THE BIRD OF ILL OMEN
By I, AL. BRATESCU-VOINESHTI
CONU COSTACHE had one of the pleasantest faces in the town.
Men of the same age as himself said he was nearly seventy years old; but a life free from care, a comfortable fortune, a wife as loving as a sister, two children who were getting on well, and, above all, his own kindly nature, had kept him so healthy, quick of movement and clear of mind, that one would not have given him fifty years. He told stories with a charm and humour that gathered an audience round him whenever he opened his mouth ; and as he had travelled much abroad, and was also a sportsman, he knew every kind of amusing anecdote.
This man, who was as good as new bread, always smiling, whose person seemed to radiate joy, became acrimonious and impatient every time his game of Preference went badly; it was the one and only, but the daily game of cards he played. He did not get angry out of stinginess-he was not a miser ; 261
262 ROUMANIAN STORIES on the contrary, he was open-handed, that was his nature.
If it happened that he "entered" twice in succession, or if he got irritated with his partners, he grew furious. Everything seemed wrong to him ;the jam was sour, the coffee too sweet, the water too cold, the lamp too dim, the chalk was not sharp enough; he shouted at the boy who served him ; he changed his chair because it squeaked ; he hammered upon the table with his fists until the candlesticks jumped; he looked daggers over his spectacles at anyone who made a joke-I assure you, he was in a vile temper, as vile a temper as a man could be in, when he had no other place in which to give vent to it.
His partners knew him, and were aware that five minutes after the game was over he would become once more kind, amiable, and amusing Conu Costache.
If you were sitting near him when he was playing Preference, you should get up the first time he "entered" ; shouldn't wait for him to say to you "Can't you get away, my good fellow; you spoil my luck ! " One day, after two " entries," he said to a person with whom he had only just become acquainted and who would not move away from his side
" Excuse me, sir, but I believe in birds of ill omen. This game is a question of faces, I can scarcely compose my own face ; I certainly cannot
THE BIRD OF ILL OMEN 263
compose yours. Kindly move a little farther off ! Thank you. Don't be offended."
Ever since that day, the onlookers at the game have been given the name of birds of ill omen, and they swarmed in the room where Conu Costache played ; if the game went well he was affable and they listened to him with pleasure-if the game went badly, they moved away from him and made fun of his ill humour.
One evening the Prefect gave a party. The young people danced in the drawing-room ;their elders assembled in the other rooms ; Conu Costache sat at a table playing Preference with three other people ; among them was the attorney, a cunning player with a special talent for making him lose his temper ; a large audience had gathered round. Conu Costache was losing: he was angry, but controlled himself-he could not give vent to his annoyance, for there were ladies present. Conu and his friends were playing in the middle of the room ; he had barely scored six, and had entered the pool with thirteen.
At this moment ail old lady approached. She was a Moldavian, the mother of Dr. Ionashcu. She took a chair, seated herself by Conu Costache with the calm serenity of the aged, who neither see nor hear well.
There she remained. From time to time she gently put a question to
264 ROUMANIAN STORIES Conu Costache ; it had the same effect upon his agitation as does oil upon a fire of coals. "How beautiful it must be at your countryhouse now, Mr. Costache! "
"Beautiful, Mrs. Raluca;' he replied, forcing himself to smile-and chalking himself another eighteen in the pool.
" I expect you often go there, as it is so close."
"I went to-day, Mrs. Raluca."
No words can describe the contrast between the placidity with which Mrs. Raluca told her beads, and the fury with which Corm Costache shuffled his cards.
"Is it a good harvest, Mr. Costache ?"
" G-g-good, Mrs. Raluca," he replied, thrust- ing both hands inside the neck of his shirt to loosen the collar.
The game began, the attorney played below the ace, Conu Costache named the suit for the second time.
" Have you got a good road along there now?" "Y-y-yes, Mrs. Raluca."
It was a wonder his handkerchief did not rub the skin off his forehead, he mopped it with such vigour. His partners and the onlookers shook with laughter ; the attorney did not give way at all, he saw how furious he was ; he bid with nothing in his hand, and passed just in time to make him "enter" a second time. And at this moment Mrs. Raluca's questions
THE BIRD OF ILL OMEN 265 fell one after the other as fast as the beads of a rosary. She did not hear the rustling of the cards nor the choking in Coma Costache's throat, she did not see his misery nor the amusement of the others.
"But they have cut down the lovely wood on the right, haven't they, Mr. Costache?"
"Th-th-they have cut it down, Mrs. Raluca," he answered, gazing at the ceiling and pressing his temples between his hands.
He bid and came in, said " Play "-and found two clubs in the talon which he did not want. Such a collection of cards you have never seen ; it might have been done on purpose. If you had tried to arrange them so, you could not have done it. It was a regular "walk-over" : one cut four honours, the other cut the spades, and out of the eight games won five.
All he cut was an ace, and a pair. He put forty-eight in the pool.
"But the little lake still lies on the left, doesn't it, Mr. Costache ? "
"St-st-still, Mrs. Raluca" With a small brush he violently effaced the whole row of his stakes chalked on the cloth anal wrote down a total of ninety-four in huge figures.
"But I must ask you, the inn-- Conu Costache turned his chair right round.
"Mrs. Raluca, to-morrow afternoon my wife and I are going to our country-house-we will come and pick you up. In this way you will see
266 ROUMANIAN STORIES how they cut down the wood on the right; you will see how the storks walk by the lake on the left ; you will see how they have repaired the bridges ; you will see how they have renovated the inn at the cross-gates ; you will see what a nice house Ionitza Andrescu From Ulmi has built ; you will see what big reservoirs the Aurora factory have erected by the road . . . .
Mrs. Raluca understood and took her departure, telling her beads as she went, but even when she had passed into the third room Conu Costache still continued, while the others were convulsed with laughter:
"You will see how illegible the figures on the 76 milestone have become; you will see how the boys have broken the insulators on the telegraph posts by throwing stones at them ; you will see how the geese hiss when the carriage passes by ; you will see--
Then, turning back to his partners, who laughed till the tears ran down their checks, he groaned "Terrible bird of ill omen!"
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