ONCE upon a time there lived a rich old "boier."1
He was very fat, and his house was squat and fat as he was, with a very big roof covered with wooden tiles. The house was all white, and from afar it looked like a huge mushroom with a grey head. A long thin poplar tree grew up beside it, making it look even squatter than it was.
In front of it there was a covered porch upheld by six stout columns, as stout as their master, and under this porch the rich old fellow would sit on a seat all bolstered with cushions, and smoke in lazy content his "ciubuc."2
He wore a sort of Turkish dressing-gown, in the brightest colours the East could weave, and was specially proud of his sashes, which were one and all heavily embroidered with gold.
On his head he wore a monstrous sort of hat, the shape of an onion, but as big as a pumpkin—it was really hard to understand what pleasure he could find in wearing such a hideous hat.
Conu Ilie had a very loud greasy voice, and he inordinately admired everything that he possessed. He also vastly enjoyed his own jokes, which he repeated consonantly, and often he alone could understand. But as he was very rich, all his neighbours laughed with him when he laughed, as evidently it was what was expected of them. As a general rule it is wise to laugh with the rich man when he laughs, and to weep with him when he weeps—it is a safe rule to stick to, and you will never go far wrong if you do.
Everything old "Conu"3 Ilie possessed was not quite as wonderful as he imagined, his taste was at times grievously at fault, but this did not matter much, as no one told him. He was not married, but had in fact always been too much in love with himself to find time to fall in love with anyone else; now he was already getting on in age, and it were better not to ask how many inches he measured round his middle.
He liked assembling many people about him, but especially men, being too lazy to care for ladies' society. Then leaning back with crossed legs amidst his innumerable cushions, he would hold forth on many subjects, understanding but little about any of them, but evidently gloriously enjoying the sound of his own voice. He had a sly look in his eye, and would often wink at one or another of his neighbours as though in secret understanding with him; this would flatter the neighbour, even if he did not clearly realize what they were in understanding about.
You and I would perhaps have said that Conu Ilie was a silly old fellow; perhaps some of his neighbours thought so too, but if they did, they only told it to their wives, but never to Conu Ilie himself, so that he lived in a sort of fool's paradise in which he felt supremely at his ease.
One of the reasons why Conu Ilie liked to sit under the porch was that from there he could look out into his garden, which was a cool and delightful place where the butterflies loved to dance about; but being lazy and ponderous, he seldom walked in it, preferring to contemplate it from his cushioned seat through the enormous clouds of smoke he puffed from his pipe.
In this garden of his, Conu Ilie possessed something which even you and I could admire without stint, even if we had thoroughly disapproved of the shape of his hideous hat—and this was a rose tree, with a single wonderful rose.
Yes, I know you will ask why only a single rose. But if you had seen that rose, you would have been quite contented that it should be the only flower on the tree, for indeed it was a queen amongst roses, a perfect, perfect rose. . . .
Pale pink, its petals had the colour of a babe flushed by sleep. It was of unusual size, much, much larger than ordinary roses, and so perfect of shape that the saints themselves might have modelled it for their joy. So exquisite was its perfume that it saturated the air with its sweetness so that its fragrance even penetrated under the porch where old Ilie sat enjoying his own self.
Fatigued at having to pretend to admire everything the "boier" possessed, as well as having to laugh at his rather stale wit, his guests felt real relief when it was the rose's turn to receive admiration; then their voices had a more natural sound and words flowed freely from their tongues.
Ilie would send one friend after another down into the garden to admire the exquisite flower, whilst he broadened himself out more and more amongst his cushions, taking the superb attitudes of some sultan who, having bought a new slave, exhibits her charms before those less rich or less lucky than himself.
He would blow out his cheeks, nod his head, whilst his fat fingers played about with the heavy golden chain and gaudy trinkets dangling in glittering magnificence upon his rotund person.
"Well, what do you say about my rose?" he would ask over and over again. "What do you say?" And even after each separate guest had answered this question he would still continue to ask, "Well, what do you say, what do you say?" and this finally was not particularly amusing for anybody.
You will perhaps wonder why in spite of being such a perfect old nuisance, the "boier" was able to assemble so many guests around him. Well, the truth was that Conu Ilie's house was a centre of material joys. His tobacco was first class, his rooms cool in summer, warm in winter, his chairs well bolstered, his carpets soft to the feet, wine was served at all hours of the day, but above all, Conu Ilie possessed a cook . . . a cook!
An old gipsy he was, and a real culinary prodigy; his cooking was an art, not a trade, he could set a better dinner on the table than any king's cook.
No one could roll "sarmale"4 as he could, or make "placinte"5 as light, or roast a sucking-pig so crisply. As to his partridges fried in oil, wrapped in vine-leaves and succulent bacon, the very thought of them made your mouth water several days beforehand. Muddy-faced, with agile fingers, dark as a monkey's, was old Iancu the gipsy, and he received his betters with cringing back and servile gestures of welcome, kissing their hands and their shoulders, and always repeating "Health to you, health to you, may you enjoy my dishes without any heaviness to your stomach, or bad dreams to your sleep. "Oh! but his "baclava"6 was a marvel, and as to the cream of his "cataifs,"7 it was white and light as the foam of the sea.
Yes, old Iancu was indeed a rare though ugly treasure to possess.
Conu Ilie's repasts lasted endlessly. He would sit in an arm-chair at the head of his heavily laden table, smacking his lips and announcing beforehand what dish was going to be set before them, and if by some fatal mischance it did not turn out according to his expectations, he would fly into a towering rage, and box the ears of whatever servant was unfortunate enough to be serving him at that moment. His language on these occasions was anything but elegant, so that even the little green frogs, croaking in the pond outside, would blush and dip their goggle-eyed heads under water so as to hear no more.
Wine flowed freely at the "boier's" table, and a troop of "lautars"8 played all the time.
After supper—(I am talking of the summer-time)—the pompous old fellow and his guests would go out to sit down under the porch, where coffee was brought all fragrant and steaming, "ciubucs" were lighted, and although even the most elastic digestions had been already severely tried, fat-bellied flasks of strong liqueur were handed round in glasses none too small.
Ilie would of course spread himself out upon the softest cushions, and his language would become more unctuous and self-complacent than ever, punctuated by occasional hiccoughs which were merely the outward expression of his stomach's perfect satisfaction.
One evening as these satiated gentlemen sat together digesting an unusually copious repast, an exquisite voice rose suddenly out of the darkness of the night.
So extraordinarily lovely was it, that even these very material old gentlemen held their breaths to listen.
Like a crystal-clear fountain mounting towards the skies, the rapturous notes rose higher and higher, filling the garden with a harmony such that all the leaves of the trees quivered, and that the tall lilies, standing in a circle round the pond, bent their heads to listen.
"Who can this human nightingale be?" asked someone. "Indeed, it is the most glorious voice I have ever heard," said another.
"If I could only count a voice like that in my choir!" added parintele9 Serafim, who was one of Conu Ilie's most assiduous visitors, and whose tummy rivalled that of his host.
"It must be some damsel enamoured of my person," declared Conu Ilie, passing both his hands up and down over his well-stretched waistcoat with a caressing movement. "Very probably she has perceived me on Sunday in my yellow-striped caftan and gold-embroidered sash, for only on that day do I move from the house."
"It is indeed a garment which would make a parrot turn green with envy," nodded Conu Ghitsa, Ilie's closest friend.
"What if the parrot were already green?" asked someone, and in answer a fat guttural voice chuckled from somewhere out of the dark.
"Hush, hush, listen, this is heavenly music," said Mitru, the youngest of the party, who could appreciate beauty as well as meat and drink.
Ever more beautiful became the song that was being sung out there in the dark, yet, peer about as they would, nowhere could Conu Ilie and his guests perceive vestige of a woman's dress, nor the faintest sound of a step. Some went down into the garden to search within the shade of the bushes, and all round by the hedge, but they came back completely baffled, nowhere was anyone to be seen.
The sky was all full of stars, but the largest star of all stood straight above Conu Ilie's wonderful rose tree. So large it was and so bright, that it might have been a giant yellow diamond set in a vast dome of black enamel that had neither beginning nor end. All the other stars paled before this one, which was brighter and more beautiful than all the rest.
The perfect pink rose seemed to be staring right up at it, opening wide her petals so as to receive its rays right into her heart.
Mitru, in passing, noticed how sweet was the rose's perfume, and tried to bend her towards him so as to inhale her fragrance, but the terrible thorns that protected her pricked his fingers so violently that the blood fell in warm red drops to the ground. And somehow it seemed to Mitru that the rose laughed ever so softly, but this was of course pure imagination, for how can a rose laugh?
For awhile Conu Ilie and his guests sat in silence, hoping to hear the glorious voice once more—but all was still now, no more the faintest sound came from the garden, and at length, having exhausted every topic of conversation, the sleepy gentlemen dispersed for the night.
From then onwards, every evening, the wonderful voice was heard in the "boier's" garden, and although no female figure could ever be discovered anywhere, vain old Ilie continued to imagine that some enamoured damsel haunted his premises in remembrance of the irresistible yellow-striped caftan he wore each Sunday in church.
Greater airs than ever did he now give himself, and when sauntering through the village after the morning Mass, he would puff himself out like a strutting pigeon, benignly smiling to the right, to the left, stroking his glossy beard whilst he twirled his silver-nobbed cane round and round between his fingers. According to him, each handsome village wench might be the mysterious singer with the wondrous voice.
"But perhaps it was not only a peasant girl," said Ilie to himself, "but some lovely princess who has heard about me, and being adorably bashful, steals into my garden at night only, when she cannot be seen," and Ilie licked his lips, such dainty visions of enamoured princesses did he conjure up to himself as he waddled along full of his own importance. There were tall ones and small ones, plump ones and slim ones, fair ones and dark ones, and princesses who looked at him with eyes all alight with passion, and others who veiled themselves in mystery like virgins in a temple.
Ilie was supremely satisfied; this new illusion gave a special flavour to his already eminently agreeable life.
But someone else, who had nothing to do with Conu Ilie and his satellites, had fathomed the mystery of the wonderful voice.
Each night when the "boier" and his guests had retired to bed, a little shepherd-lad with bare feet would steal through the hedge which encircled Conu Ilie's garden, and with beating heart approach the rose tree where the single rose bloomed in all her lonely splendour, and would stand before it with clasped hands, in an ecstasy of adoration.
Dinu the shepherd had discovered that the rose it was who sang, and sang only on nights when the great star stood straight above her, sending down its rays into her heart.
Yes, Conu Ilie's rose was in love with the star which looked like a yellow diamond set in a black enamel dome that had neither beginning nor end, and being attached to the ground by roots which went deep, deep down, the rose could not move from the spot where she was planted. The star knowing this would remain suspended just above her, far off out of reach, alas, but adoring her with its light.
The star gave its brightness, and because the rose loved so ardently, she had found a voice with which to express her passion, a voice which resembled a human voice.
Dinu, understanding the rose's secret and possessing none of Conu Ilie's vanity, did not imagine that the beautiful flower loved him, though his very soul was held captive by her divinely sweet voice. And the rose? Well, the rose . . . like many a woman, was not averse to being adored even by so humble a lad, though she had naught but her pity to offer in exchange for his devotion, for her love, all her love, was given to one far beyond her reach....
I know not how it came to pass, but one day Conu Ilie discovered that the rose it was who sang—his rose—the rose in his garden, and being Conu Ilie, he very naturally concluded that the rose was singing because of a hopeless passion for himself.
"This is very touching," he said to his circle of admirers, "very touching indeed." But at the bottom of his vain old heart he was decidedly disappointed to have to give up his theory about the mysterious princess, who each day in his imagination had had another face.
"If that poor rose loves you so much," said his companions, "you must not make her pine in vain too long. Indeed, after supper you are none too agile, preferring your ease amongst your many cushions, but you will all the same one evening have to sacrifice yourself and go down to where she stands, and thank her for her songs."
"I shall go," said Conu Ilie, and each evening from the softness of his couch he would repeat, "I shall go," and still he sat on stroking his well-stretched, well-filled waistcoat.
Younger and shorter of temper than the other guests, Mitru one night lost all patience with him, and seizing him suddenly under his arms, set him on his feet, where he stood, all red and snorting with astonished indignation.
But Mitru paid no attention. "Come along, get up," he said. "There are only four steps down into the garden, and the lovely rose is waiting for you," but under his breath he added, "Verily I cannot understand her taste!"
That night, Ilie descended from his porch into the garden, and under the light of the stars, like a peacock with spread tail, he strutted round and round his rose tree, hoping that the beautiful flower could see all the magnificence of his scarlet and gold-shot caftan sprinkled over with small bunches of embroidered tulips.
I know not if the rose saw old Ilie's splendour, but I know that she sang more rapturously than ever, and right above where she bloomed shone the wondrous luminous bright yellow star.
All of a sudden a dark cloud passed over the star's face, and when the star was hidden, immediately the rose ceased to sing.
"She has stopped singing," said Conu Ilie; "a cloud has hidden the face of the stars, therefore she can see me no longer—and because I am now hidden from her sight, she has ceased singing; if ever I had doubted, I now know for certain that the poor dear little rose is pining away for the love of me."
But the barefooted shepherd-boy knew better; he also knew that one day, when the beautiful rose fell to pieces, shedding her marvellous petals like pale pink shells all over the lawn, that it was because her heart had broken, broken because the star had become faithless!
Being attracted to a new love in another place, it no more shone down upon Conu Ilie's garden, and no new rose ever bloomed again upon that tree.
Conu Ilie, furious that one of the chief attractions should have disappeared, had the rose tree torn out by the roots and burnt. In its place he planted a magenta-coloured dahlia.
"Dahlias are much more beautiful than roses," declared he complacently—and his satellites of course repeated his words: "Dahlias are much more beautiful than roses," and nodded their heads solemnly, as though their fat old host had uttered an important truth.
But Dinu the shepherd kept thinking of the rose which had broken its heart; he was not vain, nor was he faithless, but poor and simple, and not clever at all; and at night when he went to bed, he would carefully draw the thin, faded little curtain over his tiny window so as not to see the great big, wonderful star shining so proudly right over there at the other end of the sky. . . .