“Twelve years ago we lived in Pancsova, where my husband held a municipal office. His name was Bellovary; he was young, handsome, and honest, and we loved each other dearly. I was then two-and-twenty and he was thirty.
“I bore him a daughter, whom we called Noémi. We were not rich, but well off; he had his post, a pretty house, and a splendid orchard and meadow. I was an orphan when we married, and brought him some money; we were able to live respectably.
“My husband had a friend, Maxim Krisstyan, of whom he was very fond. The man who has just been here is his son, who was then thirteen, a dear, handsome, clever boy. When my little daughter was still a baby, the fathers already began to say they would make a pair, and I was glad when the boy took the little thing’s hand and asked her, ‘Will you be my wife?’ at which the child laughed merrily.
“Krisstyan was a grain dealer without having ever learned regular business, but was like the speculators in a small way, who catch hold of a rope behind the great wholesale dealers, and go blindly in their wake. If the speculation succeeds, well and good; if not, they are ruined. As he always won, he thought there was nothing easier than mercantile transactions. In the spring he went round to see the crops, and made contracts with the large dealers for the grain to be delivered to them after the harvest. He had a regular customer in the wholesale merchant of Komorn, Athanasius Brazovics, who made large advances to him every spring for grain which he was to deliver in autumn at the price settled in advance, on board ship. This was a lucrative affair for Krisstyan; but I have often thought since that it was not so much trade as a game of chance, when one sells what does not yet exist. Brazovics advanced large sums to Krisstyan, and as the latter had no real property, security was required of him. My husband went surety for him gladly — was he not a landowner and Krisstyan’s friend? Krisstyan led an easy life; while my good man sat for hours bent over his desk, the other was at the café, smoking his pipe and chatting with tradespeople of his own sort. But at last God’s scourge alighted on him. The year 1819 was a terrible year; in the spring the crops looked splendid over the whole country, and every one expected cheap prices. In the Banat a merchant was lucky if he could make a contract for delivery of grain at four gulden a measure. Then came a wet summer — for sixteen weeks it rained every day; the corn rotted on its stem. In places reputed as a second Canaan, famine set in, and in autumn the price of grain rose to twenty gulden a measure: and even so there was none to be had, for the landowners kept it for seed.”
“I remember it well,” Timar interrupted. “I was then just beginning my career as a ship’s captain.”
“Well, in that year, it happened that Maxim could not fulfill the contract he had concluded with Athanasius Brazovics; the difference he had to cover made an enormous sum. What did he do then? He collected his outstanding debts, got loans from several credulous people, and disappeared in the night from Pancsova, taking his money with him, and leaving his son behind.
“He could easily do it; his whole property consisted of money, and he left nothing for which he cared. But what is the good of all the money in the world if it can make a man so bad as to care for nothing else? His debts and liabilities rested on the shoulders of those who had been his good friends, and stood security for him, and among these was my husband.
“Then came Athanas Brazovics, and required from the sureties the fulfillment of the contract. It was true that he had advanced money to the absconding debtor, and we offered to pay it back: we could have sold half our property, and so met the obligation. But he would not hear of it, and insisted on the fulfillment of the contract; it was not how much money he had lost, but what sums we were bound to pay him. Thus he made five-fold profits; his contract gave him the right to do so. We begged and entreated him to be content with smaller gain — for it was only a question of more or less gain, not of loss — but he was inflexible; he required from the sureties the satisfaction of his claims in full. What is the use, say I, of faith and religion, and all Christian and Jewish churches, if it is permitted to make such a demand?
“The affair came before the court; the judge gave sentence that our house, our fields, our last farthing, should be distrained, sealed and put up to auction.
“But what is the use of the law, a human institution, if it can be possible that people should be brought to beggary by a debt of which they have never had a groschen, and fall into misery for the benefit of a third, who rises laughing from the ground?
“We tried everything to save ourselves from utter ruin. My husband went to Ofen and Vienna to beg an audience. We knew the artful deceiver who had escaped with his money was living in Turkey, and begged for his extradition, that he might be brought here to satisfy those who had presented claims against him; but we were told that there was no power to do so. Then what is the use of the emperor, the ministers, the authorities, if they are not in a position to extend protection to their subjects in distress? After this fearful blow, which brought us all to beggary, my poor husband one night sent a bullet through his head. He would not look on the misery of his family, the tears of his wife, the pale, starved face of his child, and fled from us into the grave.
“But what is a husband good for, if, when he falls into misfortune, he knows no other outlet than to quit the world himself, and leave wife and child alone behind?
“But the horrors were not yet at an end. I was a beggar and homeless; now they tried to make me an infidel. The wife of the suicide begged her pastors in vain to bury the unhappy man. The dean was a strict and holy man, for whom the laws of the Church were the first thought. He denied my husband a decent burial, and I had to look on while the dear form of my adored one was carried by the knacker’s cart to be hastily buried in a corner of a church-yard. What are the clergy for, if they can not relieve us of such misery as that? What is the whole world about?
“Only one thing was left; they drove me to kill myself and my child, both at once. I wrapped a shawl round the child at my breast, and went with it to the river bank.
“I was alone. Three times I went up and down to see where the water was deepest. Then something plucked my dress and drew me back. I looked round. Who was it? The dog here — of all living beings the only friend left to me.
“It was on the shore of the Ogradina Island that this happened. On this island we had a beautiful fruit-garden and a little summer-house; but there too the official seal had been affixed to every door, and I could only go through the kitchen and out under the trees. Then I sat down by the Danube and began to reflect. What, am I, I, a human being, a woman, to be worse than an animal! Did one ever see a dog drown its young and then kill itself? No, I will not kill either myself or my child; I will live and bring it up. But how? Like the wolves or the gypsy woman, who have no home and no food. I will beg — beg of the ground, the waters, the wilderness of the forest; only not of men — never!
“My poor husband had told me of a little island which had been formed some fifty years ago in the reed-beds near Ogradina; he often went shooting there in autumn, and spoke much of a hollow rock in which he had sought shelter from bad weather. He said, ‘The island has no master; the Danube built it up for no one; the soil, the trees, the grass which grow on it belong to no one.’ If it is ownerless, this island, why should not I take possession of it? I ask it of God, I ask it of the Danube. Why should they refuse it? I will raise fruit there. How? and what fruit? I do not know, but necessity will teach me.
“A boat remained to me which the officer had not noticed, and which, therefore, had not been seized. Noémi, Almira and I got into it, and I rowed myself over to the ownerless island. I had never used an oar before, but necessity taught me.
“When I touched this piece of ground, a wonderful feeling took possession of me: it was as if I had forgotten what had happened to me out in the world. I was surrounded by a pleasant silence and rest, which softened my heart.
“After I had explored pasture, grove, and meadow, I knew what I should do here. In the field bees were humming, in the woods hazel-nuts were hanging, and on the surface of the river floated water-chestnuts. Crabs basked on the shore, edible snails crept up the trees, and in the marshy thickets manna was ripening. Kind Providence, Thou hast spread a table before me! The grove was full of wild fruit — seedlings; the blackbirds had brought seeds from the neighboring island, and already the wild apples grew rosy on the trees, and the raspberry bushes bore a few belated berries.
“Yes, I knew what I would do on the island. I alone would make of it a Garden of Eden. The work to be done here could be managed by a single person, one woman, and then we should live here like the first man in Paradise.
“I had found the rock with its natural grottoes, in the largest of which a layer of hay was spread, which must have served as a bed to my poor husband. I had a widow’s right to it; it was my legacy. I hushed my child to sleep there, made it a couch in the hay, and covered it with my large shawl. Then I told Almira to stay there and watch over Noémi till I came back, and rowed across to the large island again. On the veranda of my old summer-house there was an awning spread out, which I took down; it would serve as a tent or roof, and perhaps later on be used for winter clothing. I packed in it what food and vegetables I could see, and made a bundle as large as I could carry on my back. I had come to the house in a four-horse wagon richly laden; with a bundle on my back I left it; and yet I had been neither wicked nor a spendthrift. But what if even that bundle were stolen goods? It is true that the contents were my own; but that I should carry them off, was it not theft? I hardly knew: notions of right and wrong, the legal or the illegal, were confused in my head. I fled with the bundle like a thief out of my own home. On my way through the garden I took a cutting of each of my beautiful fruit-trees, and shoots from the figs and bushes, picked up some seeds from the ground and put them in my apron; then I kissed the drooping branches of the weeping willow under which I had so often dozed and dreamed. Those happy dreams were gone forever. I never went back there. The boat took me safely along the Danube.
“While I rowed back two things fretted me. One was that there were noxious inhabitants on the island — snakes; probably some in that grotto: the thought filled me with horror and alarm for Noémi. The other anxiety was this. I can live for years on wild honey, water-nuts, and manna fruit; my child lives on her mother’s breast; but how shall I feed Almira? The faithful creature can not live on what nourishes me; and yet I must keep her, for without Almira as a protector I should die of fright in this solitude. When I had dragged my bundle to the grotto, I saw before me the still quivering tail of a large snake, and not far off lay its head, bitten off; Almira had eaten what lay between the head and tail. The clever beast lay before the child, wagging her tail and licking her lips, as if to say, I have made a good meal. Thenceforward she made war on snakes; they were her daily food. In the winter she scratched them out of their holes. My friend — for so I grew to call the dog — had found her own livelihood, and freed me from the objects of my dread.
“Oh, sir, it was an indescribable feeling, our first night alone here — no one near but my God, my child, and my dog. I can not call it painful — it was almost bliss. I spread the linen awning over us all three, and we were only awoke by the twitter of the birds. Now began my work — savages’ work, for before sunrise I must collect manna, called by Hungarians ‘Dew-millet.’ Poor women go out into the swamp, where this bush with its sweet seeds luxuriates; they hold up their dress in both hands, shake the bush, and the ripe seeds fall into their lap. That is the bread from heaven for those whom no one feeds. Sir, I lived two whole years on that bread, and thanked daily on my knees Him who cares for the birds of the air. Wild fruit, honey, nuts, crabs, wild fowls’ eggs, water-chestnuts preserved for winter use, land snails, dried mushrooms, formed my food. Praised be the Lord who so richly provides the table of His poor! And during the whole time I labored for the object I had set before me. I grafted the wild stocks with the cuttings I had brought, and planted in the cultivated soil fruit-trees, vines, and walnut-seeds. On the south side I sowed cotton-plant and silky swallow-wort, whose products I wove on a loom made of willow-wood, and made clothes for us. From rushes and reeds I made hives, in which I housed swarms of wild bees, and even in the first year I could begin a trade in wax and honey. Millers and smugglers often came here; they helped me with the hard labor, and never did me any harm. They paid me for provisions by their work; they knew already that I never took money. When the fruit-trees began to bear, then I lived in luxury, for in this alluvial soil all trees flourish, to that it is a pleasure to see them. I have pears which ripen their fruit twice in a year; all the young ones make fresh shoots at St. John’s day, and the others bear every year. I have learned their secrets, and know that in the hands of a good gardener there should be no failure nor over-crop. Animals understand the language of man, and I believe that trees too have ears and eyes for those who tend them kindly and listen to their private wishes; and they are proud to give them pleasure in return. Oh, trees are very sensible! a soul dwells in them. I consider that man a murderer who cuts down a noble tree.
“These are my friends. I love them, and live in and by them. What they yield me year by year is fetched away by the people of the villages and mills round, who give me in exchange what I need for my housekeeping. I have no use for money, I have a horror of it — the accursed money, which drove me out of the world and my husband out of life: I don’t want ever to see it again.
“But I am not so foolish as to be unprepared for some years of failure, which make vain the work of man. There might be late frosts or hail-storms, which would destroy the blessings of the season; but I am prepared for such bad times. In the cellar of my rock and in its airy crevices I store away whatever durable wares I possess — wine in casks, honey in pots, wool and cotton in bales, in sufficient quantity to keep us from want for two years. You see I have some savings, though not in money; I may call myself rich, and yet for twelve years not a single coin has passed through my hands. For I have lived on this island twelve years, sir, with the other two, for I count Almira as a person. Noémi declares we are four; she counts Narcissa, too — silly child!
“Many people know of our existence, but treachery is unknown here. The artificial barrier which exists between the frontiers of the two countries has made the people about here very reserved. No one meddles in a stranger’s affairs, and every one instinctively keeps secret what he knows. No intelligence from here ever reaches Vienna, Ofen, or Stamboul. And why should they inform against me? I am in nobody’s way, and do no harm; I grow fruit on my bit of desert land, which has no master. God the Lord and the royal Danube gave it to me, and I thank them for it daily. I thank Thee, my God! I thank Thee, my King!
“I hardly know if I have any religion; it is twelve years since I saw a priest or a church. Noémi knows nothing about it. I have taught her to read and write: I tell her of God, and Jesus, and Moses, as I knew them. Of the good, all-merciful, omnipresent God — of Jesus, sublime in His sufferings, and divine in His humanity — and of Moses, that leader of a people to liberty, who preferred to wander hungry and thirsty in the wilderness rather than exchange freedom for the flesh-pots of slavery — Moses who preached goodness and brotherly love — of these as I picture them to myself. But of the relentless God of vengeance, the God of the chosen people — a God calling for sacrifices, and dwelling in temples — of that privileged Christ asking for blind faith, laying heavy burdens on our shoulders, followed by a crowd of worshipers — and of the avaricious, revengeful, selfish Moses of whom books and preachers tell — of these she knows nothing.
“Now you know who we are, and what we are doing here, you shall learn with what we are threatened by this man.
“He is the son of the man for whom my husband stood surety, who drove him to suicide, on whose account we have fled from human society into the desert. He was a boy of thirteen when we lost our all, and the blow fell on him also, for his father had forsaken him.
“Indeed, I do not wonder that the son has turned out such a wretch. Abandoned by his own father, thrust out like a beggar into the world, cast on the compassion of strangers, deceived and robbed by the one on whom his childish trust was placed, branded in his earliest youth as the son of a rogue, is it surprising if he was forced to become what he is?
“And yet I hardly know what to think of him; but what I do know is enough. The people who come to the island can tell a great deal about him. Not long after his father had escaped, he also started from Turkey, saying he was going to look for his father. Some maintained that he had found him, others that he had never been able to trace him. According to one report he robbed his own father and squandered the money he stole, but no one knows for certain. From him nothing can be learned, for he tells nothing but lies. As to where he has been, and what he has done, he relates romances, in whose invention he is so well versed, and which he presents so skillfully, that he staggers even those who have actual knowledge of the facts, and makes them doubt the testimony of their own eyes. You see him here today and there tomorrow. In Turkey, Wallachia, Poland, and Hungary he has been met. In all these countries he is by way of knowing every person of distinction. Whomsoever he meets he takes in, and whoever has once been deceived by him may be sure it will happen again. He speaks ten languages, and whatever countryman he pretends to be, he is accepted as such. He appears now as a merchant, then a soldier, again as a seafaring man; today a Turk, tomorrow a Greek. He once came out as a Polish count, then as the betrothed of a Russian princess, and again as a quack doctor, who cured all maladies with his pills. What his real profession may be no one knows. But one thing is certain, he is a paid spy. Whether in the service of the Turks, Austrians, or Russians, who can tell? Perhaps he is in the pay of all three and more besides — he serves each, and betrays all. Every year he comes several times to this island. He comes in a boat from the Turkish shore, and goes in the same boat from here to the Hungarian bank. Of what he does there I have no idea; but I am inclined to believe that he inflicts the torture of his presence on me for his own amusement. I know, too, that he is an epicure and a sensualist: he finds good food here, and a blooming young girl whom he loves to tease by calling her his bride. Noémi hates him; she has no idea how well founded is her abhorrence.
“Yet I do not think that Theodor Krisstyan visits this island only for these reasons; it must have other secrets unknown to me. He is a paid spy, and has a bad heart besides; he is rotten to the core, and ripe for any villainy. He knows that I and my daughter have only usurped the island, and that by law I have no claim to it, and by the possession of this secret he lays us under contribution, vexes and torments us both.
“He threatens that if we do not give him what he wants, he will inform against us both in Austria and Turkey, and as soon as these governments know that a new piece of land has been formed in the midst of the Danube, which is not included in any treaty, a dispute about its jurisdiction will commence between the countries, and until its conclusion all the inhabitants will be warned off, as happened in the case of Allion Castle and the Cserna River.
“It would only cost this man a word to annihilate all that I have brought to perfection by my twelve years’ labor; to turn this Eden, where we are so happy, back into a wilderness, and thrust us out anew, homeless, into the world. Yes, and more still. We have not only to fear discovery by the imperial officials, but discovery by the priest. If the archbishops, the patriarchs, archimandrite, and deans learned that a girl is growing up here who has never seen a church since she was baptized, they would take her away by force and put her in a convent. Now, sir, do you understand those sighs which kept you awake?”
Timar gazed at the full disk of the moon, which was beginning to sink behind the poplars. “Why,” thought he to himself, “am I not a man of influence?”
“So this wretch,” continued Therese, “can throw us into poverty any day. He need only give information in Vienna or Stamboul that here on the Danube a new territory exists, and we should be ruined. No one here would betray us — he alone is capable of it. But I am prepared for the worst. The whole foundation of this island is solely and entirely formed by the rock: it alone stems the force of the Danube current. In the year when Milos made war against the Serbs, some Servian smugglers hid three barrels of blasting powder in the bushes near here, and no one has ever fetched them away. Perhaps those who hid them were taken prisoners by the Turks, or killed. I found them, and have concealed them in the deepest cavity of this great rock. Sir, if they try to drive me from this island, now ownerless, I shall thrust a burning match into the powder, and the rock and all upon it will be blown into the air. In the next spring, after the ice has melted, no one would find a trace of the island. And now you know why you could not sleep well here.”
Timar leaned his head on his hand and looked away.
“There is one more thing I ought to say,” said Frau Therese, bending close to Timar, that he might hear her low whisper —“I fancy this man had another reason for coming here and vanishing again, besides his having gambled away his money in some low pot-house, and wanting to get more out of me. His visit was either on your account, or that of the other gentleman. Be on your guard, if either of you dreads the discovery of a secret.”
The moon disappeared behind the poplars, and it began to dawn in the east. Blackbirds commenced their song; it was morning. From the Morova Island long-drawn trumpet-calls sounded, to awake the seafaring folk. Steps were audible in the sand; a sailor came from the landing-place with the news that the vessel was ready for departure, the wind had gone down, and they could proceed. The guests came out of the little dwelling: Euthemio Trikaliss and his daughter, the beautiful Timéa, with her dazzling pale face.
Noémi also was up and boiling fresh goat’s milk for breakfast, with roasted maize instead of coffee, and honey for sugar. Timéa took none, but let Narcissa drink the milk instead, who did not despise the stranger’s offer, to Noémi’s great vexation.
Trikaliss asked Timar where the stranger had gone who came last evening? Timar told him he had left in the night. At this intelligence his face fell.
Then they all took leave of their hostess. Timéa was out of sorts, and still complained of feeling unwell. Timar remained behind, and gave Therese a bright Turkish silk scarf as a present for Noémi; she thanked him, and said the child should wear it. Then they took the path leading to the boat, and Therese and Almira accompanied them to the shore. But Noémi went up to the top of the rock: there, sitting on soft moss and stonecrop, she watched the boat away.
Narcissa crept after her, cowered in her lap, and crept with bending neck into her bosom. “Be off, faithless one! that is how you love me. You leave me in the lurch, and make up to the other girl, just because she is pretty and I am not. Go! I don’t love you any longer!” and then she caught the coaxing cat with both hands to her breast, pressed her smooth chin on the white head of the little flatterer, and gazed after the boat. In her eye glittered a tear.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52