The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
THE village of Werst is of so little importance that most maps do not indicate its position. In administrative rank it is even below its neighbour called Vulkan, from the name of that portion of the Plesa range on which both are picturesquely situated.
At the present time, when the opening up of the coalfield has increased the importance of the towns of Petroseny, Livadzel, and others, a few miles off, neither Vulkan nor Werst has received the least advantage from their proximity to a great industrial centre. What the villages were fifty years ago—what they will doubtless be half a century hence—they are still; and, according to Elisée Reclus, a good half of the Vulkan population consists of “people engaged in watching the frontier—customhouse officers, gendarmes, revenue officers, and quarantine attendants.” Omit the gendarmes and the revenue officers, add a larger proportion of agriculturists, and you will have the population of Werst, consisting of a few hundred inhabitants.
It is a street, this village, nothing but a wide street, the uphill nature of which makes the ascent and descent laborious enough along the road. It serves as the natural thoroughfare between the Wallachian and Transylvanian frontier. Through it pass the cattle and sheep and pigs, the dealers in fresh provisions, fruits, and cereals, the few travellers who venture through the defile instead of taking the Kolosvar and Maros valley railways.
Nature has assuredly generously endowed the district between the mountains of Bihar, Retyezat, and Paring. Rich in the fertility of its soil, it is also rich in its underground wealth. There are salt-mines at Thorda with an annual output of more than twenty thousand tons: Mount Parajd, measuring seven kilometres in circumference at its dome, is entirely formed of chloride of sodium; the mines of Torotzko yield lead, galena, mercury, and especially iron, the beds of which were worked in the tenth century; at Vayda Hunyad are mines whose products can be turned into steel of superior quality; there are coalmines easily worked in the upper strata of the lacustrine valleys of the districts of Hátszeg, Livadzel, and Petroseny, a vast deposit, estimated to contain two hundred and fifty million tons; and, finally, there are gold-mines at Offenbanya, at Topanfalva, the region of the gold-seekers, where thousands of primitive mills are working the sands of Verés-Patak, “The Transylvanian Pactolus,” and exporting every year about two million francs’ worth of the precious metal.
Here is a district that would seem to be greatly favoured by nature, and yet its wealth is of very little profit to its Population, If ţhe more important centres, like Torotzko, Petroseny, and Lonyai, possess a few establishments suited to the comfortable conditions of modern industrial life; if they have regular buildings laid out with rule and line, and outhouses and shops, real workmen’s towns in fact; if they have a certain number of houses with balconies and verandahs, that is not the case at Vulkan or at Werst.
Some sixty houses, irregularly clustering along the only street, capped with a fanciful roof, the ridge overhanging the mud wall, the front towards the garden, an attic with a skylight as a top storey, a dilapidated barn as an annexe: a stable all awry, covered with straw; here and there a well surmounted by a beam from which hangs a bucket; two or three ponds which run over during a storm; streams, of which the tortuous ruts indicate the course; such is the village of Werst, built on both sides of the road between the slanting slopes of the hill. But it is all very fresh and attractive; there are flowers at the doors and windows; curtains of verdure screening the walls; plants in disorder mingling with the old gold of the thatch; poplars, elms, beeches, pines, maples, climbing above the houses as high as they can. Beyond are the zigzagged flanks of the hills, and in the background the tops of the mountains, blue in the distance, and mingling their blue with the sky.
Neither German nor Hungarian is spoken at Werst, nor in any of this part of Transylvania; the people speak Roumanian—even the gipsies do so, of whom a few families are established rather than camped in the different villages of the country. These strangers adopt the language of the country as they adopt thç religion. Those of Werst form a sort of little clan, under the authority of a voivode, with their huts, their “barakas” with pointed roofs, their legions of children, so different in the manners and regularity of their life from those of their congeners who wander about Europe. They even belong to the Greek Church, and conform to the religion of the Christians among whom they have settled. As religious head Werst has a pope, who resides at Vulkan, and superintends the two villages, which are only half a mile apart.
Civilization is like air or water. Wherever there is a passage, be it only a fissure, it will penetrate and modify the conditions of a country. But it must be admitted that no fissure has yet been found through this southern portion of the Carpathians. Vulkan, as Elisée Reclus says, is “the last post of civilization in the valley of the Wallachian Syl, and we need not be astonished at Werst being one of the most backward villages of the county of Kolosvar. And how could it be otherwise in these places, where every one is born and lives and dies without ever leaving them?
But perhaps you will say there is a schoolmaster and a judge at Werst? Yes, without doubt. But Magister Hermod was only able to teach what he knew—that is, to read a little, to write a little, to reckon a little. His personal instruction did not go beyond that. Of science, history, geography, literature, he knew nothing beyond the popular songs and legends of the surrounding country. In that respect his memory was richly stored. He was strong in matters of romance, and the few scholars of the village gained great profit from his lessons.
As to the judge, we may as well say something concerning this chief magistrate of Werst.
The biro, Master Koltz, was a little man, of from fifty- five to sixty years old, a Roumanian by birth, his hair close cut and grey, his moustache still black, his eyes more gentle than fiery. Solidly built, like a mountaineer, he wore the large felt hat on his head, the high belt with ornamental buckle round his waist, the sleeveless vest, and the short baggy breeches tucked into his high leather boots. As much mayor as judge, for his functions obliged him to intervene in the many disputes between neighbour and neighbour, he was chiefly occupied in administering his village with a great show of authority, and not without some benefit to his purse. In fact, all transactions, purchases or sales, were subject to a tax for his benefit, to say nothing of the tolls with which travellers for pleasure or trade filled his pocket.
This lucrative position kept Master Koltz in easy circumstances. If most of the peasants of the country were ground down by the usury of the Israelitish money-lenders, who were the real proprietors of the soil, the biro had managed to escape. His goods were free from hypothecations, “intabulations,” as they are called in the country; and he owed nothing. He would rather have lent than borrowed, and would certainly have done so without fleecing the poor people. He owned several pasturages, good grazing grounds for his flocks; lands under fair cultivation, although he would have nothing to do with the new methods; vineyards which flattered his vanity when he walked down the lines of stocks covered with the grapes he sold at a goodly profit, although he retained a fair proportion for his private consumption.
It need not be said that the house of Master Koltz was the best in the village, at the angle of the terrace which crossed the long road as it ascended. A stone house, if you please, with its façada continued round on to the garden; its door between the third and fourth windows, with the festoons of verdure bordering the gutter with their slender branchlets; with the two great beech-trees spreading their boughs above the flowery thatch. Behind lay a fine orchard, with its beds of vegetables like a chessboard, and its rows of fruit-trees skirting the slope of the hill. Inside the house were fine clean rooms, some to dine in, some to sleep in, with their painted furniture, tables beds, benches and stools, their sideboards, on which shone the pots and dishes; the beams of the ceiling, from which hung vases decorated with ribbons and gaily-coloured stuffs; the heavy coffers, covered with cloths and quilts, which served as chests and cupboards, the white walls, the highly-coloured portraits of Roumanian patriots—amongst others the popular hero of the fifteenth century, the voivode Vayda-Hunyad.
It was a charming house, which would have been too large for a man by himself. But Master Koltz was not alone. A widower for twelve years, he had a daughter, the lovely Miriota, who was much admired from Werst to Vulkan, and even beyond. She might have been called by one of those strange Pagan names, Florica, Daïna, Danritia, which are much in honour in Wallachian families. But no! she was Miriota; that is to say, the little sheep. But she had grown, this little sheep, and was now a graceful girl of twenty, fair, with brown eyes, a gentle look, charming features, and a pleasing figure. In truth, she could not look other than attractive, with her chemisette embroidered with red thread up to the collar and on the wrists and on the shoulders, her petticoat clasped by a belt with silver buckles, her “catrinza,” or double apron, with red and blue stripes, knotted to her waist, her little boots of yellow leather, the light handkerchief on her head, her long hair floating behind her, the plait of which was ornamented with a ribbon or a metal clasp.
Yes! a handsome girl was Miriota Koltz, and—no harm to her—she was rich, that is, for this village lost in the depths of the Carpathians. A good manager? Undoubtedly; for she managed her father’s house in intelligent* fashion. Was she educated? Yes; at Magister Hermod’s school she had learnt to read, to write, to cipher, and she ciphered, wrote, and read correctly; but she had not been pushed very far—and there were reasons for it. On the other hand, she knew about as much as was to be known of the Transylvanian traditions and sagas. She knew as much as her master. She knew the legend of Leany-Ko, the Rock of the Virgin, in which a rather fanciful princess escapes from the pursuit of the Tartars; the legend of the Dragon’s Cave in the Valley of the King’s Stairs; the legend of the fortress of Deva, which was built in the “days of the Fairies;” the legend of the Detunata, the “Thunderclap,” that famous basaltic mountain like a gigantic stone fiddle, on which the devil plays on stormy nights; the legend of Retyezat, with its summit cut down by a witch; the legend of the Valley of Thorda, which was cleft by the stroke of the sword of Saint Ladislas. We must confess that Miriota believed in all these mythological fictions; but she was none the less a charming and amiable girl.
A good many young men of the district found her so, even without considering that she was the only heiress of the biro, Master Koltz, the first magistrate of Werst. But there was no use in paying her attentions. Was she not already engaged to Nicolas Deck?
A handsome type of Roumanian was this Nicolas, or, rather, Nic Deck, twenty-five years of age, tall, strong in constitution, head well set on his shoulders, hair black, covered by the white kolpak, look clear and frank, bearing himself well under his vest of lambskin embroidered with needlework, well set on his slender legs, legs as of a deer, and an air of determination in his gait and gestures. He was a forester by trade; that is to say, almost as much a soldier as a civilian. As he owned a little land under cultivation in the environs of Werst he was approved of by the father, and as he was a good-looking, well-made fellow he was approved of by the daughter, with whom he was deeply in love. He would not allow any one to attempt to rival him, nor to look at her too closely—and no one thought of doing so.
The marriage of Nic Deck and Miriota Koltz was to take place in a fortnight, towards the middle of the approaching month. On that occasion the village would hold a general holiday. Master Koltz would do the thing properly. He was no miser. If he liked getting money, he did not refuse to spend it when opportunity offered. When the ceremony was over Nic Deck would take up his residence in the house which would be his when the biro was gone; and when Miriota knew he was near her, perhaps she would cease to fear, as she heard the creak of a door or the rattling of a window in the long winter nights, that some phantom escaped from her favourite legends was about to put in an appearance.
To complete the list of the notables of Werst, we must mention two more, and these not the least important, the schoolmaster and the doctor.
Magister Hermod was a big man in spectacles, about forty-five years old, having always between his lips the curved stem of his pipe with the porcelain bowl, his hair thin and disordered on a flattish head, his face hairless, with a twitching in the left cheek. His great occupation was cutting the pens of his pupils, whom he forbade to use steel pens on principle. But how he lengthened the nibs with his old pointed pocket-knife! With what precision and winking of his eyes did he give the final touch by cutting the point! Above everything good handwriting—• to that all his efforts were directed; it was to that that a schoolmaster careful of his mission should urge his pupils. Instruction was of secondary importance—and we know what Magister Hermod taught and what the generations of boys and girls learnt on the benches of his school.
And now for the turn of Doctor Patak. What! a doctor at Werst, and yet the village still believed in the supernatural?
Yes; but we may as well be clear as to the title borne by Doctor Patak as we had to be regarding that borne by Judge Koltz.
Patak was a little man with a prominent corporation, short and fat, aged about forty-five, ostensibly acting as medical adviser in Werst and its neighbourhood. With his imperturbable self-confidence, his deafening loquacity he inspired no less confidence than the shepherd Frik—and that is not saying little. He dealt in consultations and drugs; but so harmless were they that they made no worse the petty ailments of his patients, who would have got well had they been left to themselves. People ate healthy enough in these parts; the air is of the first quality, epidemic maladies are there unknown; if people die it is because they must, even in this privileged corner of Transylvania. As to Doctor Patak—yes, they called him doctor!—although he was accepted as such, he had had no education either in medicine or in pharmacy or in anything. He was merely an old quarantine attendant, whose occupation consisted in looking after the travellers detained on the frontier for health purposes. Nothing more. That, it appeared, was enough for the easy-going people of Werst. It should be added—and there is nothing surprising in it—that Doctor Patak was a wideawake fellow, as is usually the case with one who has to look after other people. And he believed in none of the superstitions current in the Carpathian district, not even in those that were cherished in the village. He laughed at them, he made fun of them. And when he was told that no one had dared to approach the castle from time immemorial, he would say,—
“You must not dare me to visit the old hovel!”
But as they did not dare him, as they carefully kept from daring him, Doctor Patak had never been there, and with the help of credulity the Castle of the Carpathians remained enveloped in impenetrable mystery.