The “St. Barbara” had escaped two dangers — the rocks of the Iron Gate and the Turkish brigantine; two remained, the Bora and the quarantine in Orsova.
Above the bay of the Iron Gate, the powerful stream is confined by its steep banks in a chasm only a hundred fathoms wide, through which the pent-up current forces its way, in parts with a fall of twenty-eight feet.
Up above the mountain peaks, three thousand feet in air, the eagles circle in majestic flight across the narrow strip of sky visible, whose pure azure, seen from the awful depths below, looks like a glass vault, and further yet rise more and higher peaks.
It is a sight, I trow, to call up spirits from hell. The impotent vessel, which has neither hands nor feet, nor yet fins, which, like an overladen nutshell, floats upward in this narrow channel against wind and stream; and in it a handful of men, trusting in their intelligence and their strength. Here, too, even the Bora can not harm them, for the double range of cliffs keeps off the wind. The steersman and the towing-team have easier work now.
But the Bora was not asleep. It was already afternoon. The chief steersman had given over the tiller to his deputy, and had gone to the galley, which was in the stern. There he was busy preparing a “thieves’ roast,” of which the recipe is to spit on a long skewer a piece of beef, a piece of ham, and a piece of pork alternately, and then turn the skewer above an open fire till the meat is cooked.
All at once the narrow strip of sky visible between the almost touching cliffs grew dark. The Bora will not be defied.
Suddenly it drives down before it a storm which overcasts the blue sky, so that it is pitch dark in the valley. Up above masses of cloud; dark rocks on either hand. Now and then a dazzling flash darts through the heights, followed by a short abrupt thunderclap, as if the narrow gorge could only contain one chord of the awful concert; then again the lightning shoots into the Danube just in front of the ship, and by its fiery rays for an instant the whole rocky cathedral looks like the flaming gulf of hell, and the thunder rolls, with a crash as of a world destroyed, from one end of the resounding Titan’s hall to the other. Rain falls in torrents, but the vessel must go on.
It must get on, that it may have left Orsova before night.
They can only see by the flicker of the lightning. Even with the horn they dare not signal, for it might be heard on the Roumanian side. But inventive man has found a way out of this difficulty.
The captain goes into the bow, gets out his flint and steel, and begins to strike out sparks. This fire can not be extinguished by rain; it can be seen by the drivers through the darkness, and as often as the steel strikes a spark they know at once what to do; they also make signals from the bank by sparks. This is the secret telegraph of sailors and smugglers at the Iron Gate. And this silent language has been brought to perfection by the shore population on each side of the river.
Timéa liked the tempest. She had drawn her Turkish hood over her head, and looked out of the cabin window. “Are we in a cavern?” she asked the captain.
“No,” answered Timar, “but at the door of a tomb. That high peak, which glows in the lightning flashes like a mountain of fire, is the grave of St. Peter, the ‘Gropa lui Petro.’ And the two other monsters near it are the ‘Two Old Women.’”
“What old women?”
“According to the legend, a Hungarian and a Wallachian woman quarreled as to which of their two countries could claim the tomb of St. Peter. The apostle could not sleep in his grave for their squabbling, and in his anger he turned them into stone.”
Timéa did not smile at the grotesque legend. She did not see anything ridiculous in it. “And how do they know that this is the grave of an apostle?” asked she.
“Because here many healing herbs grow, which they collect to cure all sorts of diseases, and send them great distances.”
“So they call him an apostle, who even in his grave does good to others?” Timéa questioned.
“Timéa!” sounded from the cabin the imperious call of Euthemio. The girl drew back her head from the window, and closed the circular shutter. When Timar looked round again, he saw only the saint’s picture.
The vessel continued her course in spite of the storm.
Suddenly the dark ravine was left behind, and as the two rock walls trended further apart the gloomy vault overhead disappeared. Just as rapidly as the Bora had brought up the black thunderclouds, so quickly had it swept away the storm; and, all at once, the travelers saw stretched before them the lovely Cserna valley.
The cliffs on both shores were covered to their summits with vineyards and fruit orchards; the landscape glittered in the glow of the evening sun; out of the green distance shone while houses, slender spires, and red roofs, and through the crystal rain-beads gleamed a gorgeous rainbow.
The Danube had lost its uncanny aspect. In its wider bed it could spread itself out comfortably; and on the western reaches of its sea-green mirror the travelers saw the reflection of Orsova on its island — for them the fourth, and greatest, bugbear.
The day had already sunk into twilight when the “St. Barbara” arrived at Orsova.
“More wind tomorrow than even today,” grumbled the steersman, looking at the red sky.
There the evening clouds were piled like an avalanche, in all shades of fiery and blood red, and if the glowing mist-veil parted through the rent, the sky was not blue but emerald-green. Below, mountain and valley, forest and field, gleamed in the sunset reflex with radiance which hurt the eye, unable to find a shady point of rest. The Danube rushing on beneath, like a fiery Phlegethon, and in its midst an island with towers and massive buildings, all glowing as if part of a huge furnace, through which every creature, coming from the pestilential east to the frontier of the healthy west, must pass as through purgatory.
But what most fixed the attention of the crew under this stormy sunset was a black-and-yellow striped boat, which was being rowed from the shore to the ship.
The Szkela is the double gate through which the neighboring inhabitants of both sides of the Danube speak, bargain, and do business together.
The “St. Barbara” had cast anchor before the island, and awaited the approaching boat, in which were three armed men — two with muskets and bayonets — besides two rowers and the steersman.
Euthemio paced anxiously up and down the small space in front of the cabin. Timar approached him and whispered, “The searcher is coming.”
Trikaliss drew from his leathern pouch a silk purse, and took out two rouleaux, which he pressed into Timar’s hand. In each were a hundred ducats.
Before long the boat was alongside, and the three armed men came on board. One is the overseer of taxes, the inspector, whose office it is to search the cargo for anything contraband or a prohibited importation of arms; the other two are custom-house officials, who render armed assistance, and serve as a check on the inspector to see if he carries out the search properly.
The purifier is the official spy, who reports whether the two officers have properly controlled the inspector. Then the latter three form a tribunal, which takes the evidence of the purifier as to whether he has detected the passengers in any infectious communication. This is all very systematically arranged, so that one organ should control the other, and each be mutually under inspection.
As a legal fee for these functions the chief has to receive a hundred kreutzers, each of the customs officials fifty, and the purifier also fifty — which certainly is a moderate fee enough.
As soon as the inspector reaches the deck, the purifier comes toward him: the former scratches his ear and the latter his nose. No contact takes place.
Then the inspector turns to the captain, and both the other officials ground their arms. Still three paces apart! One can’t tell whether the man has not got the plague.
The examination begins.
“Name of ship’s owner?”
“Owner of cargo?”
“Where are the ship’s papers?”
The reception of these is carefully arranged. A pan of live coals is brought, and strewn with juniper-berries and wormwood: the aforesaid papers are held over it and well smoked, then taken by the inspector with a pair of tongs, read from as great a distance as possible, and afterward returned. Nothing wrong, apparently, with the ship’s papers.
The pan is carried away, and in its place a jug of water is brought. It is a capacious earthenware pot, with a mouth through which the largest fist can pass. It serves to facilitate the transmission of the tax. As the oriental plague is more easily communicated by coins than by anything else, the sailors coming from the Levant must throw the money into a jug of water, in order that the western health-officer may take it out cleansed: just as at the Szkela every one must fish the money he receives out of a basin.
Timar thrust his clinched fist into the water, and brought it out open.
Then the inspector puts his hand in, draws it out as a clinched fist, and transfers it to his pocket. He does not need to look at it by the sunset light to see what manner of money it is. He knows it by the size and weight. Even a blind man knows the feel of ducats. He does not change a muscle.
After him come the custom-house officials. These also with serious faces fish up their fee from the bottom of the jug.
Now for the turn of the purifier. His countenance is stern and forbidding. It hangs on a single word from his lips, whether the ship may have to lie ten or twenty days in quarantine with all her passengers. There are cold-blooded men like that who have only an eye to duty.
The inspector demands, in a surly, dictatorial tone, that the entrance to the lower deck be opened. His desire is obeyed. They all three go down; but none of the crew may follow them. When they are alone, the three strict servants of the law grin at each other. The purifier remains on deck, and only laughs in his sleeve.
They unfasten one of the many sacks, in which certainly there is only wheat. “Well, I hope it’s moldy enough,” remarks the inspector. “Probably there is only wheat in the other sacks, and very likely even more worm-eaten.”
A document is now drawn up describing the search: one of the armed officials has the writing materials, and the other the form to be filled in. All is accurately set down. Then the inspector writes something on a bit of paper, which he folds and seals with a wafer, on which he presses the official seal. He writes no address on the note.
Then, after they have rummaged in every hole and corner where nothing suspicious is hidden, the three searchers rise to the light of day once more. At least to moonlight; for the sun has set, and through the hurrying clouds the moon ever and anon peeps down, and then vanishing, plays hide-and-seek with the world.
The inspector calls for the captain and gives him to understand — still in a severe official manner — that nothing suspicious has been found on board: then he requires the purifier, in the same manner, to declare the condition of the ship’s health.
With an appeal to his oath of fidelity, the purifier bears witness that every person on board, as well as the cargo, is free from infection.
A certificate that the papers are in order is prepared, and the receipts for the fees are handed over. A hundred kreutzers to the inspector, two fifties to the customs officers, and fifty to the health-officer. Not a kreutzer is wanting. These receipts are delivered to the owner of the cargo, who has never left his cabin the whole time — he is at supper. He also must countersign the receipts. From these signatures and indorsements, the shipowner and the honorable officials in question mutually learn that the captain gave away as many kreutzers as he received, and that not one remained sticking to his fingers.
Kreutzers! Well, yes; but about the gold?
The thought may well have passed through Timar’s head, how would it be if of the fifty ducats which this dirty lot were to fish out of the jug he were only to put in forty (a fabulous sum to such fellows)? No creature would know that he had kept back ten. Indeed he might easily retain half of the whole sum, for who is there to control it? Those for whom the money is intended are quite enough rewarded with half.
Another thought possibly answered thus. “What you are doing is without doubt bribery. You don’t corrupt them with your own money, but Trikaliss gives it because his interests imperatively require it. You hand over the gold, and are as innocent of the bribery as the water-jug. Why he wants to bribe the inspector you do not know. Whether the ship carries contraband goods, whether he is a political refugee, or the persecuted hero of a romantic adventure, who in order to assist his escape strews gold in handfuls, what does it matter to you? But if one single gold piece sticks to your fingers, you become an accomplice in all which burdens another’s conscience. Keep none of it.”
The inspector gave permission for the vessel to proceed, in token of which a red-and-white flag with a black eagle on it was hoisted to the masthead. Then, after thus officially certifying that the ship from the Levant was quite free of infection, the inspector, without any previous ordeal by water, pressed the captain’s hand and said to him: “You come from Komorn? Then you know Herr Katschuka, chief of the commissariat department? Be good enough to give him this note when you get home. There is no address on it — not necessary, you won’t forget his name; it sounds like a Spanish dance. Take him the letter as soon as ever you get there. You won’t be sorry.”
Then he clapped the captain most graciously on the shoulder, as if to make him his debtor for life, and the whole four left the ship and returned to Szkela in their black-and-yellow boat.
The “St. Barbara” could now continue her voyage, and if all her sacks from the keel to the deck had been filled with salt or Turkish tobacco, and all her passengers covered with small-pox or leprosy from top to toe, no one could stop her any more on the Danube.
Now, however, there was on board neither contraband goods nor contagion, but — something else. Timar put the unaddressed note into his pocket-book and wondered what it contained.
This was what was written —
“BROTHER-IN-LAW — I recommend to you the bearer of this letter. He is a man of sterling worth.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56