Short Stories from the Balkans/Easter Candles

L. G. CARAGIALE

EASTER CANDLES

 

LEIBA ZIBAL, proprietor of the little resthouse by Podeni, is sitting thoughtfully under the projecting roof in front of the wine shop waiting for the stage which is already overdue an hour.

The life story of Zibal is long and it is not particularly merry. But now, in his present condition when he is suffering so from fever, it is a genuine amusement for him to parade before his mind its various incidents.

Huckster, petty merchant, general go-between—sometimes even more humble—dealer in rags and old clothes, once tailor and cleaner in a sad, dirty little street in Jassy. He had had to try his hand at all these things in the interval after losing his place as waiter in a large wine house. Under his supervision two porters had carried a cask of wine into the cellar. In the division of the labor they fell out. One seized a stick of wood and dealt his partner a blow on the head so severe that he dropped unconscious and blood spattered the walk.

Zibal shrieked with horror at the sight, but the porter was hastening to get away, and lifting a threatening hand to Zibal, who fainted from terror. As a result he was ill for several months, and when he came back he found his old place had been filled.

Then began a fight for existence, which was made harder by his marriage to Sura. But patience and endurance can overcome the most treacherous fortune.

Sura's brother—proprietor of the rest-house by Podeni—died, and the little business was inherited by Zibal who carried it on on his own account. Here he had lived for five years. He had managed to scrape together a small competence in raw and well aged wine, which at any time has an equivalent in gold. Zibal had freed himself from poverty, but now they are all ill, he and his wife and the child—ill with the marsh fever.

The people in Podeni are bad tempered and quarrelsome. Harsh words, scorn, curses, constant complaints that they are being poisoned with vitriol. But worst of all are the threats. A threat for a sensitive, nervous nature, is worse than a blow. And now what makes Leiba Zibal suffer more than the fever, is a threat.

“Ah!—dog of a Christian!” he thinks sadly. The one he refers to is friend George. He wonders where he is hiding—this man with whom he had had an unpleasant experience.

It was on a morning in fall. George stumbled into the rest-house weary, saying he was just out of the hospital and must have work. Zibal hired him. But George proved to be coarse and rough and bad tempered. He cursed and grumbled. He was a lazy and unwilling servant, and he stole.

One day he threatened Zibal's wife, who was soon to be confined, that he would give her a blow in the abdomen, and another time he set the dogs upon the baby. Leiba paid him and dimissed him. But George said at first that he would not go away, that he had been hired for a year. The proprietor retorted that he would go to the authorities and complain of him, and ask for the law to free him from him.

Then George grabbed for something hidden within his clothes and shrieked:—“Judas!” He started toward Leiba as if he were going to fall upon him.

Fortunately, just at this moment, guests came to the hostelry, because the stage had just driven up. George began to grin. “What? You weren't afraid, were you, Mr. Leiba? See—I'm going!”

Then he bent over the table toward Leiba making him shrink back as far as possible, and whispered: “You just wait till Easter night! We'll pick red eggs together! Then you'll find I've reckoned up your account!”

The guests entered the rest-house.

“Goodbye till Easter, Mr. Leiba!” added George as he went out the door.

Leiba went to the authorities, put the case before them and asked for protection. The sub-prefect—a merry young fellow—was the first one to learn the modest request preferred by Leiba, and he began at once to laugh and to make fun of the trembling Jew. Leiba tried to make him comprehend the danger of the situation. He explained that the rest-house was in a lonely place, far from a village—yes, even off the highway. But the sub-prefect merely told him in a jocular manner to brace up and try to be sensible. Moreover he didn't wish to talk about such things in a village where the people were so quarrelsome and poor, because it might put notions of insubordination into their heads.

Some days later George was sought by mounted police at command of the sub-prefect. A crime had been committed and suspicion pointed to him.

“How much better it would have been, Leiba thought, “if he had put up with him until the people came! Because now no one knew where he was.”

Although this had happened a long time ago, it all lived again tonight in his memory, accelerated with fever and suffering. He saw him grab at his clothes as if for a concealed weapon, he heard again the threat, and he suffered again just as he did then at the import of the words. Why did the memory happen to come back so vividly just now, he kept asking himself.

It was the night before Easter.

In the little village, some two kilometers away upon the hills, between the big ponds—he could hear the church bells ringing. And they sound so strangely when they echo through a brain made sensitive with fever. Sometimes the bells are very loud and sometimes they scarcely whisper. Easter eve was at hand. This was the time set by George for fulfillment of his threat.

“Now, of course, he is safely in prison somewhere,” said Leiba, reassuringly.

However, it may be, Zibal will have to remain in Podeni until the next quarter is over. Then with his money he will move to Jassy and open a nice little business, on the Market square—then Leiba will have good health again and not shake with fever. He will be right beside police headquarters. He will give tips liberally to all the policemen—to the inspector of police— Who pays well, is safe.

On a great market square like the one in Jassy, night is noisy, and just as light as day. No darkness there—no silence either. Never such deep silence as in this lonely valley of Podeni, between the black hills and the great speechless water. In Jassy there is a rest-house—right in an angular building on the corner—which is the finest place in the world for a rest-house. There, all night long girls dance and sing in a Café chantant. What noise they make! What merry life! There any hour of the day or night you can look out your windows and see the gentlemen who enforce the law amusing themselves with other gentlemen of the law—in coquetting with the girls.

Why should he make himself miserable by staying here any longer, when the business grows worse daily, especially now since the railroad was built, which has to make a detour of miles because of the swamps?

“Leiba,” calls Sura. “The stage is coming. I can hear the bells.”

The valley of Podeni is just like the bottom of a kettle—all surrounded by hills. Down in the southern part, the springs that come from the mountains, spread out into lakes, where grouped water grasses grow like bushes. Between the swamps and the high hills in the middle of the valley stands Leiba's lonely rest-house as brave as a fortification. Despite the wet land the walls are dry as powder.

At sound of Sura's voice he gets up painfully and stretches his legs cramped with fever. He looks long toward the East. There is no sign of the stage.

“It isn't coming. You just thought so,” he replied to the woman and sank down again.

Exhausted, he crosses his arms upon the table, and his head drops down upon them. Relaxation steals over his weary nerves, and his mind wanders in the strange visions of illness.

George—Easter eve—criminals—Jassy—a little safe rest-house in the Market square—a thriving business—health. He falls asleep.

Sura and the child are no longer in the house. Leiba walks to the door of his hotel and surveys the street along which they must come. Life is busy in that great street, along which the carriage wheels spin, accompanied by the rhythmic tread of horses' feet upon shining asphalt.

Suddenly the traffic is held up and from Copou—a suburb of Jassy—a crowd of foot people approach, all gesticulating and hollering. They seem to accompany some one: soldiers, watchmen, spectators. In all the windows and doors are crowds of greedy observers.

“Ah, ha,” thinks Leiba. “Now they have caught a robber!”

The crowd comes nearer. Sura slips out of the crowd and comes up to where Leiba is standing on the rest-house steps.

“What's up, Sura?”

“A madman from Golia [1]escaped.”

“Let's close up so he can't attack us.”

“Oh, they've bound him. But before they did it, he beat the soldiers. The bad tempered Christians shoved a Jew out of the crowd, and the madman bit him on the cheek.”

From the front steps Leiba has a fine vantage point from which to see. On the step below Sura stands holding the baby.

There he goes—the madman whom two soldiers are trying to hold. His arms are bound by strong ropes. The man has the body of a giant. His head is just like a bull's; black, thick-curled. Hair covers his face—dark, in disorder. What a mass of hair covers his head! He is bare-footed; he keeps spitting blood and the hair he bit from the cheek of the Jew. Now the crowd pauses. What is the trouble?

The soldiers free the madman. The people step aside and make an open space about him. The madman pauses and sweeps the circle with his eyes, which at length pause by Zibal's door. He gnashes his teeth, then darts for the steps. In the space of a second he seizes the head of the baby with his right hand and the head of Sura with his left, dashes them together and they split open like egg shells.

When the two heads smash together there is a noise like the thunder.

With agony of soul, like a man plunged from a high cliff, Leiba calls: “A world stands by and looks on calmly while we are made the sacrifice of a madman!”

But somehow he cannot say the words; they stick to his lips.

Up—Jew!” a voice calls, and a great whip strikes upon the table.

“That's a stupid joke!” remarks Sura from the door-step of the rest-house. “The idea of startling a man out of sleep like that: miserable peasant-dog!”

Leiba jumped up.

“You're afraid, are you, Jew?” a scornful jester asks.

“Sleeping in broad daylight?—Get up—guests are coming. The stage is here.”

And after the old custom—which sets the Jews in agony—he put his arms around him and began to tickle him.

“Let me alone,” he cried, trying to wiggle away. “Don't you see I'm sick? Let me alone!”

At length the stage comes, after almost three hours delay. There are two travelers who sit down together at one table. From the conversation of the travelers he learns the following facts. At the last post station, there was a murder committed the night before in a rest-house run by a Jew. The post horses were always changed here. But the robbers stole the horses and escaped to another village, and until other horses could be procured, the travelers were forced to observe the scene of the crime.

If the house had not been robbed one would have thought it an act of revenge or religious fanaticism. In stories told about certain religious sects, there were just such crimes. Even in the fever that was consuming him, Leiba began to shiver.

Then followed something that evidently filled the conductor of the stage with deep respect.

The passengers were two students—one of philosophy and one of medicine. Between the students now arose a debate. Atavism—alcoholism and its pathological results. Theories of heredity—mistakes of training and education—neurosis! All the discoveries of modern science. But first—reversion to type—Darwin—Haeckel—Lombroso— Between Darwin and Lombroso the enthusiastic guests had found time to sip a little of Schopenhauer, too,—“toward Heaven and toward the light!

Zibal was a long way from comprehending these enlightened theories. Perhaps for the first time exalted words like these vibrated upon the feverish swamp-air of Podeni.

But one thing Leiba had understood better than all the rest, and that was “reversion to type”—that was an exact description of George. This picture, which he had only visioned dimly, now blazed out in his mind with the vividness of reality. He saw it in its most unessential details.

The stage was far away now. Leiba watched it out of sight until it turned around a corner of the mountains. The sun had just dipped behind one of the black peaks and evening began to veil with its shadows the lonely valley of Podeni. Restless and unhappy he drops down upon the chair again and turns over in his mind all that he has heard.

In the lonely night, in the darkness, a man, two women and two children were snatched from sleep and murdered. The shrieks of the children which brutal blows silence, when they slit their bellies open—and then the last one to die, who had to sit in a corner and watch all that happened—until his own turn came. It was worse than an execution, and there is no hope for a Jew when he falls into the hands of the Christians.

The feverish lips of Leiba follow all these thoughts mechanically. Shivers run down his back; with trembling step he walks along the passageway in the rest-house.

“Without doubt,” thinks Sura—“Leiba is bad. He's ill. He has queer thoughts in his head.”

How else could she explain the peculiarities of the past few days?

He closed the rest-house and lighted the candles just as Shabbes was drawing to a close. Three times guests knocked on the doors and friendly voices asked admittance. At every knock he jumped up and kept his wife from opening the door, while he whispered, his eyes rolling with terror: “Don't move—I won't let a Christian in tonight.”

Then he went into the passageway and began to sharpen the ax on the threshold. He trembled so he could with difficulty keep to his feet. He answered his wife harshly and at length sent her to bed, with command to put out the light. At first she refused but he repeated the command so strangely that she did not dare disobey, but she made up her mind that later she would find out the cause.

Sura had put out the lamp and now she was sleeping beside Strul.

Sura was right; Leiba is seriously ill.

It is night now—black night. Leiba sits beside the step that leads to the passageway and listens—What is he listening to?

Far, far in the distance there is an indistinguishable sound like horses' feet—a dull mysterious murmur as of conversation. When night makes the eye useless then the ear takes upon itself increased distinguishing power.

There's no mistake about it now. Upon the road that leads from the highway here is heard the beat of horses' hoofs. Zibal gets up and tiptoes to the great door of the passageway. It is well protected by a bar shoved into the masonry on both sides. At the first step sand creaks under his shoes. He takes off his shoes and walks in his stockings. He reaches the door just at the moment the horsemen go by. They are talking. He catches the following words:

“He got up early.”

“But what if he had gone away?”

“Then his turn will come another time. I could have wished—”

He hears no more. The men are too far away now. Of whom were they talking? Who had gone to bed or ridden away? Whose turn will come another time? Who was it who wished it had been different? And what were they after on this lonely side-road, which was used only by people who come to the rest-house?

An oppressive weight burdened his head.

Could it be George?

Leiba felt his strength giving way and dropped down on the threshold. In the confusion of his head he could not hit upon a clear thought. Without knowing what he did he turned back and lighted a little lamp.

It was only a ghost of light, the wick was so nearly burned. It gave off very dim, vertical rays that were scarcely visible. But it was sufficient for him to observe the well known corners and see what was there. Ah! there was much less difference between the sun and this pitiful little lamp, than between this and pitch darkness.

The clock ticked loudly. The sound hurt Zibal. He seized the pendulum and stopped it.

His mouth was dry. He suffered from thirst. He washed a glass in the wooden trough by the serving counter and tried to pour out some brandy. But the bottle clinked against the glass. These sounds hurt his head so he had to give it up.

He let the glass sink softly in the trough of water and tried to drink from the bottle. Then he put the bottle in its place with a noise that jarred him. He became breathless with terror. He picked up the lamp and placed it upon the projection of a window edge in the passageway; upon the door, the ceiling, and the opposite wall, it threw feeble, vertical lines scarcely bright enough to be seen.

Again Zibal sat down upon the threshold and listened.

Easter bells were pealing from the church upon the heights. It was the signal of the resurrection of the Christ. Midnight then was long past. Day was not so far away. Oh, if the remainder of this night of horror would only slip away.

A crunching of sand under feet! He is in his stockings and has not moved. The sound is repeated,—again—again. Someone is outside—near. He stands up, grabs his chest convulsively. He tries to swallow the bunch in his throat. Men are outside.—George!

Yes, it is he. The bells have rung out the hour of the resurrection!

They are talking softly—the men.

But I tell you that he is asleep! I saw him put the light out!”

“All the better—we'll clean the place out then.”

“I can open the door. I know just how it works. We'll break one of the little windows in. The bolt is near it—”

Then one heard fingers groping in the darkness—and making measurements. An auger is thrust into the dry oak of the old door and begins to turn. Zibal has to lean against the wall for support; with the left hand he supports himself upon the door, while the right covers his eyes.

Then because of the peculiar working of the brain the ear of Zibal heard distinctly these words: "Leiba, the stage is coming!"

It was Sura's voice. A beam of hope touched him—a moment of happiness. Leiba draws his left hand back. The point of the auger has come through, it has pierced his hand.

Could he save himself—? Ridiculous thought! In his burning brain that whirling auger he was watching took on startling dimensions. It whirled around and around, and the opening was growing larger and larger. What passed through that brain then transcends the power of human expression. Life had leaped to heights of exaltation from whose vantage point of vision, chaotic complications were displayed.

Outside the work went on methodically. Leiba had watched the auger penetrate in four different places.

“Now hand me the saw,” commanded George.

A slender saw was slipped through the opening and began swiftly to unite the four symmetrical holes made by the auger. Now their plan was clear. Four holes; four corners—to be united by four lines. When this was done the square of wood would fall out, and an opening be made. Through this opening a hand would enter, reach for the bolt and unbar the door—and the Christians would enter Leiba's house.

Then Zibal and all his family would be martyrs. Two of the vagabonds would hold upon the floor their bodies, while George would put his foot upon their bellies, and then turn that auger around and around in their breasts.

The sweat of death bathed the body of Zibal; his limbs gave way and he drops upon the floor.

With wide foolish eyes he stares at that timid light by the window. Then he laughed and said with a look that resembled that of a beast: “Soon the saw will hit the other hole!”

Then something astonishing happened. A change took place. The shaking of his body stopped. The weakness vanished. Something that resembled merriment slipped across his face.

He got up with the swiftness and security of health. He moved like a man going toward an assured act.

The line between the two highest points of the auger holes was all but sawn. Leiba approached cautiously. Now his laughter was undissembled. He nodded his head.

“I have time!”

The saw snapped off the last wood of the upper line. Now it began its work on the next line.

“There are still three,” thought Leiba, and groped his way carefully to the tavern room. He groped in a drawer, found what he wanted, and hiding it with care, tiptoed back to watch the boring auger. But the work outside had ceased.

“What is the cause? Have they gone?” the questions flashed like lightning through his brain.

Ha—ha—ha!” What a mistake! The work begins anew and he watches it now with pleasure and interest. He was filled with impatience. He wished them to finish it as speedily as possible.

“Quicker!” prayed Leiba. “Quicker!”

Again the Easter bells rang out, high above, in that church on the hill.

“Quicker,” ordered a voice outside. “Day will overtake us.”

At last!

The borer carefully removed the square piece of wood. A huge, sinewy hand is thrust through. Before the hand can shove the bolt, a noose of rope encircles the wrist, is drawn tight, and then fastened to a block of wood near the door.

In a trice the operation was over. Two shrieks accompany it, one of pain and one of triumph. The hand was just as if it had been cut off.

Steps hastily running away are heard. The accomplices of George were deserting him.

The Jew went again to the tavern room, took up the lamp, cut off the burned wick, turned it up high and refreshed it. Now it gave forth light merrily and victoriously, and all objects in the room could be seen plainly.

Zibal bore the lamp to the passageway. The vagabond was suffering. It was evident that he had given up resistance. The hand was swelling and the fingers were cramped. The Jew came nearer with the lamp. Fear assailed him; the fever came back. Trembling he brought the lamp so near the hand that he burned it, the fingers shook, there was a howl of pain—

At sight of the swollen hand, Zibal jumped; a wild, eccentric light shone from his eyes. He began to laugh aloud, so that the hollow passageway resounded.

Day was coming.

Sura awoke. She had dreamed she heard a cry. Leiba was not in the room. The events of the day before passed through her mind. Something had happened. She jumped up and made a light. Leiba's bed had not been slept on. He had not even lain down.

Where was he? She looked though the window. Far away upon the hills, she saw the bright twinkling of little lights moving on and on. Here they disappeared; then they came back again. People were coming from the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Sura opened the window a little; she heard a sound of groaning. Frightened, she slipped softly down the little stairs. There was light everywhere. When she reached the threshold the sight amazed her.

Upon a high stool, his elbows upon his knees, his chin in his hands, sat Zibal. The eyes of Zibal were riveted upon a black and shapeless object, beneath which a light burned brightly.

Without a quiver of an eyelid, he watched the destruction of the hand—the hand which would not have spared him.

He did not even hear the howls of the sufferer outside. What he looked at was so horrible he could hear nothing. He had watched with unblinking eyes, every quiver, every cramped contraction until the power of motion within it had ceased.

It was over now.

Sura shrieked.

“Leiba!”

Zibal made a sign that she was not to disturb him.

The smell of burning flesh was spreading through the corridor.

Leiba!—what is it?”

Day had come. Sura shoved the bolt. The door freed from its holding, slid against the body of George, who hung there with one arm. Village people, with burning Easter candles in their hands rushed in.

“What is it? What is it?”

Then they understood what had happened.

Zibal, who had not moved before, got down from his high stool heavily. He shoved the people aside and walked toward the door.

“What's up, Jew?” some one questioned.

“Leiba Zibal” declared the innkeeper solemnly, and with a lofty gesture, “Leiba Zibal is going to Jassy to tell the Rabbi that he is no longer a Jew—Leiba Zibal is a Christian—because, in honor of the Christ, Leiba Zibal burned candles—at the Easter!” And he walked away meditatively toward the hills—toward the East. He walked slowly like an experienced wanderer who knows that one must not begin a long journey with hasty steps.

 
  1. Golia—insane asylum in Jassy.