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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesManasseh: A Romance Of Transylvania - Chapter 21. The Spy
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Manasseh: A Romance Of Transylvania - Chapter 21. The Spy Post by :imthu Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :1654

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Manasseh: A Romance Of Transylvania - Chapter 21. The Spy


Albeit the earth reeked with blood in those days, yet the spring of 1849 saw the flowers blooming in as great profusion as ever, as if God's blessing had been vying with man's curse to see which should outdo the other.

On a beautiful afternoon in May, Blanka and Anna, with Manasseh and Aaron, were climbing a steep and tortuous mountain path. Manasseh had his portfolio and some few other implements of his craft, while Aaron carried the ladies' wraps and lunch-basket. With the exception of iron-shod alpenstocks, none of the party were armed. The two men walked on ahead, side by side, leaving the young women to loiter behind and pick mayflowers. Rhododendrons, orchids, and epigonitis rewarded their search in abundance. From the valley below came up the bleating of goats and the flute-like notes of the blackbird.

"Are you really in earnest, Aaron, about defending the town from this position in case of an attack?" asked Manasseh.

"Wasn't it from the Szekler Stone that our fathers repulsed the whole Mongolian horde?" was the rejoinder.

"But that was in the old days, in old-fashioned warfare."

"Well, the Wallachians are now no further advanced in military science than were the Tartars then."

"Yes, but at that time the Szekler Stone was in a condition for defence," objected Manasseh.

"And how do you know I haven't put it in such a condition again?" asked the other.

"I should like to see how you have accomplished it."

"I shall not show you, for you are not a soldier, and no civilian shall see my fortifications. I will show them to the two young ladies; they count as combatants. The other day they coaxed Alexander to lend them his pistols, and since then they have been practising shooting at a mark in the garden behind the house."

"What, does my wife know how to handle a pistol?"

"To be sure; and it's no elderberry popgun, either. You may depend upon it, she'll sell her life dear. You needn't laugh."

The rocky height known as the Szekler Stone commands a view of vast extent. Nestled among the hills, twenty-two villages may be counted from its summit, with the Aranyos River winding this way and that among them, like a ribbon of silver, until it empties into another tortuous stream which carries its waters to the Maros. But on the opposite side, toward the northwest, in striking contrast with this picture of happy human industry, a boundless waste of rugged, forest-clad mountain peaks meets the eye, with no sign of house or hamlet.

From the side toward Toroczko, which lay smiling in the valley, its fruit-trees in full bloom, its fields looking like so many squares of green carpet, and its church-spire rising conspicuous above the foliage, one could hear, like the throbbing of a giant's heart, the heavy beating of steam hammers. There the scythe and the ploughshare were being fashioned, and all the implements wherewith the hand of man subdued to his use those rugged hillsides.

"If I could only paint that picture!" sighed Manasseh.

"You succeeded with the Colosseum," was Blanka's encouraging rejoinder.

"That was Rome, this is Toroczko. I could hit my sweetheart's likeness; my mother's is beyond me."

Nevertheless he was determined to try his hand; so the others left him at work and went on to view the curiosities of the Szekler Stone.

"Take good care of my wife," Manasseh called to his brother, "and don't let her fall over any precipice."

"Never fear," Aaron shouted back. "The whole Szekler Stone shall fall first."

"Promise not to take Blanka and Anna up Hidas Peak."

"I promise."

"On your honour as a Szekler and a Unitarian?"

"On my honour as a Szekler and a Unitarian."

With that Manasseh let them go their way. But in the midst of his sketching it occurred to him that Aaron had only promised not to "take" the ladies up Hidas Peak, which might mean that he would not carry them up, but was at liberty to lead them; for Aaron was full of all such quips and quibbles as that. Manasseh closed his portfolio, picked up his things, and followed the path taken by the others.

Yet there was no mischievous intent in Aaron's mind. He conducted Anna and Blanka to the verge of the gorge that separates the so-called Hidas Peak of the Szekler Stone from the Louis Peak. This ravine is a deep cutting, down which a steep, breakneck path leads directly to Toroczko, but is very seldom used. On the farther side of the gorge may be seen a cave in the rocks, popularly known as Csegez Cave. A rude stone rampart guards its mouth, and, as only a very narrow path along the brink of the precipice leads to this cavern, it could be easily held against an assault.

On the summit of Hidas Peak was planted a bundle of straw, which was visible from a considerable distance, and served as a warning not to ascend. Was it meant as a protection to the single fir-tree left standing there in lonely majesty, or to deter hay-thieves from cutting the grass that grew there? Perhaps it was a friendly caution to sightseers not to hazard the ascent, as it might cost them their lives.

The two young women recognised at once the inadvisability of their attempting this dangerous climb, but to Aaron the ascent was mere sport. He had often been up there before. Promising his companions that, if they would be on their good behaviour, and not stir from the spot, he would climb the rocky height, blow a blast on his horn that should awake the echoes, and bring them back a twig from the solitary fir-tree, he left them seated on the grass and busy arranging the flowers they had gathered.

It seemed a long time before he gained the summit, and the young women grew tired of sitting still in one place. Anna, true miner's daughter that she was, spied some scattered bits of carnelian in the rubble near by, and pointed them out to Blanka. Agate and chalcedony were also to be found among the loose stones, and often the three occurred together. Both Anna and her companion were soon busy gathering these treasures and pocketing the rarest specimens. Indeed, so intent were they on their work that they failed to note the approach of a strange man, until he stood within fifty paces of them. Whence could he have come? Had he been concealed behind some rock? What was his purpose in thus stealing on the two unprotected women? He wore the Wallachian peasant costume,--a high cap of white lamb's wool, from beneath which his long, black hair hung down over his shoulders, a leather dolman, without sleeves, a broad belt with buckles, under which his shirt extended half-way to his knees, and laced shoes. He carried a scythe over one shoulder, and stood with his back to the sun, so that his features could not be clearly distinguished.

The young women seized each other by the hand, and uttered a cry of alarm. The sight of the strange figure seemed to work on them like a nightmare, or like the ghost of some one known in life, but long since laid to rest in the grave. At first the man appeared to be as badly frightened as the young ladies. He halted, gave a start as of surprise, opened his mouth to speak, and then stood dumb, with staring eyes. For several seconds he seemed undecided what to do next. Then he put himself in motion and advanced toward the ladies, his face at the same time assuming a wild, demoniac expression. He lowered his scythe from his shoulder, and grasped it in his right hand.

At that moment there sounded from the height above the trumpet-like peal of Aaron's horn.

"Aaron! Aaron!" cried both young women in concert and with all their strength.

The intruder, taking fright at sound of the horn and at the name, stood still and threw a look behind.

"Run, _frate_!"(1) shouted Aaron from above, already descrying the man.

(Footnote 1: Rumanian for "brother.")

But the latter, counting with safety on a considerable interval before Aaron could descend, started once more toward Anna and Blanka. Only twenty paces now intervened between him and them. His eyes glowed and his face was distorted with a horrid expression, more brutal than human. His appearance might well have made the boldest recoil. Anna planted herself before her companion, as if to shelter her, while Blanka felt only a mad desire to run and throw herself over the precipice. But suddenly, when the man was only a few steps from them, he halted and drew back as if some one had smitten him in the face, his knees trembled, and an inarticulate cry escaped his lips. He seemed to have encountered something from which he drew back in dismay, as the leopard, when pursuing a deer, turns tail at sight of a lion. Blanka and Anna gave a backward glance and then started to run. Fear now left them, and as they ran they called aloud, in the glad assurance of help near at hand, "Manasseh! Manasseh!"--until they reached him and threw themselves into his arms.

Meanwhile the strange man, looking over his shoulder and seeing Aaron descending upon him with bold leaps and bounds, did not pause long to consider, but dropped his scythe and ran for his life, down the steep side of the gorge, over rubble-stones and slippery boulders.

"What are you so frightened at?" asked Manasseh, taking the matter lightly and kissing back the roses into the ladies' pale cheeks.

Panting and gasping for breath, they could hardly stammer out the cause of their alarm, but managed to explain that a "terrible man" had suddenly come upon them and chased them. Yet neither Blanka nor Anna went on to say of whom this strange figure had reminded her.

"You little geese!" cried Manasseh, laughing, "it was only a hay-thief. Grass grows on Hidas Peak, and ever since the days of King Matthias the Szeklers on the Aranyos have quarrelled with their neighbours over the cutting of it. The man who is on hand first with his scythe carries it off. So that bugaboo of yours was merely a harmless peasant in quest of fodder for his cow, and he took fright at sight of us and ran away. Look there, will you, he has dropped his scythe in his eagerness to escape."

The two young women, still clinging to Manasseh, went with him to examine the Wallachian's scythe.

"A tool of our own make!" he cried, lifting it up and inspecting it. "It has our trade-mark. The snath is full of notches--probably the owner's record of work done and of his share in the harvest."

The said owner was by this time far down the steep path. Aaron now joined his companions, much out of breath, red in the face, and without his hat, which he had thrown away in order to run the faster. He shouted to the fugitive to stop, and, going to the edge of the ravine, snatched up a great stone and hurled it after him.

"Oh, heavens!" cried Anna, "what have you done? What if it should hit him?"

"If it hits him it will help him along the faster," was Aaron's reply as he caught up a second stone, smaller than the first, and sent it to overtake its fellow. But the fleeing form was too far down the hill to serve as a good target, and Aaron's stones bounded harmlessly by.

"You might have killed him!" said Anna, reproachfully.

"And that would have been the best thing for all concerned," answered Aaron, giving his moustache a fierce pull.

"But it would have been a piece of needless cruelty," remarked Manasseh,--"and merely on account of a little hay that has not been touched, after all."

"He didn't come up here to steal hay; he is one of Diurbanu's spies."

"But what, pray, could he spy out here?"

"What could he spy out? Oh, just see how sharp my brother Manasseh is! My fortifications and armament are on the Szekler Stone. Yes, you may laugh now, but you won't laugh when you come to learn their value. I will show the ladies my cannon, but I won't let you see them, Manasseh."

"Cannon, brother?" repeated Manasseh, laughing. "How in the world did you ever get them up here?"

"My business is with the ladies now," was all Aaron would say. "You sit down on a stone and paint the beautiful view. My battery is not for you to see. Yes, I have a battery, all complete. If Aaron Gabor could fit out his Szeklers with artillery, why should not his namesake be able to do the same? You young women may see my big guns; I'll show them to you. But first promise me solemnly not to tell any mortal soul what you see--not even Manasseh."

Blanka and Anna both pledged themselves most solemnly to secrecy, whereupon Aaron led them up to a height on which stood the ruins of Szekler-Stone Castle, one of the oldest monuments to be found in all Hungary.

After a short interval the three rejoined Manasseh, the two ladies laughing and in the merriest of moods, scarcely heeding their conductor's solemnly raised forefinger and sober mien, which were meant to remind them of their promise. But they betrayed no secrets; they only laughed. Yet Aaron thought it betrayal enough for them even to laugh.

"That's always the way," he muttered, "when you let a woman into a secret!"

They soothed and caressed him, but only laughed the more as they did so.

"I wish you to understand that this is no trifling matter," he declared, "and that I had good reason to send those stones after that prying spy."

This allusion checked the young women's merriment at once, and a shudder ran over them at the remembrance of what had passed. "Did we both have the same thought?" whispered Blanka to Anna.

"Yes," returned the latter, with a sigh.

That night, before she lay down to sleep, Anna veiled the little portrait that hung in her room, as if to prevent her seeing it in her dreams.

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