the last honors; then we will bury him ourselves somewhere on the shore.”
The dean gave him a certificate of the refusal of burial; but then the peasant threshers began to make a fuss. “What! bury a corpse within our boundaries which has not been blessed? Why, then, as certain as the Amen to the Pater Noster, the hail would destroy our crops. And you need not try to bestow him on any other village. Wherever he came from, nobody wants him, for he’s sure to bring a hail-storm this season before the vintage is over — the farmer’s last hope; and then next year a vampire will rise from a corpse so buried, which will suck up all the rain and the dew!”
They threatened to kill Timar if he brought the body ashore. And in order that he might not bury it secretly on the bank, they chose four stout fellows, who were to go on board the ship and remain there till it had passed the village boundaries, and then he could do what he liked with the dead man.
Timar pretended to be very angry, but allowed the four men to go on board. Meanwhile, the crew had made a coffin and laid the body in it: there was nothing more to do but to nail the lid down.
The first thing that the captain did was to go and see how Timéa was. The fever had reached its highest point; her forehead was burning, but her face still dazzling white. She was unconscious, and knew nothing of the preparations for the burial.
“Yes, that will do,” said Timar, and fetched a paint-pot and busied himself in marking Euthemio Trikaliss’s name and date of death in beautiful Greek letters on the coffin-lid. The four Servian peasants stood behind and spelled out what he wrote.
“Now, then, you paint a letter or two while I see to my work,” said Timar to one of the gazers, and handed him the brush. The man took it and painted on the board an X, which the Servians use like S, to show his skill.
“See what an artist you are!” Timar said, admiringly, and got him to draw another letter. “You are a clever fellow. What is your name?”
“Well, God bless you! Let us drink a glass of Slivovitz.” They had nothing against the proposition. “I am called Michael; my surname is Timar — a good name, and sounds just the same in Hungarian, Turkish, or Greek — call me Michael.”
Michael ran constantly into the cabin to see after Timéa. She was still very feverish, and knew no one. But that did not discourage Timar: his idea was that whoever travels on the Danube has a whole chemist’s shop at hand, for cold water cures all maladies. His whole system consisted in putting cold compresses on head and feet, and renewing them as soon as they got hot. Sailors had already learned this secret before Priessnitz the hydropath. The “St. Barbara” floated quietly all day up-stream along the Hungarian bank. The Servians soon made friends with the crew, helped them to row, and in return had a thieves’ roast offered them from the galley.
The dead man lay out on the upper deck; they had spread a white sheet over him — that was his shroud. Toward evening Michael told his men that he would go and lie down for a spell — he had had no sleep for two nights; but that the vessel might as well go on being towed till it was quite dark, and then they could anchor. He had no sleep that night either. Instead of going into his own cabin, he stole quietly into Timéa’s, placed the night-lamp in a box, that its light might not disturb her, and sat the whole time by the sick girl’s bed listening to her delirious fancies and renewing her compresses. He never shut his eyes. He heard plainly when the anchor went down and the ship was brought up; and then how the waves began to plash against the sides! The sailors tramped about the deck for some time, then one by one they turned in. But at midnight he heard a dull knocking. That sounds, thought he, like hammering in nails whose heads have been covered with cloth to muffle the sound. Before long he heard a noise like the fall of some heavy object into the water, then all was still.
Michael remained awake, and waited till it was light and the vessel had started again. When they had been an hour on their way, he came out of the cabin. The girl slept quietly, the fever had ceased.
“Where is the coffin?” was the first question.
The Servians came up with a defiant air. “We loaded it with stones and threw it into the water, so that you might not bury it anywhere ashore and bring bad luck on us.”
“Rash men! what have you done? Do you know that I shall be arrested and have to render an account of my vanished passenger? They will accuse me of having put him out of the way. You must give me a certificate in which you acknowledge what you did. Which of you can write?”
Naturally, not one of them knew how to write.
“What! You, Berkics, and you, Jakerics, did you not help me to paint the letters on the coffin?”
Then they came out with a confession that each only knew how to write the one letter which he had painted on the lid, and that, only with the brush and not with a pen.
“Very well; then I shall take you on to Pancsova. There you can give evidence verbally to the colonel in my favor; he will find your tongues for you.”
At this threat suddenly every one of them had learned to write; not only those two, but the others as well. They said they would rather give a certificate at once than be taken on to Pancsova. Michael fetched ink, pen, and paper, made one of these skillful scribes lie on his stomach on the deck, and dictated to him the deposition in which they all declared that, out of fear of hail-storms, they had thrown the body of Euthemio Trikaliss into the Danube while the crew slept, and without their knowledge or aid.
“Now, sign your names to it, and where each of you lives, so that you may be easily found if a commission of inquiry is sent to make a report.”
One of the witnesses signed himself “Ira Karakassalovics,” living at “Gunerovacz,” and the other “Nyegro Stiriapicz,” living at “Medvelincz.”
And now they took leave of each other with the most serious faces in the world, without either Michael or the four others allowing it to be seen what trouble it cost them not to laugh in each other’s faces.
Michael then put them all ashore.
Ali Tschorbadschi lay at the bottom of the Danube, where he had wished to be.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52