"I wouldn't mind it so much if you were of some importance or if you came from anywhere noteworthy," my better self said to me; "but as things are, though you're a mere figure of clay endowed with eyes, a handful of animated humus come from a village in our countryside, you will not keep quiet, but will batter people's ears with your boorish sayings!"
"I will not keep quiet, conscience mine, for I am an ordinary, normal man, born of two people; and the village of Humuleşti, where I first saw the light of day, is no out-of-the way, joyless village, with no outlook on the world like some other villages, and the places round about our village deserve to be remembered too. Above Humuleşti, there is Vīnătorii Neamţului, where the seed of such men as formerly harried Sobieski, the king of the Poles, still lives on. Still further north are the monasteries of Secu and Neamţ, once the chief glory of the church of Romania and a second treasury of Moldavia. To the south, you've got the villages of Boişte and Ghindăoani, where people will only harness Hungarian oxen, no less, to their carts; where the ploughs will stand unguarded in the fields for weeks on end, the beehives will need no beekeepers, the corn fields no watchman and not a thing be taken; and the people in those villages know nothing of law-suits. Close by Boişte is the village of Blebea, more than half of whose inhabitants, if they drop their fur-cap into the water, can afford to say: "That's for father, God rest his soul!"
To the south-west you have the convents: Agapia, hidden away from the world, Văratec, where Brāncoveanu's rich and bountiful wife spent her life; and the villages of Filioara with its forest-path trodden by those does with their long eyelashes, running loose from the nunnery; Bălţăteşti, famous for its salt-mines, and Ceahlăeşti, Topoliţa and Ocea, where the people chase the crow away over their boundaries after it has got the plum in its beak. Up north, beyond the waters of the Ozana, there's Tīrgu Neamţ and its outlying districts: Pometea under the Cociorva hill, where every house has a large orchard; Ţuţuieni, whose people have come from across the mountains, who eat rancid bacon, get their livelihood from rearing sheep and dressing their wool, and are famous for their oil presses; Condreni with the water-mills on the Nemţişor and the fulling-mills for the fulling of cloth. Above Condreni, on the top of a hill full of ravines, stands the famous Castle of Neamţ in its wild countryside, where the lightning plays and where in summer the cattle driven thither by the gadflies live, watched over by the rooks and the hawks who've found it a good place to build their nests. But that's no concern of mine, a son of Humuleşti. My task lies elsewhere; I wish to give an account of our village, and of the boyhood I spent there, and then make an end.
All the princes and metropolitans that have succeeded each other upon the thrones of Moldavia since this country began, have had to pass through Humuleşti at least once, on their way to the monasteries, to say nothing of other people who've journeyed through our village, wealthy, select people, visiting the Neamţ monastery and its icon that works wonders, its bedlam, its festival on Ascension Day, when there's a fair going on in the town at the same time. Also Humuleşti was on the road to various fairs such as Piatra on Whit Sunday and Fălticeni on St. Elijah's Day; to patronal festivals at Secu, Beheading of St.John the Baptist, at Apagia-on-theHill, the Transfiguration of Our Lord, at Agapia-in-the-Vale, Saints Constantine and Helen, and at Văratic, St. Mary's Dayan endless stream of people! All the sanctifyings and dedications of churches; all the synods and the successions of clerical and political personalities; all the strangers from the world over, all the hearts urged on by unfulfilled aspirations, all the broken and misguided souls that found their way to the monasteries, all these brought people through our village. People, people, people without end. Foreign armies and a troop of soldiers on horseback, all high-ranking Germans in gold-embroidered cloth, they all went through Humuleşti in the days of my boyhood, with drawn swords, making for the convents to look for beautiful Natalia; and they made a great to-do in the convents and ransacked all the cells of the nuns, but could not find her; for the cellars of Pīrvu, the watchman, at Tīrgu Neamţ could hide a young princess, in time of need. And it was a good thing the nuns were there and that they knew how to appease them with gentle words, persuading them to put up their swords by telling them that those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword.
But why should I bother my head with kings and emperors, instead of thinking of my boyhood at Humuleşti and of getting down to what concerns me? That's what I ought to have done from the outset, but I was anxious to prove that the people of Humuleşti do not live like bears in their lairs but have the happiness of seeing all sorts and conditions of men.
In 1852 on the day when the chapel of the hospital at Tīrgu Neamţ was being consecrated and the Prince's school was being opened, I was one of several boys who had a part to play in the church service, and we stood near Prince Ghica who was present at the ceremony with a whole throng of people round him. We could not take our eyes off him; and he, good-looking and gentle, seeing us all arrayed in embroidered shirts, as white as ermine, and fine sleeveless sheepskin tunics, in tight trousers of the finest wool and wearing our sandals, clean as new pins, with our hair well brushed, with modesty written upon our countenances and the fear of God in our hearts, gave us a fatherly look saying:
"Now children, you have a school and a holy church, the fountainheads of consolation and spiritual happiness; make good use of them, cultivate your minds and praise the Lord!"
These words spoken by those princely lips imprinted themselves deeply upon the hearts of the people there present, and without delay the school was soon filled with boys who were anxious to learn, myself among them, excelling everyone in pranks and laziness; I'd grown so lazy that my equal was nowhere to be found, because mother wouldn't let me so much as fetch a tubful of water in her anxiety that I should study and become a priest, like Father Isaiah Duhu, our teacher. Father Duhu was a kind man when he was in the right mood, God rest him! He kept the boys in such order as had never been seen before. In summer, out of his own money, he would buy punnets of raspberries and all kinds of fruit, for us to eat, and practically every Saturday he would pack the lot of us into a lumbering old coach belonging to the Neamţ monastery and' would take us to the abbot's lodgings to be examined in the presence of abbot Neonil, a lame old man who gently advised us to stick to the book of prayers and the psalter. For all other reading, he used to say, was mere heretical learning which rather tended to trouble and embitter a man's soul. Yet it was written that Father Duhu should not follow the advice of the holy abbot to the letter, but that he should teach us a bit of arithmetic, grammar, geography and a little of everything according to our understanding.
One day, Father Duhu returned in a fury from the abbey and set us the following problem to illustrate the rule of three:
"If one para wrongfully deducted equals a hundred rightfully earned ones, then how many honest paras are there in six thousand lei (my yearly salary), that have unlawfully been kept back by abbot Neonil and which the Neamţ abbey shall eventually be made to disgorge?"
"Twenty-four million paras, Father, or six hundred thousand lei," one of us answered, chalk in hand, at the blackboard.
"I want Nică Oşlobanu to check that sum," said Father Duhu.
Nică Oşlobanu, a great, big, lumbering fellow, got up, as usual, and begged to be excused since his head was bad. And I don't quite know how it came about, but a big "bear" tumbled out of the front of his shirt and rolled upon the floor; not a bear such as gipsies train to dance at fairs, but a round ball of mămăligă with cheese inside it, cooked over live coals, and just the thing to put into your stomach when you're hungry. The boys made for it, Oşlobanu dived at them to get it back, and there followed such a scrum and such laughter in the classroom because of that "bear", as you've never seen.
At this I can see Father Duhu in my mind's eye, slapping his forehead and saying with the most enormous sighs:
"It's my great and grievous sins that have driven me into this place to teach these savage bumpkins! You'd have been a thousand times happier, Isaiah, grazing pigs at Cogeasca Veche than living to see such days! And you, Oşlobanu, you stupid lout, a slave to your belly and taking no trouble whatsoever over your mind, you'll be a priest like your father before you, when all the buffalos at the Neamţ monastery have turned hermits."
Oşlobanu, stupid though he was, wouldn't let anyone touch him or if they did he'd begin pawing the dust in front of him, like a buffalo. As soon as he got home that evening he told his father what Father Isaiah had been saying. The rest could be left to Parson Niculai Oşlobanu, who might not know very much and who rushed through three services every day and prayed for the souls of the dead wholesale, so that monks and ecclesiastics, abbots, and metropolitans with their wives and children, would be turning in their graves.
One morning what did Father Duhu get up to if not to taking Teofan, another monk from the chapel of the hospital, with him and go to the church of Saint Lazarus below Castle Hill. No sooner did they enter the church than they started picking a quarrel with Parson Oşlobanu, who was officiating, because he wouldn't stick to the ritual.
"Ritual, you hypocritical pot-bellies? I'll give you ritual, that I will," Parson Oşlobanu said, putting saintliness by. "By cunning machinations you filched the Holy Martyr Demetrius Fountainhead of the Holy Ointment, from us, and instead of this renowned saint you have given us Lazarus, a ragged Jew, who keeps on dying and resurrecting, and resurrecting and dying again, so that no one will pay heed to him any longer. And that's a patron saint, is it? Moreover, having left us penniless by taking away our lands and putting a wall round the church, you now close the gates of the hospital too, just to spite us; nay, they have even stopped our bells ringing because of these hounds, the doctors; and it's your doing, too, that the parishioners have dropped away one by one, so that not even a blear-eyed hag ever drops in any more! And what's more: for sixty years and over I've been serving the church and you're to teach me the ritual now, you vipers, are you? Just wait and I'll drive those high and mighty notions out of your heads!" And whistling through the air at the monks' heads came the great Ecclesiastical Code. Then, catching up a sturdy brass candlestick, he was at their heels to put a curse upon them! And just watch Father Duhu and Teofan dropping their slippers, crawling out on all fours rather than running, as the ritual forsooth lays down!
Next day Nică Oşlobanu never came near the school; nor din Father Duhu ever go to St. Lazarus's, for Parson Oşlobanu would have had him nailed on the cross and laid in store in the church loft, side by side with some of the icons left over from Neamţ Castle.
I've a shrewd idea that the old man was quite right: for on the spot where St. Lazarus's now stood there had once been a church built of wood, dedicated to St. Demetrius, founded and endowed with lands by Prince Vasile Lupu, just like ours at Humuleşti. But the Neamţ monastery in its shrewdness, when building the hospitals at Tīrgu-Neamţ, rebuilt St. Demetrius's church of stone, changing its patron saint and calling it St. Lazarus's, included it in the precincts of the hospital by surrounding it with a wall, and St. Demetrius became patron saint to the hospital chapel; while they swallowed up the ecclesiastical lands as well as the Humuleşti lands. And thus it was that the wrath of Parson Oşlobanu had reached its zenith; no trace of monk would he allow in his own church; he'd sooner have skinned them! Father Duhu had narrowly escaped being turned into a martyr, to replace St. Demetrius, the fountainhead of the Holy Ointment!
Shortly after this we heard that Nică Oşlobanu had gone to the seminary at Fălticeni, would you believe it! My cousin Ion Mogorogea, Gātlan, Trăsnea and other acquaintances of mine had gone there already, at their parents' expense, of course. As to myself, now left without any friends to get up to mischief with and, moreover, having received a good thrashing from Father Isaiah out of the blue, I would nag at mother to put in a word with father, so that I might go to the seminary as well, though I was no bigger than twopenny-worth of coppers. The young clerics were supposed to bring as an offering to the Reverend Principal at the "priest factory" at Fălticeni gold coins, beehives, sheep, horses, oxen and similar oddments, turned into coin of the realm. Then you could rely upon His Holiness and be sure to pop up, like a Jack-in-the-box, with all the necessary clerical learning. But in my case father gave just two measures of rye and two of oats to those in charge to enter me at Fălticeni, for schooling was just a manner of speaking; the oxen and other presents were what really mattered.
Upon reaching the place late in the autumn, I took lodgings with Pavel the cobbler, in Rădăşeni Street, where my friends were quartered.
The principal, who used to play cards till all hours, rarely came to the school. We scholars, seeing this, went still more rarely, yet scrapes and pranks there were in plenty.
Pavel was a bachelor and his house was roomy enough. There were benches and beds all round the walls, and one more by the stove, and they were all taken. Our host, after working the whole day through, would take it easy upon the stove, among boot-trees, shoemaker's lasts, sole-extenders, a shoemaker's table, knives, sharp double-bladed knives, sleeking-steels, straps, pegs and wedgeshaped pieces of leather, needles, prongs, tongs, files, shoemaker's hammers, leather, thread, a broken plate with green vitriol, cobbler's wax and all things necessary to shoemaking.
Bodrīngă, a shiftless old man, but full of fun, was also living with us. For a bit of food and some cheap tobacco, the kind that's sold at six pounds a para, he would do the chores for the whole household; he would saw wood, light the fires, fetch water, sweep the room arid tell us stories all night long crouching with his nose almost into the embers. He would play the flute too: the doina1 that sends shivers down your back, the Corabiasca, Măriuţa, Horodinca, Alivencile, Tiitura, Ca la uşa cortului2, dance-songs and many more such jigging ones as these; and we would dance till the floor sweated and the soles of our boots wore out, and the heels too, for I was now wearing boots, if you please. And what with that sly, waggish old man Bodrīngă, Pavel could hardly get through the mending of them; what's more, he too, once in a while, taking leave of his senses, would make a mess of his own boots dancing with us.
It was once Oşlobanu's turn to buy fire-wood. And in spite of his utter meanness he willy-nilly stepped out upon the open space near our lodgings and came upon a peasant from Sasca, I believe, or from Baia, with a cart loaded with beech-logs.
"How much do you want for the cartload, my good man?" said Oşlobanu, who had as little intention of buying wood as I now have of taking orders.
"Three husaşi, master."
"You don't say so, my good man! All that for an armful of wood! I could heave that lot on my back and carry it home at one go."
"If you carry that, master, I'll let you have it for nothing."
"You mean what you say, do you, my good man?"
"I'm not joking, master; we'll see if you can carry it and then you're welcome to it."
Oşlobanu then took the logs out of the man's cart one by one and balanced them against his shoulder, then he undid the waistband that was wound round his middle and put it round them binding them neatly so that they should not fall asunder, then lifting and heaving with some difficulty he got them on his back and went off home with them!
A cheeky boy who was looking on said in a loud voice:
The peasant meanwhile stood crossing himself openmouthed without so much as uttering one word.
Now I can't tell you exactly how heavily loaded that cart was with wood, which in that place was worth seven and a half lei at that time of the year, nor how big and strong Nică Oşlobanu was and some sixty more lads like him, many of whom having left their wives and a couple of children in some forsaken mountain village, had come to Fălticeni to better themselves with book learning.
A fine place for learning that was and no mistake! Some would drone church chants, putting on airs, you know:
Ison, oligon, petasti
till they were as hoarse as crows; others would blurt out the seven mysteries in the great catechism in one breath and with their eyes shut. Gatlan would fight with Goliath the giant in his sleep. In less time than it took him to make his mămăligă, that bewhiskered David of Fīrcaşa would finish reciting at full speed, without stumbling, the whole history of the Old Testament, divided into periods, by Filaret Scriban, and the conjunctive pronouns in the dative and accusative according to Măcărescu's grammar book: mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, me-te-īl-o, ne-ve-i-le; me-te-īl-o, ne-ve-i-le, mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, whatever that may be, dash it all! Some boys would mumble like mad till they were dizzy in the head, others would never stop bellowing it out, till their eyesight grew dim, some would move their lips as if laid low by the falling sickness, most would walk about distracted or sit in a brown study seeing how they were wasting their time, and they would just utter a deep sigh, well knowing all the hardships in store for them at home. For such maddening of brains and twisting of tongues as these unhappy seminarists were put to, I never saw the like. A terrible way to stultify the mind, God alone knows!
It was a real pleasure to look upon young David, that lad from the mountain with his forked beard and his fine whiskers, his curly hair as black as a raven's feather, his high, pure forehead, his bushy eyebrows, his large eyes, as black as mulberries, flashing like lightning, his ruddy cheeks like two peonies, tall of stature, broad in the shoulders, slim in the waist, pliant like a birch-tree, light-footed as a doe and timid as a girl. God rest him! It was not his lot to take orders; he died, poor fellow, before his time, smothered under the conjunctive pronounsmay they nevermore be heard offor they have eaten alive that very jewel of a young man! Far more sensible was Mirăuţă of Grozăveşti, who would loaf about in the bitterest cold of winter, calling at every Jewish booth, for fun: here he would ask for a straight sheath for his curved pruning knife, there for a halter for fleas, at another place it was for nails out of Noah's Ark, now wild strawberries or cultivated strawberries for someone who's gone out of his mind; or he would sing to spite the Jews:
The beetle I can just
And many more such devilries that would come into his mind. He wasn't such a fool as to waste his strength upon mi-ţi-i, mi-vi-li, me-te-īl-o, ne-ve-i-le, as young David had done.
Like Mirăuţă I wouldn't take that much trouble to kill myself with book learning; for no children were crying for me at home, nor had I given the principal that much of a premium.
Two bushels of rye and two more of oats were no reason for my refraining from consoling the priest's daughter at Fălticenii Vechi.
What's more, when I looked into the mirror, there was not a hair or whisker on my face, though I would singe the down on it and rub in a mixture of tallow, burnt wick and burnt hazelnut every nightit was all of no avail. For the truth of the matter was that having joined that sort of a school it was only a long beard and a long pursethe more's the pitythat could turn you into a priest!
As to Trăsnea, the trouble he had with grammar, poor soul! He once said to me in deep despair:
"I say, Ştefănescu" (that's what they called me at Fălticeni) "let's stay away from school today, for I don't know the multiplication table and I want to learn the grammar for tomorrow. Please, please do come along with me, out by Fălticenii Vechi. We'll study together or each on his own; I'll do grammar and you do whatever you want, and then you'll question me and we'll see if some of it has stuck in my poor head. That won't do anything about the other subjects that I can't cope with very well, what with this new alphabet4 that's come in, but this damned grammar is turning my hair grey, curse it! I wish it were burnt to ashes! What's the use of it in church anyway? However, it's in the syllabus. I'll begin at the beginning and maybe with your help who've been through Father Duhu's school, I'll get the hang of it."
As Fălticenii Vechi held some special attraction for me, I agreed with Trăsnea and off we started. A dry frost had set in, in the month of November, and there was a cutting wind that day that set your cheeks afire! As soon as we reached the fields, Trăsnea lay down on a footpath and started on the grammar right at the beginning, first question, first answer:
Question: What is Romanian grammar?
Answer: It is the art that teaches us to speak and to write a language correctly.
Or, according to another edition:
Grammar is a discipline that shows us how to speak and write well in a language.
That's that; from prayer book and psalter, and those poorly enough gone through, you passed on to grammar, and what grammar! Not like the ones we have today, a whole lot of grammars, some "rational", some "fully developed" and chockfull of compliments5 which, we must say, and no compliment, do explain... so that you no longer understand a thing; these are expressly conceived for children, and child's play they are too, they're so easy! But what's the use of talking about them? No such luck for Trăsnea to deal in choice methods. He, poor devil, had to learn his sort of grammar: "art, correct, in a language; a syllable is a complete sound, simple or compounded with one of the consonants, or with several consonants, which is nevertheless uttered in a single emission of breath." While in a different edition: "By a syllable we understand the utterance of a part of speech, etc."6
Well, well! now clear your voice and do your best, brother Trăsnea, if you can. And upon the third page there stands, already, another piece of nonsense:
Question: How many divisions has Romanian grammar?
Answer: Romanian grammar has four divisions which are: 1. etymology, 2. syntax, 3. orthography, 4. prosody.
Question: What does each division teach?
Etymology teaches us the parts of speech, that is grammatical
Then came mi-ţi-i, ni-vi-li, me-te-īl-o, ne-ve-i-le. And many more such ridiculous inventions.
Now if you consider that Trăsnea was advanced in years, a perfect swot and somewhat hard of understanding, that the teacher, who would himself wonder at his being a teacher, used to say: "From here, down to...," as I believe they still do in some places to this very day, then maybe you won't be hard either on the grammarian, or on the teacher, or on Trăsnea; but on the accident that turned out people such as they are: either steel blades or tin ones. And do you think Trăsnea would read question and answer, in turn, slowly and distinctly so that something intelligible could come of it?
Not so, you pagans, but this way: "What is grammar, Romanian, it is... what is, it is... art, not art; art... art... which... which... which teaches us; teaches... teaches... what does it teach; to speak... eak... eak... that teaches...; what is, is... is art, the devil! not art, the art that teaches... what is, is..." And ever thus, mumbling at great speed, stuttering and never stopping to think for a minute; he would seldom reach "to write a language correctly", poor fellow! And when he'd completely addled his brains, he asked me to question him for he knew it all. Then I'd take the book out of his hand and ask: "What is grammar, Trăsnea?" And he, shutting his eyes, would blurt out quickly and mournfully, like a beggar at a bridge:
"What is Romanian grammar, it is... what it is, it is..." and the rest followed in the usual muddle, words distorted and strung together with no sense whatsoever, so that you felt like weeping with compassion.
"That's not right, brother Trăsnea."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Don't say 'Romanian' but just give the answer; the words of the question are irrelevant!" And he would, in his way, make an effort to give a good answer, but it was no use, he got more and more tied up, began to heave sighs and felt like knocking his head off.
"Leave me alone for a bit," he would say sorrowfully; "and when I call, come back and question me again; and if I still don't know it, then I'll be damned! Now let's admit I'm no good at grammar, and let's put it aside; art, the same; to say nothing of 'Romanian, is... which... teaches us to speak and write well in a language' which are, I suppose, Romanian words, the devil they are! Only there must be some snag here, too... 'to speak and write well in a language.' Language, tongue? Devilish this! How can you 'write in a tongue'? Perhaps it means with the tongue, how should I know? It seems probable that the likes of us are hopeless when it comes to writing; but even when it's just a matter of speaking, more's the pity, it looks as if we spoke like heathens and as bad as could be; not Romanian, but some godforsaken dialect. Great God, a man who writes grammars must be full of learning! Yet in grammar as far as I can see, the table they call a table, the house a house and the ox an ox, as I've learnt to call them at my mother's knee. Maybe the other horrorspronunciation, art, correct, to pronounce, the analysis, the synthesis, prosody, orthography, syntax, etymology, concrete, abstract, conjunctive, mi, ţi, i, ni, vi, li; me, te, īl, o, ne, ve, i, leand the likes of these may be pure Romanian; and we hobbledehoys or country bumpkins have no idea of them! It's a lucky thing we haven't to sing them, for it would be even worse for our weak, useless brains! Better dead than be a peasant! Get along with you, Ştefănescu, I'll set to again."
And leaving him to his own devices I went to the priest's daughter, found her all alone and in a mood for company, and we had some quiet fun together till nightfall, for mother she had none and her father, as was natural for a priest, was going the rounds begging for what he could get.
I then went back to the fields, the ribbon from round the girl's neck in my pocket, a beautifully embroidered handkerchief with silk flowers, and a fine supply of apples in my shirt; and what do you think? That fool Trăsnea was asleep in the path, the grammar book under his nose and never minding the cold. "Poor, foolish man! A worthless knave you are; this won't do; your mother had better have borne you a colt for the wolves to have eaten," I said to myself.
"Hei! Trăsnea! Get up! Do you know the multiplication table?" Up he jumped, I questioned him. Worse than awful! "Come, let's go back, Trăsnea, old chap, for I'm ravenous, frozen through and sick at heart in this ghastly field!"
"Same here, damn that grammar! I'm fed up with it. And besides I am not feeling well."
"Sort of laziness and weakness in the knees, Trăsnea, isn't that it?"
"You've hit it exactly; a kind of faintheartedness with weakness in the knees or thereabouts."
"Maybe it's the grammatical ague," I suggested.
"Worse luck! Maybe that's it," said Trăsnea; "for dash it, as soon as you take it up, you're sleepy. Such stuff and nonsense won't affect the ritual of the church and that's a fact. The Osmoglasnic7 is the thing. As father was wont to say: 'The song of praise fills the bag, the hymn of thanksgiving fills the barn, my boy!' Why bother and worry over the grammar, Ştefănescu? Come on!"
And back we went to our lodgings, about sunset; we ate our fill and then asked old Bodrīngă to play for us; and, from everywhere around, a crowd of young clerics swarmed in, for that was one of their favourite meeting-places. We pitched in to the dancing, you know, as one should at that age so that we didn't even notice the night passing. And so I got rid of the hump and Trăsnea of mumbling in his sleep: "What is Romanian grammar... it is, what it is..." as he did other nights. But the jollification did not end there; another and a better was added to it. Old Bodrīngă, had hardly put the pipe to his lips when in came Father Buliga, nicknamed maize-stalk, from Buciumenii Street. He had already taken a sniff of burnt incense and a sip of holy water or something stronger, early as it was. God forgive him! And as soon as he had made the sign of the cross over us, with both hands, as his custom was, the way archbishops do, he forthwith came out with certain allusions touching the priest's daughter at Fălticenii Vechi: that she was a good girl, that she'd be a fitting wife for a priest, that she'd suit me to the ground, that her father would tie her round my neck. Father Buliga, the old trouble-maker, carried on with these insinuations until Gītlan started flattering him and saying:
"Come now, leave off, good father; don't you go about spreading such fantasies at the very beginning of Shrovetide. Go on playing, nuncle Bodrīngă, for a while and let's have our fill of rejoicing, and Father Buliga will absolve us all!"
Old Bodrīngă took the hint; he again began to play, and the dancing went on again.
Father Buliga, though an old man, seeing how things stood, lifted up the skirts of his robe tucking them into his belt and saying:
"As far as I am concerned, may God grant you fun and good cheer, as long as you live!"
Then he threw his kamelavkion8 aside, and joined us in the dance with locks of hair streaming out around his head. We went at it over and over again until he very nearly gave up the ghost, and we exhausted him so much that he was quite fed up with us. But, as the saying goes: If you join the dance, dance it out! The poor man seeing that he'd joined a pack of fools, began to think up excuses to get away.
"I'm spiritual father to some parishioners who're expecting me, dear boys, and whether living or dead, I'll have to go, for that's our calling."
Then Pavel, our host, suddenly placing a dish with some cold meat and sausages and a carafe of wine in front of Father Buliga, said:
"Please, holy Father, come and share our meal. Take a bite and one or two glasses of wine, and then you'll be ready to go, if, as you say, there's such a hurry."
His holiness, making no attempt to resist, crossed his hands according to custom, cleared his voice and humbly said:
"Bless, O Lord, the food and drink of thy servants, amen!" Then he raised his glass saying: "May you be bursting with health like a wood in springtime, my boys, here's to you! When we are at our worst, may it be ever as it is now!" He emptied the glass down his throat, then two or three more, gave us his blessing with both hands and said: "Now, boys, you've had enough, so be quiet!" Then he left us to our own devices and went his way. Yet we, as who should say:
What says the doctor? Let
About nightfall we all, not forgetting old Bodrīngă, betook ourselves to a respectable tavern belonging to the daughter of the mayor at Rădăşeni, where more people would come for love of the hostess than for any urge to drink wine; and lovely she was, too, a blessing upon her! She had recently married a widower, an old man; such a stick in the mud and just the sort of person you want for a host. The moment she saw us, the hostess welcomed us and ushered us into a large room, with shutters at the windows and wooden floor-boards, where there were only ourselves and the hostess, whenever she cared to look in.
In one corner there were a few bushels of beans, in another hemp seed, in a third corner a heap of fine apples and Rădăşeni pears that will keep over winter till after Easter, in the fourth, peas and broad beans divided by a wide plank and nearby some Turkish pumpkins; dried pears in a wooden tub, as sweet to the taste as figs; further on a heap of reels of hemp and flaxthread, hanging from a rafter a hank of worsted and yarn variously coloured, for carpets and runners. Then oakum, combings and sundry things dumped on shelves and corner cupboards as was usual in the house of a well-to-do farmer in those days. As soon as we were all assembled in that delightful room, the hostess closed the shutters, lit the candle, and in no time at all was back with a large earthen jug full of Odobeşti wine; and as she poured it into the glasses its bubbles shot up six inches into the air, it was so strong. Gītlan, the sly one, took up a glass and handed it to the hostess saying:
"Come, henny, you drink the first health and we shall see whether you've doctored it or not."
The lovely hostess raised her glass, and with laughing eyes wished us health and happiness and, having tasted a little, begged us not to detain her for she had other customers besides us and her husband couldn't manage without help.
But no fear; we barred her way and insisted that she should take a sip from each glass. And she would have stayed longer, I'm sure, had we not stupidly driven her away by thanking her with a loving kiss from each of us.
"That's the way of youth, bless it," old Bodrīngă said, as he sat perched on the heap of combings and munching dried pears; "It's as it should be, boys, now's your time or never."
"Right you are, nuncle," said the hostess, coming in at the door with a dish of hot pies and a roast fowl that she set before us; and, my word, what a boon that was, for we were as ravenous as wolves.
When we had finished drinking one jug, another would arrive for the which we again gave thanks by kissing the hostess till she would feign to be cross and run away from our company. Then she would come back and run away again, for that's the way they sell the wine wherever they sell it. How in the name of sin should I know what was in her mind? Maybe the hostess took no offence whatever at our company, that's why she'd try it so often. At long last Trăsnea, that unpleasant lout, took her unawares and gave her a smacking kiss. Any ass will soon put his foot in it. And then the lovely hostess was really cross. But what could we do? As the saying has it: She'll doff it with her bodice, for there is no other way out of it. After a while, old man Bodrīngă took heart and began to play one of those Corabiasca dances that set your feet jigging. And didn't we warm up to it? We danced so uproariously that the room wasn't large enough for us. We plunged into the beans, peas and broad beans as though we were blind, and the hemp seed was all squashed into oil under our feet. It was after midnight when we saw that old Bodrīngă had left us and we slipped out, one by one, making for our lodgings; myself with a load of dried pears and a large pumpkin that the hostess had given me; for she was as open-handed as she was lovely, the little darling! But when I reached our place what did I see? Nearly every one of my companions had "borrowed" some little thing; one of them, magnificent apples, another, Rădăşeni pears, old Bodrīngă had picked up an armful of combings to set the fire burning, Trăsnea's choice was hemp seed. Now Oşlobanu, whose boots had their uppers cut out of one cow's hide and their soles out of another, was bringing up the rear; and, when he got inside, he lay down without taking his boots or clothes off and raised his feet up to the rafter in the ceiling, and you'll never guess what happened next. A good tubful of beans, and no mistake, ran out of the tops of his boots, which he usually wore turned down and which he had turned up for this special occasion! My cousin Ion Mogorogea alone, son of an honest farmer, had taken no keepsake, while Zaharia, son of Gītlan, had been content with kissing the lovely hostess. A great consolation for a young stranger at Shrovetide! And I now see that Gītlan, whose name in school was Zaharia Simionescu, proved the wisest of the lot; for he shared in the goods we'd brought; but we'd had no share in his happiness!
There's a time and a season for all things and now we had to get down to our books for a while, for the Christmas holidays were hard upon us and we were taking the bread out of our parents' mouths to no purpose; you can't get anything for nothing and money does not lie on the highway for the taking. Putting our goods in common we now possessed at the beginning of Advent some four or five jugfuls of oil, three or four sackfuls of maize flour, a few pounds of salt, fish, prunes, beans, peas, broad beans, salt and wood, enough to last for some weeks; for we took our meals together, taking turns at cooking, each using his own stores, for the day. But Oşlobanu, who ate as much as seventeen, had set us all thinking. His father, priest Neculai, could have sent him plenty, no doubt; yet a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
There are many things to do and little talk needful if you're working with someone who understands you. One day I talked it over with Gītlan, arguing that something ought to be done to get rid of a few hearty eaters, for the partnership didn't seem fair. And we found a way of solving our problem that could not be improved on. At night when they were all asleep, we would apply "posts" to the feet of whichever person we'd choose; it was easy to do, as some of them would drop off and sleep like logs as soon as old Bodrīngă began to spin his yarns. Having agreed on our plan we waited for a time when the others were absent and started making enough "posts", to last us for some time. They are made from a few sheets of paper stuck together with tallow, which we melted at the fire; you gently apply one to the sole of a man's foot, when he's asleep; then put a match to it, and of all the infallible contrivances! Since feeling ran high against Oşlobanu, his turn came first. And when the flame burned him to the bone, he jumped from his sleep, roaring like a bull and couldn't keep still for the pain. Yet, unable to discover the culprit and not relying upon his strength to fight us all, he fell on his knees and touched the ground with his forehead, calling God's wrath upon us, curses pouring from his mouth. In spite of the cursing we applied a few more "posts" on succeeding nights and since his soles had become one big sore, he had to go post haste back to Humuleşti, sick of the priesthood and leaving all his provisions behind in our hands. Upon which Gītlan wrote to Oşlobanu:
A few days later we cured Nică, the son of Constantin, son of Cosma, from Humuleşti, who had but recently joined us in our lodgings, of the taste for the clerical calling. He too went back the Oşlobanu way with blistered soles to his feet. And so much the better, for they were wasting their time anyway.
Trăsnea, however, tougher than the others and slow of understanding, stuck it out as long as he could; then seeing that we'd got the better of him with those "posts" he moved into new lodgings taking his share of provisions. After his departure only three of us remained at Pavel the shoemaker's: myself, Gītlan, my cousin Ion, nicknamed Mogorogea, and old Bodrīngă of course. My cousin who Mogorogea seen the plight of the others made it a habit to sew up the sleeves of his fur-coat every night before going to bed, and to stick his feet in them. He slept without a care in the world, thus illustrating the dictum: Caution is the mother of safety.
Close upon Christmas, Pavel made a pair of Muscovy leather boots for my cousin Ion, with whom he was hand in glove. Mogorogea had paid Pavel two icusari9 for the boots. But they were worth it, without a doubt; for he'd used good leather, they were double soled and they were made to measure. The only thing Pavel had forgotten to put in was the squeak10, and Mogorogea had been much upset at that. Luckily the winter was bitter cold and the snow remedied the omission.
During holidays we used to go home and then it was a case of the gipsy saying about "Christmas, the time for stuffing yourself."
Smoked pork chops, boiled sausages and haggis, dried sausages seasoned with garlic, thin slices of fat pork, all home made, chopped and properly fried in the pan, eaten with warm mămăligă, they would just glide down the throat like anything. A peasant will make a lot of tasty dishes, if only he has got what goes to the making of them. And thanks be to God, our parents had that; for poverty had not settled on their doorstep at the time I'm speaking of. But to my tale: we kept Christmas properly with our parents at Humuleşti and after Epiphany we went back to Fălticeni, to Pavel, our landlord. We called at the school just occasionally, as a matter of form, but, truth to tell, there was no point in going there; for what's in the book you may learn on your own, if you are so inclined; and if not, why, good luck to you! And I was one of the fortunate ones: for when it comes to faith, what's the use of book learning? Old Bodrīngă, I'll agree, had a lot to teach you. His pipe would set you dancing against your better judgment and his tales would not let you go to sleep. Besides, there were other things to pass the time should we feel so inclined: nine men's morris or some card-game or other; or sometimes, at night, we would sit up talking till daybreak. On holidays we would make our way to the villages where we knew there was dancing. At Rădăşeni, a large pleasant and wealthy village, we danced at three different horas on the same day: one hora of staid bachelors where the youngest girls had turned up; a second one of young fellows to which the older and more interesting girls had come; and a third one, of youngsters, joined by whoever wished to join in. The young men would hardly move and the hora swung very slowly. The girls would not wait to be asked, as they do elsewhere, but would each undo the hands of two young men, where she thought fit, give them "good day" and go on dancing. My cousin, flaunting his new boots, would only dance next to the mayor's daughter, a sister of the lovely innkeeper's wife at Fălticeni. Whereupon Gītlan who was dancing by me, whispered into my ear:
"You wait and see what I'll do to Mogorogea; if he doesn't rue this day, I'll be damned!"
"Be quiet, man, and don't be a fool," I said "for he may turn nasty and go back home like the others."
"What if he does? Good riddance! As the saying goes: If the old woman steps out of the cart, it will only be all the lighter for the mare." And we danced on.
That night we went back to our lodgings, and Mogorogea, a neat careful fellow, cleaned his boots and placed them on the stove to dry, as he always did. Three days after that my cousin's boots split all over. Thoroughly furious, he had it out with Pavel, asking for a new pair or for his money back right away.
"You've been using overdried leather, you clumsy cobbler," said Mogorogea angrily; "is that the kind of friend you are? Come now, make your choice, or I'll ruin your good name; I'll throw these boots at your head, do you hear me?"
Pavel being quite blameless answered disdainfully:
"Look here, young cleric, don't you go too far, because you can't carry it off. Who are you calling a clumsy cobbler? Now that you've been wearing the boots a long time, running around with your rowdy friends, wearing them to pieces at dances, kicking them out up hill and down dale, now you'd like me to give you your money back or make you a new pair, would you? Not bad, that, I will say! Aren't you satisfied with all the trouble I took putting those damned shoes of yours on lasts, stretching them on boot-trees, and rubbing oil into them here on the stove, under my very nose, each morning? And the times you've stuck "posts" to my feet, too; and I, like the good-natured fellow that I am, have kept quiet and put up with it all! You've got a cheek, I'm sorry to have to say! However, if you want a fight, I'm your man!"
"So that's what you think, you bungler!" my cousin said. "You're actually trying to talk yourself out of it! Yours aren't the only boots I've worn, so I know what good boots are, you feeble idiot. And you're insulting me, into the bargain. I'll give you such a hiding that you won't enjoy another meal as long as you live r
"Before you give me that hiding, I'll hack you to bits with my shoemaker's knife, see?"
Observing that they were about to come to blows, we intervened and with great difficulty calmed them down. It was agreed that Ion was to give Pavel another irmilic11 while the latter was to mend his boots and forget about the quarrel.
They would sometimes crack a joke after that but it went against the grain and Mogorogea couldn't get over the insult he had suffered at Pavel's hands.
During carnival week12 uncle Vasile came to Fălticeni and among other foodstuffs brought his son three sucking pigs, all prepared and ready for roasting.
"Welcome, father," Ion said kissing his hand. "So you found us all right, did you?"
"Glad to find you in good health, my boys," uncle Vasile answered. "They say that the blind found the town of Suceava all right, so how should I have missed you?" Then after talking about this and that, he asked us the direct question: "And what's the opinion of the Board concerning your ordination? Is he going to let you through soon? For, truth to say, I've had enough of so much worry and expense."
"You don't call him a Board, father, but the Reverend Principal," Ion said, a bit uncomfortable because of his father's ignorance.
"There, there, your Highness! as if that's what I'm worrying about, now. As we say: It's not the master but his man; but like master like man and they're much of a muchness. And if it comes to that why not call things by their names? Be it Board or Hoard, winning or skinning, or whatever its name, son; what I do know is that he's jolly well fleecing us," said uncle Vasile. "They say that a priest has four eyes! Better pray and implore the holy St. Nicholas of Humuleşti to help you into the priesthood! And then you'll find -yourselves out of all difficulties; you've no taxes to pay, nor offerings in kind; at dinners you're head of the feast and put away pies and roast fowls; and they'll pay you, too, for blunting your teeth. You know the saying: If a priest has a horse's legs, a wolf's mouth, a thick skin and a mare's belly, he'll want nothing else. It would be a good thing, God's mercy upon me, if church dignitaries were somewhat different! But you will have heard that a priest's hand will grasp rather than give away; he thrives upon the living and upon the dead. Just look at the way the Board lives, no hard work like ours. However, grace must be honoured!"
"I've already spied a kamelavkion for you, son," uncle Vasile said, when he was going. "Try not to dawdle but lay hands on that certificate as soon as you can come home, for Ioana, daughter of Grigoraş Roşu in our village, is looking forward to being a clergyman's wife. Farewell to you both, Zaharia and nephew mine, for I'm going."
"Farewell uncle", we said seeing him some distance on his way; "and please to tell our parents that we're in good health and our thoughts are with them."
When uncle Vasile had gone, I gently put it to Ion:
"Cousin, let's roast one of those piglets tonight; I'm just dying for one!" Mogorogea, stupid and mean as he was, began to shout at me:
"Now listen, you two; I'm not Nică Oşlobanu that you should make a laughing-stock of me. As you feed me, so I'll feed you. Not a bite of these piglets will you get, not if you were to burst."
"And if we don't get any, may he burst who talks in that way!" said Gītlan.
"Amen", I added, under my breath.
"And I'll join in", Pavel said from behind the stove.
"Amen or no Amen, you just keep your thoughts off the piglets," says Mogorogea nastily, "is that clear? You're always after delicacies; well, you'll do without them and you won't be the worse for it!"
"Leave him alone, chaps; may those piglets choke him in the next world!" says Zaharia.
And we started working at our books, Heaven help us! Yet, if the truth be told, we felt no more like working than a dog feels like licking salt. A mighty fire had been burning in the stove; we'd raked it together and covered it up, for there was a frost outside. Old Bodrīngă had got tied up somewhere or other that night and Pavel, having no work to do, had turned in early. While Mogorogea, his thoughts fixed on that kamelavkion of his father's, had gone to sleep before Pavel, his feet safe within the sleeves of his furred coat as usual, and was now snoring away. As you might say, they had given up.
A bit later we put out the light and went to bed, only we couldn't fall asleep for thoughts of that piglet.
"I say, Zaharia, haven't you any of those "posts" anywhere?" I said under my breath.
"No, man," Zaharia answers even more softly; "and Lord, what a good thing it would be for Mogorogea. Here's the best I can suggest. Take my knife, gently cut the sewing of Mogorogea's sleeve under his foot, singe it thoroughly with these matches that burn without flaming up, and he'll have no pleasure from those piglets I'll warrant you. But look out and be quick about it."
"Give me that knife," I said, "and whatever happens I hope you won't let me down and won't allow him to beat me."
"No fear of that," said Zaharia. "Singe away and don't worry!"
Then I took my courage in both hands and did just what Gītlan had advised me to do. Gently cutting through the stitches, I applied as big a bunch of matches as ever you saw to my cousin's heel, where the skin is thickest, until he felt the burn. Suddenly he roared as loud as could be. Away I leaped, matches and all, and slipped behind Zaharia's back. We both started snoring as if we'd been sleeping goodness knows how long. Meanwhile Ion, his feet tied up in the sleeves of his fur coat, had fallen flat on the ground, writhing like a snake and cursing us with any curses that came to his lips:
"Damnation! God blast you, you filthy swine, you! There's no getting a wink of sleep, in this house, for the likes of you! Now, whoever played that trick on me? Zaharia and Nică I hear them snoring and I shouldn't think they'd dare. It's that thief, Pavel, who's done it, may the gadfly suck him dry when he's in his sweetest sleep! There he is, pretending to be asleep too! The rotter! Let me just teach him to make a laughing-stock of people!"
With that he took a live ember from the fire and got upon the stove by Pavel. And as he was lying on his back, poor man, fast asleep, Mogorogea put the ember on his chest saying:
"There, that's for the fun you've had with me, you miserable cobbler!"
A fearful roar went up and at the same time Pavel, lashing out with his feet against the stove, broke it to bits. In the sudden confusion that ensued, finding himself face to face with Ion, a savage struggle broke out between the two of them, and there were we with ringside seats, if only we could have sat it out.
"Up with you, Zaharia, there'll be murder in this house and we'll have to answer for it," I said, shaking like an aspen leaf with fright.
"Hey you! what's come over you!" said Zaharia springing between them like an eagle. "Do you call this a decent man's house?"
I, meanwhile, rushed out of doors weeping, and began to shout as loud as I could to summon the neighbours. People jumped up on all sides, heavy with sleep, thinking there was a fire or that the soldiers were murdering of us, God forbid! For there was a German army quartered at Fąlticeni at that time.
When the rumpus had subsided, people left us as they'd found us and went back to their houses, cursing and swearing at us. You should have seen the shocking state the house was in, with wreckage all round: windows broken, the stove dashed to the ground, handfuls of hair torn out of heads, blood upon the ground. Pavel burnt in the breast and Ion, nursing his burnt heel, sat on one side, panting; Zaharia and myself on the other, amazed at what had gone on; while as for the innocent piglets, hanging in the lobby to keep cool, I never knew what happened to them. Zaharia wishing to put an end to the silence, said after a while:
"Sing to them, Ion: 'Hallelujah, those unspotted of the world' and give up yearning for them; it's plain that was their destiny, poor little dears!"
"You shut your trap", said Ion, well-nigh bursting. "You've never stopped talking about them and now you've had your way with them."
At this juncture back came old Bodrīngă, fuddled with drink, and began to cross himself as soon as he entered the door.
"Well, nuncle," I said, "what do you think of this. Do you like it?" Pavel, who had so far sat without uttering a word, looked round sorrowfully and said:
"Look here, you clerics; to put an end to all this enmity, get out and leave me alone!"
Relieved to get off so lightly, we took what was left of our belongings and moved over the way to a smith's, taking old Bodrīnă our one consolation, along with us.
During Lent a rumour spread among us students that the seminary would be closed and that the younger ones would be transferred to Socola13.
"There's a good one for you, as good as ruin," said Trăsnea; "once you're nearly there, you find you've missed your way. As they say: We're done in, horses and all. It must have been the devil himself prompting me to bother my head over grammar. Had I known, I might have stayed at home, and all the money that has been spent like water, father could have put to better use."
"Same here," sighed the married seminarists; "we've spent our last farthing; gold coins, sheep and hives too, horses and oxen, they've all gone swallowed by a ravenous wolf, the Reverend Principal, long life to him!"
"Stop it, brothers," Zaharia replied. "Money is the very devil and that's a fact! Why be so hard on the poor man? As if he were the only one! And as to you, really, you are hard to please. Have you never heard the saying: Come up in the cart! Not on your life! Come up in the gig! Not on your life! Come, let's walk! Not on your life! Rather say that you're going back to your own kind as water finds its level. I for one am glad of this change. To Socola we should go, if we want to be turned out chockfull of learning. They've got the most learned teachers in the world there, I've heard."
"To Socola we'll go," the younger students shouted.
"Go to the dogs, if you wish, like greyhounds un- leashed!" shouted the older ones.
And thus, close upon Easter, did we break up and go our ways, on the understanding that whoever wished to join the school at Socola would do so the following autumn, in the year 1855.
Bucharest, September, 1881
1Romanian peasant song, lyrical and nostalgic.
2Names of popular songs and dances.
3These words have been left in the original, because they are in the text as much for their sound as for any sense they may have.
4Trăsnea is referring to the change-over from the Cyrillic to the Roman script.
5Malapropism for "complements".
6These inaccurate and primitive definitions are further complicated, in the Romanian original, by the old-fashioned and fluctuating spelling at that period of linguistic transition. The fun and the irony are thereby enhanced.
7Book of church chants, with eight modulations specific to the Greek Orthodox ritual.
8 Clerical head gear of Orthodox priests.
10Boots that squeak call attention to their newness and thus gratify their owner's pride.
11Turkish coin, same as icusar.
12Romanian Hirţi or CīrneleagaWeek between Christmas and Epiphany when meat is allowed even on fast days (Wednesdays and Fridays).
13District in the town of Jassy, capital of Moldavia, famous for its monastery and its lunatic asylum.