The new arrival is a man of youthful appearance; he wears a blouse and trousers, round his neck a red cotton handkerchief, and on his head a Turkish fez.
He has a handsome face. If he sat quietly to an artist, every one would say of his portrait that it was the ideal of a hero; but when he is in motion, the first thought must be-that is a spy. His features are regular, the thick hair curly, the lips finely chiseled, the eyes deeply black; but the wrinkles round them and their restless fire, the upturned corners of the mouth, and the ever-twitching brows, betray the soul of a slave to his own appetites.
Almira barked furiously at the new-comer, who came swinging along with defiant nonchalance, like one who knows that it is other people’s duty to protect him. Noémi told the dog to lie down, but it gave no heed; she caught the creature’s ears in both hands and drew it back: the dog whined and growled at the discomfort, but did not cease barking. At last Noémi put her foot on its head and pressed it to the ground. Then Almira gave in, lay down growling, and let the girl’s foot lie on her great black head, as if that were a burden she could not shake off.
The stranger came whistling and humming up to them. From afar he called out —“Ah! you have still got that confounded big brute; you haven’t had her poisoned? I shall have to get rid of her in the end. The stupid beast!” When the young man got near Noémi, he stretched out his hand with a familiar smile toward the girl’s face, as if he would have pinched her cheek; but she drew her face quickly away.
“Well, my dear little fiancée, are you still so shy? How you have grown since I saw you!”
Noémi looked at the speaker with her head thrown back. She wrinkled her forehead, curled her lips, and threw a defiantly penetrating glance at him; even her complexion changed, the rose tint on her cheeks turned livid. Evidently she could look odious if she chose.
The new-comer, however, quite unabashed, continued, “How pretty you have grown!”
Instead of answering she said to the dog, “Down, Almira!”
The stranger behaved as though he were quite at home under the veranda, where his first act was to kiss the hand of the woman of the house. He greeted Timar with friendly condescension, made a polite bow to Euthemio and Timéa, and then opened the flood-gates of his eloquence. “Good-evening, dear mother-in-law! Your obedient servant, captain! Sir and mademoiselle, you are welcome. My name is Theodor Krisstyan; I am chevalier and captain, the future son-in-law of this worthy lady. Our fathers were bosom friends, and betrothed Noémi to me in their life-time, so I come every year to see my sweetheart in her summer abode, in order to judge how my bride is growing. Uncommonly delighted to find you here: you, sir — if I am not mistaken, your name is Timar — I have had the pleasure of meeting before? The other gentleman, I fancy —”
“Understands nothing but Greek,” interrupted Timar, thrusting his hands well into his pockets, as if he wanted to make it impossible for the stranger to shake hands over the joy of meeting. He, who from his calling was always traveling, might very likely have met him before.
Theodor Krisstyan did not feel inclined to occupy himself any more with Timar, but looked at life from the practical side. “It is just as if you had expected me; a beautiful supper, an unused place, pork, just my weak point. Thanks, dear mamma, thanks, gentlemen and young lady; I will pay my respects to the supper — so many thanks!”
Not that a single person of those addressed had asked him to sit down and partake; but as though accepting their invitation, he seated himself in Timéa’s empty place and began to enjoy the pork; offering it repeatedly to Euthemio, and seeming much astonished that any Christian should neglect such a delicious dish.
Timar rose from the table and said to the hostess, “The gentleman-passenger and the young lady are tired. They want rest more than food. Would you be so good as to show them their beds?”
“That shall be done at once,” said the woman. “Noémi, go and help the young lady to undress.”
Noémi rose and followed her mother and the two guests into the back-room. Timar also left the table, at which the new-comer remained alone, and gobbled down with wolfish hunger every eatable left: meanwhile, he talked over his shoulder to Timar, and threw to Almira the bare bones with his fork.
“You must have had a devilish bad journey, sir, with this wind. I can’t think how you got through Denin Kafoin and the Tatalia Pass. Catch, Almira! and don’t be cross with me any more, stupid brute! Do you remember, sir, how we once met in Galatz? — there, that’s for you too, you black beast!”
When he looked round, he found that neither Timar nor Almira was there. Timar had gone to the attic to sleep, where he soon made himself a couch of fragrant hay, while Almira had crept into some cranny in the great mass of rock.
He turned his chair round, but not till he had drained the last drop from the wine-jug and the glasses of the other guests. Then he cut a splinter from the chair he was sitting on, and picked his teeth with it, like a person who has thoroughly deserved his supper.
Night had set in; travelers weary of knocking about want no rocking. Timar had stretched himself on the soft sweet hay very comfortably, and thought that to-night he would sleep like a king. But he deceived himself. It is not easy to fall asleep after hard work, which has been mingled with varied emotions. Successive shapes besieged his bed like a chaotic panorama: a confusion of pursuing forms, threatening rocks, water-falls, ruined castles, strange women, black dogs, white cats; and amid it all a howling tempest, blasts of the horn, cracking of whips, showers of gold, laughing, whispering, and screaming human voices.
And all at once people began to speak in the room below. He recognized the voices, the hostess and the last comer talking together. The garret was separated from the other room only by a thin floor, and every word was audible, as if it had been whispered in the listener’s ear. They spoke in suppressed tones, only now and then the man raised his voice.
“Well, Mother Therese, have you much money?” began the man.
“You know very well that I have none. Don’t you know that I only barter and never take money?”
“That’s very stupid. I don’t like it. And what’s more, I don’t believe it.”
“It is as I say. Whoever comes to buy my fruit brings me something for my own use. What should I do here with money?”
“I know what you could do, you could give it to me. You never think of me. When I marry Noémi you can’t give her dried plums for a dowry; but you don’t care about your daughter’s happiness. You ought to help me, that I may get a good situation. I have just received my nomination as first dragoman at the embassy; but I have no money to get there, for my purse has been stolen, and now I shall lose my situation.”
The woman answered in a calm tone, “That any one has given you any place that you could lose I don’t believe; but I do believe you have a place you can’t lose. That you have no money, I believe that; but that it was stolen from you I don’t believe.”
“Well, don’t then. And I don’t believe you have no money; you must have some. Smugglers land here sometimes, and they always pay well.”
“Speak loud, of course! Yes, it is true, smugglers often land on the island; but they don’t come near my hut, or if they do, they buy fruit and give me salt in exchange. Will you have some salt?”
“You are laughing at me. Well, and such visitors as you have to-night?”
“I don’t know whether they are rich or not.”
“Ask them for money! Demand it! Don’t make a solemn face! You must get money somehow; don’t try to take me in with this ridiculous Australian barter. Get ducats if you want to keep the peace with me; you know if I say a single word at the right place it’s all up with you.”
“Softly, you wretched man!”
“Ay! now you want me to whisper. Well, shut my mouth then, be kind to me, Therese — let me have a little money.”
“But I tell you there is none in the house! Don’t worry me! I have not a farthing, and don’t want any; there is a curse on anything which is gold. There, all my chests and boxes are here; look through them, and if you find anything, take it.”
It appeared that the man was not slow to take advantage of this permission, for soon he was heard to exclaim, “Ah! What is this? A gold bracelet.”
“Yes; the strange lady gave it to Noémi. If you can make use of it, take it.”
“It’s worth some ten ducats — well, that’s better than nothing. Don’t be angry, Noémi; when you are my wife I will buy you two bracelets, each thirty ducats in weight, and with a sapphire in the middle — no, an emerald. Which do you prefer, a sapphire or an emerald?” He laughed at his sally, and as no one answered his question, he continued, “But now, Mother Therese, prepare a bed for your future son-in-law, your dear Theodor, so that he may dream sweetly of his beloved Noémi!”
“I can not give you a bed. In the next room and in the garret are our guests; you can’t sleep here in our room, that would not be proper — Noémi is no longer a child. Go out and lie down on the bench.”
“Oh, you hard-hearted, cruel Therese. You send me to the hard bench — me, your beloved future son-in-law!”
“Noémi, give your pillow — there, take it! And here’s my coverlet. Good-night.”
“Yes, if there were not that accursed great dog out there — the fierce brute will devour me.”
“Don’t be afraid, I will chain her up. Poor beast! she is never tied up except when you are on the island.”
Frau Therese had some trouble to entice Almira out of her hole; the poor dog knew well enough what awaited her in these circumstances, and that she would now be chained up, but she was used to obedience, and allowed her mistress to fasten the chain.
But this made her all the more furious against him who was the cause of her confinement. As soon as Therese had gone back to her room, and Theodor remained alone outside, the dog began to bark madly, and danced about on the small space left free to her by the chain, now and then making a spring, to see whether she could succeed in breaking the collar or the chain, or rooting up the tree-trunk to which the chain was fastened.
But Theodor teased her again. He thought it amusing to enrage an animal which could not reach him, and foamed with fury at its impotence. He went closer, leaving only a step between himself and the point the chain permitted the dog to reach; then he began to creep toward her on all fours and make faces at her. He brayed at her like a donkey, put his tongue out, spat in her face, and imitated the dog’s bark. “Bow-wow! You would like to eat me, wouldn’t you? Bow-wow! There’s my nose; bite it off if you can. You’re a lovely dog — you horrid beast! Bow-wow! Break your chain and come wrestle with me; snap at my finger, there it is before your nose; only don’t you wish you may get it?”
At the moment of her greatest fury, Almira suddenly stopped. She barked no more; she understood. It is the wise one that gives in, thought she. She stretched her head up as if to look down on that other four-legged beast in front of her, then turned and scratched as dogs do, backward, with her hind feet, whirling up dust and sand, so that the other brute got his eyes and mouth full of it, which made him beat a retreat, breaking out in the human bark — curses, to wit. But Almira retired with her chain into the hole near the elder-tree and came out no more; she ceased to bark, but a hot panting could be heard for a long time.
Timar heard it too. He could not sleep; he had left the trap-door open to get some light. The moon shone, and when the dog was silenced, deep stillness lay over the scene; a wonderful calm, rendered more fantastic by the isolated voices of the night and the solitude. The rattle of carriages, the clatter of mills, human voices — none of these struck the ear. This is the kingdom of swamps, islets, and shallows. From time to time a deep note sounds through the night — the boom of the bittern, that hermit of the marsh. Flights of night-birds strike long-drawn chords in the air, and the breathing wind stirs in the poplars, as it sighs through their quivering leaves. The seal cries in the reeds like the voice of a weeping child, and the cockchafer buzzes on the white wall of the hut. All around lies the dark brake, in which fairies seem to hold a torch-light dance; under the decayed trees will-o’-the-wisps wander, pursuing each other. But the flower-garden is flooded by the full radiance of the moon, and night-moths hover on silvery peacock wings round the tall mallows. How exquisite, how divine is this solitude! the whole soul is absorbed in its contemplation.
If only no human tones were mingled with these voices of the night!
But there below in the two little divisions of the hut lie other sleepless people, whom some evil spirit has robbed of their slumber, and who add their deep sighs to the other voices. From one room Timar heard the sigh, “Oh, thou dear Christ!” while from the other “Oh, Allah!” resounded.
They can not sleep; what is there down below which keeps people awake?
While Timar tried to collect his thoughts, an idea flashed through his mind which induced him to leave his couch, throw on the coat he had had over him, and descend the ladder to the ground.
At the same moment, some one in one of the rooms below had had the same thought. And when Timar, standing at the corner of the house, uttered the name of “Almira” under his breath, another voice from the door opening into the veranda called Almira’s name too, as if one were the ghostly echo of the other.
The speakers approached each other with surprise.
The other person was Therese. “You have come down from your bed?” she asked.
“Yes; I could not sleep.”
“And what did you want with Almira?”
“I will tell you the truth. The thought struck me, whether that . . . man had poisoned the dog, because she became so suddenly silent.”
“Just my idea. Almira!” At the call the dog came out of the hole and wagged her tail.
“No; it’s all right,” said Therese. “His bed on the veranda is undisturbed. Come, Almira, I will set you free.”
The great creature laid her head on her mistress’s lap, and allowed her to take off the leather collar, sprung round her, licked her cheeks, and then turned to Timar, raised one of the shaggy paws, and placed it as a proof of doggish respect in his open hand. Then the dog shook herself, stretched herself out, and, after a roll on both sides, lay quiet on the soft grass. She barked no more; they could be thoroughly satisfied that that man no longer remained on the island.
Therese came nearer to Timar. “Do you know this man?”
“I once met him in Galatz. He came on board and behaved so that I could not make up my mind whether he was a spy or a smuggler. At last I got rid of him, and that concluded our acquaintance.”
“And how came you by the notion that he might have poisoned Almira?”
“To tell you the truth, every word spoken down below is audible in the garret, and as I had lain down I was forced to hear all the conversation between you.”
“Did you hear how he threatened me? If I could not satisfy him, it would only cost him a single word, and we should be ruined?”
“Yes; I heard that.”
“And what do you think about us? You believe that some great, nameless crime has banished us to this island outside the world? that we drive some dubious trade, of which one can not speak? or that we are the homeless heirs of some dishonored name, who must hide from the sight of the authorities? Say, what do you think?”
“Nothing, my dear lady; I don’t trouble my head about it. You have given me hospitable shelter for a night, and I am grateful. The storm is over; tomorrow I shall go on my way, and think no more of what I saw and heard on this island.”
“I do not want you to leave us so. Without your desire you have heard things which must be explained to you. I do not know why, but from the first moment when I saw you, you inspired me with confidence, and the thought troubles me that you should leave us with suspicion and contempt: that suspicion would prevent both you and me from sleeping under this roof. The night is quiet, and suitable to the story of the secrets of a hard life. You shall form your own judgment about us; I will conceal nothing, and tell you the whole truth, and when you have heard the history of this lonely island and this clay hut, you won’t say, ‘To-morrow I go away and think no more of it,’ but you will come back year by year, when your business brings you near us, and rest for a night under this peaceful roof. Sit down by me on the doorstep, and listen to the story of our house.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10