The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne


IT matters not whether we are dealing with native rocks piled up by natural means in distant geological epochs, or with constructions due to the hand of man over which the breath of time has passed, the effect is much the same when viewed from a few miles off. Unworked stone and worked stone may easily be confounded. From afar, the same colour, the same lineaments, the same deviations of line in the perspective, the same uniformity of tint under the grey patina of centuries.

And so it was with this castle, otherwise known as the Castle of the Carpathians. To distinguish the indefinite outlines of this structure on the plateau of Orgall, which crowns the left of Vulkan Hill, was impossible. It did not stand out, in relief from the background of mountains. What might have been taken as a donjon was only a stony mound; what might be supposed to be a curtain with its battlements might be only a rocky crest. The mass was vague, floating, uncertain. And in the opinion of many tourists the Castle of the Carpathians existed only in the imagination of the country people.

Evidently the simplest means of assuring yourself as to its existence would have been to have bargained with a guide from Vulkan or Werst, to have gone up the valley, scaled the ridge, and visited the buildings. But a guide would have been as difficult to find as the road leading to the castle. In the valley of both Syls no one would have agreed to be guide to a traveller, for no matter what remuneration, to the Castle of the Carpathians.

What they would have seen of this ancient habitation in the field of a telescope more powerful and better focussed than the trumpery thing bought by the shepherd Frik on account of his master Koltz, was this

Some 800 or 900 feet in the rear of Vulkan Hill lay a grey enclosure, covered with a mass of wall plants, and extending for from 400 to 500 feet along the irregularities of the plateau; at each end were two angular bastions, in the right of which grew the famous beech close by a slender watch-tower or look-out with a pointed roof; on the left a few patches of wall, strengthened by flying buttresses, supporting the tower of a chapel, the cracked bell of which was often sounded in high winds to the great alarm of the district; in the midst, crowned by its crenellated platform, a heavy, formidable donjon, with three rows of leaded windows, the first storey of which . as surrounded by a circular terrace; on the platform a long metal spire, ornamented with a feudal virolet, or weathercock, stationary with rust, which a last puff of the north-west wind had set pointing to the south-east.

As to what was contained in this enclosure, if there was any habitable building within, if a drawbridge or a postern gave admittance to it, had been unknown for a number of years. In fact, although the Castle of the Carpathians was in better preservation than it seemed to be, an infectious terror, doubled by superstition, protected it as much as it had formerly been by its basilisks, its grasshoppers, its bombards, its culverins, its thunderers, and other engines of mediaeval artillery.

But, nevertheless, the Castle of the Carpathians was well worth visiting by tourists and antiquaries. Its situation on the crest of the Orgall plateau was exceptionally fine. From the upper platform of the keep, or donjon, the view extended to the farthest point of the mountains. In the rear undulated the lofty chain, so capriciously spurred, which serves as the frontier of Wallachia. In front lay the sinuous defile of the Vulkan, the only practicable route between the frontier provinces. Beyond the valley of the two Syls lay the towns of Livadzel, Lonyai, Petroseny, and Petrilla, grouped at the mouths of the shafts by which this rich coal-basin is worked. In the distance lay an admirable series of ridges, wooded to their bases, green on their flanks, barren on their summits, commanded by the rugged peaks of Retyezat and Paring. Far away beyond the valley of the Hatszeg and the course of the Maros, appeared the distant mist-clad outlines of the Alps of Central Transylvania.

Hereabouts the depression of the ground formerly formed a lake into which the two Syls flowed before they found a passage through the chain. Nowadays this depression is a coal-field with its advantages and inconveniences: the tall brick chimneys rise amid the poplars, pines, and beeches, and black fumes poison the air which once was saturated with the perfumes of fruit-trees and flowers. But at the time of our story, although industry was holding the mining district under its iron hand, nothing had been lost of the country’s wild character which was its by nature.

The Castle of the Carpathians dated from the twelfth or thirteenth century. In those days, under the rule of the chiefs or voivodes, monasteries, churches, palaces, castles were fortified with as much care as the towns and villages. Lords and peasants had to secure themselves against aggression of all kinds. This state of affairs explains why the old fortifications of the castle, its bastions and its keep, gave it the’ appearance of a feudal building. What architect would have built on this plateau at this height? We know not, and the bold builder is unknown, unless it was the Rouman Manoli, so gloriously sung of in Wallachian legend, and who built at Curté d’Argis the celebrated castle of Rodolphe the Black.

Whatever doubts there might be as to the architect, there were none as to the family who owned the castle. The barons of Gortz had been lords of the country from time immemorial. They were mixed up in all the wars which ensanguined the Transylvanian fields; they fought against the Hungarians, the Saxons, the Szeklers; their name figures in the “cantices” and “doines,’ in which is perpetuated the memory of these disastrous times. For their motto they had the famous Wallachian proverb, Da pe maorte, “Give unto death and they gave; they poured out their blood for the cause of independence, the blood which came to them from the Romans their ancestors.

As we know, all their efforts of devotedness and sacrifice ended only in reducing the descendants of this valiant race to the most unworthy oppression. It no longer exists politically. Three heels have crushed it. But these Wallachians of Transylvania have not despaired of shaking off the yoke. The future belongs to them, and it is with unshakable confidence that they repeat these words in which are concentrated all their aspirations: “Roman no péré!” (the Rouman does not know how to perish).

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the last representative of the lords of Gortz was Baron Rodolphe. Born at the Castle of the Carpathians, he had seen the family die away around him in the early years of his youth. When he was twenty-two years old he found himself alone in the world. His people had fallen off year by year, like the branches of the old beech-tree with which popular superstition associated the very existence of the castle. Without relatives, we might even say without friends, what could Baron Rodolphe do to occupy the leisure of this monotonous solitude that death had made around him? What were his tastes, his instincts, his aptitudes? It would not have been easy to discover any beyond an irresistible passion for music, particularly for the singing of the great artistes of the period. And so, after having entrusted the castle, then much dilapidated, to the care of a few old servants, he one day disappeared. And, as was discovered later on, he had devoted his wealth, which was considerable, to visiting the chief lyrical centres of Europe, the theatres of Germany, France, and Italy, where he could indulge himself in his insatiable dilettante fancies. Was he an oddity, or a madman? The strangeness of his life led people to suppose so.

But the remembrance of his country was deeply engraven on the heart of the young lord of Gortz. In his distant wanderings he had not forgotten his Transylvanian birthplace. And he had returned to take part n one of the sanguinary revolts of the Roumanian peasantry against Hungarian oppression.

The descendants of the ancient Dacians were conquered, and their territory shared among the conquerors.

It was in consequence of this defeat that Baron Rodolphe finally left the Castle of the Carpathians, certain parts of which had already fallen into ruin. Death soon deprived the castle of its last servants and it was totally deserted. As to the Baron de Gortz, the report went that he had patriotically associated himself with the famous Rosza Sandor, an old highwayman, whom the war of independence had made a dramatic hero. Happily for him, at the close of the struggle Rodolphe de Gortz had separated from the band of the “betyar,” and he had done wisely, for the old brigand had again become a robber, and ended by falling into the hands of the police, who shut him up in the prison of Szamos-Uyvar.

Nevertheless, another version was generally believed in in the country, to the effect that Baron Rodolphe had been killed during an encounter between Rosza Sandor and the custom-house officers on the frontier. This was not so, although the Baron de Gortz had never appeared at the castle since that time, and his death was generally taken for granted. But it is wise not to accept without considerable reserve the gossip of this credulous people.

A castle deserted, haunted, and mysterious,. A vivid and ardent imagination had soon peopled it with phantoms; ghosts appeared in it, and spirits returned to it at all hours of the night. Such opinions are still common in certain superstitious countries of Europe, and Transylvania is one of the most superstitious.

A castle deserted, haunted, and mysterious

Besides, how could the village of Werst put off its belief in the supernatural? The pope and the schoolmaster, the one charged with the education of the faithful, the other charged with the education of the children, taught their fables as openly as if they believed in them thoroughly. They affirmed, and even produced “corroborative evidence” that were-wolves prowled about the country; that vampires known as stryges, because they shrieked like stryges, quenched their thirst on human blood; that “staffii” lurked about ruins and became vindictive if something to eat and drink were not left for them every night. There were fairies, “babes” who should not be met with on Thursdays or Fridays, the two worst days in the week. In the depths of the forests, those enchanted forests, there wandered the “balauri,” those gigantic dragons whose jaws gape up to the clouds, the “zmei” with vast wings, who carry away the daughters of the royal blood, and even those of meaner lineage when they are pretty! Here, it would seem, were a number of formidable monsters, and what is the good genius opposed to them in the popular imagination? Simply the “serpi de casa,” the snake of the fireside, which lives at the back of the hearth, and whose healthy influence the peasant purchases by feeding him with the best milk.

If ever a castle was a fitting refuge for the creatures of this Roumanian mythology, was it not the Castle of the Carpathians? On that isolated plateau, inaccessible except from the left of Vulkan Hill, there could be no doubt that there lived dragons and fairies and stryges, and probably a few ghosts of the family of the barons of Gortz. And so it had an evil reputation, which it deserved, as they said. No one dared to visit it. It spread around it a terrible epidemic as an unhealthy marsh gives forth its pestilential emanations. Nothing could approach it within a quarter of a mile without risking its life in this world and its salvation in the next. At least so it was taught in the school of Magister Hermod.

So it was taught in the school of Magister Hermod

But at the same time this state of things was to end eventually, and that as soon as no stone remained of the ancient stronghold of the barons of Gortz. And here it was that the legend came in.

If we were to believe the authorities of the village of Werst, the existence of the castle was bound up with that °f the old beech-tree which grew in the bastion to the right of the enclosure. Since the departure of Rodolphe de Gortz, the people of the village, and more especially the shepherd Frik, had observed it—this beech-tree had lost one of its main branches every year. There were eighteen from the first fork when Baron Rodolphe was seen for the last time on the platform of the keep, and now the tree had only three. Consequently every branch that fell meant a year less in the castle’s life. The fall of the last would mean the final dissolution; and then on the plateau of Orgall the remains of the Castle of the Carpathians would be sought in vain.

Evidently this was but one of those legends which spring up so readily in Roumanian imagination. In the first place it remained to be proved that this beech-tree did really lose one of its branches a year, although Frik did not hesitate to assert that it did, he who never lost sight of it while his flock pastured in the meadows of the Syl. Nevertheless, from the highest to the lowest of the people of Werst, none doubted that the castle had but three years to live, for only three branches could now be counted on the tutelary tree.

Thus it was that the shepherd had started on his return, to the village with the important news when there occurred the incident of the telescope.

Important news, very important news in fact! Smoke had appeared above the donjon! That which his eyes alone had not been able to notice, Frik had distinctly seen with the pedlar’s telescope. It was no vapour but real smoke which had risen into the clouds! And yet the castle was deserted. For a long time no one had entered the gate, which was doubtless shut, nor crossed the drawbridge, which was doubtless up. If it were inhabited it could only be by supernatural beings. But what use could spirits have for a fire in the rooms of the keep? Was it a fire in a room? Was it a kitchen fire? Really it was inexplicable.

Frik hurried his sheep along the road; at his voice the dogs urged the flock up the rising track, the dust of which had been laid by the evening moisture.

A few peasants, delayed in the fields, greeted him as he passed, and he scarcely replied to them. And consequently there was much uneasiness, for if you would avoid evil influences, it is not enough to say “Good evening” to a shepherd, but the shepherd must say it to you. And Frik did not appear much inclined to do so, as he hurried on with his haggard eyes, his curious gait, and his excited gestures. The wolves and the bears might have walked off with half his flock without his noticing it.

The first who learnt the news was Judge Koltz. From afar Frik saw him and shouted,—

“There is a fire at the castle, master!”

“What do you say?”

“I say what there is.”

“Have you gone mad?”

And how could a fire break out in such a heap of old stones? As well assert that Negoi, the highest peak of the Carpathians, had been devoured by flames. It would have been no more absurd.

You suppose that the castle is on fire?” asked Master Koltz.

“If it is not on fire, it smokes.”

“It is some vapour.”

“No; it is smoke. Come and see!”

And they went into the middle of the main road of the village, near the terrace, from which the castle could be observed.

When they got there Frik held out the telescope to Master Koltz.

Frik held out the telescope to Master Koltz

Evidently the use of this instrument was no more known to him than it had been to his shepherd,

“What is that?” he said.

“A machine I bought for you for two florins, master, and it is well worth four.”

“Of whom?”

“A pedlar.”

“And what is it to do?”

“Put it to your eye, look straight at the castle, and you will see.”

The judge levelled the telescope at the castle and looked through it for some time.

Yes! There was certainly smoke rising from one of the chimneys of the donjon. At this moment it was being blown away by the breeze and floating up the flank of the mountain.

“Smoke!” said Master Koltz, astonished. But now he and Frik had been joined by Miriota and the forester, Nic Deck, who had been indoors for some time.

“What is the use of this?” asked the young man, taking the telescope.

“To see with afar off,” said the shepherd.

“Are you joking?”

“Joking? Hardly an hour ago I saw you coming down the road into Werst. You and—”

He did not finish his sentence. Miriota had blushed and lowered her pretty eyes. After all, there was no harm in an honest young girl going to meet her betrothed.

Both of them took the famous telescope, and looked through it at the castle.

Meanwhile half a dozen neighbours had arrived on the terrace, and, after many questions as to what it all meant, took a look through the telescope in turn.

“A smoke! A smoke at the castle!” said one.

“Perhaps the lightning has struck the donjon!” said another.

“Has there been any thunder?” asked Master Koltz, addressing Frik.

“Not a sound for a week,” said the shepherd.

And the good folks could not have been more startled if a crater had opened on the summit of Retyezat to give passage to the subterranean vapours.