In the watch-house at Margineni, on Sylvester's Eve, the soldiers are sitting, smoking together and listening to the handsome Steria, who, with the characteristic wit of the Roumanians, is telling stories, to which at the same time he gives a dramatic force wherever possible. Miron Steria is tall and slender, with deep-set eyes, straight brows, a fine classic nose, almond-shaped nostrils, which continually dilate as he speaks, and give thereby an unusually comic expression to the repose of his lips as they utter the drollest stories.
Unnoticed by the others, a young officer has stationed himself in the doorway and is also listening. The New Year's night is doleful for him, left alone in the Convent of Margineni, whose columns in the wide passages look upon the white faces of many hundred prisoners, and re-echo the clanking of chains as they march down into the courtyard to the beautiful church, built for other purposes than the worship of thieves. The fire snaps and crackles in the large earthen stove, for outside it is freezing cold. A sudden change in the weather has put an end to the mild December days, bringing first a three-days' snow-storm, and then twenty degrees of cold.
The officer did not come to mingle with the gay company, but hoped to hear something that would cheer even him.
"I believe you," shouted one of the soldiers; "Steria's a droll one! You know he has married the tavern!"
"That's nothing. The tavern! You ought to see the tavern-keeper!"
"What! The beautiful Floarea surely isn't your wife?"
The officer by the door drew himself together suddenly and let his cigarette fall.
"Yes, she is indeed my wife. She has already presented me with a youngster, and the second is coming soon."
"How did you win her?"
"Oh, quite simply: I just asked her if she would have me."
"But many had already asked her the same thing."
"Yes," cried another, "I know of one, surely, who is not so very far away, who would rather have had her than anyone else, and would have given his epaulets to get the beautiful tavern-keeper."
Steria laughed. "If anyone wants to win a maiden, he must be original. They all rage. They are all in love. That one there" (he pointed behind him) "made eyes like a hare, and she always laughed at him. But I was cold as ice. I scarcely turned my head for her, and so she always ran after me."
"Ha! ha! ha! and then you grabbed her behind you and held her fast!"
"That's it exactly."
The officer by the door had become so sallow that he looked almost black.
But no one noticed him, for he stood in the shadow, and they all had put their lanterns together, and were busy filling their glasses with liquor. The cold of the night outside and the warmth within set their young faces aglow. Then one raised his voice and sang:
"The tavern sign is hanging high
"—Floarea with the eye-brows dark," the others put in.
|"Makes hours go by without remark.
Her wine is good, her measure big,
So ever let the hero swig.
No one can pass, for stay she makes him
Until the night there overtakes him.
No one can pass her by; take heed!
Who sees her once is lost indeed;
He drinks his money up, the sot!
Upon my word, and rues it not.
If one with oxen four there come,
He takes but two of them back home.
And who comes riding up, alack!
Takes his saddle on his back,
And wanders forth; who comes on foot
Drinks up his coat, and vest to boot.
"wine but fills him there,
He goes away all stript and bare!"
"Hey, Steria! You bet, Steria!"
"Now, it is really not so bad as that. One isn't compelled to enter, you know."
"No; naturally not. One merely hangs out the sign, 'wine-room,' and then they all come, and if they see the beautiful bar-maid—aren't you the least bit jealous, Steria, now that you are a soldier? Many people come there, you know."
"No, for I have warned her," Steria answered at once, quite in earnest.
"A beating would follow, and justly, would it not, Steria?"
"No; not a beating, but death."
A cold shiver ran through the small circle, as though the door had flown open and the January wind had blown in. They looked nervously about, saw the officer standing, and nudged each other. Steria, also, slowly turned his head, and there passed from one man to the other a glance like a dagger thrust. Then the officer vanished.
Soon after, the company broke up. Steria was on duty.
"One could freeze to-night," said he, buckling on his knapsack.
"That were worth while for a couple of fellows there inside, whom one would rather send to the dogs than watch and guard like so many jewels!"
"Just let them stand on watch once till they are frozen stiff as sugar-babies. It would be a pleasant death."
"It hasn't been tried yet," said Steria, and at once shut his mouth in the freezing air into which he passed out. He quickly slid into the fur cloak of the guard whom he relieved, which had not, however, availed to keep him warm.
"There's good drink inside," Steria whispered to him; "but even with that one can't stand still too long," he said, while his breath, like thick smoke, froze to his beard.
The convent clock of Margineni rang out the midnight hour on the frozen world. The New Year was rung in; a sad New Year for the prisoners inside, to whom the year brought no release; a happy New Year for those of the guard outside, who would be free of service, and could go home.
Whether it was the conversation, or the look of the officer, or the raging cold, Steria suddenly felt his heart grow heavy, as though some misfortune had come upon his Floarea, as though he should never see her again, should never again hold her in his arms. An unutterable anxiety so weighed upon his breast that he could no longer tramp back and forth, but stood still as though benumbed. He had never felt such a pain before. It was as if he had lost her.
Slowly he came to himself again; and noticed that his hands and feet were without feeling. He stamped up and down, and tried to clap his hands together. But he could not do that, or he would have dropped his gun. Terrified, he began to blow upon them, but his breath was like ice At last he heard the relief approaching, and he called out; but with deaf ear the sergeant passed by, as though Steria were not there. The officer was whispering an order to him, and the sergeant was listening. Steria shouted louder. The footfalls, grating on the snow, were lost around the corner of the building. Then they finished the round and came back again.
"My hands are freezing! Take me along!" shouted Steria. "You have forgotten me."
"I dare not," came back the answer through the night. "I have orders to let you remain," and on they went.
Steria stood as if turned to marble. Did they want to kill him? He thought again of the conversation that was overheard, of the hate-laden glance, of his beautiful Floarea; and the spirit that beat within him kept him warm for a few moments. But then the cold became fiercer: a sharp wind had come up that cut like a knife. He had taken his gun in his arms, as it had fallen from his hands. He thought: "If anyone now should escape, I could never shoot."
When at last the relief came again, they had to take his gun: they rubbed his lifeless hands with snow, and gave him liquor; but he fell into a heavy sleep, and when he awoke and saw that his hands would always be lifeless, tears started to his eyes.
They took him to the hospital, where the wretched hands became black, formless lumps, through which the fleshless bones soon stared forth, until flesh and bones and all fell off, and only stumps were left.
The look of doubt in Steria's dark eyes, the close-pressed lips, told more than a flood of complaint.
The young officer was very uneasy, for if they should tell the story, he would receive a severe punishment. But Steria continued silent and did not complain. His comrades wanted to get up a letter for him, but .he declined.
"That won't give me back my hands again," he said.
Healed of his wounds, discharged from the army as disabled, he turned his steps toward home, heavy at heart.
How would his beautiful Floarea receive him, when she saw him in this condition? Among the common people there is an unspeakable aversion toward the unbeautiful, the maimed, and in war many a one would rather die than let his arm or leg be taken off.
He hid himself in the woods and fields until the evening was come, the luminous evening of the Roumanian spring, with its wild warbling of birds and fluttering of wings against the glowing heaven, when all the air seems laden with strongest odors, when the flowers crowd one another, and the meadows look like heaven, wide-spread with forget-me-nots. Finally the last bird was silent, the night with its forget-me-nots in the sky was fallen over all with its measureless gulfs, and Steria stole around his house like a thief. His heart beat as though it would burst. He had never in his life known what it was to fear, but now he felt a fear.
Slowly and softly he crept up to the threshold of the open door, and stood leaning against the door-post watching his beautiful young wife, as with small hands and nimble feet she busily cleared and arranged the public room. Then she sat down at one of the tables, and in the dim light of a single candle began to count her money.
Her long eyelashes threw a broad shadow on her cheeks, upon which a satisfied expression played, while her fine brows contracted in her trouble at counting. It was all done with her fingers, as though they were playing the piano with great rapidity. Her lips moved like the lips of young children who are learning a lesson, and at times she thoughtfully and dreamily rested her head upon her hand. Then the small coins began to clink again.
"Floarea!" sounded suddenly out of the dark.
With a shriek she flew to the loft, so that a part of the money rolled to the ground, and holding both hands before the light, so that it cast a rosy-red shadow over her face, she leaned far out.
"Floarea!" it called again. Then she new through the darkened room, and with the cry, "Miron!" she threw herself upon his neck in a tempest of joy. He threw his arms about her and would not let her go. Whenever she wanted to free herself to look upon him he pressed her to him, as though he must enjoy his good fortune a second longer. She felt his heart beat as she lay on his breast, and when now she looked up she cried:
"But how pale you are! You sent me word that you were quite well again, but you are still sick." And her beautiful shining eyes were wet with tears.
" I was so sick that it is a wonder that I still live. But I would come to you. My longing nursed me and healed me so far as it was possible. How is the little one?"
"So big!" she pointed, though she felt herself still held tight in his arms. "Come, you shall see him asleep."
She wished to take his hand to lead him into the chamber, but he pressed her to him again.
"Floarea, my sweetheart, you can not take my hand, it is frozen off. My hands are gone!"
A groan—and then he felt himself pushed back; Floarea reeled a few steps from him and fell senseless to the ground. With despair in his face he shoved one wrist under her neck and with the other rubbed her breast. He looked about for a drink, and with exceeding difficulty he placed the mouth of a brandy bottle at her lips. Finally she opened her eyes, and the horror that was revealed in them was to him like a knife-thrust. He hid his arms and bade her drink herself, that her lips might be red again.
"And you will always be so?" said these white lips. Tears came to Steria's eyes.
"Always," he said, and turned toward the darkness.
She looked at the arms with which he covered his eyes, and one shudder after another ran through her. She raised herself and rested on her elbows, and stared into vacancy with great, wide eyes that did not wink. But now he had recovered himself, and came to her and wished to help her rise. But she sprang from the ground and recoiled from him, repulsing him with both hands. Her teeth, meantime, chattered as in a chill.
"Don't come near me! Don't come near me! Leave me! Leave me alone—"
With outstretched hands, with eyes staring as though parted from him by the law's decree, she stepped backward toward the chamber, opened the door behind, vanished in the darkness, and locked herself. in.
Steria stood as if petrified. Then he began to laugh loud and wild, and grasping the bottle on the ground with both arms, he took a long and deep drink. Then he cast himself upon a bench, his arms upon the table, his head upon his arms, and remained motionless, until a heavy sleep overcame him. He was still weak from the hospital and the operations. The single light burned down to the candlestick, and there it flickered and sputtered awhile, and threw caricatures of objects in shadow upon the wall; then it went out.
The dim light of dawn was creeping over the clay floor and over Steria's handsome young head when he awoke. Disconsolate, he shrunk from himself, and felt as miserable and unhappy as one would feel at the gray light of morning if his life were shattered. But now he heard groans and a soft sobbing in the bedroom. He listened and bethought him what he should do; not for long; however, for the bedroom door sprang open, and Floarea rushed past him. He called to her, but she did not turn her head. The door that led to the open air she hastily shook and burst open in a wild fury; she plunged out and soon vanished in the dusky fields. He stood in the cold draught of the morning wind, his countenance an ashen gray, till a voice was raised inside, calling after its mother.
He entered, and the child's dark eyes, round with astonishment and with arched lashes, were raised to him, and its mouth quivered a little to one side.
"I am your father, child; don't you know me?" Steria said at last.
"Mother! Mother!" screamed the little one.
"Your mother is coming directly! Go to sleep again! I'll sing you something."
And he began softly one of those monotonous songs, full of unconscious sadness, with which, in the first days of his youthful happiness, he had often sung the child to sleep, rocking it in his arms, while the beaming eyes of the young mother were turned from her spindle to her loved one. But it came up so thick and hot in his throat that he broke abruptly off.
"Water! I want some water!" said the child.
The father was on the point of reaching for the pitcher in the window, but he hid his arms, and said:
"There is no water there; mother is bringing it."
Then he sat upon the bedside and began again to sing, till the big eyes closed and the long lashes lay tight upon the cheeks. Then he became still and sat, bent over, staring down at his arm stumps, while it grew light outside, and the early blackbirds sung their carols above the swaying wheat-fields, and the rising sun dipped all the walls in rosy, glowing light.
But an awakening spring for a man who is crushed is like a greeting of death. The pain in Steria's breast was so unendurable that great tears streamed slowly from his eyes, and he heaved great sighs. The rosy-red light poured over him so that his tears were like flowing drops of fire. He, the strongest, handsomest fellow in the village, with every girl running after him when he went out to walk on Sundays; he, who was called to every job because he could lift three times as much as anyone else, sat on his child's bed, and was unable to hand it a drink of water.
The pillow still showed the depression of his young wife's head, before she fled past him—was it forever?
The bitterness of this thought quenched the flow of tears. With his sleeve he wiped his eyes, and stood up and went into the kitchen, and waked the wench that was asleep there on the settle. She pushed the tangled locks of black hair from her eyes, and, as she perceived her master, she moaned aloud, so that the dogs outside began to howl. She swayed back and forth, struck her knees with her hands, and shrieked to the utmost of her power:
"Alas! alas! what has become of the hands, the strong hands, that were powerful for work? Alas! what is left of your strength? He will call upon his strength, and it will be a mockery to his useless arms! Alas! what has become of your hands? The ornament of the village is maimed and mutilated. The sun will make the cornfields yellow, and will ask: 'Where is he who loads the sheaves?' He must stand aside. Alas! what has become of your hands? The well will ask: 'Why do you lower no bucket?' and the water will show your picture without hands. Alas! what has become of your hands?"
It was like a death-moan, and the improvisation would have kept on still longer if Steria, angered because unable to shake her, had not approached her. Then she became quiet, and stared at him with her coal-black eyes.
"Now then, my hands were frozen off and that's the truth," said he with perfect equanimity, as though it were too trivial a thing to be noticed. "It is nothing to make a fuss about. The child wants a drink. Don't shriek so as to wake the whole village with your death-moans over my hands, but bring some milk."
The sharp tone of this once so gay young man dumfounded her. Without a word of reply she did as she was bid, and dared not so much as ask after her mistress, as she saw her empty chamber. Likewise she remained dumb when Steria, with scowling brows, bade her hold the milk to his lips, and put a piece of bread into his mouth.
The child did not scream as it beheld its father's arms, but merely looked at them with great wonder, and asked:
"Did a gun do that? Will they grow out again soon?"
Many hours passed, in which Steria, to avoid prying questions, did not show himself at the threshold of the house. But his unrest increased every moment, till finally Floarea, pale and with clenched teeth, entered with a tiny babe in her arms, born prematurely, whose weak little voice was scarcely audible. Without a word as she came she laid the babe in its brother's crib. Then she went to her work and stood till far into the night behind her bar, from time to time nursing the child inside, as her duty, not her desire, was awakened toward the poor little worm, whose lamp of life would soon burn out. The customers crowded in today especially, as the news of Steria's return home and of his misfortune had flown through the village, and everyone wanted to see how the two, who had been so envied, bore their hard fate. But no one had the opportunity of seeing him, and the beautiful innkeeper was abstracted and uncommunicative.
Her energy and ability to work seemed to increase twofold from now on. But she showed no softening toward her husband. She kept her bedroom closed. He slept on the bench in the barroom, after he had passed the day in looking after the chickens and pigs.
Once, indeed, he smiled at the young puppies, that tumbled over one another. Then he began to stand in his doorway, and also to go to the field to oversee the work. The days were tedious and the nights a torment. The deep sleep of health after a hard day's work was gone; instead, glowing sparks of hate often seemed to course through his brain or shine before his eyes.
He sought in good earnest to reestablish himself in the home and in the heart of his wife. But she repulsed him with such an attitude of repugnance, treated him so like a castaway, like one unfit for human society, a beggar and starveling, that he came to believe that it would be easier to soften rock-crystal than this woman. His child, who was often present at such times, soon began to side with the mother, and to cry and scream if the father came near him.
When Steria saw that even vehement outbreaks made no impression on Floarea, that she regarded him merely as one unable to work, and no longer her husband and master, he buried himself in silence.
"You are not able to entertain the people any more," she said to him. "Formerly you were full of songs and stories."
"Perhaps I could still sing and tell my stories if I were happy—if Floarea were to love me again."
Then she went to her little boy and slammed the door.
The gossips strengthened her warmly in her stubbornness. "Stumps! Good God! Who could love a man with a pair of stumps?"
In the village everyone had averted glances for Steria, who, with his arms crossed, stood there looking at the people that crowded about him on Sundays. The corners of his mouth began to draw down with a bitter expression. His lips were generally tightly compressed. His only dissipation was brandy, in which he sought consolation more and more and that did not make the scenes between himself and Floarea easier. She began to fear him and to hate him. To her it was as though he had committed a crime in losing his hands.
Four years had passed since that Sylvester's Eve in Margineni. There stood Steria with his arms crossed, as he always stood, overseeing the loading of the hay in the sweet-smelling meadow. There were not hands enough, for the horizon was growing darker every moment, and the lightning in the distance threatened like an evil glance. From all sides the clouds arose, black below, above like gray veils, and in front of them were those small white puffs that look so innocent and so often are full of hail. Between them the sun still pierced through above the busy haymakers.
"Lend a hand, Steria, we must hurry!" shouted a laughing maiden, whose face glowed like a rose under the kerchief that shielded it; and she reached him a pitchfork. He held out to her in silence his arm-stumps, and then crossed his arms again.
Horrified, the maiden ran away, and the others reproached her for her forgetfulness. At that moment the sound of a galloping horse was heard, and three officers advanced across the field.
"Look at that pretty girl!" shouted one, and reined in his horse. Suddenly there strode out from behind the hay-cart a figure, before which the young officer grew pale. Steria stood there calm, crossed his arms composedly, and looked at him. It was hard on the first day at his new post to have to look his worst enemy in the eye. The officer put spurs to his horse, so that he sprang high in the air, and raced after his comrades.
"Who was it, Steria?" said a workman, laying his hand on Steria's shoulder, while he, like a statue, still gazed after the other. "If he's the one, what shall I do to him?"
"Nothing now," said Steria softly, and turned and went away.
Some days later he lay under an immense nut-tree and contemplated his revenge. Suddenly he recognized, quite near him, the voice of his enemy, who said:
"Still as ever the prettiest in the land! Yes, you have become far more beautiful; sorrow has perfected you as the storm perfects the roses."
"With you, however, I have nothing whatever to do," sounded Floarea's voice in reply. I am altogether at a loss to understand how you dare speak to me."
"Am I Jack Frost? Did I bite his hands off?"
"You wanted to make me a widow—"
"Yes, that's what I wanted, my sweet Floarea, for it almost killed me that you were his."
"Revenge has done as much for you as sorrow has for me; you don't look like dying."
"No, Floarea, I could not die now, for I breathe life from you."
"Leave me! I hate you!"
"Oh! please hate me some more, so that I may see your eyes flash!"
"I have become very bad; no one cares for me any more."
"Poor child! No one cares for you! Is he bad to you? Does he torment you?"
A short pause.
"We get along together about as a cough does with pleurisy."
"The rascal! And you have to support him."
"Yes, I have to, for it is you that disabled him."
"I?—always I! You are to blame, since you took him to husband, and I then had to revenge myself on him. I wanted you at any price! I wanted to make you happy!"
"Instead of that you have brought misfortune upon me, which now hangs over my house and never lessens."
"What must I do to make your life happy? Say the word, and I'll pluck the stars from heaven for you."
Another pause. Steria held his breath.
"Lovely, sweet, poor Floarea! Forgive me, oh, pray forgive me! I sinned for Jove's sake. I was a long time imprisoned for it on bread and water; they came near shooting me. Floarea, I was very unlucky."
"Dog, thou liest!" hissed Steria, behind his tree.
"Imprisoned!" said Floarea, and her voice sounded soft.
"And there I always thought of you; otherwise I should have perished. Floarea! You can not be angry with me forever. The angels weep over sinners, and forgive!"
"I have wept tears enough through you. I have been very unhappy!"
A soft sob.
"Floarea, do not cry so! It tears my heart out! I am to be here for a long time, and I'll bring everything out right for you. I will be so fond of you that you will forget all your troubles, that you—"
That word died on his lips for, white as the angel of death, Steria stood before them. The young wife uttered a shriek and covered her face.
"Enough!" said he. "I am the master here not you. March!"
With an arm-stump he pointed to the distance, and did not drop it till the young officer had slunk away.
"Floarea!" he turned himself then to her, "go home, before you become a strumpet!" He followed after her, as one drives a dog before him.
From that time on Floarea was in a state of continual dread. She noticed that Steria never took a drop now, and whenever he spoke it was in a tone that sent her heart into her mouth.
Scarcely ten days were past, when one day he stepped up to her at the bar. Over his arm hung a cloth, whose ends were tied tightly together.
"Take the pen and write." he ordered.
"I can't write evenly. I make mistakes."
"That's no matter. Write!"
With trembling fingers and much delay she reached for a piece of paper and a rusty pen.
"Write what I shall tell you."
"What are you going to do, Miron? You have a terrible look."
"I will do what I have waited for years to do. Write: 'This evening, after sunset, I shall be at the apple-tree, where the cornfield ends. Meet me there. I have something to say to you. Floarea.'"
"I won't write that!"
"If you don't write, I'll throw this cloth over your head and twist it with my arm-stump till your breath is gone. Write!"
"Miron! I will be fond of you from this day forth! I will kiss your arms! I will serve you! Miron, be merciful!"
"Too late! Who was merciful with me?"
"Miron, you will do something brutal. I was not brutal."
"You were brutal in your prejudice and contempt. Write, or I'll kill you."
Finally the harmless words were written down. The address was added. Steria called the kitchen wench.
"Give this letter to some child," he ordered, and went out after her to see that she did not speak with the child, who, pleased with its message and the piece of money, hastened away.
Floarea leaned upon the bar. She was ready to die. Terror is like a shrapnel-shot, which first strikes one as with palsy and then tears the body in pieces. Her heart beat so that she heard it herself, and then it seemed to stand still for hours. She repented what she had written. Better had he strangled her; then were her trouble already past.
She saw with horror that the sun was setting. Never before had it gone down so quickly.
"Come now," said Steria. And, as she was about to beg again:
"Silence! It is useless!"
It was one of those dreamy evenings, such as settle down over the rich level of Roumania like a golden mantle. The unbounded corn-fields stood head high and veiled their gold in the pale stalks that were adorning themselves with feather tassels. The light breeze that followed the sunset fanned them softly. Along the horizon arose a purple mist in which the sun went down; the last cows had turned toward home; the last cart had been drawn by; utter loneliness spread itself over the earth.
Through this tranquil scene walked the two along, Steria first, Floarea following, without a sound. The young wife noticed how far behind the village lay, how deserted the road was. Then the corn rustled as Steria parted it and. looked at her with the command in his eyes to follow.
So they approached the designated apple-tree. Scarcely had they reached there when three men with blackened faces crept out from the corn, grasped the young woman, and with cords bound her fast to the tree, so that she could stir neither hand nor foot. At first she was almost crazy with terror. But when she started to resist and scream, three knives glanced before her, and Steria said:
"If you so much as make a sound, you will never draw another breath!"
"But, for God's sake, Miron, what will you do? Let me go! Let me to my children! Miron! kill me not, for then the children will have no one—the little, weak one! Miron, be good! I will love you again! Miron, you look so terrible! Kill me not! I see death in your eyes—"
"If you are still, as though you were not there, then you shall not die."
After these words Steria was silent, and the three men with him were also.
Suddenly they heard steps approaching in the distance. Floarea heard the corn rustle, but her heart beat so loud that she could not perceive whether the steps approached. She turned her eyes toward the setting sun, and prayed to God to send some one to rescue her. Then she saw the corn separate, and footsteps approached in her track.
"Floarea!" sounded a voice. "Floarea, are you here?"
She recognized the voice, and in her terror would have called out a word of warning to him in his danger, but Steria was already in front of her, and threateningly held his bare arm before her eyes. She shut them for a moment in her dismay and dread of death, but immediately forced them open again, to see her husband shaking his arms in the officer's face, and before he could defend himself he was set upon by the three men in disguise, who pierced him through with their daggers. They were too many for him, desperate as he was, and they slashed and cut him so that his blood was spattered over Floarea's clothing.
Steria had his arms folded, and looked now on her, now on his mortal enemy, whose head, arms, legs were cut off, whose whole body was a horrible mass of bloody wounds.
"Leave only the face as it is," ordered Steria. "And now put him together and leave him against the stone, so that from the distance he will appear to be alive."
The tree quivered and rustled, so fiercely did the young wife tremble. They carefully laid head and limbs and trunk together against a stone; the eyes gazed from their sockets in a ghastly way; the white forehead and the teeth in the lower jaw as it hung down gleamed in the fast-falling darkness.
"In order that you may become accustomed to looking at what is loathsome, you shall now remain here. You can scream; but if ever it crosses your lips who did this, you are as good as dead. You see"—he pointed with his arm-stump to the body—"I have no hands, but have still arm and head enough to avenge myself. You forgot, my child, that the head and the heart were intact. Good-night."
Before she could utter a sound Steria had vanished; she heard the footsteps departing in different directions. Then she was alone. An icy shiver ran through her body as the moon arose and cast its ghost-like light upon the dead countenance. She tried to turn her glance away, but she had to stare incessantly; for it seemed as though the lips, the eyes, the arm, moved, and the lips were black against the white teeth. Many times she lost her senses, as in a faint or in sleep, but immediately she was again recalled to the present, and then the tree trembled and the leafage seemed to sigh.
"The tree has pity on me," thought Floarea.
The night seemed ever longer, the silence ever deeper. The moon made the staring dead eyes gleam. In her terror she would have screamed, but she said to herself that she must save her strength till people were awake to hear her cries.
At last, at last, a pale glow began to gather strength, and the moon began to fade. The dew fell heavily and wet everything with its glittering drops. It stood like drops of sweat on the dead man's forehead. Then, suddenly, in the branches above her, a bird awoke and raised a chirping trill. She looked up gratefully; but then she saw a black spot on the heaven, which fast grew larger till she plainly recognized that it was a vulture, which, in lazy circles, was lowering upon her. Soon a second one appeared, which circled about like the first one, and in the distance other dark spots appeared. The horizon now dipped itself in purple and gilded the feather tips of the birds of prey. Seized with a new horror, Floarea began to shake the tree, and she saw that the circles were at once higher and farther away.
At the same time, however, she felt that she dare not trust too much to her strength; that her swollen arms could no longer endure the tree-shaking. The disk of the sun now arose and turned to gold Floarea's tears as they fell down one at a time in heavy drops. But everything was still silent far and wide. She bethought herself that she had not heard the crowing of a single cock, and the frightful birds increased, and again came nearer. They seemed to have guessed that the tree was not dangerous, for suddenly one shot straight down and bore away a piece of the entrails. The others hesitated, for Floarea shrieked and once again shook the tree, but weaker, and with cutting pain.
It became hotter and hotter, and the birds, ever bolder, swooped down oftener.
It was long past midday when some peasants, who were resting in the shade, began to notice the flock of vultures. At the same time Floarea heard cow-bells and the monotonous playing of a shepherd lad on a Dutch flute. Then she tried to scream. But, to her horror, she was so parched for thirst that she could no longer bring forth a sound. The sweat of terror trickled from her brow. Here to be pecked at, and, still breathing, to be eaten by the loathsome birds—again her senses left her!
Suddenly she heard a distant rustle in the corn, and a careful step approached. She felt it must be a child, and tried to call. But she could only utter a hoarse groan. The steps stood still. In dread, her heart beat fast. Now they approached again; the corn parted and a youngster, with great, round black eyes, stared at the strange group, and then turned and fled away as if pursued.
Floarea cursed heaven, herself, her cruel husband. Tortured for thirst, with swollen arms, her body cut by the cords, she tried to close her eyes, so as no longer to see the work of the birds. But even that she could do no more; the lids were so dry that she could not shut them. Then there was another rustle. This time it was two lean and hungry dogs that looked like jackals, and wanted to divide the meal with the vultures.
It seemed to Floarea as though her temples opened and her brain flowed seething forth.
Then the steps of men were heard—at first a few, then more, and ever more; a great crowd of people seemed to draw near. A shout, a call, a conference; and when finally they loosed the cords, the young woman sank down in a death-like faint, from which she awoke, in the arms of her mother, many hours after. She remained many long months entirely speechless.
Steria, for the same length of time, had vanished from the neighborhood. The entire. village was at its wits' end, but could discover nothing. Nevertheless, Steria was for a long time accused, then he was even arrested. He remained many months in prison, but they could get no confession from him. He simply showed his arms, always.
"Could I overcome anyone, or bind one fast?"
When Floarea looked upon him for the first time, she was taken with a violent shiver, and tried to stammer his name. He was amazed.
"Can't she speak?" he asked of his mother-in-law.
"That is her first word since the fatal day" said she, and looked at Steria with a penetrating glance. "Who could possibly have done it?" she asked, with a prying look.
Steria shrugged his shoulders and gave no answer. For he who has to guard a secret in his weak-minded wife must be watchful and keen.
The life of the three people must have been a hell. Finally Steria vanished again, and nothing was ever heard of him afterward. But his beauty remained proverbial.
Floarea lived to be a little old woman; her dumb mouth became hard and small, and only opened from time to time to let forth a deep sigh. Her spouse was avenged, but far beyond his wish.
He wandered a beggar through the land. Before his evil eyes the people were afraid, and only his shrunken wrists placed them at ease, and touched their purses and hearts.
If anyone in the village asks a maiden: "Is your sweetheart handsome?" the answer is always:
"Yes, indeed; but not so handsome as Steria."
CARMEN SYLVA, QUEEN OF ROUMANIA.
Everyone has heard of the reigning queen. in Europe, who writes poems and novels. The story of her life, her work, her deeds, her sayings, have been written down in books, and have been the subject of many magazine articles and countless newspaper paragraphs. All the biographical sketches are founded upon the "Life of Carmen Sylva," by Natalie Freiin von Stackelberg. Herein we learn that Elizabeth, Queen of Roumania, was born Princess of Weid on the 29th of December, 1843. Weid was a small principality on the bank of the Rhine, near Ehrenbreitstein, and Elizabeth's family was an old and honored one. She was brought up in a strict, studious fashion, and her childhood was solitary, except for the companionship of an invalid brother. She was repressed in her play by a rigid decorum, and was punished on one occasion because she joined the village children at their school. Her training might naturally have dulled her sensibilities, but it seems only to have quickened her own resources. At her summer home she wandered in the forest, and made friends with the birds and flowers. When a mere child she developed a poetic taste and talent. She began to write at nine, and at sixteen she kept a book in which she secretly copied all her verses. At this time her tasks were long and severe. She studied history, the languages,—Latin, Italian, French, and English,—grammar, arithmetic, geometry, and literature, and read poetry, history, and the drama for recreation. She even read three newspapers daily, and applied herself to politics. From eighteen until twenty-four the princess studied, traveled, or taught the poor. She seemed to have both talent and inclination for the latter work, and she declared that she was going to prepare herself to become a teacher. Her marriage with the Prince of Roumania, however, prevented her from carrying out this plan.
Prince Charles of Hohenzollern was placed at the head of the state of Roumania in 1866. He was unmarried, but he had a romantic adventure with a young German princess some five years before. He was ascending a palace stair in Berlin when a miss came tumbling down into his arms. He saved her from what might have been a serious fall, and now that he was Prince of Roumania he bethought himself of this fair young girl, who was none other than the Princess of Weid. He asked her to become the Princess of Roumania, and they were married in1869. They have had but one child, a girl who died when four years old. In her great grief over her loss, the mother found her only solace in ceaseless work. She had already acquired a knowledge of the Roumanian language—which is a Latin, not a Slavic language—and she now devoted herself to her people. She organized all kinds of charitable institutions, and sought to develop and establish the national characteristics of the people by the improvement of native industries, the encouragement of the adoption of the national costume, etc.
At this time also she began to devote herself seriously to authorship. Though she had written from childhood, she knew nothing of the art of composition. For the first time now she confessed to a few chosen friends that she sometimes wrote verses. Under their advice she applied herself to the study of composition. She worked zealously for two years, when the Turko-Russian war for a time put an end to her literary labors. Roumania was a battlefield, and the princess was in every camp of sick and wounded. The people called her the "mother of the wounded," and erected a statue to her at the close of the war. Her husband, Prince Charles, was as brave as she was merciful, and played a gallant part at the battle of Plevna. After the war, by the Treaty of Berlin Roumania was recognized as an independent kingdom, and certain conditions having been fulfilled, Charles and Elizabeth were in 1881 crowned king and queen of Roumania.
When peace was established, Elizabeth again turned her attention to literary work. In 1880 she published her first book under the nom de Plume of Carmen Sylva. It was a volume of translations from Roumanian into German verse. This was followed in less than a year by a book of original poems. Since that time the queen has published in German no less than five volumes of poetry, four novels or stories, and two collections of tales; she has translated a novel from the French into the German; she has written a book of aphorisms in the French, which gained for her the medal of honor from the French Academy; and she has recently translated into both German and English, but not yet published, a collection of Roumanian folk-songs. Even this summary does not include all her work or fully measure her literary activity. The total of production is such as few writers have ever equaled; and when we reflect that Carmen Sylva is a sovereign as well as an author, and that she bas a thousand and one interests unconnected with literature, we can have only admiration for her activity.
As to the quality of her productions, we cannot always speak with equal enthusiasm. Her "Handwerkerlieder," or "Songs of Toil," would be a credit to any author, even were she not a queen; but some of her poems and some of her stories have little more than average merit. No one will include in this class the story called "Steria's Revenge," now first published in this magazine. It is a grim, horrible story, revolting if not disgusting in parts, but so powerful as to claim a place in permanent literature. It is like a picture of Verestchagin's, before which one stands spellbound, yet fainting. It suggests the horrors of Poe and the crimes in Russian novels. But, in spite of all, it is the best short story that Carmen Sylva has written. The queen usually writes with a purpose. Here it is to rebuke the popular aversion to deformity. Happily this aversion does not obtain among us as in Roumauia. The purpose of "Steria's Revenge" therefore becomes insignificant to us, and the story must be accepted merely as a literary production. As such it is a work of art, horrible though that art may be.
The readers of the story will be glad to turn back from its revolting details to the beautiful portrait of its author, which appears as the frontispiece of this magazine. It is from a photograph taken last winter and sent to me by her majesty. It represents her, not as the queen, but as the author. But although she has written "Carmen Sylva" upon it, she could not banish the queen from her face and figure. They reveal the majesty of the "mother of her people."
JOHN ELIOT BOWEN