MANY were the tales I heard at Ancuţa's inn one golden autumn. But that was long ago, in the year when such terrible rains fell on St. Eliah's day that the people said they had seen a black dragon up in the clouds above the overflowing waters of the Moldova. And they saw how some birds such as had never been seen before rose on the wings of the storm and sailed eastward. And Uncle Leonte who consulted his zodiac and explained the signs of the Emperor Heraclitus, proved that these birds with feathers the colour of hoar-frost had been borne by the wind rising from the islands at the end of the world, and foretold war between emperors and an abundant crop of grapes.
And the White Emperor did hurl his Muscovites against the pagan hordes and, in order that the forecast be fulfilled, God gave abundant crops to the vineyards of Lower Moldavia, so that the vintners had not enough casks for their wine. And the carriers from our parts set out to fetch the wine to the mountains; and there was a time of revelry and fine tales at Ancuţa's inn.
Endless convoys of carts rumbled along on the roads, while at the inn the gipsy fiddlers played and sang without a break. When one of them collapsed with fatigue and drink, others would spring up from some corner and take his place.
And so many were the pots broken that for two long years women crossed themselves when passing the inn on their way to the fair at Roman. And around the fires, goodly fellows, past masters in the art, roasted whole quarters of ram and calf, or grilled gudgeon and barbel caught in the waters of the Moldova.
And young Ancuţa, who had inherited her mother's pencilled eyebrows and her slyness, went about like an elfin, with ruddy cheeks, her skirt pinned up to the waist and her sleeves rolled high, dealing out wine and food, laughter and friendly words.
And you should know that this inn of Ancuţa's was no inn but a real fortress. It had such thick walls and barred gates as I have never seen in all my living days. Within its gates, men, cattle and carts could take refuge and be without fear of thieves.
However, at the time I speak of, there was peace in the country and good will among men. The gates of the inn stood wide open as those of the prince's court. And through them, on mild autumn days, one could see the valley of the Moldova stretching away into the distance and the shady outline of the fir woods as far as the Ceahlău and the Hălăuca. Then, when the sun sank below the horizon and the distant landscape dimmed and gradually fused with mysterious mists, the fires in the courtyard lighted up the stone walls, setting off the dark recesses of the doors and barred windows. And for a time the tunes of the gipsy fiddlers ceased and the stories began...
One of the foremost revellers and fun-makers of those halcyon days was a yeoman who was not of those parts, and he was very dear to me. He raised his pot to everyone, listened to the songs of the gipsy fiddlers with a far-away look in his eyes and held his own even with Uncle Leonte when it came to explaining all things on this earth... He was a tall, grey-haired man, with a wizened and deeply wrinkled face. Around his closely-clipped moustache and his small eyes, the skin was furrowed by numberless small creases. He had keen eyes with dark lights in them, and his lips adorned by his short moustache often had a smile of sadness.
His name was Comis1 Ioniţă. Now the said Comis Ioniţă had a fairly fat purse at his belt, under his grey clothes. And he had come to the inn mounted on a strange jade. It was the horse of the legend, before having eaten the plateful of live coals. Nothing but skin and bone; a bay horse with three white feet and a high saddle on its back. It would stand motionless against the wall, a handful of stale hay under its muzzle...
"I've not come to stay—have only dropped in passing," the comis would say, pot in hand. "We're going out into the world, my horse and I... He's always ready and saddled, is my bay... There's not another horse like mine anywhere... With my fur bonnet tilted on my head, off I go on his back, never caring a fig for anything..."
But as to his going, he never went. He remained there with us.
"You're right there..." Uncle Leonte answered him one day. "It would be hard to find another horse like yours—even if you were to scour all the empires of the world. Aye! I And for nine years running too! His skin alone must be worth a fortune. Only to think of it sends me all of a shiver."
"Take it from me, friend Leonte," the yeoman shouted, his short moustache a bristle. "Such a horse, spare and enduring as it is, knows neither hunger nor fatigue. He just gives his fodder a glance and bears me no grudge when I don't give him any water. And the saddle seems to have grown on him. Ah! He's a pedigree horse, all right. His dam was a mare, white-hoofed like himself, in which I took great pride in my young days and which amazed even His Highness Voivod Mihail Sturza when he beheld her."
"Why should he have been amazed, sir? Was she as lean as her foal?"
"Of course. But that's a story I'll tell you, if you care to listen..."
"Listen, sir? We're all ears, especially if it's a tale from the days of Voivod Mihail Sturza."
"It's a story of the days of my youth..." the yeoman rejoined seriously. "In those days I was in this same place and, as today, there were fires and cart-loads of must but with people who are now dust and ashes; attending upon us was the other Ancuţa, the mother of this one, who has also left us for a less merry world. Well, one day I stood in the door-way of the inn—and very sad I was—a pot of wine in one hand and the mare's reins in the other. And the other Ancuţa stood like this one in the same place, leaning against the door-post and listened to what I was saying... What I said, I know not now, for they were words that have been blown away like autumn leaves. "
Here, Comis Ioniţă smiled mirthlessly, under his short rough moustache, while all of us present there, husbandmen and carters from Upper Moldavia, seated ourselves around him on logs and on the shafts of the carts, our chins raised and our eyes wide open. Young Ancuţa stood on the threshold, leaning against the door-post; the autumn sun shooting its slanting rays at her, touched one of her cheeks with gold. In the valley near by, the waters of the Moldova sparkled among the copse, and in the distance the mountains showed their faint outline like billows of flint shrouded in blue mists.
Made uneasy by the silence around him, the lanky horse of the yeoman, standing to one side of the inn, suddenly gave a low neigh and showed us his teeth in a fiendish grin. Astonished and frightened, Ancuţa turned her eyes with their arched eyebrows towards him.
"See," the comis said, "that is how the old mare neighed and grinned... Maybe she's only a wolf's eye or tooth now, who can tell? But her grin lives on and another Ancuţa is frightened by it.
"As I was telling you, good sirs, I stood in this very spot, my foot in the stirrup, ready to mount. When suddenly I heard the swish of a horse-whip and the rumble of wheels. Raising my head and turning to one side, what should I see coming down the road but a coach and four... It came near and drew up at the inn, as was fitting it should do. And from it a boyar alighted to admire Ancuţa's eyes as was the custom.
"As soon as he drew near, I raised my pot of wine and drank his health. He stopped, looked at me, at my mare, at the people about me, and smiled. The welcome had pleased him. He was a smallish man with a red, rounded beard, and he wore a thin gold chain around his neck...
"'My good people,' the boyar said, 'I am, in truth, mighty glad to see such mirth and jollity in the land of Moldavia...'
"'And we are glad to hear your kind words,' I put in. 'They're worth the choicest wine...'
"Then the boyar smiled again and asked me whence I had come and whither I was going.
"'Most worthy sir,' I answered. 'I am descended from a family of yeomen of Drăgăneşti, in the land of Suceava. But my property is menaced and my enemies have teeth that are long and sharp. I have a lawsuit, worthy sir, which has been dragging on endlessly. I inherited it from my father, Iona, the church singer, and I very much fear I'll bequeathe it to my children, should God deem me worthy of having any...'
"'And how is that?' the boyar asked in astonishment.
"'Just as I have been telling you. For, most worthy sir, our quarrel began before Voivod Calimah's reign. We have had hearings, and generation after generation went to the Divan; there have been interrogations, and boundaries have been fixed, and sworn statements were made, and some of our family have died while the suit was pending, and others were born to continue it. And justice has not been done to this very day. Nay, worse: the enemy I am fighting has encroached twelve feet and five span upon my patrimony, down by the beehives at Vela. Yet, lodging another complaint with the prefect, I still found no sympathetic ear, for my opponent, saving your presence, is a real bird of prey—a boyar... Seeing how matters stood, I again hauled the bag of papers and the old seals down from the garret, spelt my way through them and sorted them out. And then, tucking under my belt the documents I thought valid, I mounted my bay mare and reckoned never to stop till I reached the Voivod to have justice done by him!'
"'Is it possible?' the boyar asked, stroking his beard and playing with the golden chain. 'Are you indeed on your way to the Voivod?'
'"That I am! And if the Voivod himself will not do justice to me...'
"'And if the Voivod himself will not do justice to you, what then?' the boyar asked with laughing eyes."
Comis Ioniţă spoke a little lower, but young Ancuţa put her head to one side as the other Ancuţa had done in her day, strained her ears and heard what was going to happen if the Voivod himself did not do justice to the yeoman.
"'If the Voivod himself does not do justice to me,' said I, ' then I'll make him kiss my mare near her tail...'"
When the comis said these words, speaking as people do in our parts, up in the North, without mincing matters, Ancuţa pursed her lips and pretended to be looking intently down the road...
"When I said these words," the yeoman went on, "the Ancuţa of those days put her hand to her mouth quickly and pretended to be looking down the road.
"As to the boyar, he burst out laughing. Then stopped and, stroking his beard and playing with his golden chain, asked:
"'And when do you think of seeing the Voivod?'
"'Well, worthy sir, I'll empty this pot of wine in honour of Your Highness and then jump into the saddle like Alexander of Macedón and never stop until I reach Jassy. And should Your Highness want to sample the new Odobeşti wine, then Ancuţa will bring you crimson must in a new pot and we will be most glad of the honour you do us...'
"The boyar turned round with a smile for the Ancuţa of yore whose eyebrows were just as neatly arched as those of the present one and who was just as sly, and said he would have a new earthenware potful of crimson wine from the South. Being a yeoman, I proudly asked to foot the bill and threw four coppers into Ancuţa's lap...
"After which, the boyar got into his well-sprung coach and off he went.
"As to myself, I jumped on to my mare and, as I had promised, never stopped before I had reached the borough of Jassy where I put up at an inn near the Lozonsky church, right opposite the prince's court. The following day towards noon, well washed and combed, I stood with a beating heart at the palace gates.
"To begin with, the guard stuck his lance between my eyes. But after hearing my grievance, he shouted towards the lodge whence an old soldier came who took me into a little closet inside the court. There I was met by a young slim-waisted officer all bedizened with gold lace.
"'And what is your business, my good man?' said he.
"'Well, this is my case,' I said, 'I am Comis Ioniţă, a yeoman of Drăgăneşti, and I have come to the Voivod ... panting after justice as the hart panteth after water brooks...'
"'Very well,' the young officer replied, 'the Voivod will hear your complaint right away. Leave your hat, and go in through that little door. In the big room next to this, you'll find the Voivod—tell him what ails you.'
"On hearing which, the blood rushed to my checks and a film came over my eyes. But I clenched my teeth and kept my self-control. The officer opened the door and I passed through. Dazzled by strong sight and almost bent double, I could only see the Voivod's morocco boots before I fell to my knees. I was thinking that in our new, young prince, I would perhaps find pity for my misfortunes.
"'Your Highness,' I cried out boldly, 'I came to you to have justice done.'
"The Voivod answered:
"Hearing his voice, I raised my eyes with lightning speed, and recognized the boyar I had met at the inn.
"I instantly realized what it behoved me to do: to close my eyes and appear appalled. I bent my head still lower and, taking hold of the prince's robe, I raised it to my lips.
'"Rise!' the Voivod said again, 'and show me your documents.'
"When I got to my feet, I noticed that the boyar's eyes had small creases about them as though from suppressed laughter, as he had had at the inn when he had taken the pot with crimson must from Ancuţa's hands. I promptly took the documents out of the leather purse, handed them to him, and began telling him my yarn. I told him of the misfortunes I had met, of the rancour that had gathered in my heart together with the bitterness I had inherited from my forbears. Upon which, having read the documents and bent low over the wax seals, the Voivod looked pleased and, in a rather nasal voice, spoke thus:
"'All right, yeoman, I'll do you justice. One of my men, with full authority, shall go with you to Drăgăneşti to put things right.'
"When I heard this I knelt down again, and the Voivod once more ordered me to rise. Then, his eyes narrowed as if for a smile, he patted me on the shoulder:
"'But what would have happened if I had not done you justice?'
"'Well,' I answered with a laugh, 'what do you think could have happened? I never take back my word. The mare is just across the road.'
"And Prince Mihail was very pleased with my answer, for he patted me on the shoulder again and remembered the pot of red wine I had offered him and for which I had paid four coppers; and laughing the while, he commanded an official to go with me; and there and then, orders were drawn up, and when I left the inn near Lozonsky on horseback to return home, he was looking out of the open window, smiling and stroking his beard.
"Now you know why you should hold my bay horse with three white feet as a precious thing: for it is of the flesh and bone of the Voivod's mare, and when he neighs and grins, he brings back memories of a century that has gone and of the days of my youth. And now you can judge what sort of man I am! But let us have another round of wine and I'll start on another story I have long been wanting to tell you..."
1A boyar whose rank was similar to that of an equerry and whose position corresponded to that of a squire.