THE EASTER TORCH
BY I. L. CARAGIALE
LEIBA ZIBAL, mine host of Podeni, was sitting lost in thought, by a table placed in the shadow in front of the inn ; he was awaiting the arrival of the coach which should have come some time ago ; it was already an hour behind time.
The story of Zibal's life is a long and cheerless one: when he is taken with one of his feverish attacks it is a diversion for him to analyse one by one the most important events in that life.
Huckster, seller of hardware, jobber, between whiles even rougher work perhaps, seller of old clothes, then tailor, and boot-black in a dingy alley in Jassy ; all this had happened to him since the accident whereby he lost his situation as office boy in a big wine-shop. Two porters were carrying a barrel down to a cellar under the super- vision of the lad Zibal. A difference arose between them as to the division of their earnings. One of them seized a piece of wood that lay at hand and struck his comrade on the forehead, who fell to the ground covered in blood. At the sight of the wild deed the boy gave a cry of alarm, but the wretch hurried through the yard, and in passing gave the lad a blow. Zibal fell to the ground fainting with fear. After several months in bed he returned to his master, only to find his place filled up. Then began a hard struggle for existence, which increased in difficulty after his marriage with Sura. Their hard lot was borne with patience. Sura's brother, the innkeeper of Podeni, died ; the inn passed into Zibal's hands, and he carried on the business on his own account.
Here he had been for the last five years. He had saved a good bit of money and collected good wine-a commodity that will always be worth good money-Leiba had escaped from poverty, but they were all three sickly, himself, his wife, and his child, all victims of malaria, and men are rough and quarrelsome in Podeni-slanderous, scoffers, revilers, accused of vitriol throwing. And the threats! A threat is very terrible to a character that bends easily beneath every blow. The thought of a threat worked more upon Leiba's nerves than did his attacks of fever.
" Oh, wretched Gentile ! " he thought, sighing.
This "wretched" referred to Gheorghe-wherever he might be!-a man between whom and himself a most unpleasant affair had arisen.
Gheorghe came to the inn one autumn morning, tired with his walk ; he was just out of hospital- so he said-and was looking for work. The innkeeper took him into his service. But Gheorghe showed himself to be a brutal and a sullen man. He swore continually, and muttered to himself alone in the yard. He was a bad servant, lazy and insolent, and he stole. He threatened his mistress one day when she was pregnant, cursing her, and striking her on the stomach. Another time he set a dog on little Strul.
Leiba paid him his wages at once, and dismissed him. But Gheorghe would not go : he asserted with violence that he had been engaged for a year. Then the innkeeper sent to the town hall to get guards to remove him.
Gheorghe put his hand swiftly to his breast, crying ;
" Jew ! " and began to rail at his master. Un- fortunately, a cart full of customers arrived at that moment. Gheorghe began to grin, saying
" What frightened you, Master Leiba? Look, I am going now." Then bending fiercely over the bar towards Leiba, who drew back as far as possible, he whispered: "Expect me on Easter Eve; we'll crack red eggs together, Jew ! You will know then what I have done to you, and I will answer for it."
Just then, customers entered the inn.
"May we meet in good health at Easter, Master Leiba ! " added Gheorghe as he left.
Leiba went to the town hall, .then to the sub- prefecture to denounce the threatener, begging that he might be watched. The sub-prefect was a lively young man; he first accepted Leiba's humble offering, then he began to laugh at the timid Jew, and make fun of him. Leiba tried hard to make him realize the gravity of the situation, and pointed out how isolated the house stood from the village, and even from the high road. But the sub- prefect, with a more serious air, advised him to be prudent; he must not mention such things, for, truly, it would arouse the desire to do them in a village where men were rough and poor, ready to break the law.
A few days later, an official with two riders came to see him about Gheorghe; he was "wanted" for some crime.
If only Leiba had been able to put up with him until the arrival of these men ! In the meanwhile, no one knew the whereabouts of Gheorghe. Although this had happened some time ago, Gheorghe's appearance, the movement as though he would have drawn something from his breast, and the threatening words had al1 remained deeply impressed upon the mind of the terror-stricken man, How was it that that memory remained so clear ?
It was Easter Eve.
From the top of the hill, from the village lying among the lakes about two miles away, came the sound of church bells. One hears in a strange way when one is feverish, now so loud, now so far away. The coming night was the night before Easter, the night of the fulfilment of Gheorghe's promise,
"But perhaps they have caught him by now!"
Moreover, Zibal only means to stay at Podeni till next quarter-day. With his capital he could open a good business in Jassy. In a town, Leiba would regain his health, he would go near the police station-he could treat the police, the commissionaires, the sergeants. Who pays well gets well guarded.
In a large village, the night brings noise and light, not darkness and silence as in the isolated valley of Podeni. There is an inn in Jassy-there in the corner, just the place for a shop f An inn where girls sing all night long, a Cafe Chantant. What a gay and rousing life ! There, at all hours of the day and night, officials and their girls, and other dirty Christians will need entertainment.
What is the use of bothering oneself here where business keeps falling off, especially since the coming of the railway which only skirts the marshes at some distance?
"Leiba;' calls Sura from within, "the coach is coming, one can hear the bells."
The Podeni valley is a ravine enclosed on all sides by wooded hills. In a hollow towards the south lie several deep pools caused by the springs which rise in the hills; above them lie some r stretches of ground covered with bushes and rushes.
Leiba's hotel stands in the centre of the valley, between the pools and the more elevated ground to the north ; it is an old stone building, strong as a small fortress : although the ground is marshy, the walls and cellars are very dry.
At Sum's voice Leiba raises himself painfully from his chair, stretching his tired limbs ; he takes a long look towards the east, not a sign of the diligence,
" it is not coming ; you imagined it;' he replied to his wife, and sat dawn again.
Very tired the man crossed his arms on the table, and laid his head upon them, for it was burning. The warmth of the spring sun began to strike the surface of the marshes and a pleasant lassitude enveloped his nerves, and his thoughts began to run riot as a sick man's will, gradually taking on strange farms and colours.
Gheorghe-Easter Eve-burglars-Jassy-the inn in the centre of the town-a gay restaurant doing well-restored health. And he dozed.
Sum and the child went without a great deal up here.
Leiba went to the door of the inn and looked out on to the road.
On the main road there was a good deal of traffic, an unceasing noise of wheels accompanied by the rhythmic sound of horses' hooves trotting upon the smooth asphalt.
But suddenly the traffic stopped, and from Copou a group of people could be seen approaching, gesticulating and shouting excitedly.
The crowd appeared to be escorting somebody soldiers, a guard and various members of the public. Curious onlookers appeared at every door of the inn.
"Ah," thought Leiba, "they have laid hands on a thief."
The procession drew nearer. Sum detached herself from the others, and joined Leiba on the steps of the inn.
" What is it, Sum ?" he asked.
"A madman escaped from Golia"
"Let us close the inn so that he cannot get at us."
"He is bound now, but just now he escaped. He fought with all the soldiers. A rough Gentile in the crowd pushed a Jew against the madman and he bit him on the cheek."
Leiba could see well from the steps ; from the stair below Sura watched with the child in her arms.
It was, in fact, a violent lunatic held on either side by two men : his wrists were tightly bound over each other by a thick cord. He was a man of gigantic stature with a head like a bull, thick black hair, and hard, grizzled beard and whiskers. Through his shirt, which had been torn in the struggle, his broad chest was visible, covered like his head, with a mass of hair. His feet were bare; his mouth was full of blood, and he continually spat out hair which he had bitten from the Jew's beard.
Every one stood still. Why? The guards unbound the lunatic's hands. The crowd drew to one side, leaving a large space around him. The Madman looked about him, and his fierce glance rested upon Zibal's doorway ; be gnashed his teeth, made a dash for the three steps, and in a flash, seizing the child's head in his right hand and Sura's in his left, he knocked them together with such force that they cracked like so many fresh eggs. M sound was heard, a scrunching impossible to describe, as the two skulls cracked together.
Leiba, with bursting heart, like a man who falls from an immense height, tried to cry out; "The whole world abandons me to the tender mercies of a madman ! " But his voice refused to obey him.
" Get up, Jew! " cried some one, beating loudly upon the table with a stick.
"It's a bad joke," said Sura from the doorway of the inn, " thus to frighten the man out of his sleep, you stupid peasant"
"What has scared you, Jew?" asked the wag, laughing. "You sleep in the afternoon, eh? Gee up, customers are coming, the mail coach is arriving."
And, according to his silly habit which greatly irritated the Jew, he tried to take his arm and tickle him.
" Let me alone! " tried the innkeeper, drawing back and pushing him away with all his might. "Can you not see that I am ill? Leave me in peace."
The coach arrived at last, nearly three hours late. There were two passengers who seated themselves together with the driver, whom they had invited to share their table.
The conversation of the travellers threw a light upon recent events. At the highest posting station, a robbery with murder had been committed during the night in the inn of a Jew. The murdered innkeeper should have provided change of horses. The thieves had taken them, and while other horses were being found in the village the curious travellers could examine the scene of the crime at their leisure. Five victims! But the details! From just seeing the ruined house one could believe it to have been some cruel vendetta or the work of some religious fanatic. In stories of sectarian fanaticism one heard occasionally of such extravagant crimes. Leiba shook with a violent access of fever and listened aghast.
What followed must have undoubtedly filled the driver with respect. The young passengers were two students, one of philosophy, the other of medicine ; they were returning to amuse themselves in their native town. They embarked upon a violent academic discussion upon crime and its causes, and, to give him his due, the medical student was better informed than the philosopher.
Atavism; alcoholism and its pathological consequences; defective birth ; deformity; Paludism ; then nervous disorders! Such and such conquest of modern science-but the case of reversion to type ! Darwin, Hackel, Lombroso. At the case of reversion to type, the driver opened wide his eyes in which shone a profound; admiration for the conquests of modern science.
"It is obvious," added the medical student. " The so-called criminal proper, taken as a type, has unusually long arms, and very short feet, a flat and narrow forehead, and a much developed occiput. To the experienced eye his face is characteristically coarse and bestial; he is rudimentary man: he is, as I say, a beast which has but lately got used to standing on its hind legs only, and to raising its head towards the sky, towards the light."
At the age of twenty, after so much excitement, and after a good repast with wine so well vinted, and so well matured as Leiba's, a phrase with a lyrical touch came well even from a medical student.
Between his studies of Darwin and Lombroso, the enthusiastic youth had found time to imbibe a little Schopenhauer-"towards the sky, towards the light I"
Leiba was far from understanding these" illu- minating" ideas. Perhaps for the first time did such grand words and fine subtleties of thought find expression in the damp atmosphere of Podcni.
But that which he understood better than anything, much better even than the speaker, was the striking illustration of the theory : the case of reversion to type he knew in flesh and blood, it was the portrait of Gheorghe. This portrait, which had just been drawn in broad outline only, he could fill in perfectly in his own mind, down to the most minute details.
The coach had gone. Leiba followed it with his eyes until, turning to the left, it was lost to sight round the hill. The sun was setting behind the ridge to the west, and the twilight began to weave soft shapes in the Podeni valley.
The gloomy innkeeper began to turn aver in his mind all that he had heard. In the dead of night, lost in the darkness, a man, two women and two young children, torn without warning from the gentle arms of sleep by the hands of beasts with human faces, and sacrificed one after the other, the agonized cries of the children cut short by the dagger ripping open their bodies, the neck slashed with a hatchet, the dull rattle in the throat with each gush of blood through the wound ; and the last victim, half-distraught, in a corner, witness of the scene, and awaiting his turn. A condition far worse than execution was that of the Jew without protection in the hands of the Gentile--skulls too fragile for such fierce hands as those of the madman just now.
Leiba's lips, parched with fever, trembled as they mechanically followed his thoughts. A violent shivering fit seized him ; he entered the porch of the inn with tottering steps. "There is no doubt;" thought Sara, "Leiba is not at all well, he is really ill; Leiba has got 'ideas' into his head. Is not that easy to understand after all he has been doing these last days, and ecspecially after what he has done to-day?" He had had the inn closed before the lights were lit, to remain so until the Sabbath was ended. Three times had some customers knocked at the door, calling to him, in familiar voices, to undo it, He had trembled at each knock and had stood still, whispering softly and with terrified eyes
" Do not move-I want no Gentiles here,"
Then he had passed under the portico, and had listened at the top of the stone steps by the door which was secured with a bar of wood. He shook ,so that he could scarcely stand, but he would not rest, The most distressing thing of all was that, be had answered Sura's persistent questions sharply, and had sent her to bed, ordering her to put out the light at once. She had protested meanwhile, but the man had repeated the order curtly enough, and she had had unwillingly to submit, resigning herself to postponing to a later date any explanation of his conduct. Sura had put out the lamp, had gone to bed, and now slept by the side of Strul.
The woman was right. Leiba was really ill. Night had fallen. Far a long time Leiba had been sitting, listening by the doorway which gave on to the passage.
What is that? Indistinct sounds came from the distance horses trotting, the noise of heavy blows, mysterious and agitated conversations. The effort of listening intently in the solitude of the eight sharpens the sense of hearing: when the eye is disarmed and powerless, the ear seems to struggle to assert its power. But it was not imagination. From the road leading hither from the main road came the sound of approaching horses. Leiba rose, and tried to get nearer to the big door in the passage. The door was firmly shut by a heavy bar of wood across it, the ends of which ran into holes in the wall. At his first step the sand scrunching under his slippers made an indiscreet noise. He drew his feet from his slippers, and waited in the corner. Then, without a sound that could be heard by an unexpectant ear, he went to the door in the corridor, just as the riders passed in front of it at walking pace. They were speaking very low to each other, but not so low but that Leiba could quite well catch these words
" He has gone to bed early."
"Supposing he has gone away ?"
"His turn will come; but I should have liked--" No more was intelligible; the men were already some way away.
To whom did these words refer? Who had hone to bed or gone away? Whose turn would come another time ? Who would have liked something? And what was it he wanted ? What did they want on that by-road-a road only used by anyone wishing to find the inn?
An overwhelming sense of fatigue seemed to overcome Leiba,
"Could it be Gheorghe ?"
Leiba felt as if his strength was giving way, and he sat down by the door. Eager thoughts chased each other through his head, he could not think clearly or come to any decision.
Terrified, he re-entered the inn, struck a match, and lighted a small petroleum lamp.
It was an apology for a light; the wick was turned so low as to conceal the game in the brass receiver ; only by means of the opening round the receiver could some of the vertical shafts of light penetrate into a gloom that was like the darkness of death-all the same it was sufficient to enable him to see well into the familiar corners of the inn. Ah ! flow much less is the difference between the sun and the tiniest spark of light than between the latter and the gloom of blindness.
The clock on the wall ticked audibly. The monotonous sound irritated Leiba. He put his hand over the swinging pendulum, and stayed its movement.
His throat was parched. He was thirsty. He washed a small glass in a three-legged tub by the side of the bar and tried to pour some good brandy out of a decanter ; but the mouth of the decanter began to clink loudly on the edge of the glass. This noise was still more irritating. A second attempt, in spite of his effort to conquer his weakness, met with no greater success.
Then, giving up the idea of the glass, he let it fall gently into the water, and drank several times out of the decanter. After that he pushed the decanter back into its place ; as it touched the shelf it made an alarming clatter. For a moment he waited, appalled by such a catastrophe. Then he took the lamp, and placed it in the niche of the window which lighted the passage : the door, the pavement, and the wall which ran at right angles to the passage, were illuminated by almost imperceptible streaks of light.
He seated himself near the doorway and listened intently.
From the hill came the sound of bells ringing in the Resurrection morning. It meant that midnight was past, day was approaching. Ah! If only the rest of this long night might pass as had the first half!
The sound of sand trodden underfoot! But he was sitting in the corner, and had not stirred; a second noise, followed by many such. There could be no doubt same one was outside, here, quite near.
Leiba rose, pressing his hand to his heart, and trying to swallow a suspicious lump in his throat. There were several people outside-and Gheorghe! Yes, he was there; yes, the bells on the hill had rung the Resurrection.
They spoke softly
"I tell you he is asleep. I saw when the lights went out."
"Good, we will take the whole nest"
"I will undo the door, I understand how it works. We must cut an opening-the beam runs along here."
He seemed to feel the touch of the men outside as they measured the distance on the wood. A big gimlet could be heard boring its way through the try bark of the old oak. Leiba felt the need of support ; he steadied himself against the door with his left hand while he covered his eyes with the right.
Then, through some inexplicable play of the ,eases, he heard, from within, quite loud and clear
" Leiba! Here comes the coach."
It was surely Sura's voice. A warm ray of hope ! A moment of joy! It was just another dream ! But Leiba drew his left hand quickly back ; the point of the tool, piercing the wood at that spot, had pricked the palm of his hand.
Was there any chance of escape? Absurd! In his burning brain the image of the gimlet took inconceivable dimensions. The instrument, turning continually, grew indefinitely, and the opening became larger and larger, large enough at last to enable the monster to step through the round aperture without having to bend. All that surged through such a brain transcends the thoughts of man ; life rose to such a pitch of exaltation that everything seen, heard, felt, appeared to be enormous, the sense of proportion became chaotic,
The work outside was continued with method and perseverance. Four times in succession Leiba had seen the sharp steel tooth pierce through to his side and draw back again. " Now, give me the saw," said Gheorghe.
The narrow end of a saw appeared through the first hole, and started to work with quick, regular movements. The plan was easy to understand ; four holes in four corners of one panel; the saw made cuts between them ;the gimlet was driven well home in the centre of the panel ; when the piece became totally separated from the main body of the wood it was pulled out ; through the opening thus made a strong hand inserted itself, seized the bar, pushed it to one side and-Gentiles are in Leiba's house.
In a few moments, this same gimlet would cause the destruction of Leiba and his domestic hearth. The two executioners would hold the victim prostrate on the ground, and Gheorghe, with heel upon his body, would slowly bore the gimlet into the bone of the living breast as he had done into the dead wood, deeper and deeper, till it reached the heart, silencing its wild beatings and pinning it to the spot.
Leiba broke into a cold sweat ; the man was overcome by his own imagination, and sank softly to his knees as though life were ebbing from him under the weight of this last horror, overwhelmed by the thought that he must abandon now all hope of saving himself.
"Yes! Pinned to the spot;" he said, despairingly. "Yes! Pinned to the spot."
He stayed a moment, staring at the light by the window. For some moments he stood aghast, as though in some other world, then he repeated with quivering eyelids
"Yes ! Pinned to the spot,"
Suddenly a strange change took place in him, a complete revulsion of feeling ; he ceased to tremble, his despair disappeared, and his face, so discomposed by the prolonged crisis, assumed an air of strange serenity. He straightened himself with the decision of a strong and healthy man who makes for an easy goal.
The line between the two upper punctures of the panel was finished. Leiba went up, curious to see the working of the tool. His confidence became more pronounced. He nodded his head as though to say : "I still have time."
The saw cut the last fibre near the hole towards which it was working, and began to saw between the lower holes.
"There are still three," thought Leiba, and with the caution of the most experienced burglar he softly entered the inn. He searched under the bar, picked up something, and went out again as he entered, hiding the object he had in his hand as though he feared somehow the walls might betray him, and went back on tiptoe to the door.
Something terrible had happened; the work outside had ceased-there was nothing to be heard.
" What is the matter ? Has he gone ? What has happened?" flashed through the mind of the man inside. He bit his lower lip at such a thought, full of bitter disappointment.
" Ha, ha!" It was an imaginary deception ; the work began again, and he followed it with the keenest interest, his heart beating fast. His decision was taken, he was tormented by an incredible desire to ser the thing finished.
"Quicker!" he thought, with impatience. " Quicker!"
Again the sound of bells ringing on the hill,
"Hurry up, old fellow, the daylight will catch us ! " said a voice outside, as though impelled by the will of the man within.
The work was pushed on rapidly. Only a few more movements and all the punctures in the panel would be united.
Gently the drill carried out the four-sided piece of wood. A large and supple hand was thrust in; but before it reached the bars it sought two screams were heard, while, with great force, Leiba enclosed it with the free end of the noose, which was round a block fixed to the cellar door.
The trap was ingeniously contrived : a long rope fastened round a block of wood ;lengthwise, at the place where the sawn panel had disappeared, was a spring-ring which Leiria held open with his left hand, while at the same time his right hand held the other end taut. At the psychological moment he sprang the ring, and rapidly seizing the free end of the rope with both hands he pulled the whole arm inside by a supreme effort
In a second the operation was complete. It was accompanied by two cries, one of despair, the other of triumph: the hand is "pinned to the spot." Footsteps were heard retreating rapidly : Gheorghe's companions were abandoning to Leiba the prey so cleverly caught.
The Jew hurried into the inn, took the lamp and with a decided movement turned up the wick a s high as it would go : the light concealed by the metal receiver rose gay and victorious, restoring definite outlines to the nebulous forms around.
Zibal went into the passage with the lamp. The burglar groaned terribly ; it was obvious from the stiffening of his arm that he had liven up the useless struggle. The hand was swollen, the fingers were curved as though they would seize something. The Jew placed the lamp near it-a shudder, the fever is returning. He moved the light quite close, until, trembling, he touched the burglar's hand with the burning chimney; a violent convulsion of the finger was followed by 'a dull groan. Leiba was startled at the sight of this phenomenon.
Leiba trembled-his eyes betrayed a strange exaltation. He burst into a shout of laughter which shook the empty corridor and resounded in the inn.
Day was breaking.
Sura woke up suddenly-in her sleep she seemed to hear a terrible moaning. Leiba was not in the room. All that had happened previously returned to her mind. Something terrible had taken place. She jumped out of bed and lighted the candle. Leiba's bed had not been disturbed. He had not been to bed at all.
Where was he ? The woman glanced out of the window; on the hill in front shone a little group of small bright lights, they flared and jumped now they died away, now, once more, soared up wards. They told of the Resurrection. Sun; undid the window ; then she could hear groan from down by the door. Terrified, she hurried down the stairs. The corridor was lighted up. As she emerged through the doorway, the woman was astonished by a horrible sight.
Upon a wooden chair, his elbows on his knees, his beard in his band, sat Leiba. Like a scientist, who, by mixing various elements, hopes to surprise one of nature's subtle secrets which has long escaped and worried him, Leiba kept his eyes fixed upon some hanging object, black and shapeless, under which, upon another chair of convenient height, there burnt a big torch. He watched, without turning a hair, the process of decomposition of the hand which most certainly would not have spared him. He did not hear the groans of the unhappy being outside : be was more interested, at present, in watching than in listening.
He followed with eagerness each contortion, every strange convulsion of the fingers till one by one they became powerless. They were like the legs of a beetle which contract and stretch, waving in agitated movement, vigorously, then slower and slower until they lie paralysed by the play of some cruel child.
It was over. The roasted hand swelled slowly and remained motionless. Sura gave a cry. "Leiba!"
He made a sign to her not to disturb him. A greasy smell of burnt flesh pervaded the passage: a crackling and small explosions were heard.
"Leiba! What is it ?" repeated the woman. It was broad day. Sum stretched forward and withdrew the bar. The door opened outwards, dragging with it Gheorghe's body, suspended by the right arm. A crowd of villagers, all carrying lighted torches, invaded the premises. " What is it ? What is it ? "
They soon understood what had happened, Leiba, who up to now had remained motionless, rose gravely to his feet. He made room for himself to pass, quietly pushing the crowd to one side.
"How did it happen, Jew ? " asked some one.
"Leiba Zibal;" said the innkeeper in a loud voice, and with a lofty gesture, "goes to Jassy to tell the Rabbi that Leiba Zibal is a Jew no longer. Leiba Zibal is a Christian-for Leiba Zibal has lighted a torch for Christ."
And the man moved slowly up the hill, towards the sunrise, like the prudent traveller who knows that the long journey is not achieved with hasty steps.
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