The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
THIS story is not fantastic; it is merely romantic. Are we to conclude that it is not true, its unreality being granted? That would be a mistake. We live in times when everything can happen—we might almost say everything has happened. If our story does not seem to be true to-day, it may seem so to-morrow, thanks to the resources of science, which are the wealth of the future. No one would think of classing it as legendary. Besides, one does not invent legends at the close of this practical and positive nineteenth century; neither in Brittany, the country of the ferocious Korrigans; nor in Scotland, the land of the brownies and gnomes; nor in Norway, the land of ases, elfs, sylphs, and valkyries; nor even in Transylvania, where the Carpathian scenery lends itself so naturally to every psychagogic evocation. But at the same time it is as well to note that Transylvania is still much attached to the superstitions of the early ages.
These provinces of furthest Europe, M. de Gérando has described them, M. Elisée Reclus has visited them. Neither have said anything of the strange story on which this romance is founded. Did they know of it? Perhaps; but they did not wish to add to the belief in it. We are sorry for it; for if they had related it, one would have done so with the precision of an annalist, and the other with that instinctive poetry with which all his tales of travels are imbued. But as neither of them has told it, I will try to do so for them.
On the 29th of May a shepherd was watching his flock on the edge of a green plateau at the foot of Retyezat, which dominates a fertile valley, thickly wooded with straight-stemmed trees, and enriched with cultivation. This elevated plateau, open, unsheltered, the north-west winds sweep during the winter as closely as the barber’s razor. It is said in the country that they shave it—and they do so, almost.
This shepherd had nothing arcadian in his costume, nor bucolic in his attitude. He was neither Daphnis, nor Amyntas, nor Tityrus, nor Lycidas, nor Melibceus. The Lignon did not murmur at his feet, which were encased in thick wooden shoes; it was only the Wallachian Syl whose clear, pastoral waters were worthy of flowing through the meanderings of the romance of Astrea.
Frik, Frik of the village of Werst—such was the name of this rustic shepherd—was as roughly clothed as his sheep, but quite well enough for the hole, at the entrance of the village, where sheep and pigs lived in a state of revolting filth.
The immanum pecus fed then under the care of the said Frik—immanior ipse. Stretched on a hillock carpeted with grass, he slept with one eye open, his big pipe in his mouth; and now and then he gave a shrill whistle to his dogs when some sheep strayed away from the pasturage, or else he gave a more powerful blast which awoke the multiple echoes of the mountain.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon The sun was sinking towards the horizon. A few summits whose bases were bathed in floating mist were standing out clear in the east. Towards the south-west two breaks in the chain allowed a slanting column of rays to enter the ring like a luminous jet passing through a half-open door.
This orographic system belongs to the wildest part of Transylvania, known as the county of Klausenburg, or Kolosvar.
A curious fragment of the Austrian Empire is this Transylvania, “Erdély,” in Magyar, which means the country of forests. It is bounded by Hungary on the north, Wallachia on the south, Moldavia on the west. Extending over sixty thousand square kilometres, about six millions of hectares, nearly the ninth of France, it is a kind of Switzerland, but half as large again, and no more populous. With its table-lands under cultivation, its luxuriant pasturages, its capriciously carved valleys, 'ts frowning summits, Transylvania, streaked by the plutonic ramifications of the Carpathians, is furrowed by numerous watercourses flowing to swell the Theiss and the superb Danube, the Iron Gates of which, a few miles to the south, close the defile of the Balkan chain on the frontier of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
Such is this ancient country of Dacia, conquered by Trajan in the first century of the Christian Era. The independence it enjoyed under Jean Zapoly and his successors up to 1699, ended with Leopold the First, who annexed it to Austria. But such was its political constitution that it remained the common abode of the races which elbow each other but never mingle—Wallachians, or Roumans, Hungarians, Tsiganes, Szeklers of Moldavian origin, and also Saxons, whom time and circumstances will end by Magyarizing to the advantage of Transylvanian unity.
To which of these types did the shepherd Frik belong? Was he a degenerate descendant of the ancient Dacians? He would not have found it easy to say so, to judge by his tumbled hair, his begrimed face, his bristly beard, his thick eyebrows, like two red-haired brushes, his bluish eyes, bluish or greenish, the humid corners of which were marked with the wrinkles of old age. He must have been sixty-five—you would never have guessed him less. But he was big, hardy, upright under his yellowish cloak, which was not as shaggy as his chest; and a painter would not have lost the chance of sketching him, when he was wearing his grass hat, a true wisp of straw, and resting on his crook as motionless as a rock.
Just as the rays penetrated through the break in the west, Frik turned over. His half-closed hand he made into a telescope, as he had already made it into a speaking- trumpet, to make his voice heard at a distance, and he looked through it attentively.
In the clear of the horizon, a good mile away, lay a group of buildings, with their outlines much softened by the distance. This old castle occupied on an isolated shoulder of the Vulkan range the upper part of a tableland called the Orgall Plateau. In the bright light the castle stood out with the clearness displayed in stereoscopic views. But, nevertheless, the shepherd’s eye must, have been endowed with great power of vision to be able to make out any detail in that distant mass.
Suddenly he exclaimed, as he shook his head,—
“Old castle! Old castle! You may well stand firm on your foundation. Three years more and you will have ceased to exist, for your beech-tree has only three branches left.”
This beech tree, planted at the extremity of one of the bastions of the enclosure, stood out black against the sky, and would have been almost invisible at that distance to any one else than Frik. The explanation of the shepherd's words, which were caused by a legend relative to the castle, we will give in due time.
“Yes,” he repeated, “three branches. There were four yesterday, but the fourth has fallen during the night. I can only count three at the fork. No more than three, old castle—no more than three!”
If we attack a shepherd on his ideal side, the imagination readily takes him for a dreamy, contemplative being: he converses with the planets, he confers with the stars, he reads in the skies. In reality he is generally a stupid, ignorant brute. But public credulity easily credits him with supernatural gifts: he practises sorcery; according to his humour he can call up good fortune or bad, and scatter it among man and beast—or, what comes to the same thing, he sells sympathetic powders, and you can buy from him philtres and formulas. Can he not make the furrows barren by throwing into them enchanted stones? Can he not make sheep sterile by merely casting on them the evil eye? These superstitions are of all times and all countries. Even in the most civilized lands, one will never meet a shepherd without giving him some friendly word, some significant greeting, saluting him by the name of'‘pastor” to which he clings. A touch of the hat affords an escape from malign influences, and on the roads of Transylvania it is no more omitted than elsewhere.
Frik, then, was regarded as a sorcerer, a caller-up of apparitions. According to him the vampires and stryges obeyed him: if you were to believe him, these were to be met with at the setting of the moon, as on dark nights in other countries you see the great bissext astride on the arms of the mill talking with the wolves or dreaming in the starlight.
Frik profited by all this. He sold charms and counter charms. But, be it noted, he was as credulous as his believers; and if he did not believe in his own witchcraft, he believed in the legends of his country.
There is nothing surprising therefore in his prophecy regarding the approaching disappearance of the old castle, now that the beech was reduced to three branches, or in his at once setting out to bear the news to Werst.
After mustering his flock by bellowing loudly through a long trumpet of white wood, he took the road to the village. His dogs followed him, hurrying on the sheep as they did so—two mongrel demi-griffins, snarling and ferocious, who seemed fitter to eat the sheep than to guard them. He had a hundred rams and ewes, a dozen yearlings, the rest three and four years old.
The flock belonged to the judge of Werst, the biro Koltz, who paid the commune a large sum for pasturage, and who thought a good deal of his shepherd Frik, knowing him to be a skilful shearer and well acquainted with the treatment of such maladies as thrush, giddiness, fluke, rot, foot rot, and other cattle ailments.
The flock moved in a compact mass, the bell-wether at the head, making the bell heard above the bleating.
As he left the pasture Frik took a wide footpath bordered by spacious fields, in which waved magnificent ears of corn, very long in the straw and high on the stalk; and several plantations of koukouroutz, which is the maize of the country. The road led to the edge of a forest of firs and spruces, fresh and gloomy beneath their branches. Lower down the Syl flowed along its luminous course, filtering through the pebbles in its bed, and bearing the logs of wood from the sawmills up stream.
Dogs and sheep stopped on the right bank of the îiver and began to drink greedily, pushing the reeds aside to do so.
Werst was not more than three gunshots away, beyond a thick plantation of willows formed of well-grown trees, and not of stunted pollards which only grow bushy for a few feet above their roots. These willows stretched away up to Vulkan Hill, of which the village of the same name occupied a projection on the southern slope of the Plesa range.
The fields were now deserted. It is only at nightfall that the labourers return home, and Frik as he went along had no traditional “good night” to exchange. When his flock had satisfied their thirst, he was about to enter the fold of the valley when a man appeared at the bend of the Syl, some fifty yards down stream.
“Hallo, friend!” said he to the shepherd.
He was one of those pedlars who travel from market to market in the district. They are to be met with in the towns and all the villages. In making themselves understood they have no difficulty, for they speak all languages. Was this one an Italian, a Saxon, or a Wallachian? No one could say, but he was unmistakably a Jew—tall, thin, hook-nosed, with a pointed beard, a prominent forehead, and keen, glittering eyes.
This pedlar dealt in telescopes, thermometers, barometers, and small clocks. What he did not carry in the bag strongly strapped over his shoulder, he hung from his neck and his belt, so that he was quite a travelling stall.
Probably this Jew had the usual respect for shepherds and the salutary fear they inspire. He shook Frik by the hand. Then in the Rouman language, which is a mixture of Latin and Sclave, he said with a foreign accent,—
“Are you getting on all right, friend?”
“Yes—considering the weather,” replied Frik.
“Then you must be doing well to-day, for the weather is beautiful.”
“And I shall not be doing well to-morrow, for it will rain.”
“It will rain?” said the pedlar. “Then it rains without clouds in your country?”
“The clouds will come to-night—and from yonder, the bad side of the mountain.”
“How do you know that?”
“By the wool of my sheep, which is harsh and dry as tanned leather.”
“Then it will be all the worse for those who are on a long journey.”
“And all the better for those who stay near home.”
“Then you have a home, shepherd?”
“Have you any children?” said Frik.
“Are you married?”
And Frik asked this because in this country it is the custom to do so of those you meet. He continued,—
“Where do you come from, pedlar?”
Hermanstadt is one of the principal villages of Transylvania. On leaving it. you find the valley of the Hungarian Syl, which flows down to the town of Petroseny.
“And you are going?”
To reach Kolosvar you have to ascend the valley of the Maros, and then by Karlsburg along the lower slopes of the Bihar mountains you reach the capital of the country. It is a walk of twenty miles only.
These vendors of thermometers, barometers, and cheap jewellery always seem to be a peculiar people and somewhat Hoffmanesque in their bearing. It is part of their trade. They sell time and weather in all forms—the time which flies, the weather which is, and the weather which will be—just as other packmen sell baskets and drapery. They are commercial travellers for the house of Saturn & Co., of the sign of the Golden Shoe. And doubtless this was the effect the Jew produced on Frik, who gazed not without astonishment at this display of things which were new to him, the use of which he did not know.
“I say, pedlar” said he, stretching out his arm, “what is the use of all this trumpery which rattles at your belt like a lot of old bones?”
“These things are valuable,” said the pedlar; “they are of use to everybody.”
“To everybody?” said Frik, winking his eye, “even to shepherds?”
“Even to shepherds.”
“What is the use of this machine?”
“This machine,” answered the Jew, putting a thermometer into his hands, “will tell you if it is hot or cold.”
“Ah, friend! I can tell that when I am sweating under my tunic, or shivering under my overcoat.”
Evidently that was enough for a shepherd who did not trouble himself about the wherefore of science.
“And this big watch with a needle?” continued he, pointing to an aneroid.
“That is not a watch, but an instrument which will tell you if it will be fine to-morrow or if it will rain.”
“Good,” said Frik. “I don’t want that even if it only costs a kreutzer. I have only to look at the clouds trailing along the mountains or racing over the higher peaks, and I can tell you what the weather will be a day in advance. Look, do you see that mist which seems to rise from the ground? Well, I tell you it means water for to-morrow!”
And in fact the shepherd, who was a great observer of the weather, could do very well without a barometer.
“I will not ask you if you want a clock,” continued the pedlar.
“A clock! I have one which goes by itself and hangs over my head. That is the sun up there. Look you, friend, when it is over the peak of Roduk it is noon; when it looks at me across the gap of Egelt it is six o’clock. My sheep know it as well as I do, and my dogs know it as well as my sheep. You can keep your clocks.”
“Then,” said the pedlar, “if my only customers were shepherds, I should have hard work to make a fortune. And so you want nothing?”
“Nothing at all.”
Besides which all these low-priced goods were of very poor workmanship: the barometers never agreed as to its being changeable weather or fair, the clock-hands made the hours too long or the minutes too short—in fact they were pure rubbish. The shepherd suspected this, perhaps, and did not care to become a buyer. But just as he was taking up his stick again, he caught sight of a sort of tube hanging from the pedlar’s strap.
“What do you do with that tube?”
“That tube is not a tube.”
“Is it a blunderbuss?”
“No,” said the Jew, “it is a telescope.”
It was one of those common telescopes which magnify the objects five or six times, or bring them as near, which produces the same result.
Frik unhooked the instrument, he looked at it, he handled it, and opened and shut it.
Then he shook his head “A telescope?” ne asked.
“Yes, shepherd, and a good one, and one that will make you see a long way off.”
“Oh! I have good eyes, my friend. When the air is clear I can see the rocks on the top of Retyezat and the farthest trees in the Vulkan valleys”
“Without winking. It is the dew which makes me do that and my sleeping from night to morning under the star-lit sky. That is the sort of thing to keep your pupils clean.”
“What—the dew?” said the pedlar. “It might perhaps make the blind—”
“Not the shepherds.”
“Quite so! But if you have good eyes, mine are better when I get them at the end of that telescope.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Put yours to it now!”
“Will that cost me anything?” asked Frik suspiciously.
“Nothing at all, unless you buy the machine.”
Being reassured on this point, Frik took the telescope, the tubes of which were adjusted by the pedlar. Shutting his left eye as directed, he applied his right eye to the eyepiece.
At first he looked towards Vulkan Hill and then up towards Plesa. That done, he lowered the instrumentt and brought it to bear on the village of Werst.
“Ah! ah!” he said. “Perhaps you are right. It does carry farther than my eyes. There is the main road. I recognize the people. There is Nic Deck, the forester, coming home with his haversack on his back and his gun over his shoulder.”
“I told you so,” said the pedlar.
“Yes, yes, that is really Nic!” said the shepherd. “And who is the girl who is coming out of Koltz’s house, with the red petticoat and the black bodice, as if to get in front of him?”
“Keep on looking, shepherd. You will soon recognize the girl, as you did the young man.”
“Ah! yes! It is Miriota—-the lovely Miriota! Ah! the lovers, the lovers! This time I have got them at the end of my tube, and I shall not lose one of their little goings on!”
“What do you say to the telescope?”
“Eh? It does make you see far!”
As Frik was looking through a telescope for the first time, it follows that Werst was one of the most backward villages of the country of Klausenburg; and that this was so we shall soon see.
“Come, shepherd,” continued the pedlar, “look again; look farther than Werst. The village is too near us. Look beyond, farther beyond, I tell you!”
“Shall I have to pay any more?”
“Good! I will look towards the Hungarian Syl! Yes. There is the clock-tower at Livadzel. I recognize it by the cross which has lost one arm. And, beyond, in the valley, among the pines, I see the spire of Petroseny with its weathercock of zinc with the open beak as if it were calling its chickens; and, beyond, there is that tower pointing up amid the trees. But I suppose, pedlar, it is all at the same price?”
“All the same price, shepherd.”
Frik turned the telescope towards the plateau of Orgall; then with it he followed the curtain of forests darkening the slopes of Plesa, and the field of the objective framed the distant outline of the village.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “the fourth branch is on the ground. I had seen aright. And no one will get it to make a torch of it for the night of St. John. Nobody, not even me! It would be to risk both body and soul. But do not trouble yourself about it. There is one who knows how to gather it to-night for his infernal fire—and that is the Chort!”
The Chort being the devil when he is invoked in the language of the country.
Perhaps the Jew might have demanded an explanation of these incomprehensible words, as he was not a native of the village of Werst or its environs, had not Frik exclaimed in a voice of terror mingled with surprise,—
“What is that mist escaping from the donjon? Is it a mist? No! One would say it was a smoke! It is not possible. For hundreds and hundreds of years no smoke has come from the chimneys of the castle!”
“If you see a smoke over there, shepherd, there is a smoke.”
“No, pedlar, no. It is the glass of your machine which is misty.”
“And when I have cleaned it—”
Frik shifted the telescope, and, having rubbed the glasses, he replaced it at his eye.
It was undoubtedly a smoke streaming from the upper part of the donjon. It mounted high in the air and mingled with the higher vapours.
Frik remained motionless and silent. All his attention was concentrated on the castle, from which the rising shadow began to touch the level of the plateau of Orgall.
Suddenly he lowered the telescope, and, thrusting his hand into the pouch he wore under his frock, he said,—
“How much do you want for your tube?”
“A florin and a half!” said the pedlar.
And he would have sold the telescope for a florin if Frik had shown any desire to bargain for it. But the shepherd said not a word. Evidently under the influence of an astonishment as sudden as it was inexplicable, he plunged his hand to the bottom of his wallet and drew out the money.
“Are you buying the telescope for yourself?” asked the pedlar.
“No; for my master.”
“And he will pay you back?”
“Yes the two florins it costs me.”
“What! The two florins?”
“Eh! Certainly! That and no less. Good evening, my friend!”
“Good evening, shepherd.”
And Frik, whistling his dogs and urging on his flock, struck off rapidly in the direction of Werst.
The Jew, looking at him as he went, shook his head, as if he had been doing a trade with a madman.
“If I had known that,” he murmured, “I should have charged him more for that telescope.”
Then he adjusted his burden on his belt and shoulders and resumed his journey to Karlsburg along the right bank of the Syl.
Where did he go? It matters little. He passed out of this story. We shall meet with him no more.