Adapted from the translation of Emily Mary Waller and Louise Paul found in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1905. For educational use only.
“Théodore,” said Professor Wittembach, “please give me that manuscript-book, bound in parchment, which is laid on the second shelf above my writing-desk—no, not that one, but the small octavo volume. I copied all the notes of my journal of 1866 in it—at least those that relate to Count Szémioth.”
The Professor put on his glasses, and, amid profound silence, read the following:—
with this Lithuanian proverb as a motto:
“Miszka su Lokiu,
Abu du tokiu.”
When the first translation of the Holy Scriptures into the Lithuanian language appeared in London, I published in the Scientific and Literary Gazette of Koenigsberg, an article wherein, while rendering full justice to the efforts of the learned interpreter and to the pious motives of the Bible Society, I pointed out several slight errors, and showed, moreover, that this version could only be useful to one portion of the Lithuanian people.
Indeed, the dialect from which they translated is hardly intelligible to the inhabitants of the districts where the Jomaïtic tongue, commonly called Jmoudic, is spoken, namely, in the Palatinate of Samogitia. This language is, perhaps, nearer akin to the Sanskrit than to High Lithuanian. In spite of the furious criticisms which this observation drew down upon me from a certain well-known professor of the Dorpat University, it so far enlightened the members of the Committee of the Bible Society that they lost no time in making me a flattering offer to direct and supervise an edition of the Gospel of St. Matthew into Samogitian. I was too much occupied at the time with my researches in Trans-Uralian dialects to undertake a more extended work comprising all four of the Gospels. Deferring my marriage with Mlle. Gertrude Weber, I went to Kowno (Kaunas) for the purpose of collecting all the linguistic records, whether printed or in MSS., of Jmoudic, that I could lay hands on. I did not overlook, of course, old ballads (daïnos), tales, or legends (pasakos) which would furnish me with material for a Jomaïtic vocabulary, a work which must necessarily precede that of translation.
I had been given a letter of introduction to the young Count Michel Szémioth, whose father, I was told, had come into the possession of the famous Catechismus Samogiticus of Father Lawiçki. It was so rare that its very existence had been disputed, particularly by the Dorpat professor to whom allusion has been already made. In his library I should find, according to the information given me, an old collection of daïnos, besides ballads in old Prussian. Having written to Count Szémioth to lay the object of my visit before him, I received a most courteous invitation to spend as much time at his Castle of Médintiltas as my researches might need. He ended his letter by very gracefully saying that he prided himself upon speaking Jmoudic almost as well as his peasants, and would be only too pleased to help me in what he termed so important and interesting an undertaking. Besides being one of the wealthiest landowners in Lithuania, he was of the same evangelical faith of which I had the honour to be a minister. I had been warned that the Count was not without a certain peculiarity of character, but he was very hospitable, especially towards all who had intellectual tastes. So I set out on my journey to Médintiltas.
At the Castle steps I was met by the Count’s steward, who immediately led me to the rooms prepared for me.
“M. le Comte,” he said, “is most sorry not to be able to dine with you today. He has a bad headache, a malady he is unfortunately subject to. If you do not prefer to dine in your room you can dine with the Countess’s doctor, Dr. Froeber. Dinner will be ready in an hour; do not trouble to dress for it. If you have any orders to give, there is the bell.”
He withdrew, making me a profound salute.
The room was of immense size, comfortably furnished, and decorated with mirrors and gilding. One side of it looked out upon a garden, or rather the park belonging to the Castle, and the other upon the principal entrance. Notwithstanding the statement that there was no need to dress, I felt obliged to get my black coat out of my trunk, and was in my shirt-sleeves busy unpacking my simple luggage when the sound of carriage wheels attracted me to the window which looked on the court. A handsome barouche had just come in. It contained a lady in black, a gentleman, and a woman dressed in the Lithuanian peasant costume, but so tall and strong-looking that at first I took her for a man in disguise. She stepped out first; two other women, not less robust in appearance, were already standing on the steps. The gentleman leaned over the lady dressed in black, and, to my great surprise, unbuckled a broad leather belt which held her to her seat in the carriage. I noticed that this lady had long white hair, very much disheveled, and that her large, wide-opened eyes were vacant in expression. She looked like a waxen figure. After having untied her, her companion spoke to her very respectfully, hat in hand; but she appeared not to pay the slightest attention to him. He then turned to the servants and made a slight sign with his head. Immediately the three women took hold of the lady in black, lifted her out as though she were a feather, and carried her into the Castle, in spite of her efforts to cling to the carriage. The scene was witnessed by several of the house servants, who did not appear to think it anything extraordinary.
The gentleman who had directed the proceedings drew out his watch, and asked how soon dinner would be ready.
“In a quarter of an hour, doctor,” was the reply.
I guessed at once that this was Dr. Froeber, and that the lady in black was the Countess. From her age I concluded she was the mother of Count Szémioth, and the precautionary measures taken concerning her told me clearly enough that her reason was affected.
Some moments later the doctor himself came to my room.
“As the Count is indisposed,” he said to me, “I must introduce myself to you. I am Dr. Froeber, at your service, and I am delighted to make the acquaintance of a savant known to all readers of the Scientific and Literary Gazette of Koenigsberg. Have you been properly waited on?”
I replied to his compliments as well as I could, and told him that if it was time to go down to dinner I was ready to accompany him.
When we were in the dining-hall, a major-domo brought us liqueurs and several piquant and highly spiced dishes on a silver salver to induce appetite, after a northern custom.
“Allow me, sir, in my office as doctor, to recommend a glass of that starka, a true Cognac brandy casked forty years ago. It is a queen of liqueurs. Take a Drontheim anchovy; nothing is better for opening and preparing the digestive organs, the most important functions of the body. . . . And now to table. Why do we not speak in German? You come from Koenigsberg, I from Memel; but I earned my degree at Jéna. We shall be more at ease in that way, and the servants, who only know Polish and Russian, will not understand us.”
We ate first in silence; then, after having taken our first glass of Madeira, I inquired of the doctor if the Count were often inconvenienced by the indisposition which deprived us of his presence that night.
“Yes and no,” was the doctor’s answer. “It depends upon what expeditions he takes.”
“When he takes the road to Rosienie, for instance, he comes back with headache and in a savage temper.”
“I have been to Rosienie myself without such an experience.”
“It depends, Professor,” he replied, laughing, “on whether you are in love.”
I sighed, thinking of Mlle. Gertrude Weber.
“Does the Count’s fiancée, then, live at Rosienie?” I said.
“Yes, in that neighbourhood; but I can not say whether she is affianced to him. She is a real flirt, and will drive him off his head, so that he will be in his mother’s state.”
“Indeed, then her ladyship is . . . an invalid?”
“She is mad, my dear sir, mad; and I was even madder to come here!”
“Let us hope that your able attentions will restore her to reason.”
The doctor shook his head, and looked attentively at the colour of the glass of Bordeaux which he held in his hand.
“The man you see before you, Professor, was once surgeon-major in the Kalouga regiment. At Sevastopol we cut off arms and legs from morning till night; not to speak of bombs which came down among us as thick as flies on a galled horse. But, though I was then ill-lodged and ill-fed, I was not so bored as I am here, where I eat and drink of the best, am lodged like a prince, and paid like a Court physician. . . . But liberty, my dear sir! . . . As you can guess, with this she-dragon I have not a moment to call my own.”
“Has she been under your care for long?”
“Less than two years; but she has been insane at least twenty-seven, since before the birth of the Count. Did no one tell you this either at Rosienie or Kowno? Listen, then, for it is a case on which I should like some day to write an article for the Medical Journal of St. Petersburg. She went mad from fear. . . .”
“From fear? How was such a thing possible?”
“She had a fright. She is of the house of Keystut. . . . Oh, there are no mésalliances in this house. We descend from the Gédymin. . . . Well, Professor, two or three days after her marriage, which took place in the castle where we are dining (I drink to your health . . . ), the Count, the father of the present one, went out hunting. Our Lithuanian ladies are regular amazons, you know. The Countess accompanied him to the hunt. . . . She stayed behind, or got in advance of the huntsmen, . . . I do not know which, . . . when, all at once, the Count saw the Countess’s little Cossack, a lad of twelve of fourteen, come up at full gallop.
“‘Master!’ he said, ‘a bear has carried off the Countess.’
“‘Where?’ cried the Count.
“‘Over there,’ replied the boy-Cossack.
“All the hunt ran towards the spot he pointed out, but no Countess was to be seen. Her strangled horse lay on one side, and on the other her lambswool cloak. They searched and beat the wood on all sides. At last a huntsman cried out, ‘There is the bear!’ and, sure enough, the bear crossed a clearing, dragging the Countess, no doubt for the purpose of devouring her undisturbed, into a thicket, for these beasts are great gourmands; they like to dine at ease, as the monks. Married but a couple of days, the Count was most chivalrous. He tried to fling himself upon the bear, hunting knife in his fist; but, my dear sir, a Lithuanian bear does not let himself be run through like a stag. By good fortune the Count’s gun-bearer, a queer, low fellow, so drunk that morning as to be unable to tell a rabbit from a hare, fired his rifle, more than a hundred paces off, without taking care whether the bullet hit the beast or the lady. . . .”
“And he killed the bear?”
“Stone dead. It takes a tipsy man to hit like that. There are also predestined bullets, Professor. There are sorcerers here who sell them at a moderate price. . . . The Countess was terribly torn, unconscious of course, and had one leg broken. They carried her home, and she recovered consciousness, but her reason had gone. They took her to St. Petersburg for a special consultation of four doctors, who glittered with orders. They said that Madam was enceinte, and that a favourable turn might be expected after her delivery. She was to be kept in fresh air in the country, and given whey and codéine. Each physician received about a hundred roubles. Nine months later the Countess gave birth to a fine, healthy boy, but where was the ‘favourable turn’? Ah, yes, indeed . . . there was nothing but redoubled frenzy. The Count showed her her son. In novels that never fails to produce a good effect. ‘Kill it! kill the beast!’ she yelled; a little longer, and she would have wrung his neck. Ever since there have been phases of stupid imbecility, alternating with violent mania. There is a strong suicidal tendency. We are obliged to strap her down to make her take fresh air, and it takes three strong servants to hold her in. Nevertheless, Professor, I ask you to note this fact, when I have exhausted my Latin on her without making her obey me, I have a resort that quietens her. I threaten to cut off her hair. I fancy she must have had very beautiful hair at one time. Vanity! It is the sole human feeling left. Is it not odd? If I could experiment upon her as I chose, I might perhaps be able to cure her.”
“By what method?”
“By thrashing her. I cured in that way twenty peasant women in a village where the terrible Russian madness had broken out. One woman begins to howl, then her companion follows, and in three days’ time the whole village is howling mad. I put an end to it by flogging them. (Take a little chicken, it is very tender.) The Count would never allow me to try the experiment.”
“What! you want him to consent to your atrocious treatment?”
“Oh, he had known his mother so little, and besides it was for her good; but tell me, Professor, have you ever held that fear could drive anyone mad?”
“The Countess’s situation was frightful . . . to find herself in the claws of a savage beast!”
“All the same, her son does not take after her. A year ago he was in exactly the same predicament, but, thanks to his coolness, he had a marvellous escape.”
“From the claws of a bear?”
“A she-bear, the largest seen for some time. The Count wanted to attack her, boar-spear in hand, but with one back stroke she parried the blade, clutched the Count, and felled him to the ground as easily as I upset this bottle. He cunningly feigned death. . . . The bear smelt and sniffed him, then, instead of tearing him to pieces, she gave him a lick with her tongue. He had the presence of mind not to move, and she went on her way.”
“She thought that he was dead. I have been told that these animals will not eat a dead body.”
“We will endeavour to believe that is so, and abstain from making personal investigation of the question. But, apropos of fear, let me tell you what happened at Sevastopol. Five or six of us were sitting behind the ambulance of the famous bastion No. 5, round a pot of beer which had been brought us. The sentry cried, ‘A shell!’ and we all lay flat on our stomachs. No, not all of us: a fellow named . . . but it is not necessary to give his name . . . a young officer who had just come to us, remained standing up, holding his glass full, just when the shell burst. It carried off the head of my poor comrade André Speranski, a brave lad, and broke the pitcher, which, fortunately, was nearly empty. When we got up after the explosion we saw, in the midst of the smoke, that our friend had swallowed his last mouthful of beer just as though nothing had happened. We dubbed him a hero. The following day I met Captain Ghédéonof coming out of the hospital. ‘I dine with you fellows today,’ he said, ‘and to celebrate my return I will stand the champagne.’ We sat down to the table, and the young officer of the beer was there. He did not wait for the champagne. A bottle was being uncorked near him, and fizz! the cork hit him on the temple. He uttered a cry and fainted away. Believe me, my hero had been devilishly afraid the first time, and his drinking the beer instead of getting out of the way showed that he had lost the control of his mind, and only unconscious mechanical movements remained to him. Indeed, Professor, the human mechanism—”
“Sir,” said a servant who had just come into the room, “Jdanova says that the Countess will not take her food.”
“Devil take her!” growled the doctor. “I must go to her. When I have made my she-dragon eat, Professor, if agreeable to you, we will take a hand at preference or at douratchki.”
I expressed my regret that I was ignorant of the games, and, when he had gone to see the invalid, I went up to my room and wrote to Mlle. Gertrude.
It was a warm night, and I had left open the window overlooking the park. I did not feel ready for sleep after I finished my letter, so I set to work to rehearse the irregular Lithuanian verbs, and to look into Sanskrit to find the origins of their different irregularities. In the middle of my absorbing labours a tree close to my window shook violently. I could hear the dead branches creak, and it seemed as though some heavy animal were trying to climb it. Still engrossed with the bear stories that the doctor had told me, I got up, feeling rather uneasy, and saw, only a few feet from my window, a human head among the leaves of the tree, lit up plainly by the light from my lamp. The vision only lasted a second, but the singular brilliance of the eyes which met my gaze struck me more than I could say. Involuntarily I took a step backwards; then I ran to the window and demanded in severe tones what the intruder wanted. Meanwhile he climbed down quickly, and, seizing a large branch between both hands, he swung himself off, jumped to the ground, and was soon out of sight. I rang the bell and told the adventure to a servant who answered it.
Sir,” he said, “you must be mistaken.”
“I am certain of what I tell you,” I replied. “I am afraid there is a burglar in the park.”
“It is impossible, sir.”
“Well, then, is it someone out of the house?”
The servant opened his eyes wide without replying, and in the end asked me if I wanted anything. I told him to fasten my window, and I went to bed.
I slept soundly, neither dreaming of bears nor of thieves. In the morning, while I was dressing, someone knocked at my door. I opened it and found myself face to face with a very tall and finely built young man in a Bokhara dressing-gown, holding in his hand a long Turkish pipe.
“I come to beg your pardon, Professor,” he said, “for having welcomed such a distinguished guest so badly. I am Count Szémioth.”
I hastened to say that, on the contrary, my humble thanks were due to him for his most courteous hospitality, and inquired if he had lost his headache.
“Very nearly,” he said. “At all events, until the next crisis,” he added, with a melancholy expression. “Are you comfortable here? You must not forget that you are among barbarians; it would be difficult to think otherwise in Samogitia.”
I assured him I was most comfortably entertained. All the time I was speaking I could not prevent myself from studying him with a very impolite curiosity; there was something strange in his look which reminded me, in spite of myself, of the man whom I had seen climbing the tree the night before. . . .
“But what probability,” I said to myself, “is there that Count Szémioth would climb trees by night?”
His forehead was high and well-developed, although rather narrow. His features were large and regular, but his eyes were too close together, and I did not think that, measured from one lachrymal gland to the other, there was the width of an eye, the canon of Greek sculptors. His glance was piercing. Our eyes met several times, in spite of ourselves, and we looked at each other with some embarrassment. All at once the Count burst out laughing.
“You recognise me!” he said.
“Yes, you detected me yesterday playing a scoundrelly part.”
“Oh! Monsieur le Comte!”
“I had passed a suffering day shut up in my bedroom. As I was somewhat better at night I went for a walk in the garden. I saw your light and yielded to curiosity. . . . I ought to have told you who I was, and introduced myself properly, but I was in such a ridiculous situation. . . . I was ashamed, and so I fled. . . . Will you excuse me for having disturbed you in the midst of your works?”
He said all this with a would-be-playful air; but he blushed, and was evidently confused. I did my best to reassure him that I did not retain any unpleasant impression from our first interview, and, to change the subject, I asked if he really possessed the Samogitic Catechism of Father Lawiçki.
“It may be so; but, to tell you the truth, I do not know much about my father’s library. He loved old and rare books. I hardly read anything beyond modern works; but we will look for it, Professor. You wish us, then, to read the Gospel in Jmoudic?”
“Do you consider, M. le Comte, that a translation of the Scriptures into the language of this country is very desirable?”
“Certainly; nevertheless, if you will permit me a slight remark, I can tell you that amongst the people who know no other language than the Jmoudic, there is not a single person who can read.”
“Perhaps so, but I ask permission of Your Excellency to point out that the greatest obstacle in the way of learning to read is the absence of books. When the Samogitic countries have a printed text they will wish to read it, and will learn to read. This has already happened in the case of many savage races . . . not that I wish to apply such a term to the people of this country. . . . Furthermore,” I went on, “is it not a deplorable thing that a language should disappear, leaving no trace behind? Prussian became a dead language thirty years ago, and the last person who knew Cornic died the other day.”
“Sad,” interrupted the Count. “Alexander Humboldt told my father he had met with a parrot in America that was the only living thing which knew several words of the language of a tribe now entirely wiped out by small-pox. Will you allow me to order our tea here?”
While we drank tea the conversation turned upon the Jmoudic tongue. The Count found fault with the way Germans print Lithuanian, and he was right.
“Your alphabet,” he said, “does not lend itself to our language. You have neither our J, nor our L, Y, or Ë. I have a collection of daïnos published last year at Koenigsberg, and I had immense trouble to understand the words, they are so queerly formed.”
“Your Excellency probably speaks of Lessner’s daïnos?”
“Yes, it is a very vapid poetry, do you not think?”
“He might perhaps have selected better. I admit that, as it is, this collection has but a purely philological interest; but I believe if careful search were made one would succeed in collecting the most perfect flowers of your folk-poetry.”
“Alas! I doubt it very much, in spite of my patriotic desires.”
“A few weeks ago a very fine ballad was given me at Wilno—an historical one. . . . It is a most remarkable poem. . . . May I read it? I have it in my bag.”
“With the greatest pleasure.”
He buried himself in an armchair, after asking permission to smoke.
“I can’t understand poetry unless I smoke,” he said.
“It is called The Three Sons of Boudrys.”
“The Three Sons of Boudrys?” exclaimed the Count with a gesture of surprise.
“Yes, Boudrys, as Your Excellency knows better than I, is an historic character.”
The count looked at me fixedly with that odd gaze of his. It was something indefinable, both timid and ferocious, and produced an almost painful impression until one grew accustomed to it. I hurriedly began to read to escape it.
“THE THREE SONS OF BOUDRYS.
“In the courtyard of his castle old Boudrys called together his three sons—three genuine Lithuanians like himself.
“ ‘My children,’ he said to them, ‘feed your war horses, and get ready your saddles; sharpen your swords and your javelins. It is said that at Wilno war has broken out between the three quarters of the globe. Olgerd will march against Russia; Skirghello against our neighbours, the Poles; Keystut will fall upon the Teutons. You are young, strong and bold; go and fight; and may the gods of Lithuania protect you! This year I shall not go to war, but I wish to counsel you. There are three of you, and three roads are open to you.
“ ‘One of you must accompany Olgerd to Russia, to the borders of Lake Ilmen, under the walls of Novgorod. Ermine skins and embroidered stuffs you will find there in plenty, and among the merchants as many roubles as there are blocks of ice in the river.
“ ‘The second must follow Keystut in his incursion. May he scatter the cross-bearing rabble! Amber is there as common as is the sea sand; their cloths are without equal for sheen and colour; their priests’ vestments are ornamented with rubies.
“ ‘The Third shall cross the Niéman with Skirghello. On the other side he will find base implements of toil. He must choose good lances and strong bucklers to oppose them, and he will bear away a daughter-in-law.
“ ‘The women of Poland, my sons, are the most beautiful of all our captives—sportive as kittens and as white as cream. Under their black brows their eyes sparkle like stars. When I was young, half a century ago, I brought away captive from Poland a beautiful girl who became my wife. She has long been dead, but I can never look at her side of the hearth without remembering her.’
“He blessed the youths, who were already armed and in the saddle. They set out. Autumn came, then winter . . . but they did not come back, and the old Boudrys believed them to be dead.
“There came a snowstorm, and a horseman drew near, who bore under his black bourka a precious burden.
“ ‘Is it a sackful of roubles from Novgorod?’ asked Boudrys.
“ ‘No, father. I am bringing you a daughter-in-law from Poland.’
“In the midst of the snowstorm another horseman appeared. His bourka was also distended with a precious burden.
“ ‘What have you, my child; yellow amber from Germany?’
“ ‘No, father. I bring you a daughter-in-law from Poland.’
“The snow fell in squalls. A horseman advanced hiding a precious burden under his bourka. . . . But before he had shown his spoil Boudrys had invited his friends to a third wedding.”
“Bravo! Professor,” cried the Count; “you pronounce Jmoudic to perfection. But who told you this pretty daïna?”
“A young lady whose acquaintance I had the honour to make at Wilno, at the house of Princess Katazyna Paç.”
“What is her name?”
“The panna Iwinska.”
“Mlle. Ioulka!”exclaimed the Count. “The little madcap! I might have guessed it. My dear Professor, you know Jmoudic and all the learned tongues; you have read every old book, but you have let yourself be taken by a young girl who has only read novels. She has translated to you, more or less correctly, in Jmoudic, one of Miçkiewicz’s dainty ballads, which you have not read because it is no older than I am. If you wish it I will show it to you in Polish, or, if you prefer, in an excellent Russian translation by Pushkin.”
I confess I was quite dumbfounded. How the Dorpat professor would have chuckled if I had published as original the daïna of the “Sons of Boudrys”!
Instead of being amused at my confusion, the Count, with exquisite politeness, hastened to turn the conversation.
“So you have met Mlle. Ioulka?” he said.
“I have had the honour of being presented to her.”
“What do you think of her? Speak quite frankly.”
“She is a most agreeable young lady.”
“So you are pleased to say.”
“She is exceedingly pretty.”
“Do you not think she has the loveliest eyes in the world?”
“A complexion of the most dazzling whiteness? . . . I was reminded of a Persian ghazel, wherein a lover extols the fineness of his mistress’s skin. ‘When she drinks red wine,’ he said, ‘you see it pass down her throat.’ The panna Iwinska made me think of those Persian lines.”
“Mlle. Ioulka may possibly embody that phenomenom; but I do not know if she has any blood in her veins. . . . She has no heart. . . . She is as white and as cold as snow!”
He rose and walked round the room some time without speaking, as though to hid his emotion; then, stopping suddenly—
“Pardon me,” he said, “we were talking, I believe, of folk-poetry. . . .”
“We were, Your Excellency.”
“After all it must be admitted that she translated Miçkiewicz very prettily. . . . ‘Frolicsome as a kitten, . . . white as cream, . . . eyes like stars,’ . . . that is her own portrait, do you not agree?”
“Absolutely, Your Excellency.”
“With reference to this roguish trick the poor child is bored to death by an old aunt. She leads the life of a nun.”
“At Wilno she went into society. I saw her at the ball given by the officers of the — regiment.”
“Ah, yes! the society of young officers suits her exactly. To laugh with one, to backbite with another, and to flirt with all of them. . . . Will you come to see my father’s library, Professor?”
I followed him to a long gallery, lined with many handsomely bound books, which, to judge from the dust which covered their edges, were rarely opened. What was my delight to find that one of the first volumes I pulled out of a glass case was the Catechismus Samogiticus! I could not help uttering a cry of pleasure. It seemed as though some mysterious power were exerting its influence unbeknownst to us.
The Count took the book, and, after he had turned over the leaves carelessly, wrote on the fly-leaf: “To Professor Wittembach, from Michael Szémioth.” I did not know how to express my great gratitude, and I made a mental resolution that after my death this precious book should be the ornament of my own University library.
“If you like to consider this library your workroom,” said the Count, “you shall never be disturbed here.”
After breakfast the following day the Count proposed that I should take a walk with him. The object in view was to visit a kapas (the name given by the Lithuanians to tumuli, called by the Russians kourgâne), a very noted one in that country, because formerly poets and magicians (they are one and the same thing) gathered there on certain special occasions.
“I have a very quiet horse to offer you,” he said. “I regret that I can not take you by carriage, but, upon my word, the road we go by is not fit for carriages.”
I would rather have stopped in the library taking my notes, but I could not express any wish contrary to that of my generous host, and I accepted. The horses were waiting for us at the foot of the steps in the courtyard, where a groom held a dog in leash.
“Do you know much about dogs, Professor?” said the Count, stopping for a minute and turning to me.
“Hardly anything, Your Excellency.”
“The Staroste of Zorany, where I have property, sent me this spaniel of which he thinks highly. Allow me to show him to you.” He called to the groom, who came up with the dog. He was indeed a beautiful creature. The dog was quite used to the man, and leapt joyfully and seemed full of life; but when within a few yards of the Count he put his tail between his legs and hung back terrified. The Count patted him, and at this the dog set up a dismal howl.
“I think he will turn out a good dog with careful training,” he said, after having examined him for some time with the eye of a connoisseur. Then he mounted his horse.
“Professor,” he said, “when we were in the avenue leading from the château you saw that dog’s fear. Please give me your honest opinion. In your capacity of savant you must learn to solve enigmas. . . . Why should animals be afraid of me?”
“Really, Your Excellency does me the honour of taking me for an Oedipus, while I am only a simple professor of comparative philology. There might—”
“Observe,” he interrupted me, “that I never beat either horses or dogs. I have a scruple against whipping a poor beast who commits a mistake through ignorance. But, nevertheless, you can hardly conceive the aversion that I inspire in dogs and horses. It takes me double the time and trouble to accustom them to me that it would other people. It took me a long time before I could subdue the horse you are riding, but now he is as quiet as a lamb.”
“I believe, Your Excellency, that animals are physiognomists, and detect at once if people whom they see for the first time like them or not. I expect you only like animals for the services they render you; on the other hand, many people have an instinctive partiality for certain beasts, and they find it out at once. Now I, for instance, have always had an instinctive liking for cats. They very rarely run away from me when I try to stroke them, and I have never been scratched by one.”
“That is very likely,” said the Count; “I can not say I have a real affection for animals. . . . Human beings are so much more to be preferred. We are now coming into a forest, Professor, where the kingdom of beasts still flourishes—the matecznik, the womb, the great nursery of beasts. Yes, according to our national traditions, no one has yet penetrated its depths, no one has been able to reach to the heart of these woods and thickets, unless, always excepted, the poets and magicians have, who go everywhere. Here the beasts all live as in a Republic . . . or under a Constitutional Government, I can not tell which of the two. Lions, bears, elks, the joubrs, our wild oxen or aurochs, all live very happily together. The mammoth, which is preserved there, is thought highly of; it is, I believe, the Marshal of the Diet. They have a very strict police force, and if they decide that any beast is vicious they sentence him to banishment. It falls thus out of the frying-pan into the fire; it is obliged to venture into the region of man, and few escape.”
“A very curious legend,” I exclaimed; “but, Your Excellency, you speak of the aurochs, that noble animal which Caesar has described in his Commentaries, and which the Merovingian kings hunted in the forest of Compiègne. I am told they still exist in Lithuania—is that so?”
“Certainly. My father himself killed a joubr, having obtained permission from the Government. You can see the head in the large dining-hall. I have never seen one. I believe they are very scarce. To make amends we have wolves and bears here in abundance. To guard against a possible encounter with one of these gentlemen I have brought this instrument” (and he produced a Circassian tchékhole which he carried in his belt), “and my groom carries in his saddle-box a double-barrelled rifle.”
We began to penetrate into the forest. Soon the narrow track that we were following disappeared altogether. Every few moments we were obliged to ride round enormous trees whose low branches barred our passage. Several of these, which were dead of old age and fallen over, looked like bulwarks crowned with a line of chevaux-de-frise impossible to scale. Elsewhere we encountered deep pools covered with water lilies and duckweed. Further on we came to a clearing where the grass shone like emeralds; but woe to those who ventured on it, for this rich and deceptive vegetation usually hides abysses of mud in which both horse and rider would disappear for ever. . . . The arduousness of the route had interrupted our conversation. All my attention was taken up in following the Count, and I admired the imperturbable sagacity with which he guided his way without compass, and always regained the right direction which had to be followed to reach the kapas. It was evident that he had frequently hunted in these wild forests.
At last we perceived the tumulus in the centre of a large clearing. It was very high and surrounded by a fosse still clearly recognizable in spite of the landslips. It looked as though it had recently been excavated. At the summit I noticed the remains of an erection built of stones, some of which bore traces of fire. A considerable quantity of ashes, mixed with pieces of charcoal, with here and there fragments of coarse crockery, attested that there had been a fire on the top of the tumulus for a considerable time. If one can put faith in popular tradition, human sacrifices had been offered several times in the kapas; but there is hardly any extinct religion to which these abominable rites have not been attributed, and I imagine one could justify a similar theory with regard to the ancient Lithuanians from historic evidence.
We came down from the tumulus to rejoin our horses, which we had left on the far side of the fosse, when we saw an old woman approaching us, leaning on a stick and holding a basket in her hand.
“Good day, gentlemen,” she said to us as she came up, “I ask alms for the love of God. Give me something for a glass of brandy to warm my poor body.”
The Count threw her a coin, and asked what she was doing in the wood, so far from habitation. For sole answer she showed him her basket filled with mushrooms. Although my knowledge of botany was but limited, I thought several of the mushrooms looked like poisonous ones.
“My good woman,” I said, “you are not going to eat those, I hope.”
“Sir,” the old woman replied, with a sad smile, “poor folk eat all the good God gives them.”
“You are not acquainted with Lithuanian stomachs,” the Count put in; “they are lined with sheet iron. Our peasants eat every kind of fungus they find, and are none the worse for them.”
“At least prevent her from tasting the agaricus necator she has in her basket,” I cried, and I stretched out my hand to take one of the most poisonous of the mushrooms, but the old woman quickly withdrew the basket.
“Take care,” she said in a frightened tone; “they are protected . . . Pirkuns! Pirkuns!”
“Pirkuns,” I may explain in passing, is the Samogitian name for divinity called by the Russians Péroune; it is the Jupiter tonans of the Slavs. If I was surprised when I heard the old woman invoke a pagan god, I was much more astonished to see the mushrooms heave up. The black head of a snake raised itself at least a foot out of the basket. I jumped back, and the Count spat over his shoulder after the superstitious custom of the Slavs, who believe that in this way they turn away misfortune, as did the ancient Romans. The old woman put the basket on the ground, and crouched by its side; then she held out her hand towards the snake, pronouncing some unintelligible words like an incantation. The snake remained quiet a moment, then it curled itself around the shrivelled arm of the old woman and disappeared in the sleeve of her sheepskin cloak, which, with a dirty chemise, comprised, I believe, all the dress of this Lithuanian Circe. The old woman looked at us with a little laugh of triumph, like a conjurer who has just executed a difficult trick. Her face wore that mixture of cunning and stupidity which is often noticeable in would-be witches, who are mostly scoundrels and dupes.
“Here you have,” said the Count in German, “a specimen of local colour; a witch who tames snakes, at the foot of a kapas, in the presence of a learned professor and of an ignorant Lithuanian gentleman. It would make a capital subject for a picture of natural life by your countryman Knauss. . . . If you wish to have your fortune told, this is a good opportunity.”
I replied that I did not encourage such practices.
“I would much rather,” I added, “ask her if she knows anything about that curious superstition of which you spoke. Good woman,” I said to her, “have you heard tell of a part of this forest where the beasts live in a community, independent of man’s rule?”
The witch nodded her head in the affirmative, and she gave a low laugh, half silly, half malicious.
“I come from it,” she said. “The beasts have lost their king. Noble, the lion, is dead; the animals are about to elect another king. If you go perhaps they will make you king.”
“What are you saying, mother?” and the count burst into shouts of laughter. “Do you know to whom you are talking? Do you not know that this gentleman is . . . (what the deuce do they call a professor in Jmoudic?) a great savant, a sage, a waïdelote?”
The witch stared at him fixedly.
“I was mistaken,” she said. “It is thou who ought to go there. Thou wilt be their king, not he; thou art tall, and strong, and has claws and teeth.”
“What do you think of the epigrams she levels at us?” said the Count. “Can you show us the way, mother?” he asked.
She pointed with her hand to a part of the forest.
“Indeed?” said the Count. “And how can you get across the marsh? You must know, Professor, that she pointed to an impassable swamp, a lake of liquid mud covered over with green grass. Last year a stag that I wounded plunged into this infernal marsh, and I watched him sink slowly, slowly. . . . In five minutes I saw only his horns, and soon he disappeared completely, two of my dogs with him.”
“But I am not heavy,” said the old woman, chuckling.
“I think you could cross the marsh easily on a broomstick.”
A flash of anger shone in the woman’s eyes.
“Sir,” she said, returning to the drawling and nasal twang of the beggar, “Haven’t you a pipe of tobacco to give a poor woman? Thou hadst better search for a passage through the swamp than go to Dowghielly,” she added in a lower tone.
“Dowghielly!” said the Count, reddening, “what do you mean?”
I could not help noticing that this word produced a singular effect upon him. He was visibly embarrassed; he lowered his head in order to hide his confusion, and busied himself over opening the tobacco pouch which hung at the hilt of his hunting knife.
“No, do not go to Dowghielly,” repeated the old woman. “The little white dove is not for thee, is she, Pirkuns?”
At that moment the snake’s head appeared out of the collar of the old woman’s cloak and stretched up to its mistress’s ear. The reptile, trained doubtless to the trick, moved its jaw as though it spoke.
“He says I am right?” said the old woman.
The Count gave her a handful of tobacco.
“Do you know me?” he asked.
“I am the master of Médintiltas. Come and see me one of these days; I will give you tobacco and brandy.”
The old woman kissed his hand and moved away with rapid strides. We soon lost sight of her. The Count remained thoughtful, tying and untying the fastenings of his bag, hardly conscious of what he was doing.
“Professor,” he said to me after a somewhat long silence, “you will laugh at me. That old crone knew both me and the road which she showed me better than she pretended. . . . After all, there is nothing so very surprising in that. I am as well known in this countryside as the white wolf. The jade has seen me several times on the road to Dowghielly Castle. . . . A marriageable young lady lives there, so she concluded that I was in love. . . . Then some handsome boy has bribed her to tell me bad luck. . . . It is obvious enough. Nevertheless, . . . in spite of myself, her words have affected me. I am almost frightened by them. . . . You have cause to laugh. . . . The truth is that I intended to go and ask for dinner at the Castle of Dowghielly, and now I hesitate. . . . I am a great fool. Come, Professor, you decide it. Shall we go?”
“In questions of marriage I never give advice,” I said laughingly. “I take good care not to have an opinion.”
We had come back to our horses.
“The horse shall choose for me,” cried the Count, as he vaulted into the saddle and let the bridle lie slack.
The horse did not hesitate; he immediately entered a little footpath, which, after several turnings, descended into a metalled road which let to Dowghielly. Half an hour after we reached the Castle steps.
At the sound of our horses a pretty, fair head appeared at a window, framed between two curtains. I recognised the translator of Miçkiewicz, who had taken me in.
“You are welcome,” she said. “You could not have come more apropos, Count Szémioth. A dress from Paris has just arrived for me. I shall be lovely past recognition.”
The curtains closed again.
“It is certainly not for me that she is putting on this dress for the first time,” muttered the Count between his teeth while mounting the steps.
He introduced me to Madam Dowghiello, the aunt of the panna Iwinska, who received me courteously and spoke to me of my last articles in the Koenigsberg Scientific and Literary Gazette.
“The Professor has come to complain to you,” said the Count, “of the malicious trick which Mademoiselle Ioulka played on him.”
“She is a child, Professor; you must forgive her. She often drives me to distraction with her follies. I had more sense at sixteen than she has at twenty, but she is a good girl at heart, and she has many good qualities. She is an admirable musician, she paints flowers exquisitely, and she speaks French, German and Italian equally well. . . . She embroiders.”
“And she composes Jmoudic verses,” added the Count, laughing.
“She is incapable of it,” exclaimed Madam Dowghiello; and they had to explain her niece’s mischievousness.
Madam Dowghiello was well educated, and knew the antiquities of her country. Her conversation was particularly agreeable to me. She read many of our German reviews, and held very sane views upon philology. I admit that I did not notice the time that Mademoiselle Iwinska took to dress, but it seemed long to Count Szémioth, who got up and sat down again, looked out of the window, and drummed on the pane with his finger as a man who has lost patience.
At length, at the end of three-quarters of an hour, Mademoiselle Julienne appeared, wearing with exquisite grace a dress which would require more critical knowledge than mine to describe. She was followed by her French governess.
“Do I not look pretty?” she said to the Count, turning round slowly so that he could see her from all sides.
She did not look either at the Count or at me, but at her new dress.
“How is it, Ioulka,” said Madam Dowghiello, “that you do not say good day to the Professor? He complains of you.”
“Ah, Professor!” she cried, with a charming little pout. “What have I done? Have you come to make me do penance?”
“We shall punish ourselves, Mademoiselle, if we deprive ourselves of your presence,” I answered. “I am far from complaining; on the contrary, I congratulate myself on having learned, thanks to you, that the Lithuanian Muse has reappeared more brightly thane ever.”
She lowered her head, and, putting her hands before her face, taking care not to disarrange her hair, she said, in the tones of a child who has just stolen some sweetmeats—
“Forgive me; I will not do it again.”
“I will only pardon you, my dear Pani,” I said to her, “if you will fulfill a certain promise which you were good enough to make me at Wilno, at the house of the Princess Katazyna Paç.”
“What promise?” she asked, raising her head and laughing.
“Have you forgotten so soon? You promised me that if we met in Samogitia you would let me see a certain country dance which you said was enchanting.”
“Oh, the roussalka! I shall be charmed; and the very man I need is here.”
She ran to a table loaded with music-books, and, turning over one hastily, put it on the piano stand.
“Mind, my dear, allegro presto,” she said, addressing her governess. And she played the prelude herself, without sitting down, to show the time.
“Come here, Count Michel! you are too much of a Lithuanian not to be able to dance the roussalka; . . . but dance like a peasant, you understand.”
Madam Dowghiello in vain tried to object. The Count and I insisted. He had his motives, for his part in the dance was extremely agreeable, as we soon saw. The governess, after several attempts, said she thought she could play that kind of waltz, strange though it was; so Mademoiselle Ioulka, after moving some chairs and a table that were in the way, took hold of her partner by the collar of his coat and led him into the centre of the room.
“You must know, Professor, that I am a roussalka, at your service.”
She made a low bow.
“A roussalka is a water nymph. There is one in each of the big pools of black water which adorn our forests. Do not go near! The roussalka comes out, lovelier even than I, if that be possible; she carries you to the bottom, where, very likely, she gobbles you up. . . .”
“A real siren,” I cried.
“He,” continued Mademoiselle Ioulka, pointing to Count Szémioth, “is a very foolish young fisherman who exposes himself to my clutches, and, to make the pleasure last longer, I fascinate him by dancing round him for a time. . . . But, alas! to do it properly I want a sarafane. What a pity! You must please excuse this dress, which has neither character nor local colour. . . . Oh! and I have slippers on. It is quite impossible to dance the roussalka with slippers on . . . and heels on them too.”
She picked up her dress, and, daintily shaking a pretty little foot at the risk of showing her leg, she sent the slipper flying to the end of the drawing-room. The other followed the first, and she stood upon the parquetry floor in her silken stockings.
“We are quite ready,” she said to the governess. And the dance began.
The roussalka revolves and revolves round her partner; he stretches out his arms to seize her, but she slips underneath them and escapes. It is very graceful, and the music has movement and originality. The figure ends when the partner, believing that he has seized the roussalka, tries to give her a kiss, and she makes a bound, strikes him on the shoulder, and he falls dead at her feet. . . . But the Count improvised a variation, strained the winsome creature in his arms, and kissed her again and again. Mademoiselle Ioulka uttered a little cry, blushed deeply, and threw herself, pouting, onto a couch, complaining that he had hugged her like the bear that he was. I saw that the comparison did not please the Count, for it brought to his mind the family misfortune, and his brow darkened. I thanked Mademoiselle Ioulka most warmly, praised her dance, which seemed to me to have an antique flavour and recalled the sacred dances of the Greeks. I was interrupted by a servant announcing General and Princess Véliaminof. Mademoiselle Ioulka leaped to the sofa for her shoes, hastily thrust in her little feet, and ran to meet the Princess, making successively two profound bows. I noticed that at each bow she adroitly drew on part of her slipper. The General brought with him two aides-de-camp, and, like us, had come to ask for hospitality. In any other country I imagine the mistress of the hosue would have been a little embarrassed to receive all at once six hungry and unexpected guests; but Lithuanian hospitality is so lavish that the dinner was not more than half an hour late, I think; there were too many pies, however, both hot and cold.
The dinner was very lively. The General gave us a most interesting account of the dialects spoken in the Caucasus, some of which are Aryan, and others Turanian, although between the different peoples there is a remarkable uniformity in manners and customs. I had to talk of my travels because Count Szémioth congratulated me on the way I sat a horse, and said he had never met a minister or a professor who could have managed so easily such a journey as the one we had taken. I explained to him that, commissioned by the Bible Society to write a work on the language of the Charruas, I had spent three and a half years in the Republic of Uruguay, nearly always on horseback, and living in the pampas among the Indians. This led me to relate how, when lost for three days in those boundless plains, without food or water, I had been reduced, like the gauchos who accompanied me, to bleed my horse and drink his blood.
All the ladies uttered a cry of horror. The General observed that the Kalmouks did the same in similar extremities. The Count asked me what the drink tasted like.
“Morally, it was most repugnant,” I replied, “but, physically, I found it rather good, and it is owing to it that I have the honour of dining here today. Many Europeans, I mean white men, who have lived for a long time with the Indians, accustom themselves to it, and even get to like the taste. My good friend Don Fructuoso missed a chance of gratifying it. I recollect one day, when he was going to Congress in full uniform, he passed a rancho where a young foal was being bled. He got off his horse to ask for a chupon, a suck; after which he delivered one of his most eloquent speeches.”
“Your President is a hideous monster,” cried Mademoiselle Ioulka.
“Pardon me, my dear Pani,” I said to her, “he is a very distinguished person, with a most enlightened mind. He speaks several very difficult Indian dialects to perfection, specially the Charrua, the verbs of which take innumerable forms, according to whether its objective is direct or indirect, and even according to the social relations of the persons who speak.”
I was about to give some very curious instances of the construction of the Charrua verb, but the Count interrupted me to ask what part of the horse they bled when they wanted to drink its blood.
“For goodness’ sake, my dear Professor,” cried Mademoiselle Ioulka, with a comic expression of terror, “do not tell him. He is just the man to slay his whole stable, and to eat us up ourselves when he has no more horses left!”
Upon this sally the ladies laughingly left the table to prepare tea and coffee while we smoked. In a quarter of an hour they sent from the drawing-room for the General. We all prepared to go with him; but we were told that the ladies only wished one man at a time. Very soon we heard from the drawing-room loud bursts of laughter and clapping of hands.
“Mademoiselle Ioulka is up to her pranks,” said the Count.
He was sent for next; and again there followed laughter and applause. It was my turn after his. By the time I had reached the room every face had taken on a pretended gravity which did not bode well. I expected some trick.
“Professor,” said the General to me in his most official manner, “these ladies maintain that we have given too kind a reception to their champagne, and they will not admit us among them until after a test. You must walk from the middle of the room to that wall with your eyes bandaged, and touch it with your finger. You see how easy it is; you have only to walk straight. Are you able to keep a straight line?”
“I think so, General.”
Mademoiselle Ioulka then threw a handkerchief over my eyes and tied it tightly behind.
“You are in the middle of the room,” she said; “stretch out your hand. . . . That is right! I wager that you will not touch the wall.”
“Forward, march!” called out the General. I advanced very cautiously, sure that I should encounter some cord or footstool treacherously placed in my path to trip me up, and I could hear stifled laughter, which increased my confusion. At length I believed I was quite close to the wall, when my outstretched finger suddenly went into something cold and sticky. I made a grimace and started back, which set all the onlookers laughing. I tore off my bandage, and saw Mademoiselle Ioulka standing near me holding a pot of honey, into which I had thrust my finger, thinking that I touched the wall. My only consolation was to watch the two aides-de-camp pass through the same ordeal, with no better result than I.
Throughout the evening Mademoiselle Ioulka never ceased to give vent to her frolicsome humour. Ever teasing, ever mischievous, she made first one, then another, the butt of her fun. I observed, however, that she more frequently addressed herself to the Count, who, I must say, never took offence, and even seemed to enjoy her allurements. But when, on the other hand, she began an attack upon one of the aides-de-camp, he frowned, and I saw his eyes kindle with that dull fire which was almost terrifying. “Frolicsome as a kitten and as white as cream.” I thought in writing that verse Miçkiewicz must surely have wished to draw the portrait of the panna Ioulka.
It was very late before we retired to bed. In many of the great houses in Lithuania there is plenty of splendid silver plate, fine furniture, and valuable Persian carpets; but they have not, as in our dear Germany, comfortable feather beds to offer the tired guest. Rich or poor, nobleman or peasant, a Slav can sleep quite soundly on a board. The Castle of Dowghielly was no exception to this rule. In the room to which the Count and I were conducted there were but two couches newly covered with morocco leather. This did not distress me much, as I had often slept on the bare earth in my travels, and I laughed a little at the Count’s exclamations upon the barbarous customs of his compatriots. A servant came to take off our boots and to bring us dressing-gowns and slippers. When the Count had taken off his coat, he walked up and down awhile in silence, then he stopped in front of the couch, upon which I had already stretched myself.
“What do you think of Ioulka?” he said.
“I think she is bewitching.”
“Yes, but such a flirt! . . . Do you believe she has any liking for that fair-haired little captain?”
“The aide-de-camp? . . . How should I tell?”
“He is a fop! . . . So he ought to please women.”
“I deny your conclusion, Count. Do you wish me to tell you the truth? Mademoiselle Ioulka thinks far more how to please Count Szémioth than to please all the aides-de-camp in the army.”
He blushed without replying; but I saw that my words had given him great pleasure. He walked about again for some time without speaking; then, after looking at his watch, he said—
“Good gracious! we must really go to sleep; it is very late.”
He took his rifle and his hunting knife, which had been placed in our room, put them in a cupboard, and took out the key.
“Will you keep it?” he said; and to my great surprise he gave it to me. “I might forget it. You certainly have a better memory than I have.”
“The best way not to forget your weapons would be to place them on that table near your sofa,” I said.
“No. . . . Look here, to tell you the truth, I do not like to have arms by me when I am asleep. . . . This is the reason. When I was in the Grodno Hussars, I slept one night in a room with a companion, and my pistols were on the chair near me. In the night I was awakened by a report. I had a pistol in my hand; I had fired, and the bullet had passed within two inches of my comrade’s head. . . . I have never been able to remember the dream I had.”
I was a little disturbed by his anecdote. I was guarded against having a bullet through my head; but, when I looked at the tall figure of my companion, with his Herculean shoulders and his muscular arms covered with black down, I could not help recognising that he was perfectly able to strangle me with his hands if he had a bad dream. I took care, however, not to let him see that I felt the slightest uneasiness. I merely put a light on a chair close to my couch, and began to read the Catechism of Lawiçki, which I had brought with me. The count wished me good night, and lay down on his sofa, upon which he turned over five or six times; at last he seemed asleep, although he was doubled up like Horace’s lover, who, shut up in a chest, touched his head with his bent knees.
“. . . Turpi clausus in arca,
Contractum genibus tangas caput. . . .”
From time to time he sighed heavily, or made a kind of nervous rattle, which I attributed to the peculiar position in which he had chosen to sleep. An hour perhaps passed in this way, and I myself because drowsy. I shut my book, and settled myself as comfortable as was possible on my bed, when an odd giggling sound from my neighbor set me trembling. I looked at the Count. His eyes were shut; his whole body shuddered; from his half-opened lips escaped some hardly articulate words.
“So fresh! . . . so white! . . . The Professor did not know what he said. . . . Horse is not worth a straw. . . . What a delicious morsel!”
Then he began to bite the cushion, on which his head rested, with all his might, growling at the same time so loudly that he woke himself.
I remained quite still on my couch, and pretended to be asleep. Nevertheless, I watched him. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, sighed sadly, and remained for nearly an hour without changing reflections. I was, however, very ill at ease, and I inwardly vowed never again to sleep by the side of the Count. But in the long run weariness overcame disquiet, and when the servant came to our room in the morning, we were both in a profound sleep.
We returned to Médintiltas after breakfast. When I found Dr. Froeber alone, I told him that I believed the Count was unwell, that he had had frightful dreams, was possibly a somnambulist and would be dangerous in that condition.
“I am aware of all that,” said the doctor. “With an athletic organization he is at the time as nervous as a highly strung woman. Perhaps he gets it from his mother. . . . She has been devilishly bad today. . . . I do not believe much in stories of fright and longings of pregnant women; but one thing is certain, the Coutness is mad, and madness can be inherited.
“But the Count,” I returned, “is perfectly sane: his mind is sound, he has much higher intelligence than, I admit, I should have expected; he loves reading. . . .”
“I grant it, my dear sir, I grant it; but he is often eccentric. Sometimes he shuts himself up for several days; often he roams about at night. He reads unheard-of books. . . . German metaphysics . . . physiology, and I know not what! Even yesterday a package of them came from Leipzig. Must I speak plainly? A Hercules needs a Hebe. There are some very pretty pleasant girls here. . . . There is not one of them but would be only too proud to distract my lord. I, at his age, devil take me! . . . No, he has no mistress; he will not marry; it is wrong. He out to have something to occupy his mind.”
The doctor’s coarse materialism shocked me extremely, and I abruptly terminated the conversation by saying that I sincerely wished that Count Szémioth should find a wife worthy of him. I was surprised, I must admit, when I learned from the doctor of the Count’s taste for philosophical studies. It went against all my preconceived ideas that this officer of the Hussars, this ardent sportsman, should read German metaphysics and engage himself in physiology. The doctor spoke the truth, however, as I had proof therof even that very day.
“How do you explain, Professor,” he said to me suddenly towards the close of dinner—“how do you explain the duality or the twofold nature of our being?”
And when he observed that I did not quite follow him, he went on—
“Have you never found yourself at the top of a tower, or even at the edge of a precipice, having at the same time a desire to throw yourself down into space, and a feeling of terror absolutely the reverse? . . .”
“That can be explained on purely physical grounds,” said the doctor; “first, the fatigue of walking up hill sends a rush of blood to the brain, which—”
“Let us leave aside the question of the blood, doctor,” broke in the Count impatiently, “and take another instance. You hold a loaded firearm. Your best friend stands by. The idea occurs to you to put a ball through his head. You hold assassination in the greatest horror, but all the same, you have thought of it. I believe, gentlemen, that if all the thoughts which come into our heads in the course of an hour . . . I believe that if all your thoughts, Professor, whom I hold to be so wise, were written down, they would form a folio volume probably, after the perusal of which there would not be a single lawyer who could successfully defend you, nor a judge who would not either put you in prison or even in a lunatic asylum.”
“That judge, Count, would certainly not condemn me for having hunted, for more than an hour this morning, for the mysterious law that decides which Slavonic verbs take a future tense when joined to a preposition; but if by chance I had some other thought, what proof of it could you bring against me? I am no more master of my thoughts than of the external accidents which suggest them to me. Because a thought springs up in my mind, it can not be implied that I have put it into execution, or even resolved to do so. I have never thought of killing anybody; but, if the thought of a murder comes into my mind, is not my reason there to drive it away?”
“You talk with great certainty of your reason; but is it always with us, as you say, to guide us? Reflection, that is to say, time and coolness are necessary to make the reason speak and be obeyed. Has one always both of these? In battle I see a bullet coming towards me; it rebounds, and I get out of the way; by so doing I expose my friend, for whose life I would have given my own if I had had time for reflection. . . .”
I tried to point out to him our duty as men and Christians, the obligations we are under to imitate the warrior of the Scriptures, always ready for battle; at length I made him see that in constantly struggling against our passions we gain fresh strength to weaken and to overcome them. I only succeeded, I fear, in reducing him to silence, and he did not seem convinced.
I stayed but ten days longer at the Castle. I paid one more visit to Dowghielly, but we did not sleep there. As on the first occasion, Mlle. Ioulka acted like a frolicsome and spoiled child. She exercised a kind of fascination over the Count, and I did not doubt that he was very much in love with her. At the same time he knew her faults thoroughly, and was under no illusions. He knew she was a frivolous coquette, and indifferent to all that did not afford her amusement. I could see that he often suffered internally at seeing her so unreasonable; but as soon as she paid him some little attention his face shone, and he beamed with joy, forgetful of all else. He wished to take me to Dowghielly for the last time the day before my departure, possibly because while I could stay talking with the aunt, he could walk in the garden with the niece; but I had so much work to do I was obliged to excuse myself, however much he urged. He returned to dinner, although he had told us not to wait. He came to table, but could not eat. He was gloomy and ill-tempered all through the meal. From time to time his eyebrows contracted and his eyes assumed a sinister expression. When the doctor returned to the Countess, the Count followed me to my room, and told me all that was on his mind.
“I heartily repent,” he exclaimed, “Having left you to go and see that little fool who makes game of me, and only cares for fresh faces; but, fortunately, all is over between us; I am utterly disgusted, and I will never see her again. . . .”
For some time he paced up and down according to his usual habit.
“You thought, perhaps, I was in love with her?” he went on. “That is what the silly doctor thinks. No, I have never loved her. Her merry look amused me. Her white skin gave me pleasure to look at. . . . That is all there is pleasing about her, . . . her complexion especially. She has no brains. I have never seen anything in her but just a pretty doll, agreeable to look at when one is tired and lacks a new book. . . . There is no doubt she is beautiful. . . . Her skin is marvellous! . . . The blood under that skin ought to be better than a horse’s. . . . Do you not think so, Professor?”
And he laughed aloud, but his laugh was not pleasant to hear.
I said good-bye to him the next day, to continue my explorations in the north of the Palatinate.
They lasted nearly two months, and I can say that there is hardly a village in Samogitia where I did not stop and where I did not collect some documents. I may here be allowed, perhaps, to take this opportunity of thanking the inhabitants of that province, and especially the Church dignitaries, for the truly warm cooperation they accorded me in my researches, and the excellent contributions with which they have enriched my dictionary.
After staying a week at Szawlé, I intended to embark at Klaypeda (the seaport which we call Memel) to return to my home, when I received the following letter from Count Szémioth, which was brought by one of his huntsmen:—
“My dear Professor,—Allow me to write to you in German, for I should commit too many errors in grammar if I wrote in Jmoudic, and you would lose all respect for me. I am not sure you have much of that as it is, and the news that I am about to communicate to you will probably not increase it. Without more ado, I am going to be married, and you will guess to whom. Jove laughs at lovers’ vows. So said Pirkuns, our Samogitian Jupiter. It is, then, Mlle. Julienne Ioulka that I am to marry on the 8th of next month. You will be the kindest of men if you will come and assist the ceremony. All the peasantry of Médintiltas and the neighbouring districts will come to devour several oxen and countless swine, and, when they are drunk, they will dance in the meadow, which, you will remember, lies on the right of the avenue. You will see costumes and customs worthy of your consideration. It will give me and also Julienne the greatest pleasure if you come, and I must add that your refusal would place us in a most awkward situation. You know that I belong to the Evangelical Communion, as does my betrothed; now, our minister, who lives about thirty leagues away, is crippled with gout, and I ventured to hope you would be so good as to act in his stead.
“Believe me, my dear Professor,
“Yours every devotedly,
At the end of the letter, in the form of a postscript, had been added in Jmoudic, in a pretty feminine handwriting:
“I, the muse of Lithuania, write in Jmoudic. Michel is very impertinent to question your approval. There is no one but I, indeed, who would be so silly as to marry such a fellow as he. You will see, Professor, on the 8th of next month, a bride who may be called chic. That is not a Jmoudic word; it is French. But please do not be distracted during the ceremony.”
Neither the letter nor the postscript pleased me. I thought the engaged couple showed an inexcusable levity concerning such a solemn occasion. However, how was I to decline? And yet I will admit that the promised pageant had its attractions for me. According to all appearance, I should not fail to find among the great number of gentlefolk, who would be gathered together at the Castle of Médintiltas, some learned people who would furnish me with useful information. My Jmoudic glossary was very good; but the sense of a certain number of words which I had learned from the lips of the lowest of the peasants was still, relatively speaking, somewhat obscure to me. All these considerations combined were sufficiently strong to make me consent to the Count’s request, and I replied that I would be at Médintiltas by the morning of the 8th.
How greatly had I occasion to repent of my decision!
On entering the avenue which led to the Castle I saw a great number of ladies and gentlemen in morning dress standing in groups on the steps of the entrance or walking about the paths of the park. The court was filled with peasants in their Sunday attire. The Castle bore a festive air; everywhere were flowers and wreaths, flags and festoons. The head servant led me to the room on the ground floor which had been assigned to me, apologizing for not being able to offer me a better one; but there were so many visitors in the Castle that it had been impossible to reserve me the room I had occupied during my first visit, which had been given to the wife of the premier Marshal. My new chamber was, however, very comfortable; it looked on the park, and was below the Count’s apartment. I dressed myself hastily for the ceremony, and put on my surplice, but neither the Count nor his betrothed made their appearance. The Count had gone to fetch her from Dowghielly. They should have come back a long time before this; but a bride’s toilet is not a light business, and the doctor had warned the guests that as the breakfast would not take place till after the religious ceremony, those whose appetites were impatient would do well to fortify themselves at a sideboard, which was spread with cakes and all kinds of drinks. I remarked at the time that the delay excited ill-natured remarks; two mothers of pretty girls invited to the fête did not refrain from epigrams launched at the bride.
It was past noon when a salvo of cannon and muskets heralded her arrival, and soon after a state carriage entered the avenue drawn by four magnificent horses. It was easily seen by the foam which covered their chests that the delay had not been on their part. There was no one in the carriage besides the bride, Madam Dowghiello and the Count. He got out and gave his hand to Madam Dowghiello. Mademoiselle pretended to hide under a shawl to avoid the curious looks which surrounded her on all sides. But she stood up in the carriage, and was just about to take the Count’s hand when the wheelers, terrified maybe by the showers of flowers that the peasants threw at the bride, perhaps also seized with that strange terror which animals seemed to experience at the sight of Count Szémioth, pranced and snorted; a wheel struck the column at the foot of the flight of steps, and for a moment an accident was feared. Mademoiselle Ioulka uttered a little cry, . . . but all minds were soon relieved, for the Count snatched her up in his arms and carried her to the top of the steps as easily as though she had been a dove. We all applauded his presence of mind and his chivalrously gallant conduct. The peasants yelled terrific hurrahs, and the blushing bride laughed and trembled simultaneously. The Count, who was not at all in a hurry to rid himself of his charming burden, evidently exulted in showing her picture to the surrounding crowd. . . .
Suddenly a tall, pale, thin woman, with disordered dress and disheveled hair, and every feature of her face drawn with terror, appeared at the top of the flight of stairs before anyone could tell whence she sprang.
“Look at the bear!” she shrieked in a piercing voice, “look at the bear! . . . Get your guns! . . . He has carried off a woman! Kill him! Fire! fire!”
It was the Countess. The bride’s arrival had attracted everybody to the entrance and to the courtyard or to the windows of the Castle. Even the women who kept guard over the poor maniac had forgotten their charge; she had escaped, and, without being observed by anyone, had come upon us all. It was a most painful scene. She had to be removed, in spite of her cries and resistance. Many of the guests knew nothing about the nature of her illness, and matters had to be explained to them. People whispered in a low tone for a long time after. All faces looked shocked. “It is an ill omen,” said the superstitious, and their number is great in Lithuania.
However, Mlle. Ioulka begged for five minutes to settle her toilet and put on her bridal veil, an operation which lasted a full hour. It was more than was required to inform the people who did not know of the Countess’s illness of the cause and of its details.
At last the bride reappeared, magnificently attired and covered with diamonds. Her aunt introduced her to all the guests, and, when the moment came to go into the chapel, Madam Dowghiello, to my great astonishment, slapped her niece on the cheek, in the presence of the whole company, hard enough to make those whose attention was not otherwise engaged to turn round. The blow was received with perfect equanimity, and no one seemed surprised; but a man in black wrote something on a paper which he carried, and several of the persons present signed their names with the most nonchalant air. Not until after the ceremony did I find a clue to the riddle. Had I guessed it I should not have failed to oppose the abominable custom with the whole weight of my sacred office as a minister of religion. It was to set up a case for divorce by pretending that the marriage only took place by reason of the physical force exercised against one of the contracting parties.
After the religious service I felt it my duty to address a few words to the young couple, confining myself to putting before them the gravity and sacredness of the bond by which they had just united themselves; and, as I still had Mlle. Ioulka’s postscript on my mind, I reminded her that she was now entering a new life, no longer accompanied by childish pleasures and amusements, but filled with serious duties and grave trials. I thought that this portion of my sermon produced much effect upon the bride, as well as on everyone present who understood German.
Volleys of firing and shouts of joy greeted the procession as it came out of the chapel on its way to the dining-hall. The repast was splendid and the appetites very keen; at first no other sounds were audible but the clatter of knives and forks. Soon, however, warmed by champagne and Hungarian wines, the people began to talk and laugh, and even to shout. The health of the bride was drunk with enthusiastic cheers. They had scarcely resumed their seats when an old pane with white moustaches rose up.
“I am grieved to see,” he said in a loud voice, “that our ancient customs are disappearing. Our forefathers would never have drunk this toast from glasses of crystal. We drank out of the bride’s slipper, and even out of her boot; for in my time ladies wore red morocco boots. Let us show, my friends, that we are still true Lithuanians. And you, Madam, condescend to give me your slipper.”
“Come, take it, Monsieur,” replied the bride, blushing and stifling a laugh; . . . but I can not satisfy you with a boot.”
The pane did not wait a second bidding; he threw himself gracefully on his knees, took off a little white satin slipper with a red heel, filled it with champagne, and drank so quickly and so cleverly that not more than half fell on his clothes. The slipper was passed round, and all the men drank out of it, but not without difficulty. The old gentleman claimed the shoe as a precious relic, and Madam Dowghiello sent for a maid to repair her niece’s disordered toilet.
This toast was followed by many others, and soon the guests became so noisy that it did not become me to remain with them longer. I escaped from the table without being noticed and went outside the Castle to get some fresh air, but there, too, I found a none too edifying spectacle. The servants and peasants who had beer and spirits to their heart’s content were nearly all of them already tipsy. There had been quarrelling and some heads broken. Here and there drunken men lay rolling on the grass in a state of stupidity, and the general aspect of the fête looked much like a field of battle. I should have been interested to watch the popular dances quite close, but most of them were led by impudent gypsies, and I did not think it becoming to venture into such a hubbub. I went back, therefore, to my room and read for some time; then I undressed and soon fell asleep.
When I awoke the Castle clock was striking three o’clock. It was a fine night, although the moon was half shrouded by a light mist. I tried to go to sleep again, but I could not manage it. According to my usual habit when I could not sleep I thought to take up a book and read, but I could not find matches within reach. I got up and was going to grope about the room when a dark body of great bulk passed before my window and fell with a dull thud in to the garden. My first impression was that it was a man, and I thought possibly it was one of the drunken men, who had fallen out of the window. I opened mine and looked out, but I could not see anything. I lighted a candle at last, and, getting back into bed, I had gone through my glossary again just as they brought me a cup of tea. Towards eleven o’clock I went to the salon, where I found many scowling eyes and disconcerted looks. I learned, in short, that the table had not been left until a very late hour. Neither the Count nor the young Countess had yet appeared. At half-past eleven, after many ill-timed jokes, people began to grumble—at first below their breath, but soon aloud. Dr. Froeber took upon himself to send the Count’s valet to knock upon his master’s door. In a quarter of an hour the man came back looking anxious, and reported to Dr. Froeber that he had knocked more than a dozen times without getting an answer. Madam Dowghiello, the doctor and I consulted together. The valet’s uneasiness influenced me. We all three went upstairs with him and found the young Countess’s maid outside the door very scared, declaring that something dreadful had happened, for Madam’s window was wide open. I recollected with horror that heavy body falling past my window. We knocked loudly; still no answer. At length the valet brought an iron bar, and we forced the door. . . . No! courage fails me to describe the scene which presented itself to our eyes. The young Countess was stretched out dead on her bed, her face horribly torn, her throat cut open and covered with blood. The Count had disappeared, and no one has ever heard news of him since.
The doctor examined the young girl’s ghastly wound.
“It was not a steel blade,” he exclaimed, “which did this wound. . . . It was a bite.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The doctor closed his book, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.
“And is that the end of the story?” asked Adelaide.
“The end,” replied the Professor in a melancholy voice.
“But,” she continued, “why have you called it ‘Lokis’? Not a single person in it is so called.
“It is not the name of a man,” said the Professor. ‘Come, Théodore, do you understand what‘Lokis’ means?”
“Not in the very least.”
“If you were thoroughly steeped in the law of transformation from the Sanskrit into Lithuanian, you would have recognised in lokis the Sanskrit arkcha, or rikscha. The Lithuanians call lokis that animal which the Greeks called αρκπος, the Latins ursus, and the Germans bär.
“Now you will understand my motto:
“Miszka su Lokiu,
Abu du tokiu.
“You remember that in the romance of Renard the bear is called damp Brun. The Slavs called it Michel, which becomes Miszka in Lithuanian, and the surname nearly always replaces the generic name lokis. In the same way the French have forgotten their new Latin word goupil, or gorpil, and have substituted renard. I could quote you endless other instances. . . .”
But Adelaide observed that it was late, and we ought to go to bed.