Short Stories from the Balkans/Fiddlers Three

2835810Short Stories from the Balkans — Fiddlers ThreeEdna Worthley UnderwoodKálmán Mikszáth


THREE Bohemian fiddlers were traveling through the country; fat Zahrada, goat-bearded Safranyik, and tall Zajczek. They had a quite remarkable adventure.

One fine summer evening the three tramp fiddlers came from Altsol over here, and while they were trudging along through the Lopata Forest toward the valley, a thick fog overtook them, and it became dark as night, so they were unable to follow the highway.

They thought they could not be far away from Crizsnócz, perhaps the distance of two gunshots, but they could not be sure of that course, for no light was to be seen through the darkness. On the side of the way where we now are, trees, barns, and storehouses shut out view of the dwelling houses of Crizsnócz, and not one of them had ever been in this locality before.

“I’m as hungry as a dog, friends. We must reach the village soon—and yet, of course, I can’t tell. It may be a long time. I think we better unhitch the horses here where we are and rest a bit.”

Safranyik shared this opinion: “Right. Today the Smith won’t be hammering.” Safranyik meant by this the moon, in which there is a picture of a smith hammering at his forge.

They agreed and stopped their journey. The poor devils were trudging along perhaps the very piece of road where we now are. They unhitched their horses, which means in their speech, that they pulled off their boots. Each arranged his pack for a pillow, placed the fiddle beside him, and then stretched out upon the ground, where the second crop of hay had just been cut. No king goes to sleep in a more fragrant chamber than they.

Scarcely had they closed their eyes, or perhaps they had not closed them yet at all, because if they had they couldn't have seen, when they observed—at just a short distance from them—a long row of lighted windows.

Safranyik was the first to take notice of this: “Quick—Zahrada, Zajczek! There’s a lighted castle right under our nose. Up—Zahrada! Up Zajczek! I feel an itch that tells me we’ll get good food and drink there.”

They were all three hungry. It is not necessary to make any remark about their being thirsty. They jumped up, picked up the fiddles, and set out for the castle.

It was a large and splendid castle. Across the façade were thirteen lighted windows, and they glowed mightily through the night. And within—what life—what revelry! Twenty cooks were running hither and thither in the great kitchen. Some were turning huge spits and seasoning sauces; another was cooking fritters; the third peeling potatoes. One was grinding poppies in a mortar, another drawing foaming beer whose fragrance all but made the fiddlers dumb. The scent of the mown aftermath upon which they fell asleep was sweet in the fields, but this fragrance of a foaming brew was quite different.

And within the great drawing rooms! Men and women of nobility, in festal attire were sitting in front of the roasted meats and red gleaming wines. They heard the drinking glasses ring at touch, laughter and repartee echoed from the resplendent walls of marble which were lovelier than those of Count Waldstein in Golden Prague.

What joy, what surprise and animation, when the guests looked up and saw the three fiddlers. A pock-marked, red haired man in a long dolman fastened with huge silver buttons jumped up, making the spurs upon his boots to ring. He drank gayly to their health, swinging his glass toward them.

“Hello—fellows! Just in the nick of time. Out with your fiddles!”

They did not wait to be asked the second time. And from the old strings, they lured all the enchanting melodies of Hungary, which they had learned upon its lonely highways. Young men jumped up from the banquet, and stately matrons, and charming maids, bearded old men, and stripling youths who were not bearded, began to dance and beat time, so that it was something amazing to see. The heels of their new boots rattled; trained, silken gowns twisted and hissed like serpents, and the marble floor groaned with dancing feet.

A little round, red-cheeked woman of some thirty years, who wore a lofty, powdered, 18th century coiffure, covered with a coquettish, jeweled butterfly cap, and a gown of sky blue satin, danced up to Zahrada. She placed one tiny hand upon her hip, with the other waved her handkerchief of lace, fluttering it languidly beside her ear, and then danced the Czarda with fire and passion. She stamped and stamped with fury, with her little feet and called to him:

Yuchkay—Yuchkay—for never die will we!

Sometimes in her uncontrolled emotion she pulled some stately nobleman from his chair, and made him dance a measure with her, in a manner that was good to see. Look now! Look! the fat, ivory bald priest she is pulling away from the wine!

“Come, come, my reverend father! Your feet are rested. You can dance.”

The reverend father leaped to the floor, but he was obliged to confess that he knew only the grotesque Slav dance—Podza bucski! Now it chanced that Zajczek was a master of this. Then the fiddles sang shrill their Slovak song, and the reverend gentleman leaped about with zeal in this most foolish dance, leaped and swung his legs till the great gold chain about his neck jingled and jingled—

“A fine fellow—the priest,“ whirled the whisper about. “How did he ever conceal all this fun that’s in him!”

To the song of the fiddlers the guests from all the other rooms came running in, and the dancing crowd grew larger and larger—and always the merriment rose higher. Two from another room, one in a light dolman the other in an elegant laced coat of fur—and in this heat—(and they were old, too, over seventy) joined the young dancers and laughed and leaped and rattled their silver spurs.

One pretty girl (she was blond and she wore a crown of fresh flowers on her hair, and huge golden earrings in ears that were very white) lost the lappet from her shoe.

“Who made these shoes?”


“Where is Prakovsky? Wait you bungler! Bring Prakovsky here. He shall be covered with plaster.”

Ten people started to bring Prakovsky. They said that he was playing durak in the third drawing room, with Father Krudz and a lawyer.

In the meantime they kept right on brewing and cooking in the kitchen. Prettily dressed, flirtatious peasant girls in high Spanish leather boots and gay kerchiefs, brought in platters and drinks. By the banquet table, which extended from one end of the long room to the other, beside which the three fiddlers were playing—the feasting guests drifted to and fro, and every once in a while resounded the words of an eloquent toast. Of this toast, the fat Zahrada—who had learned to speak a little while tramping over Hungary—understood a few words.

Now a pale, thin young man, who had a large wart between his eyes, got up, lifted his glass and drank a toast to the distinguished, nobly born Martin Folkinházy, and praised all his children and his children’s children. Zahrada meditated:

“That man with the big wart must be an ass. It’s only safe to praise one’s ancestors—they are the only ones one can be proud of in Hungary.”

Now he began to praise their great, great grand children, closing with the brilliant prophecy:

“I hope the Almighty will be good enough to let them die sooner or later.”

The man at end of the table, deeply affected, nodded his head, and the whole company touched glasses, whereupon he jumped to his feet and bowed and offered his arm to an old lady, who wore white powdered hair, a violet silk dress, led her to Safranyik, and bent and whispered something in his ear. Safranyik declared that they both smelled of the grave. Hereupon Safranyik signalled his two companions, and they began to play a minuet of long ago.

The two ancient figures began to hop about, then to walk with dignity, to bow and make regal reverences, and to dream lovingly of the past. That was something ridiculous, and at the same time elegant and distinguished. Long ostrich feathers trembled and coquetted upon the lofty headdress of the old woman, while the old man carried his hat under his arm, and his thin, wiry little body, bent and waved with the lightness and grace of a sparrow that poises itself for flight. Once, the old, old lady dropped her golden, glittering fan. Zahrada jumped and picked it up and tried to offer it to her, but just then the old lady made a courtly gesture with her hand and chirruped like a little bird (she did not have a single tooth in her mouth!): “Be so kind, sir, as to keep it a little while.”

Then they floated on again in the gayety of the dance—God knows—alone—where. Zahrada kept the fan, but no one came to fetch it. The young woman who wore the butterfly cap was so overcome by the fiery dance, that she took off the jeweled cap and put it on the head of tall Zajczek. But his head was so little, that it hung as if on a broom stick. Naturally everyone began to laugh—and the orgy grew wilder and more unrestrained.

For a moment the dancing was interrupted. A fat old man whose coat was fastened with garnet buttons, exclaimed: “What manners—the fiddlers three have not been asked to eat or drink!” Then began such running this way and that. The peasant girls in the red morocco shoes brought in a little table, and loaded it with food. Potted hare, roast sucking pig, cakes, tarts, pastries of Crizsnócz, and brandy from Rigy.

The three Bohemians hung their fiddles on the wall, sat up and began the feast—How good it tasted! If it only did not have such a scent of the dead about it! It must have been very late. The candles were all but burned down, and the pale wind of dawn made them flutter and tremble like ghosts. The noblemen and women were still talking and laughing in the glowing marble rooms.

One little man of smoothly shaven face, who wore glasses, took out his snuff box, and circled the resplendent room, offering a pinch to everyone, and saying in the most sympathetic voice: “How do you feel tonight?”

“Good, Doctor! Most excellently, Doctor!”

The little man with the glasses rubbed his hands:

“We have you to thank that we are here—” and then he began to beat his breast.

It was all so enchanting to look upon, so merry—Zahrada could not look enough to satisfy himself—at the slender little lady. He poked Safranyik in the ribs with his elbow: “Which one of all these would you choose?”

Safranyik pointed to a mischievous, laughing brunette who stood beside a mirror. The teasing beauty understood the lustful glances of Safranyik, perhaps she heard what he said, and she twinkled her eyes at him, so that he trembled just as if he had the fever. Bold Zajczek had a still more remarkable experience with one of the peasant girls. He tried to pinch her, but something hurt him so that he shrieked and began to drink to calm himself. Zahrada drank, too. But Safranyik drank more than anyone else, and all the time he held on tightly to the golden, jeweled fan that belonged to the little old lady. (The old lady might, of course, ask for it at any time!) The fiddlers three at length began to be sleepy—Now dimly, as if only with one ear—did they listen to the wild revelry in the marble halls, and at length sleep fell upon them, and so heavily, that as far as they were concerned, the world could come to an end.

When at length they awoke and rubbed their eyes it was morning. The golden disk of the sun was just lifting itself above the bare summit of Mount Málnád.

They look about upon their surroundings. They were in the old forgotten graveyard of Crizsnócz, and the three fiddles were hanging upon the grave stones. Beside Safranyik’s head, lay a human skull, instead of the jeweled butterfly cap which the merry little gentlewoman had pulled over his head. Zahrada held in one hand the bone of an arm.

Terrified, their teeth chattering, they got to their feet and ran to the village, where they related their adventure of the night. In the relation, the village dwellers recognized their long buried ancestors. Even the descriptions of the clothes in which they had been buried were correct.

This caused great excitement and incredulity, but just on that account it was believed (because three such honorable people related it)! And the three fiddlers were wined and dined, and for the entire winter they remained in Criznócz, and went from banquet to banquet, telling the people of the gay life of their buried fathers.

And each time they told the story, it had increased in size and become more important. Sometimes Zahrada, sometimes Safranyik, thought of something new which they tacked on to it, something which it was necessary that the living nobility learn about their ancestors, and the feasts in their honor grew more elaborate and costly.

At last the affair reached the ears of the honorable Samuel Szirotka, an ancestor of our present pastor, and he summoned the people together and sharply told them what is what.

“Blessed brothers in Christ! In this community I, alone, am paid to talk to you about what happens on the other side of the grave. And I say to the others who are taking my duty upon their shoulders to go to the devil and get out—if they do not they will be sorry.”

And thus the three fiddlers were driven away—but the story still remains—and the strange thing about it is that it keeps growing and growing.