by M. BEZA
We were talking in the inn at Grabova and passing round the wine without troubling ourselves as to the lateness of the hour. In time we began to sing-as it is the custom to sing in these parts. One raises his voice, while the others subdue theirs, till all take up the chorus:
Your head lies in my pouch, Zidra, mighty Zidra
Only our friend, Mitu Dola, was silent ; he was much moved and kept turning first to one side and then to the other.
"Oh, that song!" he gasped when we stopped. Then suddenly to me: "Do you know who Zidra was ? And do you know who killed Zidra ?"
He took up his mug, drank from it several times, and then, with a brain clouded by distant memories and the strong wine, he began to tell me the story:
" It must be some thirty years ago. Zidra was then a haiduk in the Smolcu mountains. What a man! There was a heavy price upon his head. His very name, passed from mouth to mouth, brought a wave of fear. And we children would gather together in the evening under the eaves of the fountains, by the church doors, and talk of Zidra. This much we knew :atone time he had lived amongst us and then had unexpectedly disappeared from the village ; on account of some murder everybody said. After a long time he appeared again, robbing a long way this side of Smolcu : 'Zidra is at Seven-Hills; Zidra is in the Vigla Forest'
"Whispering thus secretly, we would glance over our shoulders. We would shiver as though we could feel a cold breath from the dark thicket whence Zidra might appear. I pictured him just like my father, probably bemuse my father, too, was a striking figure. In a coat with long flowing sleeves, his cap on one side, and his belt loaded with pistols, my father-like all tax-gatherers at that period-was on the road a great deal of his time, so that my mother and I remained alone for weeks on end.
"We had a house just on the outskirts of the village surrounded by a beechwood, the shadows of which hung darkly above our heads. How it would begin to moan at night ! The rustling of the leaves, the prolonged roar of the rocking trees was like some great waterfall. From our soft bed, clasped in my mother's , arms I listened to the fierce din. From time to time it ceased ; then, through the silence, came the sound of whistling, of shots, of the trampling of horses and of men.
" I sighed with terror. 'Mother, supposing robbers should attack us.' ' Hush ! It is unlucky to speak of such things.' 'You know, mother, Zidra is in Vigla Forest.' When I first mentioned this name my mother trembled and started back, but quickly coming forward she said hastily and with unusual anxiety : ' Who told you this?' 'Cousin Gushu, mother. Gushu's father, mother, saw a host of vultures over Vigla Forest circling round.'
" My mother repeated in a puzzled way
'Vultures circling round-' Then, after thinking a moment, she said to herself: 'That is it; that is where he halted and had his food-the vultures are attracted by the smell:
"My father, arriving a few days later, said the same thing, while he added that some shepherds had also seen Zidra. My mother was delicate, her features bore the melancholy expression of some hidden sorrow. She looked wan and remained staring into space. ' Eh ? What ?' said my father sternly. ' Why should I be afraid of Zidra ?'
"He closed the conversation. But into our house there crept an unexplained disquietude-something intangible, blowing like an icy breath that made my mother shudder. How could I understand then ? Time alone has given me the explanation of it all. And to-day when I think of the spot where this dark mystery unfolded itself old scenes and things emerge from oblivion and stand vividly before me. I see the yard of our house with the door opening into the wood, the staircase leading into the bedroom ; here is the hearth and along the walls are the great wooden cupboards. Sitting upon the corner-seat by the fire my mother spun at her wheel-often she would start to spin but seemed as though she could not. She would constantly stop, her thoughts were elsewhere. And if I asked her anything, she would nod her head without listening to me. Only when, amid the loud rustle of the trees, I would mention, Zidra she would turn quickly, her eyes wide open, and say with a shiver: 'Zidra ?' 'Yes, mother.'
"And when night fell she would try the doors one after the other. She would walk up and down, a pine-torch in her hand, passing through visions of horror, and with her went the smoking flame which rose and fell as it struggled with the shadows, moving upon the ceilings and floors and on the walls of the room where the sofa was, where it lit up for a second the hanging weapons : an old musket, two scimitars, some pistols.
"Sometimes there was a pleasant silence over everything. The wood slept, the country, too, was asleep. Then, in the light of the little icon-lamp, could be heard the gentle hum of the spinning. wheel, murmuring like a golden beetle in a fairy. tale, lulling me till I slept.
During one of these nights-the wheel stopped and I heard my mother saying : 'Tuesday at Custur, Wednesday at Lehova, ThursdayThursday-' She knew where my father usually stayed and was calculating.
"Becoming confused she began again from the beginning: 'Tuesday at Custur, Wednesday at Lehova, Thursday-Thursday on the road.' And she rose. She went to the lamp to pour in oil that it might burn till the daylight. In the meantime a noise came, from the yard and was repeated more loudly. ' Mother, some one is knocking ! ' ' Who could be knocking ?' she murmured.
"After a moment of indecision she went downstairs. Unintelligible words followed-a man's voice, the door was shaken. My mother began to speak gently, inaudibly. Soon everything was silent again. By my side I could heat my mother's breath, coming short and with difficulty, but her tongue remained tied. When she recovered herself she said suddenly: ' Can I? How can I open? I am married. I cannot.' 'To whom, mother-to whom must you open?' She took me tremblingly in her arms, squeezed me to her, and pressed her burning cheek against mine. 'You are too little. You do not understand, my treasure! '
"And, after a while, talking more to herself, while the tears flowed slowly down her cheeks
'At the fountain in Plaiu--it is long ago. We pledged our word-at dusk-God saw us ; and in the end he made off one day, and I waited for him -years and years I waited. Now what does he want? I am married. What does he expect? Why did he come ?'
"Thus much I remember. I fell asleep close to my mother. The next day she might just have got up after a long illness so white was she in the face, with fear shining in her eyes. When my father saw her he raised the thick bushy eyebrows which gave such a harsh appearance to his hairy face. 'There is something wrong, something has happened.'
"Could she deny it ? They went into the room where the sofa stood, and soon after my father broke out with : ' From henceforth either I or he!' And he stormed about, taking long heavy strides while the weapons clattered on the wall. He swore, and added with a wild burst of laughter 'Ha, ha! And the head and two hundred ducats!'
" From now on he no longer took the road ; he remained on guard. Spies began to move about. Fierce-looking men knocked at the door. My father went out, exchanged some rapid words with them, among which could be continually heard the name of Zidra, and they disappeared. But what were those cries, those sharp whistles through the night ? Often, too, across the hillocks came the sound of stones-stones striking one against the other, and my father replied in the same way. And the knocking sounds rose sonorous, ringing through the darkness as though some strange birds were rattling their beaks. I heard it in my sleep and shuddered. ' Have no fear; whispered my mother, 'it is nothing, my dear one. Your father is talking-with some sentries.'
"A few weeks passed thus, until one midnight there appeared in the further room four men in black cloaks, carrying guns; they seemed to have sprung out of the ground. They shook hands and without a moments pause began moving about to the ruddy, uncertain light of the pine-torch. In the silence outside-a silence caused by the fog which deadened all sound-their words could be overheard. As my father slung his scimitar over his shoulder, one of them said in a loud clear voice 'At Sticotur in the monastery.' ' Since when ? ' 'Since dinner-time to-day-he is eating and drinking.' 'The man is caught,' said another. 'He can't escape this time.'
"They went out quickly ; they were lost in the black darkness which began to vibrate with the rising of the wind. The bushes rattled and bent beneath the rain-storms of min beat and splashed against the window-panes, a sea of sound, storm after storm:"
Here, as far as I can remember, Mitu Dols brought the story to a close. I asked
"How did it end ?"
"Didn't you hear the song ? My father took the head and put it in his pouch. As he said, and the head and two hundred ducats.'"
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