As far as the Lower Danube, the traveler took with him rough and wintery skies; here and there fresh snow covered the fields, and the woods stood bare. The stormy cold suited the thoughts with which Timar was occupied. That cruel girl was right — not only the husband but the wife was wretched. The man doubly so; for he was the author of their mutual misery.
These bitter, disconsolate thoughts followed Michael to Baja, where he had an office, and where, when he traveled into the flax districts of Hungary, he had his letters sent. A whole bundle awaited him; he opened one after another with indifference; what did he care whether the rape had been frost-bitten or not, that the duties in England were raised, or that exchange was higher? But among the letters he found two which were not uninteresting — one from his Viennese, the other from his Stamboul agent. The contents greatly rejoiced him. He put them both away, and from that moment the apathy began to disperse which had hitherto possessed him. He gave his orders to his agents with his usual quickness and energy, carefully noted their reports, and when he had finished with them, proceeded on his way in haste.
Now his journey had an object — no great or important one, but still an object. It was to give a pleasure to two poor people — but a real joy.
The weather had changed; the sky had cleared, and the sun shone warmly down below. In Hungary, where summer follows immediately on winter, these swift changes are common. Below Baja the face of the country, too, was changed. While Michael rushed southward with frequent changes of horses, it was as if nature had in one day advanced by many weeks. At Mohacs he was received by woods decked in new green; about Zambor the fields were spread with a verdant carpet; at Neusatz the meadows were already dressed with flowers; and in the plains of Pancsova golden stretches of rape smiled at him, and the hills looked as though covered with rosy snow — the almonds and cherry-trees were in blossom. The two days’ journey was like a dream-picture. The day before yesterday snow-covered fields in Komorn, and today on the Lower Danube hedges in bloom!
Michael alighted at the Levetinczy castle to spend the night. He gave his instructions to the bailiff on the day of his arrival; the next morning he got up early, entered the carriage, and drove to the Danube to inspect his cargo ships. Everything was in order. Our Herr Johann Fabula had been appointed overseer of the whole flotilla: there was nothing for him to do. “Our gracious master can go and shoot ducks.”
And Herr von Levetinczy followed this good advice of Herr Fabula. He had a boat brought, and ordered provisions for a week, his gun, and plenty of ammunition to be put in it. No one will be surprised if he does not return from the reed-bed, now full of prime water-fowl, before a week has elapsed. It storms with duck, snipe, and herons, the last only valued for their feathers; even pelicans are to be met with, and an Egyptian ibis has been shot there. It is said a flamingo was once seen. When an ardent sportsman once gets into those marshes, you may wait till he comes out! And Timar loved sport, like all sailors. This time Michael did not load his gun. He let his boat float down with the stream till he reached the point of the Ostrova Island — there he seized the sculls and crossed the Danube obliquely. When he got round the island he soon saw where he was. From the southern reed-beds rose the tops of the well-known poplars — thither he went. There was already a channel broken through the rushes, across and along as required, if you only understood it. Where Michael had once been, he could find his way in the dark. What would Almira and Narcissa be doing? What should they be doing in such lovely weather but gratifying their passion for sport? Only, however, within certain limits: the field-mouse must be pursued at night, and that is easy for Narcissa, but she is strictly forbidden to chase birds. To Almira the marmots which came across the ice and settled in the island are positively interdicted. Aquatic prey still remain, and that is good sport too. Almira wades into the pure, clear water among the heaps of great stones at the bottom, and cautiously puts her fore-paw into a hole, out of which something dark is peeping. Suddenly she makes a great jump, draws her foot back, limps whining out of the water on three legs, and on the fourth paw hangs a large black crab, which has caught hold with its claws. Almira hobbles along in despair till, on reaching the bank, she succeeds in shaking off the dangerous monster; it is then carefully inspected by both Almira and Narcissa, to see at what price it can be induced to allow its body to be deprived of the shell. The crab naturally does not quite see the fun of this, and retires with all speed backward to the water. The two sportsmen, however, shove the reactionary party forward with their paws, until at one shove it is turned on its back, and now all three are in doubt what to do next — Almira, Narcissa, and the crab.
Almira’s attention is suddenly attracted by another object. She hears a noise and scents something. A friend approaches by water; she does not bark at him, but utters a low growl. This is her way of laughing, like some cheery old gentleman. She recognizes the man in the boat. Michael springs out, fastens the boat to a willow stump, pats Almira’s head, and asks her, “Well, then, how is it all? is it all well?” The dog replied many things, but in the Newfoundland-dog language. To judge by the tone, the answer is satisfactory.
Then all at once a pitiful cry disturbs the pleasant greeting. The catastrophe which might have been foreseen has occurred. Narcissa came near enough to the upset and sprawling crab for it to catch her ear with its nippers, and then to bury all its six claws in her fur. Timar rushed to the scene of misfortune, and with great presence of mind, seeing the magnitude of the danger, seized the mailed criminal in a place where its weapons could not reach him, pressed its head between his strong fingers, and obliged it to let go its prey; then he dashed it with such force on to a stone that it was shattered, and gave up its black ghost. Narcissa, to show her gratitude, sprung on to the shoulder of her chivalrous deliverer, and snorted from there at her dead enemy.
After this introductory deed of heroism, Timar busied himself in disembarking what he had brought with him. All are packed into a knapsack, which he can easily throw over his shoulder. But the gun, the gun! Almira can not abide him with a gun in his hand, but he can not leave it here, for it might easily be stolen by some one. What to do? The idea struck Timar to give it into Almira’s charge, who then, in her leonine jaws, carried the weapon proudly before him as a poodle bears its master’s cane. Narcissa sat on his shoulder and purred in his ear. Michael allowed Almira to go on before and show him the way.
Timar felt transformed when he trod the turfy paths of the island. Here was holy rest and deepest solitude. The fruit-trees of this paradise are in bloom; between their white and rosy flower-pyramids wild roses arch their sprays; the golden sunbeams coax the flowers’ fragrance into the air; the breeze is laden with it — with every breath one inhales gold and love. The forest of blossom is full of the hum of the bees, and in that mysterious sound, from all these flower-eyes, God speaks, God looks: it is a temple of the Lord. And that church music may not be wanting, the nightingale flutes his psalm of lament, and the lark trills his song of praise — only better than King David. At a spot where the purple lilacs parted, and the little island-home was visible, Michael stood spell-bound. The little house seemed to swim in a flaming sea, but not of water, only of roses. It was covered with rose-wreaths climbing to the roof, and for five acres round it only roses were visible — thousands of bushes, and six-foot rose-trees, forming pyramids, hedges, and arcades. It was a rose-forest, a rose-mountain, a rose-labyrinth, whose splendor dazzled the eye and spread afar a scent which surrounded one like a supernatural atmosphere.
Hardly had Michael entered on the winding path through this wilderness of roses, before a melodious cry of joy was heard. His name was called. “Ah, Herr Timar!”
And she who had uttered his name came running toward him. Timar had already recognized her by her voice: it was Noémi — little Noémi, whom he had not seen for nearly three years. How she had grown since then — how changed, how developed she was! Her dress was no longer neglected, but neat, though simple. In her rich golden hair a rose-bud was fastened.
“Ah, Herr Timar!” cried the girl, and stretched out her hand to him from afar, greeting him with frank delight, and a warm shake of the hand.
Michael returned it, and remained lost in gazing at the girl. Here then, at last, is a face that beams with joy at the sight of him. “How long it is since we saw you!” said the girl.
“And how pretty you have grown!” exclaimed he.
Sympathy shone in every line of Noémi’s face. “So you remember me still?” asked Timar, holding the little hand fast in his own.
“We have often thought of you.”
“Is Madame Therese well?”
“There she comes.”
When she saw Michael she hastened her steps; from a distance she had recognized the former ship’s captain, who now again, in his gray coat and with his knapsack, approached her hut. “God greet you! you have kept us waiting a long time!” exclaimed the woman to her visitor. “So you have thought of us at last?” And she embraced Michael without ceremony; then his well-filled knapsack caught her eye. “Almira,” she said to the dog, “take this bag and carry it in.”
“There are a brace of birds in it,” said Michael.
“Indeed! then take care, Almira, that Narcissa does not get at it.”
Noémi was affronted. “Narcissa is not so badly educated as that.”
To make it up, Frau Therese kissed her daughter, and Noémi was reconciled.
“Now let us go in,” said Therese, taking Michael’s arm familiarly. “Come, Noémi.”
A huge boat-shaped basket made of white osier-twigs stood in the way, and its heaped-up contents were covered with a cloth. Noémi began to lift it by both handles; Michael sprung to help her, and Noémi burst into a childish shriek of laughter, and drew off the cloth. The basket was heaped with rose-leaves. Michael took one handle, and so they carried it together with its sweet cargo along the lavender-bordered path.
“Do you make rose-water?” asked Timar.
Therese threw a glance at Noémi. “See how he finds out everything!”
“With us in Komorn much rose-water is made. Many poor women live by it.”
“Indeed? Then elsewhere also the rose is a blessing of the Lord — the exquisite flower which alone would make man love this world! And it not only rejoices his heart, but gives him bread. Look you — last year was a bad season; the late frost spoiled the fruit and the vintage; the wet, cold summer destroyed the bees, and the poultry died of disease: we should have had to fall back on our stores if it had not been for the roses, which helped us in our need. They bloom every year, and are always faithful to us. We made three hundred gallons of rose-water, which we sold in Servia, and got grain in exchange. Oh, you dear roses — you life-saving flowers!”
The little settlement had been enlarged since Timar was last there. There was a kiln and a kitchen for the preparation of the rose-water. Here was an open fire with the copper retort, from which the first essence dropped slowly; near the hearth stood a great tub with the crushed rose leaves, and on a broad bench lay the fresh ones which required drying.
Michael helped Noémi to empty the basket on to the bench; that was a scent, a perfume, in which one could revel and intoxicate one’s self!
Noémi laid her little head on the soft hill of rose leaves, and said, “It would be delicious to sleep on such a bed of roses.”
“Foolish child,” Therese chided her. “You would never awake from that slumber; the odor would kill you.”
“That would be a lovely death!”
“Then you want to die?” Frau Therese said, reproachfully; “you want to leave me here alone, you naughty child?”
“No, no!” cried Noémi, embracing her mother with eager kisses. “I leave you, my dear, darling, only little mother!”
“Why do you make such silly jests then? Don’t you think, Herr Timar, it is not right for a young girl to allow herself these jokes with her mother — for a little girl who was playing with a doll only yesterday?” Michael quite agreed with Frau Therese that it was inexcusable under any pretense for a young lady to tell her mother that she thought any kind of death would be delightful. “Now just stop here and see that the essence does not boil, while I go to the kitchen to get a good dinner ready for our guest. You’ll stay all day, of course?”
“I will stay today and tomorrow too, if you will give me something to do for you. As long as you find me work I will remain.”
“Oh, then, you can stop the whole week,” Noémi interrupted, “for I can find you plenty to do.”
“What work would you give Herr Timar, you little simpleton?” laughed the mother.
“Why, of course, to crush the rose leaves!”
“But perhaps he does not know how.”
“How should I not know all about it?” said Timar. “I have often enough helped my mother with it at home.”
“Your mother was a very good woman, I am sure.”
“And you loved her very much?”
“Is she still living?”
“She has long been dead.”
“So now you have no one in the world belonging to you?”
Timar thought a moment, and bowed his head sadly —“No one.” . . . He had spoken the truth.
Michael noticed that Therese still stood at the door, doubtful whether to go or not. “Do you know, good mother,” said he, suddenly remembering, “you need not go to the kitchen to cook anything for me. I have all sorts of provisions with me; there is only the table to spread — we shall all have enough.”
“Then who has looked after you and provided you so well with traveling comforts?” asked Noémi.
“Who but our Herr Johann Fabula?”
“Oh, the honest steersman! — is he here too?”
“He is loading the ship on the other bank.”
Therese guessed Timar’s thought, but she would not be behind him in delicate tact. She wished to show him that she had no scruple about leaving him alone with Noémi. “No, I have thought of something else; I will manage both here and in the kitchen. You, Noémi, can meanwhile take Herr Timar over the island and show him all the changes since he was here.”
Noémi was an obedient daughter; she did without question what her mother told her. She tied her Turkish handkerchief round her head, which framed her face charmingly. Timar recognized the scarf he had left as a present to her.
“Au revoir, darling!” “Au revoir,” said the mother and daughter with a kiss. They seemed to take leave of each other every time they parted, as if going on a long journey; and when they met again in an hour, they embraced as if they had been separated for years: the poor things had only each other in this world.
Noémi threw one more inquiring look, and Therese answered with a nod which meant, “Yes, go!”
Noémi and Timar now wandered on through the whole island. The path was so narrow that they were forced to walk close together, but Almira had the sense to push her great head between them and form a natural barrier. In the last three years cultivation had made great strides on the little island. A practicable road had been cut through the bushes; the old poplars had been uprooted, the wild crabs grafted; a skillful hand had formed neat fences from the broken branches; and where the orchard ceased, hedges divided the island, and hemmed in fields which supplied pasture for lambs and goats. One little lamb had a red ribbon round its neck, and this was Noémi’s pet. When the flock saw her they ran to her and bleated a greeting which she understood; then they followed her and Timar to the border of the field where the fence stopped them.
Behind these was to be seen a plantation of fine walnuts, with widespread shady heads and thick trunks, whose bark was smooth as silk. “Look,” said Noémi, “those are my mother’s pride; they are fifteen years old — just a year younger than I am,” she said quite simply.
On the right was the marsh, as Timar well remembered when he first came to the island and made his way through it. Now it was covered with water-plants; yellow lilies and white bell flowers were spread over the surface of the morass, and in the midst stood quietly two storks.
Timar opened the little gate; it was a pleasant reminder to see this wilderness once more, and yet it seemed to him as if his guide was afraid and uncomfortable.
“Are you still all alone here?” asked Michael.
“We are alone. At market-times people come to barter with us, and in winter wood-cutters come and help us to hew the trees and root them up: the wood serves to pay them. We do the rest ourselves.”
“But fruit-gathering is very troublesome, especially on account of the wasps.”
“Oh, that is not hard work; our friends singing there on the trees help us with the wasp-killing. Do you see all the nests? Our laborers live there; here no one troubles them, and they do us good service. Just listen!”
The wilderness resounded indeed with a heavenly concert. In the evening every bird hastens home, and then they are at their best. The cuckoo, the clock of the woods, has enough to do in striking the hours, and the thrush whistles in Greek strophes.
Then suddenly Noémi screamed aloud, grew pale, and started back with her trembling hand on her heart, so that Timar felt it his duty to seize her by the hand that she might not fall. “What is it?” Noémi held her hand before her eyes and said, half laughing and half crying, in a tone of mingled fear and disgust, “Look, look! there he comes.”
“There, that one!”
He saw a large, wrinkled, fat frog, which was creeping quietly in the grass, keeping an eye on the new-comers, and ready for a spring, in case of danger, into the nearest water-course.
Noémi was so paralyzed with fright that she had not the strength to run away.
“Are you afraid of frogs?” asked Timar.
“I have a horror of them; I should be frightened to death if it jumped on me.”
“How like a girl! They love cats because they coax and flatter, but they can not bear frogs because they are ugly; and yet, do you know, the frogs are just as good friends to us as the birds: this common, despised animal is the best assistant to the gardener. You know there are moths and beetles and grubs which only come out at night; birds are asleep then, but the detested frog comes out of his hole and attacks our enemies in the dark; he feeds on the night-moths and their grubs, the caterpillars and the slugs, and even the vipers. It is splendid the war he makes on noxious insects. Keep quiet, just look — the ugly, wrinkled frog is not creeping there to frighten you — he is not thinking about it. He is a gentle beast, conscious of no sin, and does not regard you as an enemy. Do you see a blue beetle fanning with his wings? That is one of the worst insects, a wood-borer, of which one grub suffices to spoil a whole young plantation; and our little friend has fixed on him as a prey. Don’t disturb him; look, he is drawing himself up for a spring — wait. There! now he has made his leap, and darts out his long tongue like lightning: the beetle is swallowed. You see that our good frog is not such a disgusting creature, in spite of his shabby coat.”
Noémi clasped her hands, quite pleased, and already felt less dislike to frogs. She let Michael lead her to a seat, and tell her what sensible creatures they are, what funny tricks they play, and what curious games exist among them. He told her of the sky-blue frog of Surinam, of which one specimen cost the King of Prussia four thousand five hundred thalers; then of the fire-frog, which sheds a clear light around in the darkness, creeps into houses, hides in the beams, and croaks unmercifully at night. In Brazil sometimes you can not hear the singers in the opera-house for the chorus set up by the frogs which live in the building. Now Noémi was laughing at this awful enemy, and the laugh is half-way from hatred to love.
“If only they would not make such an ugly noise!”
“But you see in these tones they express their tender affection for their little wives, for among frogs only the little husband has a voice — the lady is dumb. The frog exclaims all night to his wife, ‘How lovely, how charming you are!’ Can there be a more affectionate creature than a frog?”
Noémi was beginning to look at it from the sentimental side.
“Then, too, the frog is a learned animal. You must know that the true frog is a weather-prophet: when it is going to rain he knows it, comes out of the water and croaks his prophecy; when dry weather is coming he goes back to the water.”
“Ah!” began Noémi, getting interested.
“I will catch one,” said Timar; “I hear one among the bushes.”
He soon came back with a tree-frog between his palms. Noémi trembled and got excited. She was red and pale by turns.
“Now look,” said Timar to her, opening his hands a little. “Is it not a pretty little thing? It is as lovely a green as the young grass, and its tiny foot is like a miniature human hand. How its little heart beats! How it looks at us with its beautiful wise black eyes with a golden ring round them! It is not afraid of us!”
Noémi, wavering between fear and curiosity, stretched out a timid hand, but drew it quickly back.
“Take it, touch it — it is the most harmless creature on God’s earth.” She stretched out her hand again, frightened and yet laughing, but looked into Timar’s eyes instead of at the frog, and started when the cold body came in contact with her reluctant nerves; but then suddenly she laughed with pleasure, like a child which would not go into the cold water, and then is glad to be there.
“Now look, he does not move in your hand; he is quite comfortable. We will take him home and find a glass, put water in, and then place a small ladder in it which I can cut out of wood. The frog shall be imprisoned in it, and when he knows that rain is coming he will climb up the ladder. Give it to me; I will carry it.”
“No, no; I will keep him, and carry him home myself.”
“Then you must hold your hand shut, or he will jump out; but not too tight so as to press him. And now let us go, for the dew is falling, and the grass is wet.”
They turned homeward, and Noémi ran on, calling from afar to Therese, “Mother, mother, see what we have caught! a beautiful bird.”
Mamma Therese prepared to scold her daughter severely.
“Don’t you know that it is forbidden to catch birds?”
“But such a bird! Herr Timar caught it, and gave it to me. Just peep into my hand.”
Frau Therese threw up her hands when she saw the green tree-frog there.
“Look how it blinks at me with its beautiful eyes!” cried Noémi, beaming with delight. “We are going to put him in a glass, catch flies for him, and he will foretell the weather for us. Oh, the dear little thing!” And she held the frog caressingly to her cheek.
Therese turned to Timar in astonishment. “Sir, you are a magician! Only yesterday you could have driven this girl out of her senses with such a creature as that.”
But Noémi was quite enthusiastic about the frog. While she laid the table on the veranda for supper, she delivered a complete batrachian lecture to her mother on what she had heard from Timar: how useful, as well as wise, amusing, and interesting frogs were. It was not true that they spat venom, as people said, that they crept into sleepers’ mouths, sucked the milk of cows, nor that they burst with poison if you held a spider to them — all this was pure calumny and stupid superstition. They are our best friends, which guard us at night; those little soft foot-prints which are visible on the smooth sand round the house, are the consoling sign of their nightly patrol: it would be ungrateful to fear them. Timar had meanwhile prepared a small ladder of willow-twigs for the little meteorologist. He put it in a wide-mouthed bottle, which he half filled with water, and covered with a pierced paper, through which the imprisoned prophet was to receive its provision of flies. It of course went down to the bottom, and declined either to eat or to talk. Noémi welcomed this as a sign that the weather would remain fine.
“Yes, sir,” said Frau Therese, as she brought out the supper to the little table at which they all sat down; “you have not only worked a miracle on Noémi, but have really done her a great benefit. Our island would have been a paradise if Noémi had not been so afraid of frogs. As soon as ever she saw one she grew quite white and got a fit of shivering. No human power would have induced her to go across the fence to where the innumerable frogs croak in the marsh. You have made a new creature of her, and reconciled her with her home.”
“A sweet home!” sighed Timar. Therese sighed aloud.
“Why do you sigh?” Noémi asked.
“You know well enough.”
And Timar too knew to whom the sigh was due.
Noémi tried to give a cheerful turn to the conversation. “I took my aversion to frogs from the time when a naughty boy played me a trick, and threw a great big toad, as brown as a crust, at me. He said it was a bull-frog, and that if he struck it with a nettle it would roar like a bull. He did strike the poor thing, and then it began to moan piteously, so that I can never forget it, as if it would call for vengeance against our whole race; and its body was covered with white froth. The bad boy laughed when he heard the uncanny voice of the poor beast.”
“Who was that wicked boy?” asked Michael.
Noémi was silent, and only made an expressively contemptuous movement of the hand. Timar guessed the name; he looked at Frau Therese, and she nodded assent — already they can guess each other’s thoughts.
“Has he never been here since?”
“Oh, yes; he comes every year, and never ceases tormenting us. He has found a new way of laying us under contribution. He brings a large boat with him, and as I can not give him any money, he loads it with honey, wax, and wool, which he sells. I give him what he wants, that he may leave us in peace.”
“He has not been here lately,” said Noémi.
“Oh, nothing has happened to him, I expect his arrival any day.”
“If only he would come now!” said the girl.
“Why, you little goose?”
Noémi grew crimson. “Only because I should prefer it.”
Timar, however, thought to himself how happy he could make these two people with a single word. But he gloated over the thought, like a child which had some sweets given to it, and begins by eating the crumbs first. He felt an inward impulse to share the joys and sorrows of these islanders.
Supper was over, the sun had set, and a splendid, still, warm night sunk on to the fields; the whole sky looked like a transparent silver veil — no leaf stirred on the trees. The two women went with their visitor to the top of the great bowlder; from there one had a wide view over the trees and the reed-beds far across the Danube. The island lay at their feet like an enchanted lake with variegated waves. The apple-trees swam in a rosy, and the pomegranates in a dark-red, sea of blossom; the poplars looked golden-yellow, and the pear-trees white with snowy bloom, and the waving tips of the plum-trees were radiant in brazen green. In the midst rose the rock like a lighted cupola, wreathed with fiery roses, on whose top old lavender bushes formed a thicket.
“Superb!” cried Timar, enchanted with the landscape outspread before him.
“You should see the rock in summer, when the yellow stonecrop is in bloom,” exclaimed Noémi, eagerly; “it looks as if it had on a golden robe. The lavender blossom makes a great blue crown for its head.”
“I will come and see it,” said Timar.
“Really?” The girl stretched out her hand to him joyously, and Michael fell a warm pressure such as no woman’s hand had ever given him in his life. And then Noémi leaned her head on Therese’s shoulder, and threw her arm round her mother’s neck. All nature was under the spell of deep repose undisturbed by any human sound. Only the monotonous chorus of the frogs enlivened the deep shadows of the night. The sky offered a curious spectacle; half was blue, and the other opal green. There are two sides even to happiness.
“Do you hear what the frogs are saying?” whispered Noémi to her mother —”‘Oh, how dear you are, how sweet!’ They say that all night long —‘Oh, you darling, you sweet!’” and she kissed Therese at every word.
Michael, forgetful of himself and of the whole world, stood on the rock with folded arms. The young crescent glittered between the quivering foliage of the poplars, now shining like pure silver; a wonderful new feeling crept into the man’s breast. Was it fear or longing? — memory aroused or dawning hope? — awakening joy or dying grief? — instinct or warning? — madness, or that breath of spring which seizes on tree and grass, and every cold or warm-blooded animal?
Just so had he gazed at the waning moon, which threw its long reflection on the waves as far as the sinking ship. His involuntary thoughts talked with the ghostly magnetic rays, and they with him.
“Do you not understand? I will return tomorrow, and then you will know.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56