BY M. BEZA
MITU TEGA returned to the house much annoyed. As he entered his wife asked him:
" Well, has he not turned up yet ? "
"No, not to-day either."
"This is what happens when you rely on an unknown man, a stranger. Suppose he never comes. God forbid that he should go off with the whole herd!"
Tega did not reply. He sat motionless in the silent veranda, which gradually grew dark with shadows of the evening mist, and pondered. Of course such things did happen ; he might have taken the goats and gone off, in which case let him find him who can! Where could one look for him ? Whither could one follow him?
And as he meditated thus he seemed to see the shepherd before his eyes ; he called to mind the first day he had seen him ; a terrible man, like a wild man from the woods, with a great moustache lost in a hard, black beard, which left only his eyes and cheek-bones visible. He came into him, and without looking him in the face, said
" I have heard-some people told me that you want a man to tend the bucks. Take me, I am a shepherd."
Tega gave him one look, he was just the kind of man he wanted. He asked him:
"Where do you come from ?"
"I come-well, from Blatza. Toli-Toli the shepherd--I have been with many other goat owners."
Tega looked at him again, considered a little, and said:
" Good, I'll take you ; may you prove honest, for, look, many a man has cheated me, and many a man has stolen from me up to now."
And so he engaged him. Toli stayed with Tega, and no one could have conducted himself better.
A month later they went together to the Salonica district, where they bought goats, over eight hundred head. When it was time to return, Tega-for fear of attack by brigands-went ahead secretly, leaving Toli to follow on alone with the herd. The days slipped by-one week, two-Toli did not put in an appearance. What could have happened? Many ideas passed through Tega's brain. Especially after what his wife had said. At night he could not sleep. He dozed for a while, and then woke again, with his mind an the shepherd, tormenting himself, until the crowing of the cocks heralded the dawn. Then he got up ; and, as he was short and plump, he took a staff in his hand, and proceeded to the nearest hill whence could be seen the country opening out as flat as the palm of a hand.
At that hour the first blush of dawn glowed in the east. And slowly, slowly rose the sun. Round, purple, fiery, it lit first the crests of the mountains, then flashed its rays into the heart of the valleys ; the window-panes in the village suddenly caught the fiery light ; the birds began to fly ; on the ground, among the glistening dew, flowers raised their heads out of the fresh grass, a wealth of daisies and buttercups like little goblets of gold. But Mitu Tega had no time for such things. His eyes were searching the landscape. Something was moving yonder -a loud of dust.
" The herd, it is the herd ! " murmured Tega.
He could hear the light, soft tinkle of the bells, sounding melodiously in the spring morning. And see, see-the herd drew near, the bell-carrier in front, two dogs with them, and last of all the shepherd with his cloak round his shoulder.
"Welcome," cried Tega with all his heart. "But, Toli, you have tarried a long while. I was beginning to wonder-"
" What would you, I did not come direct, I had to go round."
The bucks played around, a fine, picked lot with silky hair, they roamed about, and Tega felt as though he, too, could skip about, could take the shepherd in his arms, and embrace him for sheer joy.
As in other years, Tega kept the herd on the neighbouring slopes, on the Aitosh hills. It was Toli's business to get the bread, salt, and all that was needed, and once every two or three days, leaving the herd in the care of a comrade, he would take his way to his employer's house. Usually Tega's wife would be spinning at her wheel when he went in.
" Good day !"
" Welcome, Toli," the woman said pleasantly. "Tega is not at home at present, but sit down, Toli, sit down, and wait till he comes."
The shepherd took off his cloak, and did not say another word.
The veranda where they were sitting was upstairs; through the open windows the eye could follow the distant view ; the hills lay slumbering in the afternoon light, along their foot lay a road-processions of laden mules, whole caravans ascending slowly and laboriously, winding along in bluish lines till lost to sight over the brow of the hill. The woman followed them with her eyes, and without moving from her wheel, pointing with her hand, she said
"There are sheepfolds yonder, too, aren't there ? "
The shepherd nodded his head.
"I never asked you, Toli, how are the goats doing ? Do you think my man chose well this year ? "
"Well, very well."
That was all. He said no more. His deep-set eyes were sad, and black as the night. A minute later footsteps sounded in the garden, and then the voice of a neighbour:
"Where are you, dear, where have you hidden yourself ? "
"Here, Lena, here," replied the woman upstairs.
Lena mounted the stairs. Behind her came Doda Sili and Mia ; they had all brought their work, for they would not go away till late in the evening.
" Have you heard ?" asked Lena.
"Two more murders."
Suspicion had fallen upon Gardana. He had become a kind of vampire about whom many tales were told. Especially old men, if they could engage you in conversation, would try and impress you with the story.
In a village lived a maiden, modest and very beautiful. She was small, of the same age as Gardana, who was a boy then. They were fond of each other, they played together, they kissed each other-they kissed as children kiss. But after a while the girl's form took on the soft curves of coming womanhood ; then it came to pass that they never kissed each other, they knew not why, and when they were alone they did not venture to look into each other's eyes ; she would blush like a ripe apple, and Gardanas lips would tremble. Then there appeared upon the scene, from somewhere, a certain Dina, son of a rich somebody ; the girl pleased him, and he sent her an offer of marriage. Her father did not think twice, her father gave her to him.
And Gardana-would you believe it-after he realized that it was hard fact, gnashed his teeth, beat his breast, and disappeared. Two days later he was on the mountains, and a gang with him.
Eh! love knows no bounds, love builds, but love also destroys many homes.
The girl's father was seized and murdered ; not long after Dina was murdered too. Then Gardana spread terror for many years in succession.
For some time now, whatever he might have been doing, wherever he might be in hiding, nothing had been heard of him. But as soon as something happened, his name once again passed round the village: "Gardana, it is Gardana! "
Perhaps it was not he, perhaps he had left the mountains, perhaps even he was dead ; but the people who knew something--
" How many did you say there were ?" asked Mia.
"Two; both merchants. They came from abroad."
"And who can have murdered them ?"
"No one but-Gardana."
"How is it ? But is Gardana still alive ?"
" Come, do you think he really is dead ? No, no, they alone give this kind of tidings of themselves."
"And why ?"
"They have to be on their guard, the bailiffs are after them, they might capture them."
The spinning-wheel spun on. The spool wound the thread, the treadle hummed, filling the room with a soothing noise.
Doda Sili said wonderingly:
"Who knows what kind of man he is ? "
" Gardana ?"
"Not a very big man, but large enough to terrify one, with a black beard-oh, so black!-and, when you least expect it, there he is on your road, just as though he had sprung out of the ground. Didn't our Toli once meet him ! "
" How was that ? "
The spinning-wheel stopped suddenly. A swarm of gnats came in through the windows, and buzzed round in the warmth of the sun ; and Lena said quietly
" It was on his way from the sheepfold ; he came upon Gardana on the Padea-Murgu."
"Oh, it might have been somebody else."
"It was he, he himself, with that beard, those garments--
And so the conversation continued. Toli, the shepherd, took no part in the talk. He sat over on the floor, silent, impassive-like a moss-grown stone. Only occasionally he raised his bushy eyebrows, and a troubled, misty look shone in his eyes. Tega's wife wondered to herself, she could not understand him ;really, what was the matter with him ? He was brave, she knew he had not his equal for courage, when he had charge of the herd not an animal was ever lost; all the same, what a man he was, always frowning, and never a smile on his lips! There must be something with him, naturally it must be-- And breaking off her train of thought she suddenly spoke to him.
"Toll, during all the months you have been with us I have never asked you whether you are married ?" The question was unexpected. The shepherd seemed to be considering. Then he answered:
" What ? You have never married? Have you no wife, no home?"
"Home-ah!" he sighed. "You are right, even I once had a home, even I had hopes of a bride, but they came to nought-what would you, it was not written in the book of destiny-I was poor."
He spoke haltingly, and his eyes wandered here and there. And after one motion of his hand, as though to say "I have much sorrow in my heart," he added:
"That girl is dead-and I, too, shall die, everything will die."
One afternoon in March, as the shepherd did not appear, Mitu Tega prepared to go alone to the fold. He brought out the horse, bought two bags of bread, and a lamb freshly killed, went to the mill where he procured some barley, and then on slowly, quietly-he on foot, the horse in front-till he reached his destination just as the sun was disappearing behind the Aitosh mountains.
The shepherds rubbed their eyes when they saw him, but he called out:
"I have brought a lamb for roasting."
"You must eat it with us;" said Toli, "and stay the night here."
"No, for they expect me at home."
" Will you start back at this hour?" put in Pane, Toli's comrade. "The night brings many perils."
It was getting quite dark. Stars twinkled. Whether he wished to or not, Mina Tega was obliged to remain. Then the shepherds set to work ; one put the lamb on to the spit, and lit the fire ; the other fetched boughs from the wood. He brought whole branches with which they prepared a shelter for the night for Tega-within was a bed of green bracken. Then all three stretched themselves by the fire. Gradually the flames sank a little, on the heap of live coals the lamb began to brown, and spit with fat, and send out an appetizing smell. The moon shone through the bushes ; they seemed to move beneath the hard, cold light which flooded the solitude. The shadows of the mountains stretched away indefinitely. Above, some night birds crossed unseen, flapping their wings. Mitu Tega turned his head. Far a moment his glance was arrested : by Toll's side, a gun and a long scimitar lay shining on the ground. He was not nervous, otherwise-- He glanced at Toli.
"What a man!" thought Tega. " I have nothing to fear while I am with him."
They began to eat, quickly and hungrily, tearing the meat with their fingers, not speaking a word. Toli picked up the shoulder-bone of the lamb, and drew near the fire, to scrutinize it, for some omen far the future.
" What's the matter ?" Tega asked.
"Nothing-only it seems to me-that there is blood everywhere, that blood pursues. Look, and you, too, Panu."
"There is;" murmured Panu, "a little blood, one can see a spot, two red patches."
The hours passed. The dogs started off towards the woods. From their bark there might be dangerous men on the move. Toli listened a moment, took his gun, and said quickly to Tega:
" Have you any weapon about you ? "
"I have-a pistol."
" Take it out, and go in there, and do not move. But you, Pane, get more over there-not near the fire, move into the shadow.
He had scarcely finished speaking before the brigands were upon them. They came stealthily through the bushes, avoiding the moonlight, but the shepherd saw them, and without waiting fired a chance shot.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot!" cried the robbers. A great noise arose-the flock scattered, the barking of the dogs became gradually more and more excited; there was another report, and yet another. Tub's gun gave a dull sound and was followed by several cries:
"You will kill us all like this, all--
" Down with your arms, lay down your arms!" cried Toli.
"Look, man, we are putting them down ; only don't shoot."
" Drop them ! "
Tolp s voice thundered. His voice alone was enough to make one tremble.
The brigands threw down their arms, and advanced. There were three of them. One was quite a young man, about thirty-five years of age, with a worn face, and very pale. Blood was flowing from one foot and clotting on to his white gaiters as it flowed. Toli went up to him and said:
"I have wounded you-have I wounded you ? " The brigand did not reply. Toli crossed his arms and shaking his head asked:
"Was it me you meant to rob? Was it me you meant to attack ? Do you know who I am ? "
They looked into each other's eyes, they stared at each other-deep into each other's eyes they gazed. Each one was thinking: "Where have I seen him before?" for they had surely known each other somewhere. Vague memories of their past life, of bygone years began to stir, and gradually recollection dawned.
" Gardana," said the brigand, "is it you ? "
Mitu Tega was startled. He shivered as though iced water were being poured down his back. Who had uttered that name? Where was Gardana? He was thunder-struck by what followed : Toli and the robbers shook hands, embraced each other and conversed with each other.
"Gardana, Gardana, I thought you were dead they told me you had died, Gardana! "
"No, brother," said Toli. " It might have been better if I had died."
Then after a short pause:
"But you are in pain, brother; I have hurt you-look, you were within an ace of being killed, brother Manole, and I should have had another man's soul, and another man's blood upon my head. There, you were nearly killed. What brought you, what drew you within range of my gun ? Within an ace, brother Manole-another man's soul, another man's blood---
For the first time for many years he seemed moved with self-pity. He tore a strip from his shirt, bent over Manole, and dressed his wound. The others watched, amazed. The waters were sleeping, the forests were sleeping. From the trees, from the valleys, from the grass, came voices murmuring in the silence of the night, soft, remote, a sort of breath, more like a sigh from the sleeping earth. Manole spoke:
"Do you remember, Gardana? We were on the Baitan mountains, you know-at Piatra-de-Furca -we were together when the bailiffs hemmed us in on all sides-a host of them. We held our own till nightfall. Eh ! and then I saw what stuff Gardana was made of! You gave us one call and went straight ahead-we after you, and so we escaped, we cut our way through with our scimitars. Then, when the trumpets gave the alarm, and the guns began to go off; 1 lost sight of you, Gardana ; we were all scattered, I remained alone in the valley under Piatra-de-Furca. Do you remember? It must be five years, more-six years ago. Where are all our comrades now ? "
"Our comrades-they have gone away, I let them go. Brother Manole, heavy curses lie on my head-enough to crush me, brother. I was not a bad man. You know how many times I went to Dina. I said : ' Don t drive me too far, bethink yourself.' And I went to the girl's father. But you see Dina was rich, Dina had flocks of sheep. And her father gave her to him without asking whether the girl loved him. And after that, tell me, brother, could I sit patiently by, bite my nails and say nothing? Could I ?"
Toli Gardana ceased speaking. After a moment of reflection he added softly:
" But the girl faded away-she died of grief and disappointment. One day the earth will cover me too, our bodies may rot anywhere, and no one will weep-not a tear, they will all rejoice. I don't know, brother, but since that girl died it seems to me I am not the man I was. I wanted to kill myself, I roamed about here, and one day I went to Tega. I was strong-I gave out that I came from Blatza, and that I was a shepherd ; who was be that he should know differently ! But you, brother, haw has the world treated you ?"
" Harshly, Gardana. I was shut up in Tricot for three years. Prison cut me off from life. For months I dug-with hands and nails I dug-until one night, during a storm, I broke through the wall and escaped with these two companions. And when I found myself back among these mountains my thoughts turned to you. I had heard you were dead, Gardana ; but see what has happened, and how it has come to pass, how fate brings these things about, brother Gardana . . . it is not a month since I escaped . . . .
Before they were aware of it the shadows of the night began to melt away. The brigands ceased to speak as though they feared the signs of the coming day. They remained silent, their heads upon the ground in the face of the glory of the flaming dawn.
Toli Gardana asked:
" Where are you going now?"
"How should we know? No matter where. There are many forests."
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