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The Most Interesting Stories of All Nations

Part 8 out of 8

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"Not yet, leader. What should we pray for?" said Lupey.

"Fall down on your knees and pray, for this is the last morning
which will dawn on any of you again."

"Are you in your senses, leader? What are you going to do?"

"I am going to purge the Roumin nation of a set of ruthless
murderers and brigands. Miserable wretches; instead of glory, you
have brought dishonor and disgrace upon our arms wherever you have
appeared. While the brave fought on the field of battle, you
slaughtered their wives and children; while they risked their lives
before the cannon's mouth you attacked the house of the sleepers
and robbed and massacred the helpless and the innocent. Fall down
on your knees and pray for your souls, for the angel of death
stands over you, to blot out your memory from among the Roumin

The last words were pronounced in a fearful tone. Numa was no
longer the cold unmoved statue he had hitherto appeared, he was
like a fiery genius of wrath, whose very breath was destruction.

The Wallachians fell upon their knees in silent awe, while the
women who had been standing outside, rushed shrieking down the

The Decurio drew a pistol from his breast, and approached the cask
of gunpowder.

With a fearful howl, they rushed upon him; the shriek of despair
was heard for an instant, then the terrible explosion which caused
the rocks to tremble, while the flames rose with a momentary flash
amidst clouds of dust and smoke, scaring the beasts of the forest,
and scattering stones and beams, and hundreds of dismembered limbs,
far through the valley, and over the houses of the terrified

When the smoke had dissipated, a heap of ruins stood in the place
of Numa's dwelling.

The sun rose and smiled upon the earth, which was strewed with the
last leaves of autumn, but where were those who had assembled at
the spring-time of the year?

The evening breezes whispered mournfully through the ruined walls,
and strewed the faded leaves upon eleven grassy mounds.

The pen trembles in my hand--my heart sickens at the recital of
such misery.

Would that I could believe it an imagination--the ghostly horror of
a fevered brain!

Would that I could bid my gentle readers check the falling tear or
tell them: "Start not with horror; it is but romance--the creation
of some fearful dream--let us awake, and see it no more!"

Etienne Barsony

The Dancing Bear

Fife and drum were heard from the big market-place. People went
running towards it. In a village the slightest unusual bustle
makes a riot. Everybody is curious to know the cause of the alarm,
and whether the wheels of the world are running out of their orbit.
In the middle of the great dusty market-place some stunted locust
trees were hanging their faint, dried foliage, and from far off one
could already see that underneath these miserable trees a tall,
handsome, young man and a huge, plump dark-brown, growling bear
were hugging each other.

Joco, the bear-leader, was giving a performance. His voice rang
like a bugle-horn, and, singing his melancholy songs, he from time
to time interrupted himself and hurrahed, whereupon the bear began
to spring and roar angrily. The two stamped their feet, holding
close together, like two tipsy comrades. But the iron-weighted
stick in the young man's hand made it evident that the gigantic
beast was quite capable of causing trouble, and was only restrained
from doing so because it had learnt from experience that the least
outbreak never failed to bring down vengeance upon its back. The
bear was a very powerful specimen from Bosnia, with thick brown fur
and a head as broad as a bull's. When he lifted himself up on his
hind legs he was half a head taller than Joco, his master.

The villagers stood round them with anxious delight, and animated
the bear with shouts of "Jump, Ibrahim! Hop, Ibrahim!" but nobody
ventured to go near. Joco was no stranger to these people. After
every harvest he visited the rich villages of Banat with his bear.
They knew that he was a native of the frontier of Slavonia, and
they were not particularly keen to know anything else about him. A
man who leads such a vagrant life does not stay long in any one
place, and has neither friends nor foes anywhere. They supposed
that he spent part of the year in Bosnia, perhaps the winter,
visiting, one after the other, the Servian monasteries. Now, in
midsummer, when he was least to be expected, they suddenly hear his
fife and drum.

Ibrahim, the big old bear, roused the whole village in less than a
quarter of an hour with his far-reaching growls. The dogs crouched
horror-struck, their hair standing on end, barking at him in fear
and trembling.

When Joco stopped at some street corner, or in the market-place,
and began to beat his rattling drum, the bear lifted himself with
heavy groans on his hind legs, and then the great play began, the
cruel amusement, the uncanny, fearful embracings which one could
never be sure would not end fatally. For Joco is not satisfied to
let Ibrahim jump and dance, but, whistling and singing, grasps the
wild beast's skin, and squeezes his paws; and so the two dance
together, the one roaring and groaning, the other singing with
monotonous voice a melancholy song.

The company of soldiers stationed in the village was just returning
from drill, and Captain Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen, turned in
curiosity his horse's head towards the crowd, and made a sign to
Lieutenant Vig to lead the men on. His fiery half-blood Graditz
horse snuffed the disgusting odor of the wild beast, and would go
no nearer.

The Captain called a hussar from the last line that passed him, and
confided the stubborn horse to his charge. Then he bent his steps
towards the swaying crowd. The villagers opened out a way for him,
and soon the Captain stood close behind the bear-leader. But
before he could fix his eyes on Ibrahim they were taken captive by
something else.

A few steps away from Joco a young girl sat upon the ground, gently
stroking a light-colored little bear. They were both so huddled up
together that the villagers scarcely noticed them, and the Captain
was therefore all the better able to observe the young woman, who
appeared to be withdrawing herself as much as possible from public
gaze. And really she seemed to be an admirable young creature.
She was slight of build, perhaps not yet fully developed, with the
early ripeness of the Eastern beauty expressed in face and figure--
a black cherry, at sight of which the mouth of such a gourmand as
the Ritter von Wallishausen would naturally water! Her fine face
seemed meant only to be the setting of her two black eyes. She
wore a shirt of coarse linen, a frock of many-colored material, and
a belt around her waist. Her beautifully formed bosoms covered
only by the shirt, rose and fell in goddesslike shamelessness. A
string of glass beads hung round her neck, and two long earrings
tapped her cheeks at every movement. She made no effort to hide
her bare feet, but now and then put back her untidy but beautiful
black hair from her forehead and eyes; for it was so thick that if
she did not do so she could not see.

The girl felt that the Captain's fiery gaze was meant for her and
not for the little bear. She became embarrassed, and instinctively
turned her head away. Just at this moment Joco turned round with
Ibrahim. The tall Servian peasant let the whistle fall from his
hand, and the wild dance came to an end. Ibrahim understood that
the performance was over, and, putting down his front paws on the
ground, licked, as he panted, the strong iron bars of his muzzle.

The Captain and Joco looked at each other. The powerful young
bear-leader was as pale as death. He trembled as if something
terrible had befallen him. Captain Winter looked at him
searchingly. Where, he asked himself, had he met this man?

The villagers did not understand what was going on, and began to
shout, "Zorka! Now, Zorka, it is your turn with Mariska." The
cries of the villagers brought Joco to himself, and with a motion
worthy of a player he roused the little bear to its feet. Then he
made signs to the girl. Being too excited to blow his whistle, he
started singing and beating the drum; but his voice trembled so
much that by and by he left off singing and let the girl go through
her performance alone.

Then the Captain saw something that wrought him up to ecstasy.
Zorka was singing a sad Bosnian song in her tender, crooning voice,
and dancing with graceful steps round the little bear, who, to tell
the truth, also danced more lightly than the heavy Ibrahim, and was
very amusing when he lifted his paw to his head as Hungarians do
when they are in high spirits and break forth in hurrahs.

Captain Winter, however, saw nothing but the fair maid, whose
pearly white teeth shone out from between her red lips. He felt he
would like to slip a silk ribbon round her waist, which swayed as
lightly as a reed waving to and fro in the wind, and lead her off
as if she were a beautiful colored butterfly.

Zorka grew tired of the sad, melancholy song, and began to dance
wildly and passionately. Perhaps her natural feminine vanity was
roused within her, and she wanted to show off at her best before
the handsome soldier. Her eyes sparkled; a flush spread from time
to time over her face; with her sweet voice she animated the little
bear, crying, "Mariska, Mariska, jump!" But after a while she
seemed to forget the growling little creature altogether, and went
on dancing a kind of graceful fandango of her own invention. As
she swayed, it seemed as if the motion and excitement caused every
fiber of her body to flash out a sort of electric glow. By the
time the girl flung herself, quite exhausted, in the dust at his
feet, Captain Winter was absolutely beside himself. Such a morsel
of heavenly daintiness did not often drop in his path now that he
was fasting in this purgatory of a village. His stay there had
been one long Lent, during which joys and pleasures had been rare

. . . . .

It began to grow dark. At the other end of the marketplace several
officers were on their way to supper at the village inn where they
always messed. The Captain turned to the man and woman in
possession of the bears and ordered them in no friendly tone to go
with him to the inn as his guests. Joco bowed humbly like a
culprit, and gloomily led on his comrade Ibrahim. Zorka, on the
contrary, looked gay as she walked along beside the light-colored

The Captain looked again and again at the bear-leader walking in
front of him. "Where have I seen this fellow before?" he kept
asking himself. His uncertainty did not last long. His face
brightened. "Oh, yes; I remember!" he inwardly exclaimed. Now he
felt sure that this black cherry of Bosnia, this girl with the
waist of a dragon-fly, was his.

The inn, once a gentleman's country-house, was built of stone. The
bears were lodged in a little room which used to serve the former
owner of the house as pantry, and were chained to the strong iron
lattice of the window. In one corner of this little room the
landlord ordered one of his servants to make a good bed of straw.
"The Captain will pay for it," he said.

When everything was ready in the little room, the Captain called
Joco and took him there. He knew that what he was going to do was
not chivalrous; but he had already worked himself up to a blaze of
excitement over the game he meant to play, and this fellow was too
stupid to understand what a hazardous piece of play it was. When
they were alone he stood erect before the bear-leader and looked
fixedly into his eyes.

"You are Joco Hics," he said; "two years ago you deserted from my

The strong, tall, young peasant began to tremble so that his knees
knocked together, but could not answer a single word. Fritz
Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen, whispered into Joco's ear, his
speech agitated and stuttering: "You have a woman with you," he
said, "who surely is not your wife. Set her free. I will buy her
from you for any price you ask. You can go away with your bears
and pluck yourself another such flower where you found this one."

Joco stood motionless for a while as if turned into stone. He did
not tremble any longer: the crisis was over. He had only been
frightened as long as he was uncertain whether or not he would be
instantly hanged if he were found out.

"In all Bosnia," he answered gloomily, "there was only one such
flower and that I stole."

Before a man who was willing to share his guilt, he dared
acknowledge his crime. In truth, this man was no better than
himself. He only wore finer clothes.

The Captain became impatient. "Are you going to give her up, or
not?" he asked. "I do not want to harm you; but I could put you in
prison and in chains, and what would become of your sweetheart

Joco answered proudly: "She would cry her eyes out for me;
otherwise she would not have run away from her rich father's house
for my sake."

Ah! thought the Captain, if it were only that! By degrees I could
win her to me.

But it was not advisable to make a fuss, whether for the sake of
his position or because of his wife, who lived in town.

"Joco, I tell you what," said the Captain, suddenly becoming calm.
"I am going away now for a short time. I shall be gone about an
hour. By that time everybody will be in bed. The officers who sup
with me, and the innkeeper and his servants, will all be sound
asleep. I give you this time to think it over. When I come back
you will either hold out your hand to be chained or to receive a
pile of gold in it. In the meantime I shall lock you in there,
because I know how very apt you are to disappear." He went out,
and turned the key twice in the lock. Joco was left alone.

When the hour had expired Captain Winter noisily opened the door.
His eyes sparkled from the strong wine he had taken during supper,
as well as from the exquisite expectation which made his blood

Joco stood smiling submissively before him. "I have thought it
over, sir," he said. "I will speak with the little Zorka about

Ritter Winter now forgot that he was speaking with a deserter, whom
it was his duty to arrest. He held out his hand joyfully to the
Bosnian peasant, and said encouragingly: "Go speak with her; but
make haste. Go instantly."

They crept together to the pantry where the girl slept near the
chained bears. Joco opened the door without making a sound, and
slipped in. It seemed to the Captain that he heard whispering
inside. These few moments seemed an eternity to him. At last the
bear-leader reappeared and, nodding to the Captain, said: "Sir, you
are expected."

Captain Winter had undoubtedly taken too much wine. He staggered
as he entered the pantry, the door of which the bear-leader shut
and locked directly he had entered. He then listened with such an
expression on his face as belongs only to a born bandit. Almost
immediately a growling was heard, and directly afterwards some
terrible swearing and a fall. The growling grew stronger and
stronger. At last it ended in a wild roar. A desperate cry
disturbed the stillness of the night: "Help! help!"

In the yard and round about it the dogs woke up, and with terrible
yelping ran towards the pantry, where the roaring of the bear grew
ever wilder and more powerful. The rattling of the chain and the
cries of the girl mingled with Ibrahim's growling. The neighbors
began to wake up. Human voices, confused questionings, were heard.
The inn-keeper and his servants appeared on the scene in their
night clothes, but, hearing the terrible roaring, fled again into
security. The Captain's cries for help became weaker and weaker.
And now Joco took his iron stake, which he always kept by him,
opened the door, and at one bound was at the side of the wild
beast. His voice sounded again like thunder, and the iron stick
fell with a thud on the bear's back. Ibrahim had smelt blood.
Beneath his paws a man's mangled body was writhing. The beast
could hardly be made to let go his prey. In the light that came
through the small window, Joco soon found the chain from which not
long before he had freed Ibrahim, and with a swift turn he put the
muzzle over the beast's jaws. It was done in a twinkling. During
this time Zorka had been running up and down the empty yard, crying
in vain for help. Nobody had dared come near.

The following day Captain Fritz Winter, Ritter von Wallishausen,
was lying between burning wax candles upon his bier. Nobody could
be made responsible for the terrible accident. Why did he go to
the bears when he was not sober?

But that very day the siren of Bosnia danced her wild dance again
in the next village, and with her sweet, melodious voice urged the
light-colored little bear: "Mariska, jump, jump!"

Arthur Elck

The Tower Room

There were many wonderful things that aroused our childish fantasy,
when Balint Orzo and I were boys, but none so much as the old tower
that stands a few feet from the castle, shadowy and mysterious. It
is an old, curious, square tower, and at the brink of its notched
edge there is a shingled helmet which was erected by one of the
late Orzos.

There is many and many a legend told about this old tower. A rumor
exists that it has a secret chamber into which none is permitted to
enter, except the head of the family. Some great secret is
concealed in the tower-room, and when the first-born son of the
Orzo family becomes of age his father takes him there and reveals
it. And the effect of the revelation is such that every young man
who enters that room comes out with gray hair.

As to what the secret might be, there was much conjecturing. One
legend had it that once some Orzo imprisoned his enemies in the
tower and starved them until the unfortunates ate each other in
their crazed suffering.

According to another story Kelemen Orzo ordered his faithless wife
Krisztina Olaszi to be plastered into the wall of the room. Every
night since, sobbing is heard from the tower.

Another runs that every hundred years a child with a dog's face is
born in the Orzo family and that this little monster has to perish
in the tower-room, so as to hide the disgrace of the family.

Another conjecture was that once the notorious Menyhart Orzo, who
was supreme under King Rudolph in the castle, played a game of
checkers with his neighbor, Boldizsar Zomolnoky. They commenced to
play on a Monday and continued the game and drank all week until
Sunday morning dawned upon them. Then Menyhart Orzo's confessor
came and pleaded with the gamblers. He begged them to stop the
game on the holy day of Sunday, when all true Christians are in
church praising the Lord. But Menyhart, bringing his fist down on
the table in such rage that all the wine glasses and bottles
danced, cried: "And if we have to sit here till the world comes to
an end, we won't stop till we have finished this game!"

Scarcely had he uttered his vow when, somewhere from the earth, or
from the wall, a thundering voice was heard promising to take him
at his word--that they would continue playing till the end of the
world. And ever since, the checkers are heard rattling, and the
two damned souls are still playing the game in the tower-room.

When we were boys, the secret did not give us any rest, and we were
always discussing and plotting as to how we could discover it. We
made at least a hundred various plans, but all failed. It was an
impossibility to get into the tower, because of a heavy iron-barred
oaken door. The windows were too high to be reached. We had to
satisfy ourselves with throwing a well-aimed stone, which hit the
room through the window. Such an achievement was somewhat of a
success, for oftentimes we drove out an alarmed flock of birds.

One day I decided that the best way would be to find out the secret
of the tower from Balint's father himself. "He is the head of the
family," I thought, "and if any light is to be had on the mystery,
it is through him." But Balint didn't like the idea of approaching
the old man; he knew his father's temper.

However, once he ventured the question, but he was sorry for it
afterwards, for the older Orzo flew into a passion, and scolded and
raged, ending by telling him that he must not listen to such
nursery-tales; that the tower was moldering and decaying with age;
that the floor timbers and staircase were so infirm that it would
fall to pieces should anyone approach it; and that this was why no
one could gain admittance.

For a long time afterwards neither of us spoke of it.

But curiosity was incessantly working within us, and one evening
Balint solemnly vowed to me that as soon as he became of age and
had looked into the room, he would call for me, should I be even at
the end of the world, and would let me into the secret. In order
to make it more solemn, we called this a "blood-contract."

With this vow we parted. My parents sent me to college; Balint had
a private tutor and was kept at home in the castle. After that we
only met at vacation time.

Eight years passed before I saw the Orzo home again. At Balint's
urgent, sudden invitation I had hurriedly journeyed back to my
rocky fatherland.

I had scarcely stepped on the wide stone stairway leading from the
terrace in the front of the castle, when someone shouted that the
honorable master was near! He came galloping in on a foaming
horse. I looked at him and started, as if I had seen a ghost, for
this thin, tall rider was the perfect resemblance of his father.
The same knotty hair and bearded head, the same densely furrowed
face, the same deep, calm, gray eyes. And his hair and beard were
almost as white as his father's!

He came galloping through the gate, pulled the bridle with a sudden
jerk, and the next moment was on the paving; then with one bound he
reached the terrace, and had me in his strong arms. With wild
eagerness he showed me into the castle and at the same time kept
talking and questioning me without ceasing. Then he thrust me into
my room and declared that he gave me fifteen minutes--no more--to

The time had not even expired, when he came, like a whirlwind,
embraced me again and carried me into the dining-room. There
chandeliers and lamps were already lit; the table was elaborately
decorated, and bore plenty of wine.

At the meal he spoke again. Nervously jerking out his words, he
was continually questioning me on one subject and then another,
without waiting for the answer. He laughed often and harshly.
When we came to the drinking, he winked to the servants, and
immediately five Czigany musicians entered the room. Balint
noticed the astonishment on my face, and half evasively said:

"I have sent to Iglo for them in honor of you. Let the music
sound, and the wine flow; who knows when we will see each other

He put his face into his palm. The Cziganys played old Magyar
songs. Balint glanced at me now and then, and filled the glasses;
we clinked them together, but he always seemed to be worried.

It was dawning. The soft sound of a church bell rose to us.
Balint put his hand on my shoulder and bent to my ear.

"Do you know how my father died?" he asked in a husky voice. "He
killed himself."

I looked at him with amazement; I wanted to speak, but he shook his
head, and grasped my hand.

"Do you remember my father?" he asked me. Of course; while I
looked at him it seemed as if his father were standing before me.
The very fibrous, skinny figure, the muscles and flesh seeming
peeled off. Even through his coat arm I felt the naked, unveiled

"I always admired and honored my father, but we were never true
intimates; I knew that he loved me, but I felt as if it was not for
my own sake; as if he loved something in my soul that was strange
to me. I never saw him smile; sometimes he was so harsh that I was
afraid of him; at another time he was unmanageable.

"I did not understand him, but the older I became the better did I
feel that there was a sad secret germinating in the bottom of his
soul, where it grew like a spreading tree, the branches of which
crept up to the castle and covered the walls, little by little
overshadowed the sunlight, absorbed the air, and darkened
everyone's heart. I gritted my teeth in vain; I could not work; I
could not start to accomplish anything. I struggled with hundreds
and hundreds of determinations; to-day I prepared for this or that;
tomorrow for something else; ambition pressed me within; I could
not make up my mind. Behind every resolution I made, I noticed my
father's countenance, like a note of interrogation. The old fables
that we heard together in our childhood were renewed in my memory.
Little by little the thought grew within me, like a fixed delusion,
that my father's fatal secret was locked up in the tower room.
After that I lived by the calendar and dwelt on the passing of time
on the clock. And when the sun that shone on me when I was born
arose the twenty-fourth time, I pressed my hand on my heart and
entered my father's room--this very room.

"'Father,' I said, 'I became of age to-day, everything may be
opened before me, and I am at liberty to know everything.' Father
looked at me and pondered over this.

"'Oh, yes!' he whispered, 'this is the day.'

"'I may know everything now,' continued I;' I am not afraid of any
secrets. In the name of our family tradition, I beg of you, please
open the tower-room.'

"Father raised his hand, as if he wanted to make me become silent.
His face was as white as a ghost.

"'Very well,' he murmured, 'I will open the tower-room for you.'

"And then he pulled off his coat, tore his shirt on his breast, and
pointed to his heart.

"'Here is the tower-room, my boy!' did he whisper in a husky voice.
'Here is the tower-room, and within our family secret. Do you see

"That is all he said, but when I looked at him I immediately
perceived the secret; everything was clear before me and I had a
presentiment that something was nearing its end, something about to

"Father walked up and down; and then he stopped and pointed to this
picture; to this very picture.

"'Did you ever thoroughly look at your ancestors? They are all
from the Orzos. If you scrutinize their faces you will recognize
in them your father, yourself, and your grandfather; and if you
ever read their documents, which were left to us--there they are in
the box--then you will know that they are just the same material as
we are. Their way of thinking was the same as ours and so were
their desires, their wills, their lives, and deaths. We had among
them soldiers, clergymen, scientists, but not even one great,
celebrated man, although their talent, their strength almost tore
them asunder.

"'In every one of them the family curse took root: not one of them
could be a great man, neither my father nor yours.'

"Then I felt as if something horrible was coming from his lips. My
breath almost ceased. Father did not finish what he was going to
say, but stopped and listened for a minute.

"'I was my father's only hope,' he went on after a while; 'I too
was born talented and prepared for great things, but the Orzos'
destiny overtook me, and you see now what became of me. I looked
into the tower-room. You know what it contains? You know what the
name of our secret is? He who saw this secret lost faith in
himself. For him it would have been better not to have come into
this world at all. But I loved to live and did not want to abandon
all my hopes. I married your mother; she consoled me until you
were born, and then I regained my delight in life. I knew what I
had to keep before my eyes to bring up my son to be such a man as
his father could not be.

"'I acquiesced when you left for the foreign countries; then your
letters came. I made a special study of every sentence and of
every word of it, for I did not want to trust my reason. I thought
the first time that the fault was in me; that I saw unnecessary
phantoms. But it wasn't so, for what I read out of your words was
our destiny, the curse of the Orzos; from the way of your thinking,
I found out that everything is in vain; you too turned your head
backward, you too looked into yourself and noticed there the thing
that makes the perceiver sterile forever. You did not even notice
what you have done; you could not grasp it with your reason, but
the poison is already within you.'

"'It cannot be, father!' I broke out, terrified.

"But he sadly shook his head. 'I am old; I cannot believe in
anything now. I wish you were right, and would never come to know
what I know. God bless you, my son; it is getting late, and I am
getting tired.'

"It struck me that he was trying to cover his disbelief with
sarcasm. Both of us were without sleep that night. At dawn there
was silence in his room. I bitterly thought, 'When will I go to
rest?' When I went into his room in the morning he was lying in
his bed. All was over. He had taken poison, and written his
farewell on a piece of paper. His last wish was that no one should
ever know under what circumstances he died."

Balint left off speaking and gazed with outstretched eyes toward
the window in the darkness. I slowly went to him and put my hand
upon his shoulder. He started at my touch.

"I more than once thought of the woman who could be the mother of
my son. How many times have I been tempted to fulfill my father's
last wish! But at such a time it has always come to my mind that I
too might have such a son, who would cast into his father's teeth
that he was a coward and a selfish man; that he sacrificed a life
for his illusive hopes.

"No! I won't do it. I won't do it. I am the last of the Orzos.
With me this damned family will die out. My fathers were cowards
and rascals. I do not want anybody to curse my memory."

I kissed Balint's wet forehead; I knew that this was the last time
I would see him. The next day I left the castle, and the day
after, his death was made public. He committed suicide, like his
father. He was the last Orzo, and I turned about the coat of arms
above his head.

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