Since Timar’s disappearance from Komorn forty years had passed. I was in the alphabet-class when we schoolboys went to the funeral of the rich lord, of whom people said afterward he was perhaps not dead, only disappeared. Among the people the belief was strong that Timar lived, and would some day reappear; possibly Athalie’s words had set this idea afloat — at any rate, public opinion was strongly in favor of it.
The features, too, of the lovely lady came before me, whom every Sunday I admired as she sat near the organ; her seat was the nearest in the pew to the chancel. She was so radiant with beauty and yet so gentle. I well remember the excitement when it was reported that a companion of this beautiful woman had tried to murder her in the night. I saw the condemned prisoner taken to the place of execution in the headsman’s cart; it was said that she would be beheaded. She had on a gray gown with black ribbons, and sat with her back to the driver; before her was a priest holding a crucifix. The market-women overwhelmed her with abuse, and spat at her; but she gazed indifferently before her, and noticed nothing.
The people thronged round the cart; curious boys hurried in troops to see the lovely head separated from the neck. I looked on fearfully from a closed window — oh, dear, if she had looked at me by chance! An hour later the crowd returned grumbling; they were disappointed that the beautiful criminal had been respited. She had only been taken up on to the scaffold, and there informed of the pardon.
And then after that I saw that other lovely rich lady every Sunday in church; but now with a red mark across her forehead, and each year with a sadder and paler face. All sorts of stories were told of her; children heard them from their mothers, and repeated them in school.
And, finally, time swept the whole story out of people’s memory.
Some years ago, an old friend of mine, a naturalist, who is celebrated as a collector of plants and insects throughout the world, described to me the singular district between Hungary and Turkey, which belongs to neither State, and is not any one’s private property.
On this account it offers a veritable California to the ardent naturalist, who finds there the rarest flora and fauna. My old friend used to visit this region every year, and stay there for weeks zealously collecting specimens: he invited me to share his autumn expedition. I am somewhat of a dilettante in this line, and as I had leisure, I accompanied my friend to the Lower Danube.
He led me to the ownerless island. My learned friend had known it for five-and-twenty years past, when it was in great part a wilderness, and all the work in progress.
Apart from the reed-beds, which still surround and conceal the island, it is now a complete model farm. Surrounded by a dike, it is protected from any floods, and is intersected by canals, provided with water by a horse-power pumping-engine.
When an enthusiastic gardener gets here, he can hardly tear himself away; every inch of ground is utilized, or serves to beautify the place. The tobacco grown here has the most exquisite aroma, and, when properly treated, is a first-class product; the bee-hives look from a distance like a small town, with one-storied houses and many-shaped roofs. The rarest fowls are bred in one inclosure, and on the artificial lake swim curious foreign ducks and swans. In the rich meadows graze short-horned cows, angora goats, and llama sheep with long, soft, black hair.
It is easy to see that the owner of the island understands luxury — and yet that owner never has a farthing to call his own; no money ever enters the island. Those, however, who need the exports, know also the requirements of the islanders — such as grain, clothes, tools, etc. — and bring them for barter.
My learned friend used to bring garden seeds and eggs of rare poultry, and received in exchange curious insects and dried plants, which he sold to natural history collections and foreign museums, and made a good profit out of them, for science is not only a passion but a means of sustenance. But what surprised me most agreeably was to hear pure Hungarian spoken by the inhabitants, which is very rare in that neighborhood.
The whole colony consisted of one family, and each was called only by his Christian name. The six sons of the first settler had married women of the district, and the numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren already exceeded forty, but the island maintained them all. Poverty was unknown; they lived in luxury: each knew some trade, and if they had been ten times as many, their labor would have supported them. The founders of the family still superintended the work.
The male members of the family learn gardening, carpentry, coopering, preparation of tobacco, and the breeding of cattle; among them are cabinet-makers and millers; the women weave Turkish carpets, prepare honey, make cheese, and distill rose-water; and all these occupations go on so naturally that it is never necessary to give orders; each knows his duty, fulfills it untold, and takes pleasure in its completion. The dwellings of the ever-growing families already form a whole street; each little house is built by division of labor, and the elders help the newly married. Strangers who visit the island are received by the nominal head of the family, whom the others call father. Strangers know him under the name of Deodatus. He is a well-built man of over forty, with handsome features; he it is who arranges the terms of barter and shows visitors over the colony.
When we arrived Deodatus received us with the kind cordiality one exhibits to old friends; the naturalist was a regular annual visitor. The subjects of our discourse were pomology, horticulture, botany, entomology, in all of which Deodatus seemed to be well versed; in everything pertaining to gardens and cattle-breeding he had reached a high standard. I could not conceal my surprise, and asked him where he had learned it.
“From our father,” answered Deodatus, with a sigh.
“Who is that?”
“You will see him when we assemble in the evening.”
It was the time of apples. All the young people and women were busy gathering the pretty golden-yellow, brown, and crimson fruit. It lay in pyramids on the green turf, like cannon-balls inside a fortress. Joyous cries resounded through the island; when the sun set, a bell gave the signal for the holiday feast. At this signal every one hastened to fill baskets with the remaining fruit, which was then carried into the apple-store.
We also, with Deodatus, bent our steps to the place whence the sound came. The bell was on the top of a small wooden building, which, as well as its little tower, was overgrown with ivy; but one could guess by the fantastic forms of the columns under the veranda, that the architect had carved many a thoughtful dream and wish into his work.
Before this house was a circular space with tables and chairs; there every one met when work was over.
“Here dwell our old people,” whispered Deodatus.
They soon came out — a fine pair. The wife might be sixty, the man eighty. The great-grandfather’s face had that characteristic look which makes you remember a good picture you have once seen, even if forty years ago. I was quite startled: his head was nearly bald, but the remaining hair and his beard were hardly gray, and on his firm, calm features age seemed to have no hold. A temperate and regular life and a cheerful disposition preserve the features unspoiled.
The great-grandmother was still an attractive woman. Her once golden hair certainly was flecked with silver, but her eyes were still girlish, and her cheeks blushed like a bride’s when her husband kissed her.
The faces of both beamed with happiness when they saw their whole large family round them, and they called each to them by name and kissed them. This was their joy, their devotion, their song of praise.
Deodatus, the eldest son, was the last to embrace his parents, and then our turn came. They shook hands with us too, and invited us to supper. The old lady still kept the care of the cooking department in her own hands, and she it was who provided for all the family, though each had full liberty to sit at a separate table with any others he cared for, and take his meal with them; but her husband sat down at a table with us and Deodatus. A tiny golden-haired angel of a child called Noémi climbed on his lap, and had permission to listen, wondering, to our wise talk.
When my name was mentioned to the old man he looked long at me, and a visible color rose in his cheeks. My learned friend asked him whether he had ever heard my name before; the old man was silent. Deodatus hastened to say that his father had for forty years read nothing of what was passing in the world: his whole study was books of farming and gardening. I therefore undertook, as people do who have made a profession of imparting what they know, to bring my wares to market, and I told him what was going on in the world. I informed him that Hungary was now united to Austria by the word “and.”
He blew a cloud from his pipe: the smoke said, “My island has nothing to do with that.”
I told him of our heavy taxes: the smoke replied, “We have no taxes here.”
I described to him the fearful wars which had been waged in our kingdom and all over the world: the smoke answered, “We wage war here with no one.”
There was at that time a great panic on the exchanges, the oldest firms failed; and this too I explained to him. Only his pipe’s steady puffs seemed to say, “Thank God, we have no money here.”
I described to him the bitter struggle of parties, the strife between religion, nationalities, and ambition. The old man shook the ashes out of his pipe —“We have neither bishops, electors, nor ministers here.”
And finally, I proved to him how great our country would be when everything we hoped for was fulfilled.
Little Noémi meanwhile had fallen asleep on her great-grandfather’s lap, and had to be carried to bed. This was more important than what I was talking of; the sleeping child passed into the great-grandmother’s arms. When the old lady left us, the old man asked me, “Where were you born?” I told him.
“What is your profession?”
I told him I was a romance-writer.
“What is that?”
“One who can guess by the end of a story what the whole story was from the beginning.”
“Well, then, guess my story,” said he, clasping my hand. “There was once a man who left a world in which he was admired, and created a second world in which he was loved.”
“May I venture to ask your name?”
The old man seemed to grow a head taller; then raising his trembling hands, he laid them on my head. And at this moment it seemed to me as if once, long, long ago, that hand had rested on my head when childish curls covered it, and as if I had seen that noble face before.
To my question he replied, “My name is NOBODY.” With that he turned away and spoke no more, but went into his house, and did not appear again during our stay on the island.
This is the present condition of the ownerless island. The privilege granted by two kingdoms, that this speck of ground should be excluded from any map, will last for fifty years more.
Fifty years! Who knows what will have become of the world by then?
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52