The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
IN a few minutes the news brought by the shepherd had spread in the village. Master Koltz, carrying the precious telescope, went back into his house, followed by Nic Deck and Miriota. There now remained on the terrace only Frik surrounded by about twenty men, women, and children, among whom were a few Tsiganes, who were not the least excited among the Werst population. They surrounded Frik, they bombarded him with questions, and the shepherd replied with the superb importance of a man who had just seen something quite extraordinary.
“Yes!” he repeated, “the castle was smoking, it still smokes, and it will smoke until not one stone of it remains on another.”
“But who could have lighted the fire?” asked an old woman with her hands clasped.
“The Chort!” said Frik, giving the devil the name he is known by in the district. “And he is the rascal who knows how to light a fire much better than how to put it out!”
And at that reply every one looked to try and find the smoke on the top of the donjon. In the end most of them affirmed they could distinguish it perfectly, although it was quite invisible at that distance.
The effect produced by this singular phenomenon exceeded everything imaginable. It is necessary to insist on this point. The reader must put himself in the place of the people of Werst and he will not be astonished at what follows. I do not ask him to believe in the supernatural, but to understand that this ignorant people believed in it without reservation. To the mistrust inspired by the Castle of the Carpathians, which up to then was supposed to be deserted, was to be added the terror that it now seemed to be inhabited, and by such beings! Good heavens!
There was at Werst a meeting-place frequented by drinkers, and even beloved by those who, without drinking, delighted in talking over matters at the close of the day—the latter in small numbers, be it understood. This place, open to all, was the chief, or rather the only, inn in the village.
Who was the proprietor of this inn? A Jew of the name of Jonas, a fine fellow of about sixty, of pleasing physiognomy, although rather Semitic, with black eyes, hook nose, long lip, smooth hair, and the traditional beard. Obsequious and obliging, he willingly lent little sums to one or the other without being too particular as to security nor too usurious as regards interest, although he expected to be paid on the dates fixed by the borrower. Would to heaven that the Jews in Transylvania were always as accommodating as the innkeeper of Werst!
Unfortunately this excellent Jonas was an exception. His fellows in religion, his brethren by profession—for they are all innkeepers, selling drinks and groceries—carry on the trade of money-lenders with a bitterness that is not promising for the future of the Roumanian peasant. Gradually the land is passing from the native to the foreigner. In default of being repaid their advances, the Jews are becoming the proprietors of the finest farms mortgaged to their advantage; and if the Promised Land is not to be that of Israel, it may one day make its appearance on the maps of Transylvanian geography.
The inn of the “King Mathias”—such is its name—occupies one of the corners of the terrace which crosses the main street of Werst, and is immediately opposite the biro’s house. It is an old structure, half wood, half stone, much patched in places, but a good deal covered with verdure, and of very attractive appearance. It consists only of the ground floor, with a glass door giving access to the terrace. Inside one first entered a large room furnished with tables for the glasses and benches for the drinkers, with a sideboard in varnished oak on which gleamed the dishes, pots, and bottles, and a counter of black wood, behind which Jonas stood ready for his customers.
Light was obtained from two windows which were in the wall facing the terrace, and two others opposite each other in the outer walls. Of these, one was veiled by a thick curtain of climbing and hanging plants, which screened the outer view and only allowed a little light to pass, while the other when opened gave an extensive view over the lower valley of the Vulkan. A few feet below it rolled the tumultuous waters of the Nyad torrent. On one side the torrent descended the slopes of the range from its rise on the plateau of Orgall, which was crowned by the castle buildings; on the other, abundantly fed by the mountain streams, even during summer time it flowed along to the Wallachian Syl, which absorbed it in its course.
On the right, adjoining the large room, a half-dozen of small rooms were enough to accommodate the few travellers w ho before crossing*the frontier desired to rest at the “King Mathias.” They were sure of a good welcome at moderate charges, from an attentive and obliging landlord, who was always well provided with good tobacco, which he bought in the best “trafiks” of the neighbourhood. As for Jonas himself, he occupied a narrow attic, the old-fashioned window of which patched the thatch with flowers, and looked out on to the terrace.
In this inn, on this very night of the 29th of May, there were gathered all the wise-heads of Werst—Master Koltz, Magister Hermod, the forester Nic Deck, a dozen of the chief inhabitants, and also the shepherd Frik, who was not the least important of these personages. Doctor Patak was absent from this meeting of notables. Sent for in all haste by one of his old patients who was only waiting for him in order to pass away into another world, he had agreed to come to the inn as soon as his attentions were no longer necessary to the defunct.
While waiting for the doctor the company talked about the serious event of the day, but they did not talk without eating or drinking. To the hungry Jonas offered that kind of hasty pudding or maize pudding known under the name of “mamaliga,” which is not at all disagreeable when taken with new milk. To the others he offered many a small glass of those strong liqueurs which roll like pure water down Roumanian throats, or “schnapps,” costing about a farthing a glass, and more particularly “rakiou,” a strong spirit from plums, of which the consumption is considerable among the Carpathians.
It should be mentioned that the landlord Jonas—it was the custom of the inn—only served the customers when they were sitting down, as he had observed that seated consumers consume more copiously than consumers on their feet. This evening matters looked promising, for all the seats were full; and Jonas was going from one table to another, jug in hand, filling up the glasses which were constantly empty.
It was half-past eight in the evening. They had been talking since dusk without deciding what they should do. But they were agreed on one point, and that was that if the Castle of the Carpathians was inhabited by the unknown, it had become as( dangerous to Werst as a powder- magazine would be at the gate of a town.
“It is a serious affair,” said Master Koltz.
“Very serious,” said the Magister, between two puffs of his inseparable pipe.
“Very serious,” said the company.
“There is no doubt,” said Jonas, “that the evil repute of the castle does much harm to the country round about—”
“And now,” said Magister Hermod, “there is this thing also—”
“Strangers do not come here often,” said Master Koltz with a sigh.
“And now they will not come at all!” added Jonas, sighing in unison with the biro.
“Some of the people will be going away,” said one of the drinkers.
“I shall go first of all,” said a peasant from the outskirts; “and I will go as soon as I can sell my vines.”
“For which you will find no buyers, old man,” said the tavern-keeper.
One can see what these worthies were driving at in their talk. Amid the personal terrors occasioned them by the Castle of the Carpathians, rose the anxiety for their interests so regrettably injured. If there were no more travellers, Jonas would suffer in the revenue of his inn. If there were no more strangers, Master Koltz would suffer in the receipt of the tolls, which gradually grew less. If there were no more buyers, the owners could not sell their lands even at a low price. That would last for years, and the situation, already very unsatisfactory, would become worse
In fact, if it had been so while the spirits of the castle had kept out of sight, what would it be now that they had manifested their presence by material acts?
Then the shepherd Frik thought he ought to say something, but in a hesitating sort of way,—
”Perhaps we may have to—”
“What?” asked Master Koltz.
“Go there, master, and see.’'’
The company looked at each other, and then lowered their eyes, and the question remained without reply.
Then Jonas, addressing Master Koltz, took up the word in a firm voice.
“Your shepherd,” he said, “has just pointed out the only thing we can do.”
“Go to the castle?”
“Yes, my good friends,” said the innkeeper. “If there is a smoke from the donjon chimney, it is because there is a fire, and if there is a fire it must have been lighted by a hand—”
“A hand!—at least a claw!” said an old peasant, shaking his head.
“Hand or claw,” said the innkeeper, “what does it matter? We must know what it means. It is the first time that smoke has come out of the castle chimneys since Baron Rodolphe of Gortz left it.”
“But there might have been smoke without anybody noticing it,” said Master Koltz.
“That I will never admit!” said Magister Hermod suddenly.
“But it might be,” replied the biro, “if we had not got the telescope to watch what was happening at the castle.”
It was well said. The phenomenon might have happened frequently and escaped even the shepherd Frik, good as were his eyes. But anyhow, whether the said phenomenon were recent or not, it was certain that human beings were actually living at the Castle of the Carpathians; and this fact constituted an extremely disturbing state of things for the inhabitants of Vulkan and Werst.
Then Magister Hermod made this remark in support of his belief,—
“Human beings, my friends? You will allow me not to believe it. Why should human beings think of taking refuge in the castle? for what reason? and how did they get there?”
“What do you think these intruders are, then?” exclaimed Master Koltz.
“Supernatural beings!” said Magister Hermod in an imposing voice. “Why should they not be spirits, goblins, perhaps even those dangerous lamias which present themselves under the form of beautiful women?”
During this enumeration every look was directed towards the door, towards the windows, or towards the chimney of the big saloon of the “King Mathias.” And in truth the company asked themselves if they were not about to see one or other of these phantoms successively evoked by the schoolmaster.
“However, my good friends,” said Jonas, “if these beings are of that kind, I don’t understand why they should have lighted a fire, for they have no cooking to do—”
“And their sorceries?” said the shepherd. “Do you forget that they want a fire for their sorceries?”
“Evidently!” said the Magister in a tone which admitted of no reply.
The reply was accepted without protest, and in the opinion of all there could be no doubt that it must be supernatural and not human beings who had chosen the Castle of the Carpathians as the scene of their operations.
Up to this point Nic Deck had taken no part in the conversation. He had been content to listen attentively to what was said by one and the other. The old castle with its mysterious walls, its ancient origin, its feudal appearance, had always inspired him with as much curiosity as respect. And being very brave, although he was as credulous as any inhabitant of Werst, he had more than once even manifested a desire to enter the old stronghold.
As may be imagined, Miriota had obstinately set her face against so adventurous a project. He might have such ideas when he was free to do as he liked, but an engaged man was no longer his own master, and to embark in such adventures was the act of a madman, not of a lover. But notwithstanding her prayers, the lovely girl was always afraid that the forester would make some such attempt. What reassured her a little was that Nic Deck had not formally declared that he would go to the castle, for no one had sufficient influence over him to stop him—not even herself She knew him to be an obstinate, resolute man, who would never go back on his promise. If he said a thing, the thing was as good as done. And Miriota would have been all anxiety had she suspected what the young man was thinking about.
However, as Nic Deck said nothing, the shepherd’s proposition received no reply. Visit the Castle of the Carpathians now that it was haunted? Who would be mad enough to do that? And all those present discovered the best reasons for not doing anything. The biro was no longer of an age to venture over so rough a road. The magister had to look after his school. Jonas had to look after his inn. Frik had his sheep to attend to; and the other peasants had to busy themselves with their cattle and their pastures.
No! not one would venture, all of them saying to themselves,—
“He who dares go to the castle may never come back!”
At this moment the door suddenly opened to the great alarm of the company.
It was only Doctor Patak, and it would have been difficult to mistake him for one of those bewitching lamias of whom Magister Hermod had been speaking.
His patient being dead—which did honour to his medical acumen, if not to his talent—Doctor Patak had hurried on to the meeting at the “King Mathias.”
“Here he is at last!” said Master Koltz.
Doctor Patak hastily shook hands with everybody, much as if he were distributing drugs, and, in a somewhat ironical tone, remarked,—
“Then, my friends, it is the castle, the Castle of the Chort, you are busy about! Oh! you cowards. But if the old castle wants to smoke, let it smoke! Does not our learned Hermod smoke, and smoke all day? Really, the whole country is in a state of terror! I have heard of nothing else during my visits. Somebody has returned and made a fire over there! And why not, if they have got a cold in the head? It would seem that it freezes in the month of May in the rooms of the donjon, unless there is some bread cooking for the other world. I suppose they want food in that place—that is if they come to life again? Perhaps they are some of the heavenly bakers who have come to start their oven.”
And so on in a series of jests that were much to the distaste of the Werst people, who made no attempt to stop him.
At last the biro asked,—
“And so, doctor, you attach no importance to what is taking place at the castle?”
“None, Master Koltz.”
“Have you never said you are ready to go there—if any one dared you to do so?”
“I?” answered the doctor, with a certain look of annoyance at any one reminding him of his words.
“Yes. Have you not said so more than once?” asked the magister.
“I have said so, certainly, and there is no need to repeat it.”
“But there is need to do it!” said Hermod.
“To do it?”
“Yes; and instead o' daring you, we are content to ask you to do it,” added Master Koltz.
“You understand—my friends, certainly—such a proposal—”
“Well, since you hesitate,” said the innkeeper, we will not ask you—we dare you!”
“Jonas,” said the biro, “you are going too far. There is no need to dare Patak. We know he is a man of his word. What he has said he will do—if only to render a service to the village and to the whole country.”
“But is this serious? You want me to go to the Castle of the Carpathians?” said the doctor, whose red face had become quite pale.
“You cannot get out of it,” said Master Koltz.
“I beg you, my good friends—I beg you to be reasonable, if you please.”
“We are reasonable,” said Jonas.
“Be just, then. What is the use of my going there? What shall I find? A few good fellows have taken refuge in the castle, who are doing no harm to any one—”
“Well,” replied Magister Hermod, “if they are good fellows you have nothing to fear from them, and it will be an opportunity for you to offer them your services.”
“If they need them,” said Doctor Patak, “if they send for me, I should not hesitate to go to the castle. But I do not go without an invitation, and I do not pay visits for nothing.”
“We will pay you,” said Master Koltz, “and at so much an hour.”
“Who will pay me?”
“I will—we will—at any rate you like!” replied the majority of Jonas’s customers.
Evidently, in spite of his bluster, the doctor was as big a coward as the rest of Werst. But after having posed as a superior person, after having ridiculed the popular legends, he found it difficult to refuse the service he was asked to render. But to go to the Castle of the Carpathians, even if he were paid for his journey, was in no way- agreeable to him. He therefore endeavoured to show that the visit would produce no result, that the village was covering itself with ridicule in sending him to explore the castle—but his arguments hung fire.
“Look here, doctor,” said Magister Hermod, “it seems to me you have absolutely nothing to fear. You do not believe in spirits?”
“No; I do not believe in them.”
“Well, then, if they are not spirits who have returned to the castle, they are human beings who have taken up their quarters there, and you can get on all right with them.”
The schoolmaster’s reasoning was logical enough; it was difficult to get out of it.
“Agreed, Hermod,” said the doctor; “but I might be detained at the castle.”
“Then you will be welcomed there,” said Jonas.
“Certainly; but if my absence is prolonged, and if some one in the village wants me—”
“We are all wonderfully well,” said Master Koltz, “and there is not a single invalid in Werst now your last patient has taken his departure for the other world.”
“Speak frankly,” said the innkeeper. “Will you go?
“No, I will not!” said the doctor. “Oh! it is not because I am afraid. You know I have no faith in these sorceries. The truth is, it seems to me absurd, and, 1 repeat, ridiculous. Because a smoke has appeared at the donjon chimney—a smoke which may not be a smoke—certainly not! I will not go to the Castle of the Carpathians.”
“I will go!”
It was the forester Nic Deck who had suddenly joined in the conversation.
“You, Nic?” exclaimed Master Koltz.
“I—but on condition that Patak goes with me.”
This was a direct thrust for the doctor, who gave a jump as if to avoid it.
“You think that, forester?” said he, “I—to go with you? Certainly. It will be a pleasant expedition for both of us, if it is of any use. Look here, Nic, you know well enough there is no road to the castle. We shall not get there.”
“I have said I will go to the castle,” replied Nic Deck, “and as I have said so I will go.”
“But I have not said so!” exclaimed the doctor, struggling as if some one had gripped him by the collar.
“But you have!” said Jonas.
“Yes! yes!” replied the company unanimously.
The doctor, pressed on all sides, did not know how to escape. Ah! how much he regretted that he had so imprudently committed himself by his rodomontades. Never had he imagined they would have been taken seriously, or that he would have to account for them in person. And now there was no chance of escape without becoming the laughing-stock of Werst; and in all the Vulkan district they would badger him unmercifully. He decided to accept the inevitable with a good grace.
“Well, since you wish it,” he said, “I will go with Nic Deck, although it will be useless.”
“Well done, Patak!” shouted all the company at the “King Mathias.”
“And when shall we start, forester?” asked Doctor Patak, affecting to speak in a tone of indifference which poorly disguised his poltroonery.
“To-morrow morning,” said Nic Dec.
These last words were followed by a long silence which showed how real were the feelings of Master Koltz and the others. The glasses were empty, so were the pots, but no one rose, no one thought of leaving the place although it was late, nor of returning home. It occurred to Jonas that there was a good opportunity for serving another round of schnapps and rakiou.
Suddenly a voice was heard distinctly amid the general silence, and these words were slowly pronounced,—
“Nicolas Deck, do not go to the castle to-morrow! Do not go there, or misfortune will happen to you.”
Who was it said this? Whence came the voice which no one knew, and which seemed to come from an invisible mouth? It could not be a voice from a phantom, a supernatural voice, a voice from another world.
Terror was at its height. The men dared not look at one another; they dared not even utter a word.
The bravest—and that evidently was Nic Deck—endeavoured to discover what it all meant. It was evident that the words had been uttered in the room. The forester went up to the box and opened it.
He then looked into the rooms which opened into the saloon.
He opened the door, went outside, ran along the terrace to the main street of Werst.
A few minutes afterwards Master Koltz, Magister Her- mod, Doctor Patak, Nic Deck, Shepherd Frik, and the others had left the inn and its keeper Jonas, who hastened to double-lock the door.
That night, as if they had been menaced by some apparition, the inhabitants of Werst strongly barricaded themselves in their houses.
Terror reigned in the village.