After Michael had rowed across to the other side, he gave over the boat to a fisherman to keep till he came back. But would he ever come back?
He wished to go on foot as far as the wharf, where Fabula was busy with the lading of his ships. It is hard work to row against the stream, and in Timar’s present frame of mind he was in no mood for muscular exertion; there was in his heart a stronger current, to contend against which he needed all his strength.
The district through which he had to pass was a widespread alluvial deposit of the Danube, like those found in the lower reaches of the river. The capricious stream has burst some dam, and altered its course. Every year it tears portions from one bank and carries them over to the other. On this deposit the trees uprooted with it form a new growth, and through this dark natural forest wind lonely paths — the roads of the osier-cutters and fisher-folk. Here and there you come to a forsaken hut with a shingle roof whose walls are covered with creepers. These sometimes shelter a snipe-shooter, conceal a robber, or form the lair of a wolf and her cubs.
Michael, deep in thought, strode silently on through this desert: he had thrown his gun over his shoulder.
“You can never return here,” said Timar to himself. “If it is difficult to carry through one lie with consistency, how can you manage two? — two contradictory lies? If you accept Noémi’s love, you will be inseparably bound to her, and must live henceforth two lives, both full of deceit. . . . You are no boy, to be passion’s tool, and perhaps it is not passion which you feel, possibly merely a passing desire or only gratified vanity.
“Then the rejected bridegroom — how is he to be got rid of? He would kill you, or you him — a delightful relationship indeed to end on the scaffold!”
He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow; it soothed his burning temples to let the breeze fan them.
“Am I never to be happy?” he sighed. “All these years I have worked early and late for other people; why should I be so wretched? I adored my wife, and her coldness has brought me to despair; but Noémi loves me. That can no longer be altered, and in the island, outside the world, the laws of society and religion have no power. . . . I could easily pay off that fellow who comes between us, and then I could live here in peace for half the year. Timéa would only suppose that I was away on business.”
The wind of spring rustled through the young poplar stems. Here, where the path turned, stood a hut made of interwoven osier-twigs, whose entrance was concealed by brambles. Timar stood still and put on his hat. At that moment two shots rattled close to him, the two balls whistling over his head with that unpleasant sound which resembles the buzz of an approaching wasp or the clang of an æolian harp. Michael’s hat, pierced by two balls, flew from his head into the bushes. Both shots came from the ruined hut. For the first instant the shock paralyzed his limbs; they came like two answers to his secret thoughts. A shudder ran through his whole body: the next moment rising fury took the place of fear; he lowered his gun, cocked both barrels, and rushed angrily toward the hut, from which the smoke of the discharged weapon poured through the crevices.
Before the muzzle of his gun stood a trembling man — Theodor Krisstyan. His discharged pistol was still in his hand, he held it now as a protection to his head, and shook so that every limb quivered.
“It is you — you!” cried Michael.
“Mercy!” stammered the trembling wretch, throwing away his pistol, and stretching both hands entreatingly to Michael: his knees knocked together, and he could hardly keep his feet; his face was pale as death, his eyes dull, he was more dead than alive. Timar recovered his composure: fear and anger had left him — he lowered his gun. “Come nearer,” he said to the assassin.
“I dare not,” faltered he, clinging to the wood-work. “You will kill me.”
“Don’t be afraid; I don’t want your life. There”— he discharged his gun in the air —“now I am unarmed, and you have no cause to fear.” Theodor crept out. “You wanted to kill me,” said Michael. “You wretched creature! I pity you!”
The young rascal dared not look at him.
“Theodor Krisstyan, so young, and already a murderer! — but you could not do it. Examine yourself; you are not naturally bad, but your soul has been envenomed: I know your history, and I make excuses. You have good capacities, and use them badly — you are a vagabond and a swindler; does such a life content you? Impossible! — begin afresh — shall I help you to a post in which you can, with your education, honestly support yourself? I have many connections: it is in my power: there is my hand on it.”
The murderer fell on his knees before the man he would have killed, seized the offered hand with both his own, and covered it, sobbing, with kisses.
“Oh, sir, you are the first man who has ever spoken thus to me; let me kneel at your feet! From boyhood I have been chased from every door like a dog without a master; I had to steal or beg every morsel I eat; no one gave me a hand but those who were worse than myself, and who led me further astray. I have led a shameful, miserable life, full of deceit and treachery, and I tremble before any one who knows me; and you hold out a hand to me — you, for whom I have been lying in wait like a brigand, you will save me from myself! Let me kneel before you, and thus receive your commands!”
“Stand up! I am no friend to sentiment; tears make me suspicious.”
“You are right,” said Theodor, “and especially with such a well-known actor as I am, who if you say to him ‘Take that groschen and cry,’ could at once break into floods of tears. Now people don’t believe me if I really weep; I will suppress my tears.”
“All the more because I do not intend to address a moral lecture to you, but only to speak of very dry business matters. You spoke of your connection with Scaramelli, and a business journey to Brazil.”
“All lies, sir.”
“So I thought. You have no connection with Scaramelli?”
“I had, but it was broken off.”
“Did you run away, or were you dismissed?”
“With three or four hundred gulden.”
“Say five hundred. Would you not be glad to return them to the firm? I have relations with their house.”
“I do not want to remain there.”
“And what connection has this with the Brazilian journey?”
“There is not a word of truth in it; no ship-wood comes from there.”
“Not even those you mentioned, among which were dye and chemical woods?”
Theodor smiled. “The truth is that I wanted to sell the trees of the ownerless island to a charcoal-burner to get a little money; Therese guessed at once my real object.”
“Then you did not come to the island for Noémi’s sake?”
“Oh, I have as many wives as the countries I have visited.”
“H’m — I know of a very good situation for you in Brazil, an agency for a lately commenced enterprise, where a knowledge of the Hungarian, German, Italian, English, and Spanish languages is necessary.”
“I speak and write all these languages.”
“I know it — and also Greek, Turkish, Polish, and Russian: you are a clever fellow. I will procure for you this situation, in which you can make use of your talents. The agency of which I speak carries with it a salary of three thousand dollars and a percentage of the profits, the amount of which will depend on yourself.”
Theodor could hardly believe his ears. But he was so accustomed to pretense that when he was overcome by real gratitude he had not the courage to give it expression, lest it should be taken for acting.
“Is this your real meaning, sir?”
“What motive should I have at this moment for jesting with you? You attempted my life, and I must secure myself. I can not send you out of the world — my conscience forbids it — so I must try to make an honest man of you in the interest of my own safety. If you are in good circumstances, I shall have nothing to fear. Now you can understand my course of action. As a proof that my offer is in earnest, take my pocket-book. You will find in it the necessary journey expenses to Trieste, and probably as much as what you owe to Scaramelli. At Trieste you will find a letter which gives you further directions. And now we will part — one to the right, and the other to the left.”
Theodor’s hand shook as he received the pocket-book. Michael lifted his pierced hat from the ground. “And you can look on these shots just as you like. If they were the attack of an assassin, you have every reason not to approach me in any region within reach of the law; but if they were the shots of an insulted gentleman, you know that at our next meeting it is my turn to shoot.”
Theodor Krisstyan bared his breast, and exclaimed passionately, “Shoot me if ever I come in sight of you again! Shoot me like a mad dog!” He raised the discharged pistol, and pressed it into Timar’s hand. “Shoot me with my own pistol it you ever meet me in this world! Do not ask, say not a word, but kill me!”
He insisted on Michael’s taking the pistol, and putting it in his pocket.
“Farewell!” said Timar, and then he left him and went on his way.
Theodor stood still looking after him. Then he ran, and caught him up. “Sir, one word — you have made a new man of me — allow me, if ever I write to you, to begin with the words, ‘My Father.’ In those words once lay for me shame and horror; let me find in them henceforth a fountain of trust and happiness — my father, my father!”
He kissed Michael’s hand with impassioned warmth, rushed away, threw himself down on the grass behind the first bush that hid him from Timar’s eyes, and wept — real, true tears.
Poor little Noémi stood for an hour under the acacia-tree where she had taken leave of Michael. Therese, as she stayed out so long, had gone to seek her, and now sat beside her daughter on the grass. Not to be idle, she had brought out her knitting.
Suddenly Noémi exclaimed, “Mother, did you hear? — two shots on the other shore!”
They listened. There was deep stillness in the drowsy air.
“Two more shots! Mother, what is it?”
Therese tried to calm her. “They must be sportsmen, child, who are shooting there.”
Noémi’s cheeks lost their color, and she looked as pale as the acacia blossoms over her head. She pressed her hands vehemently to her breast and faltered, “Oh, no, no! he will never come back!”
It grieved her to the heart that she had not said the little word “thou” to him when he begged so hard.
“Master Fabula,” said Timar to his faithful steward, “this year we will not send the crop either to Raab or Komorn.”
“What shall we do with it, then?”
“We will grind it here. I have two windmills on my property, and we can hire thirty water-mills; those will suffice.”
“Then we must open a huge warehouse, where we can sell such a quantity.”
“That will not be wanting. We will load the flour into small ships, which can go up to Karlstadt; thence we will transfer it in barrels to Brazil.”
“To Brazil!” screamed Fabula, quite frightened. “I can’t go there with it.”
“I was not thinking of sending you there, Master Fabula; your department is the grinding and the transport to Trieste. I will give the agents and millers their orders today, and you can scold and manage in my absence just as if I were there.”
“Many thanks,” said Master Fabula, and shook his head violently as Herr von Levetinczy left the office. “That will be a gigantic folly,” he grumbled to himself. “To begin with, the flour will be musty before it arrives; then no one will buy it; thirdly, nobody will ever see the color of money which has to come from Brazil. How could he claim it? there is no fiscal authority there, or even a vice-consul. In short, it is just another of those colossal, everlasting pieces of folly of our Herr Levetinczy, but it will turn out well, to every one’s surprise, as every stupid thing does that our master undertakes. And I don’t doubt that our flour-ships will come back laden with gold-dust from Brazil; but for all that it is a great folly.”
Our Herr Fabula was perfectly right. Timar was of the same opinion. He ran a risk in this speculation of losing at least a hundred thousand gulden. But this idea was not of today. It had long been in his mind whether a Hungarian merchant might not make better profits than in grain contracts and the chartering of cargo-ships. Would it not be possible for those goods which have to struggle with foreign competition to find their own place in the great bazaar of the world’s market?
The export trade in flour was an old plan of his. To prepare for its execution he had completed his mills, and built a large vessel at Trieste. But the reason of his hasty determination to begin work at once was only on Noémi’s account; and his meeting with Theodor had brought this decision to a head.
This business was only a pretext; the principal thing was to put a hemisphere between himself and that man. Those who saw in what ceaseless labor Timar spent the next weeks — how he hurried from one mill to another, and from there to his ships; how he dispatched them the moment they were laden, and personally superintended the transport — all said, “What a pattern of a merchant! He is tremendously rich; he has directors, agents, captains, stewards, overseers, foremen, and yet he sees to all himself like a common contractor. He understands business.” (If only they had known what depended on this business!)
Three weeks passed before the first ship laden with barrels of Hungarian flour lay ready to weigh anchor in the harbor of Trieste. The ship was called “Pannonia;” it was a beautiful three-masted galliot. Even Master Fabula was loud in its praise; for he was present at the loading of the flour. But Timar himself never saw it; he had not once come to Trieste to see it before it started. During those weeks he remained in Levetinczy or Pancsova. The whole enterprise was in Scaramelli’s name; Timar had his reasons for keeping his own name out of it; and he only communicated in writing with the fully empowered firm of Scaramelli.
One day he received a letter from Theodor Krisstyan. When he opened it he was surprised to find money in it — a hundred gulden note. The contents of the letter ran thus —
“MY FATHER — When you read these lines I shall be afloat on board the splendid ship ‘Pannonia,’ as Brazilian agent of the house of Scaramelli.
“Accept my warmest thanks for your kind recommendation. The bank has advanced me two months’ salary, of which I inclose a hundred gulden, with the request that you would be good enough to pay it over to the landlord of The White Ship at Pancsova. I am in debt to that amount to that poor man, and am thankful to be able to pay this sum. Heaven bless you for all your goodness to me!”
Timar breathed freely. “The man has already improved; he remembers his old debts and pays them with his savings. What a sweet thought to have brought a lost sheep back to the fold — to be the savior of an enemy who attempted one’s life — to give back to him life, the world, honor, and bring to light a pearl purified of the mire in which it lay! Is not this a truly Christian act? You have a generous soul. If only the inward accuser would not reply, ‘You are a murderer!’
“You do not rejoice to have saved a man, but rather at getting rid of him. If you received news that a tornado had caught your ship and sunk it with every soul on board, what joy it would give you! You are not thinking of the flour-trade with its profits and losses, but that every year in the swamps of La Plata and the river Amazon that fearful specter walks — the yellow fever — which, like the tiger, lies in ambush for the new-comer. Of every hundred, sixty fall victims to it. It is that of which the prospect gives you pleasure. You are a murderer!”
Timar felt the satisfaction of a man who has succeeded in putting an enemy out of the way — a joy with which bitter self-condemnation and anxious forebodings were mingled.
From henceforward Timar was transformed. He was hardly to be recognized. The usually cold-blooded man betrayed in everything a singular restlessness; he gave contradictory orders, and forgot an hour after what he had said. If he started on a journey, he turned back half-way; he began to avoid business, and seemed indifferent to the most important affairs; then again he grew so excitable that the smallest neglect enraged him. He might be seen wandering on the shore for half a day at a time, with his head down like one who is nearly mad, and begins by running away from home. Another time he shut himself into his room and would not let any one in; the letters which came to him from all parts lay unopened in a heap on his table. This shrewd, clever man could think of nothing but the golden-haired girl whom he had seen for the last time leaning on a tree by the island shore, with her head supported on her arm. One day he determined to return to her, and the next to drive the remembrance of her from his breast. He began to be superstitious; he waited for signs from Heaven, and visions to decide what he should do. Dreams always brought the same face, happy or sad, submissive or inconsolable, and he was more crazy than ever. But Heaven sent him no sign.
One day he decided to be reasonable and attend to his business affairs; that might perhaps steady his brain. He sat down before the heap of letters and began to open them all in turn. All that came of it was that he had forgotten at the end of a letter what he had read at the beginning. He only cared to read what was written in those blue eyes. But his heart began to beat fast when a letter fell into his hands which was heavier than the rest; he knew the handwriting of the address; it was Timéa’s.
His blood ran cold. This was the sign from Heaven, this will decide the conflict in his soul.
Timéa writes to him — the angelic creature, the spotless wife. A single tender word from her will exercise an influence on her husband like a cry of “danger” to a drunken man. These well-known characters will call up the saintly face before his mind’s eye, and lead him back to the right path.
In the letter is a small object; it must be a loving surprise, a little souvenir. Yes! tomorrow is her husband’s birthday. This will be a charming letter, a sweet remembrance. Michael opened the envelope very carefully, after cutting round the seal. The first thing that surprised him was a key which fell out — the key of his writing-table.
But in the letter were these words: “MY DEAR SIR — You left the key of your writing-table in the lock. That you may not be uneasy about it, I send it to you. God keep you! — TIMÉA.”
Nothing further. Timar had forgotten to take out the key that night when he came home secretly, when the conversation with Athalie had so disturbed his mind.
Nothing but the key and a couple of frigid lines. Timar put down the letter in vexation.
Suddenly a dreadful idea flashed through his mind. If Timéa found this key in his writing-table lock, perhaps she looked through the desk. Women are curious, and do such things. But if she did search in it, she must have found something she would recognize. When Timar disposed of Ali Tchorbadschi’s treasures, he had been careful not to part with some objects, which, if they came into the trade, might have led to discovery, but had, for the most part, only sold the separate diamonds. Among the precious objects was a medallion framed in brilliants, which contained a miniature portrait of a young lady, whose features bore a striking likeness to those of Timéa. It must be the picture of her mother, who had been a Greek. If Timéa found this medallion, she must know all; she would at once recognize her mother’s portrait, and conclude that this jewel had belonged to her father. This would lead her to the further conclusion that her mother’s valuables had fallen into Timar’s hands, and thus she would arrive at the knowledge of how he had become rich, and that he had married her at the price of her own money. If Timéa was curious, she now knows all, and then she must despise her husband.
And do not the words of the letter betray this? Does not the wife wish her husband to understand, by the forwarding of the key, that she had discovered his secrets?
This thought was decisive to Michael as to whether his path was to lead up or down! Down!
“It is all one,” thought he. “I am unmasked before the woman. I can no longer play the honest man, the true-hearted, generous benefactor. I am found out. I can only sink lower still!”
He was determined to return to the island. But he would not retreat like a defeated foe. He wrote to Timéa, and begged her to open all the letters which should come during his absence, to inform his agents of their contents, and, where a decision was necessary, to dispose, in the name of her husband, of all as she chose. At the same time he sent the key back, that it might be at hand if any documents were wanted.
That was his trump card. With the feeling that his secret was near discovery he hastened to lead up to it, and possibly that very thing might prevent its revelation. He left orders to his agents that all letters concerning his affairs were to be directed to his wife. He was going away for a long time, but he did not say where to.
Late in the afternoon he started in a hired carriage. He hoped his track would be lost, and did not take his own horses. A couple of days ago he had been superstitious, and awaited signs from Heaven, from the elements, to show him the way. Now he noticed them no longer. He was determined to return to the island. But the sky and the elements tried to frighten him by evil omens, and even to detain him by force. Toward evening, when the long lines of poplars on the Danube shore were already in sight, suddenly a reddish-brown cloud appeared in the sky, approaching with great rapidity. The peasant driver began to pray and sigh, but when the smoke-like cloud drew nigh, his prayers changed to curses. The Galambocz gnats are coming!
They are creations of the Evil One, trillions in number, and living in the holes of the Galambocz rocks: suddenly they come out in swarms, forming a thick cloud, and if they descend into the plain, woe to the cattle they find in the open!
The flight of gnats covered the plain through which Timar had to drive; the tiny stinging plague swarmed over the bodies of the horses, creeping into their eyes, ears, and nostrils. The terrified animals could no longer be controlled — they turned round suddenly with the carriage, and bolted in a north-westerly direction. Timar ventured on a jump from the carriage; he leaped cleverly and safely without injury; the horses flew off and away. If he had attended to omens, this might have been sufficient to turn him also aside. But he was now obstinate. He was going on a road where man no longer asks for help from God. He was going where Noémi drew him and Timéa drove him. North pole and south pole, desire and his own will, pressed him on.
When he jumped from the carriage, he continued his journey on foot, keeping along the wooded river-bank. His gun had remained in the carriage, he had come with empty hands: he cut himself a walking-stick, and that was his only weapon: provided with this, he tried to make his way through the thicket. There he lost himself; night surprised him, and the more he wandered the less he found an outlet. At last he came on a hut built of osier-twigs, and decided to spend the night there.
He made a fire out of the dry branches lying near: fortunately he was carrying his game-bag when he jumped from the carriage, and in it were bread and ham; he broiled the ham over the fire and ate it with the bread.
He found also something else in the bag, the pistol with which Theodor had attacked him from the hut; perhaps from this very hut — quite possible that it was the same. He could make no use of the pistol, for he had left his powder-horn in the carriage; but it did him a service by strengthening him in his fatalism: a man who had escaped so many dangers must still have some work to do in the world. And indeed he required some encouragement, for after nightfall it began to be uncanny here in the desert. Not far away wolves were howling, and through the bushes Timar saw the shining green eyes: one and another old Sir Isegrim came up to the back wall of the hut and executed a fearful howl. Timar dared not let the fire out all night, for it alone kept away the wild beasts. When he went inside, the uncomfortable hiss with which snakes receive human beings struck his ear, and a sluggish mass moved under his foot; perhaps he had trodden on a tortoise. Timar kept up the fire all night, and drew fantastic figures in the air with the glowing end of the fire-stick — perhaps the hieroglyphics of his own thoughts.
What a miserable night! He who has a home provided with every luxury, and a comfortable bed; in whose house rules a lovely young woman whom he can call his wife — spends a lonely night in a damp, fungus-grown hut: wolves howl round him, and over his head adders creep slowly through the rush-woven roof. And today is his birthday; a happy family festival indeed — in such surroundings! But they suit him — he wants nothing else.
Michael had a pious mind. From childhood he had been used night and morning to put up a silent prayer. He had never lost the habit, and in every danger or trouble of his eventful life, he had taken refuge in prayer. He believed in God; God was his deliverer, and whatever he undertook succeeded. But in this dreadful night he dared not pray; he would not speak with God.
“Do not Thou look where I go.” From this birthday he gave up prayer. He defied fate.
When the day dawned, the nocturnal beasts of prey slunk back to their lairs. Timar left his inhospitable refuge, and soon found the path which led direct to the shore of the Danube: here a new horror awaited him. The Danube was enormously swollen, and had overflowed its banks. It was the season of the spring floods after the melting of the snow; the foaming yellow stream was filled with uprooted reeds and tree-trunks. The fisherman’s hut which he sought, and which stood on the point of a hill, was in the water up to the threshold, and the boat he had left there was tied to a tree close by.
He found not a creature there. It is impossible to fish in such a flood, and the people had removed all their nets. If he wanted a sign from heaven, a direction from God’s finger — here he had it. The swollen river barred his way with its whole majestic strength; at such times no one ventures on the river; the warning was there, the elements commanded him to return.
“Too late,” said Timar. “I can not go back; I must go on.”
The door of the hut was locked, and he broke it open to get his oars, as he saw through a chink that they were kept there. Then he got into the boat, tied himself in, loosed the boat, and pushed off. The current seized him at once, and rushed on with him. The Danube was at that time a powerful master, and uprooted forests in its rage; a mortal venturing on its surface was like a worm floating on a straw, and yet this worm defied it. He alone managed the two oars, which also served to steer with. On the rapid waves his skiff danced like a nutshell, but the wind was contrary, and tried to drive him back to the shore he came from. But Timar succumbed neither to wind nor water.
He had thrown his hat to the bottom of the boat; his hair, wet with perspiration, fluttered in the wind, and the waves splashing over the side threw their icy spray in his face — but they did not cool him. The thought was hot within him that Noémi might be in danger on the island. But the idea did not paralyze his arms. The Danube and the wind are two mighty powers — but stronger still are the passions and the will of man. Timar felt this. What activity in his mind, what muscle in his arm! It was a superhuman task in which he succeeded, to cross the current at the head of the Ostrova Island. Here he rested awhile.
The island of Ostrova was overflowed, the water was rushing among the trees. Here it was easier to get on by pushing his oars against the trunks; at the back of Ostrova he must let himself float down-stream to arrive at the ownerless island. When he had reached the right spot, and came out from among the trees, a new and surprising spectacle lay before him. The ownerless island was usually hidden behind a thick bed of osiers, over which only the tree-tops were visible; now none of the reeds was to be seen, and the island lay out in mid-stream. The flood had covered the reeds, the trees of the island stood in the water, and only at one place the rock raised its head above the surface.
With feverish impatience he let his boat float down. Every stroke brought him nearer to the erratic bowlder, whose crown was blue with lavender flowers, while the sides were shining gold with climbing nasturtium which clung to the stone; and the nearer he came the greater was his impatience. He could already see the orchard, whose trees stood in the water half-way up their trunk; but the rose-garden was dry, and there the lambs and kids had taken refuge. Now Almira’s joyful bark fell on his ear; the black creature came running to the shore, rushed back, came on again, leaped into the water, and swam toward the new arrival and back again.
Does Michael see that rosy face there at the base of a blooming jasmine-bush, hurrying toward him to the very edge of the rushing water? One more stroke, and the boat has reached the shore. Michael springs out and the waves carry off the boat; he no longer wants it, and no one thinks of drawing it ashore.
Each only saw the other. Around them the paradise of the first man! — fruit-laden trees, blossoming fields, tame animals, surrounded by a watery ring, and therein — Adam and Eve.
The maiden stands pale and trembling before the new-comer, and as he rushes toward her, when she sees him before her, she throws herself with a burst of passion on his breast, and cries, in the self-forgetfulness of ecstasy, “Thou hast returned! Thou, thou!” and even when her lips are closed they still say, “Thou, thou!”
Around them is Eden. The jasmine-bush sends down on them its silvery flower-crown, and the choir of nightingales and blackbirds sing “Gospodi pomiluj.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56