Timar turned his steps toward the creeper-covered cottage. Through the flower-garden a path led to the house, but so covered with grass that his steps were not heard, and he could thus get as far as the little veranda quite noiselessly. Neither far nor near was a human being visible.
Before the veranda lay a large black dog — one of the noble race of Newfoundland, generally so sensible and dignified as to forbid undue familiarity on the part of strangers. The aforesaid quadruped was one of the finest of the race — a colossal beast, and occupied the whole width of the door-way.
The sable guardian appeared to be asleep, and took no notice of the approaching stranger, nor of another creature which left no fool-hardy impertinence untried in order to tax the patience of the huge animal. This was a white cat, which was shameless enough to turn somersaults back and forward over the dog’s recumbent form, to strike it on the nose with her paw, and at last to lay herself before it on her back, and take one of its webbed paws between her four soft feet and play with it like a kitten. When the great black porter found its foot tickled, it drew it back and gave the cat the other paw to play with.
Timar did not think to himself —“Suppose this black colossus seizes me by the collar, it will go hard with me;” but he thought, “Oh! how delighted Timéa will be when she sees this white cat.”
You could not pass the dog and get in-it barred the whole entrance. Timar coughed, to announce that some one was there. Then the great dog raised its head and looked at the new-comer with its wise nut-brown eyes, which, like the human eye, can weep and laugh, scold and flatter. Then it laid its head down again, as much as to say, “Only one man; it’s not worth while to get up.”
But Timar decided that where a chimney smokes, there’s a fire in the kitchen; so he began from outside to wish this invisible some one “Good-morning,” alternately in three languages — Hungarian, Servian and Roumanian. Suddenly a female voice answered in Hungarian from within, “Good-day. Come in then. Who is it?”
“I should like to come in, but the dog’s in the way.”
“Step over it.”
“Won’t it bite?”
“She never hurts good people.”
Timar took courage and stepped across the powerful animal, which did not move, but raised its tail as if to wag him a welcome.
Going into the veranda, Timar saw two doors before him: the first one led to the stone building, the other to the grotto hollowed in the rock. The latter was the kitchen. There he observed a woman busy at the hearth.
Timar saw at a glance that she was not preparing a magic potion of witch’s cookery, but simply roasting Indian-corn.
The woman thus occupied was a thin but strong and sinewy figure, with a dark skin; in her compressed lips lay something severe, though her eye was soft and inspired confidence. Her sunburned face betokened her age as not much over thirty. She was not dressed like the peasants of the district; her clothes were not bright in color, but yet not suited to towns.
“Now, come nearer and sit down,” said the woman, in a singularly hard voice, which, however, was perfectly quiet; and then she shook the floury snow-white Indian-corn into a plaited rush-basket, and offered it to him. Afterward she fetched a jug which stood on the floor, and gave him elder-wine, this also just freshly made.
Timar sat down on the stool offered him, which was skillfully woven of various osiers, and of a curious shape. Then the Newfoundland, rising, approached the guest and lay down in front of him.
The woman threw the dog a handful of the white confectionery, which it at once began to crack in the proper way. The white cat attempted to do the same, but the first cracked kernel of the maize stuck in her teeth, and she did not try it again. She shook the paw with which she had touched it, and sprung up to the hearth, where she blinked with much interest at an unglazed pot which was simmering by the fire, and probably held something more to her taste.
“A magnificent beast,” said Timar, looking at the dog. “I wonder it is so gentle; it has not even growled at me.”
“She never hurts good people, sir. If a stranger comes who is honest, she knows it directly, and is as quiet as a lamb — doesn’t even bark; but if a thief tries to get in, she rages at him as soon as he sets foot on the island, and woe to him if she gets her teeth in. She is a formidable creature! Last winter a large wolf came over the ice after our goats — look, there is his skin on the floor of the room. In a moment the dog had throttled him. An honest man can sit on her back, she won’t touch him.”
Timar was quite satisfied to have such excellent evidence of his honesty. Who knows, perhaps, if some of those ducats had lost their road in his pocket, he might have been differently received by the great dog?
“Now, sir, where do you come from, and what do you want of me?”
“First, I must beg you to excuse my having pushed through the thorns and bushes into your garden. The storm has driven my vessel over to this bank, so I was obliged to run for shelter under the Ostrova Island.”
“Indeed, yes; I can hear by the rustle of the branches that a strong wind is blowing.”
This place was so completely sheltered by the virgin forest, that one could feel no wind, and only knew by the sound when it blew.
“We must wait for a change of wind before the storm blows over. But our provisions have run out, so I was forced to seek the nearest house from which I saw smoke rising, to ask the housewife whether for money and fair words we could get food for the crew.”
“Yes, you can have what you want, and I don’t mind being paid for it, for that’s what I live on. We can serve you with kids, maize-flour, cheese, and fruit; choose what you want. This is the trade which keeps us; the market-women round about fetch away our wares in boats: we are gardeners.”
Till now Timar had seen no human being except this woman; but as she spoke in the plural, there must be others besides herself.
“I thank you beforehand, and will take some of everything. I will send the steersman from the ship to fetch the things; but tell me, my good lady, what’s to pay? I want food for my seven men for three days.”
“You need not fetch out your purse; I don’t receive payment in money. What should I do with it, here on this lonely island? At best thieves would be sure to get in and kill me to get hold of it; but now every one knows there is no money on the island, and therefore we can sleep in peace. I only barter. I give fruit, wax, honey, and simples, and people bring me in exchange grain, salt, clothes, and hardware.”
“As they do on the Australian islands?”
“Just the same.”
“All right, good lady; we have grain on board, and salt too. I will reckon up the value of your wares, and bring an equal value in exchange. Rely upon it, you sha’n’t be the loser.”
“I don’t doubt it, sir.”
“But I have another favor to ask. On board my vessel there is a grand gentleman and his young daughter. The young lady is not accustomed to the motion, and feels unwell. Could you not give my passengers shelter till the storm is over?”
“Well, that I can do too, sir. Look, here are two small bed-rooms. We will retire into one, and in the other any honest man who wants shelter can have it — rest, if not comfort. If you also would like to stay, you will have to be contented with the little garret, as both the rooms will have women in them. There is new hay there, and sailors are not particular.”
Timar puzzled his head as to the position of this woman, who chose her words so well and expressed herself so sensibly. He could not reconcile it with this hut, which was more like a cave, and with the residence on this lonely island in the midst of a wilderness. “Many thanks, good lady; I’ll hurry back and bring up my passengers.”
“All right; only don’t go back to your boat the same way you came. You can’t bring a lady through those marshes and briers. There’s a tolerable path all along the bank, rather overgrown with grass, it is true, for it is very little trodden, and turf grows quickly here; but you shall be conducted to where your boat lies; then when you come back in a larger one, you can land rather nearer. I will give you a guide now. Almira!”
Timar looked round, to see from what corner of the house or from what bush this Almira would appear who was to show him the way. But the great black Newfoundland rose and began to wag her tail, whose strokes made a noise on the door-post as if an old drum was touched.
“Off, Almira; take the gentleman to the shore,” said the woman; on which the creature growled something to Timar in dog’s language, and taking the edge of his cloak in her teeth, pulled at it, as if to say, Come along.
“So this is Almira, who is to conduct me. I am much indebted to you, Miss Almira,” Timar said smiling, and took his gun and hat; then saluted his hostess and followed the dog. Almira led the guest steadily in all friendship by the hem of his cloak. The way lay through the orchard, where one had to tread carefully so as not to crush the plums which covered the ground. The white cat, too, had not remained behind; she wanted to know where Almira was conducting the stranger, and leaped here and there in the soft grass.
When they arrived at the edge of the orchard, somewhere above was heard the call of a musical voice, “Narcissa!”
It was a girl’s voice, in which some reproach, but much love and maidenly shyness, were blended — a sympathetic voice. Timar looked round: he wanted to know, first, where it came from, and then to whom it belonged.
He soon discovered who was called, for at the sound the white cat sprung quickly to one side, and, curling her tail, climbed zigzag up a gnarled pear-tree, through whose thick foliage Timar saw something like a white dress glimmering. He had no time for further research, for Almira gave a few deep sounds which, in quadruped’s language, probably meant, “What business have you to spy about?” and so he was obliged to follow his leader, if he did not desire to leave a piece of his cloak in her teeth.
Almira led Timar by a soft turf path along the bank to the place where his boat was made fast. At this moment a couple of snipe rose with their shrill cry close to the island. Timar’s first thought was of the savory dish they would make for Timéa’s supper. In an instant he had shouldered his gun, and with a well-aimed right and left brought down both snipe.
But the next moment he was himself on the ground. As soon as he had fired, Almira seized him by the collar, and like lightning pulled him down. He tried to rise, but soon felt that he had to do with an overpowering adversary who was not to be trifled with. Not that Almira had hurt him, but she held him by the collar, and would not allow of his getting up.
Timar tried every conceivable means to soften her, called her Miss Almira, his dear friend, and explained to her sport and its usages; where the devil had she heard of a dog that retrieves a sportsman? she should rather go after the snipe in the rushes: but he talked to deaf ears.
He was at last relieved from this dangerous situation by the woman of the island, who had run up at the report of the gun, and called Almira by name from afar, on which the dog let go her hold.
“Oh, my God!” she lamented, hastening over the stones to the point of danger. “I forgot to tell you not to shoot, because Almira was sure to attack you. She gets in a fury when a shot is fired. Well, I was stupid not to tell you.”
“Never mind, good woman,” said Timar, laughing. “Almira would really make a capital gamekeeper. But look, I have shot a couple of snipe; I thought they would be a help toward the supper that you will set before your guests.”
“I will fetch them; get into your boat, and when you come back, just leave your gun at home, for, believe me, if the dog sees you with a gun on your arm, she will take it away from you. You can’t joke with her.”
“So I find. A powerful, grand animal that! Before I had time to defend myself, I was on the ground: I can only thank Heaven that she did not bite my head off.”
“Oh, she never bites any one; but if you defend yourself, she seizes your arm in her teeth, as if it were in irons, and then holds you fast till we come and call her off. Auf Weidersehen!”
In less than an hour the larger boat had landed its passengers safely at the island. All the way from the vessel to the shore, Timar talked to Timéa of Almira and Narcissa, to make the poor child forget her sickness and her fear of the water. As soon as she set foot on shore, her seasickness vanished.
Timar went on in front to show the way; Timéa followed, leaning on Euthemio’s arm; and two sailors and the steersman carried behind them on a stretcher the equivalent of the barter in sacks. Almira’s bark was heard a long way off. These were the sounds of welcome by which the dog acknowledged the approach of good friends. Almira came half-way, barked at the whole party, then had a little talk to the sailors, the steersman, and Timar; then trotting to Timéa, tried to kiss her hand. But when the dog came to Euthemio, it was quiet, and began to sniff at him from the soles of his feet upward, never leaving his heels. It snuffed continually, and shook its head violently, rattling its ears till they cracked. It had its own opinion on this subject.
The mistress of the island settlement awaited the strangers at the door, and as soon as they appeared between the trees, called in a loud voice, “Noémi!”
At this summons some one appeared from inside the garden. Between two tall thick raspberry hedges, which, like green walls, almost closed in an arch at the top, came a young girl. Face and form those of a child just beginning to develop, dressed in a white chemise and petticoat, and carrying in her upturned overskirt fruit freshly plucked.
The figure coming out of the green grove is idyllic. The delicate tints of her face seem to have been borrowed from the complexion of the white rose when she is grave, and take that of the red rose when she blushes, and that up to the brow. The expression of the clear-arched brow is personified sweet temper, in complete accord with the innocent look of the expressive blue eyes; on the tender lips lies a mixture of devoted regard and modest shyness. The rich and luxuriant golden-brown hair seems to be curled by nature’s hand; a lock thrust back gives a view of an exquisite little ear. Over the whole face gentle softness is spread. It is possible that a sculptor might not take each feature as a model, and perhaps if the face were hewn in marble one might not think it beautiful; but the head and the whole figure, just as they are, shine with a loveliness which charms at the first glance, and inthralls more every moment.
From one shoulder the chemise has dropped, but, that it may not remain uncovered, there sits a white cat, rubbing her head against the girl’s cheek. The delicate feet of the maiden are naked — why should she not go barefoot? She walks on a carpet of richest velvet. The spring turf is interspersed with blue veronica and red geranium.
Euthemio, his daughter, and Timar, stopped at the entrance of the raspberry arcade to await the approaching figure.
The child knew of no more friendly reception to give the guests than to offer them the fruit she had in her lap. They were beautiful red-streaked Bergamot pears. She turned first to Timar. He chose the best, and gave it to Timéa.
Both girls shrugged their shoulders impatiently. Timéa because she envied the other one the white cat on her shoulder, but Noémi because Timar had given the fruit to Timéa.
“Oh, you rude thing!” cried the mistress to her from the cottage; “could you not put the fruit in a basket, instead of offering it in your apron? Is that the proper way?”
The little thing grew red as fire, and ran to her mother; the latter whispered a few words into her ear, so that the others might not overhear, then kissed the child on the forehead, and said aloud, “Now go and take from the sailors what they have brought, carry it into the store-room, and fill the sacks with corn-flour, the pots with honey, and the baskets with ripe fruit: of the kids, you can choose two for them.”
“I can’t choose any,” whispered the girl; “they must do it themselves.”
“Foolish child!” said the woman with a kind reproof; “if it were left to you, you would keep all the kids and never let one be killed. Very well, let them choose for themselves, then no one can complain. I will look after the cooking.”
Noémi called the sailors, and opened the food and fruit stores, which were each in a different cave and shut off by a door. The rock which formed the summit of the island was one of those wandering blocks, called “erratic” by geologists — an isolated bowlder, a monolith, which must once have been detached from a distant mountain, some limestone formation from the Dolomites, out of a moraine. It was full of large and small caves, which the first person who took possession of it had adapted to his own purposes: the largest with the natural chimney for the kitchen, the highest, as a dove-cote, the others for summer and winter storehouses. He had settled on the heaven-sent rock, and, like the wild birds, built his nest there.
The child managed the barter with the crew well and honestly. Then she gave each his glass of elder-wine to wet the bargain, begged for their custom when they passed again, and went back to the kitchen.
Here she did not wait to be told to lay the table. She spread a fine rush mat on the small table in the veranda, and placed on it four plates, with knives and forks and pewter spoons. And the fifth person?
She will sit at the cat’s table. Near the steps to the veranda stands a small wooden bench; in the center is placed an earthenware plate with a miniature knife and fork and spoon, and at each end a wooden platter, one for Almira, the other for Narcissa. They require no couvert. When the three guests and the mistress of the house have sat down and helped themselves from the dish, it goes to the cat’s table, where Noémi serves her friends. She conducts the division with great fairness — the soft pieces to Narcissa, the bones to Almira — and helps herself last. They must not touch their food till she has cooled it for them, however much Almira may cock her ears, and the cat snuggle up to her mistress’s shoulder. They must obey the girl.
The island woman wished, according to the good or bad Hungarian custom, to show off before her guests, and especially to prove to Timar that her larder was independent of his game. She had cooked the two snipe with oatmeal, but whispered to Timar that that was only food for ladies; for the gentlemen she had some good fried pork. Timar attacked it bravely, but Euthemio touched none of it, saying he had no appetite, and Timéa rose suddenly from the table. But that was natural: she had already cast many inquisitive glances toward the party at the other table; there was nothing remarkable in her rising suddenly and going over to sit by Noémi. Young girls soon make friends. Timéa did not know Hungarian, nor Noémi Greek; but between them was Narcissa, to whom both languages were the same.
The white cat seemed to understand perfectly when Timéa said “Horaion galion” to it, and stroked its back with a soft white hand: then it crept from Noémi’s lap to Timéa’s, raised its head to her face and gently rubbed its white head against her white cheeks, opened its red mouth, showed its sharp teeth, and blinked at her with cunning eyes; then sprung on her shoulder, crawled round her neck, and clambered to Noémi and back again.
Noémi was pleased that the strange young lady liked her favorite so much, but bitterness mingled with her pleasure when she saw how much the stranger had fallen in love with the cat, kept and kissed it; and still more painful was it to realize how easily Narcissa became untrue to her, how willingly it accepted and replied to the caresses of its new friend, and took no notice when Noémi called it by name to come back to her. “Horaion galion” (pretty pussy) pleased it better. Noémi grew angry with Narcissa, and seized her by the tail to draw her back. Narcissa took offense, turned her claws on her mistress, and scratched her hand.
Timéa wore on her wrist a blue enameled bracelet in the form of a serpent. When Narcissa scratched her mistress, Timéa drew off the elastic bracelet, and wanted to put it on Noémi’s arm, obviously with the intention of comforting her in her pain; but Noémi misunderstood, and thought the stranger wanted to buy Narcissa with it. But she was not for sale.
“I don’t want the bracelet! I won’t sell Narcissa! Keep the bracelet! Narcissa is mine. Come here, Narcissa!” and as Narcissa would not come, Noémi gave her a little box on the ear, on which the frightened animal made a jump over the bench, puffing and spitting, climbed up a nut-tree, and looked angrily down from thence.
As Timéa and Noémi at this moment looked into each other’s eyes, each read there a dreamy presentiment. They felt like a person who shuts his eyes for a moment, and in that short time dreams whole years away; yet, when he awakes, has forgotten it all, and only remembers that the dream was very long. The two girls felt in that meeting of looks that they would some day mutually encroach on each other’s rights, that they would have something in common — a grief or a joy — and that, perhaps, like a forgotten dream, they would only know that each owed this grief or joy to the other.
Timéa sprung up from beside Noémi and gave the bracelet to the housewife: then she sat down by Euthemio and leaned her head on his shoulder.
Timar interpreted the gift. “The young lady gives it to the little girl as a remembrance — it is gold.”
As soon as he said that it was of gold, the woman threw it, frightened, from her hand, as if it were a real snake. She looked anxiously at Noémi, and was not even able to articulate “Thank you.”
Then Almira suddenly drew attention to herself. The dog had sprung quickly from its bed, had uttered a low howl with its head up, and now began to bark with deafening noise. In the sound lay something of the lion’s roar; it was a vehement, defiant tone, as if calling to the attack, and the dog did not run forward, but remained by the porch, planted its paws on the ground, and then threw up the earth with its hind feet.
The woman turned pale. A figure appeared between the trees on the footpath.
“The dog only barks in that way at one man,” she murmured. “There he comes. It is he!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10