SHE was as old as the hills—at least so said those of her village: as old as the hills! though I do not think anybody really knew how old the hills were.
Anyhow she was old, very old, and tiny and wrinkled like a last year's apple, and she had only one tooth in her head.
She lived just outside the village in a little mud-hut on the hill-side, a quite crooked little hut with a big maize-thatched roof like a lid, but a lid which never really fitted its box.
Of course she was a witch, you have guessed that I am sure—how could she be anything but a witch if she was as old as the hills, and bent nearly double, with a face wrinkled like a last year's apple, and with only one tooth in her head?
But that was not all. . . .
She actually lived all alone with a rusty old raven who had only one eye. He was a horrid old bird, he looked sly and wise and very disagreeable, but old Baba Alba1 seemed to like him.
There was also a little green lizard who lived in a crack of the wall above her bed. I do not think there was anything particular to say against the lizard, but then people do not generally live with lizards, do they? So this was certainly another proof that Baba Alba was a witch. . . .
She was very poor—dreadfully poor, her hut was but a hovel, her bed but a heap of rags, but all the same, Baba Alba was possessor of one treasure, and a strange treasure it was for an old witch to possess—a bell!
Yes, of all things, a bell! A large bronze bell, hung on a pole which had been fixed between two trees. Who fixed it there, no one ever knew; it had always been there, as old Baba Alba had also always been there, which proves how old, very old, both of them were.
The rusty old raven would sit upon the pole above the bell, head cocked on one side, looking wise and cross and sad.
The bell was a very beautiful bell. It was so mildewed that it was almost turquoise blue, a lovely colour! On one side a cross had been cast upon it, and on the other, three arrows sticking into a heart; there was also an inscription upon it, but no one had ever deciphered the inscription—the villagers believed that even Baba Alba herself had no idea of what was inscribed on the bell. This may have been so, but I do not know, for Baba Alba was not at all communicative about her own affairs.
Naturally all the children of the village were irresistibly attracted to the old witch's hut, but they were also afraid of it, this greatly adding to its attraction!
Once a day, old Baba Alba would limp off into the forest to fetch wood for her fire; she also fetched mushrooms and berries and other things . . . at least so goes the tale. . . .
Baba Alba always left the crooked little gate in the thorn hedge, which enclosed her meagre piece of ground, open when she was away; of course that would have made it very easy to explore her dwelling or give a pull to the shabby cord attached to the bell, but no child ever dared enter the witch's enclosure, however great their desire might be.
The curious thing was that, also in winter, through mud or snow, the old woman would make her excursions into the forest, but except wood for her fire, I really do not know what she could find there in winter . . . and it must have been hard walking for such a very old body.
Sometimes the children would call after her, or throw stones at her, or hard pieces of earth; they would also sing teasing little songs, but when the old woman turned round, threatening them with her crooked stick, they would scurry off like little cowards and hide behind the bushes or projecting rocks. This was the sort of song they sang at old Baba Alba:
Or this one:
They also sang much uglier songs, which I am not going to repeat, because no nice little children ever ought to sing such songs; but little children, alas! are not always nice! Nor are little piggies, nor crocodiles, although they do not sing.
Sometimes Baba Alba did not raise her stick at all, but only looked at them with her red-rimmed eyes—and then the children slunk away home with a strange feeling of shame, and as they passed the old woman's little hut, it would seem to them that they heard the raven hooting at them with hoarse, croaking voice.
Exactly in what manner Baba Alba used her witchcraft could never be quite explained; but when a pig suddenly died in the village, when old Father Nicu broke his leg, when the tapers in front of the Virgin's image suddenly went out, all twelve of them at one go! when neighbour Anna's house burnt down, and when there was an eclipse of the sun, or when the hail destroyed Widow Zoe's maize—of course it was Baba Alba's fault.
Even if you do not like to believe all this, you will have to admit that when Popa2 Dionisie's cow had a calf with two heads, no one could be held responsible for it but Baba Alba, and her raven, and her bell, and perhaps also the little green lizard, who lived in the wall above her bed.
There was only one person in the village, and that was Vasile, who did not believe that Baba Alba was a witch—but he was of no importance at all, he was but a motherless, fatherless orphan, whom no one claimed and who lived by public charity.
Popa Dionisie used him for guarding his pigs, and allowed him to sleep in the wood-shed, and share the "mamaliga"3 which his old wife cooked. Popa Dionisie's wife was deaf, so she had never really understood who Vasile was, but she liked his eyes, which were round and bright, like blue stars, fringed by pitch-black lashes; this made them look still bluer, especially as his face was very pale and his hair very dark.
Vasile knew a few things about Baba Alba that nobody else knew and this was because he was not afraid of her at all. I will even tell you, but quite as a secret! that sometimes he used to go to her at night. . . .
Yes! I am sure about what I am saying, because the old moon told me, and it was she who discovered all about it. . . .
I have quite forgotten to say that the villagers had never heard the sound of Baba Alba's bell—she never rang it; it was even believed that it had no tongue.
There was also something else very strange about that bell, but this only Vasile knew, because he had been up at the old woman's hut at late hours. . . .
On certain nights, Baba Alba's bell would radiate a faint blue light. Oh! such a lovely soft light, phosphorescent as the trail ships sometimes leave on the ocean when they pass.
Baba Alba would sit out amidst the dew which sparkled all around her like many tears, and watch the bell like a star-gazer, and all the while she would mumble to herself words which seemed to have no sense.
The light from the bell would fall on her old head, and make it look all frosty; it also imparted a strange radiance to her rags, till they looked almost silvery.
The moon told me this, and Vasile saw it also!
One day Vasile, drawn by some power he could not resist, entered the witch's enclosure, and came and sat down beside her amongst the dewdrops. Above their heads, a stain against the sky, darker than the night, sat the old raven with ruffled plumes. The moonlight made his one eye shine like a bead.
Old Baba Alba did not scowl at the orphan, but neither did she give him any word of encouragement; she simply sat there staring at her bell, and mumbling her incantations.
"Do you never ring your bell?" whispered the boy.
"No," said the witch.
"Why?" asked the boy.
"I must not," answered the queer old being.
"Must not?" The boy's voice was full of enquiry.
"No," said the old woman again. And that night Vasile did not ask any more questions.
"But it's strange that she never rings the bell," said Vasile to himself next day, as he sat out on the hill-side guarding the old priest's pigs.
He sat up amongst the autumn crocuses, that grew all over the hillside, like hundreds and thousands of pale mauve fairy-cups. Vasile had a little switch in his hand, and sometimes when he was not thinking, he would lash at one of the delicate flowers and break its neck; then he was sorry, because he hated to see things die. . . .
All the woods were ablaze with their autumn colours—the sun was shining on them, and they were very beautiful. Vasile raised his hand to protect his eyes from the glare—but he was not looking at the golden forests, nor at the ruby-red cherry trees, nor at the wondrous poplar which grew up straight and tall before him, its leaves all a-tremble with yellow light, its white trunk standing out like ivory against the incredibly blue sky—he was thinking about Baba Alba's bell. . . .
"I am sure it must have a beautiful voice," thought Vasile, "but I do wonder why she lets it be dumb?"
A less dreamy child, a more adventurous one, would no doubt have conceived a plan to ring the mysterious bell, but this idea never came to Vasile—somehow it would have seemed like a sacrilege; all the same, Vasile had a sort of feeling that one day he would hear its voice.
Down below in the village, the bridge over the little brook had broken in two, just at the moment when Ioan Sirbu's cart was crossing it! The cart had been piled up with huge orange pumpkins, and all the pumpkins rolled into the water. There had also been potatoes at the bottom of the cart, and they had scampered all about the place as though they had been alive, and this of course was old Baba Alba's fault. At that moment, as it happened, she was up in the forest gathering fat mushrooms with grey, velvety heads and bulky stems. Her ragged apron was quite full of them and all around her the red berries on the bushes glowed like fairy-rubies—how she managed to make the bridge break down in the village I really do not know, but she did! everybody said so, though the bridge was very old and shaky and Ioan Sirbu's cart very heavy.
The lumpy pumpkins lay about in the water like small orange rocks, the fussy little stream wanted to roll them down to the river but they were too heavy, the sun shone down upon them, and seemed to laugh at Ioan Sirbu, who was scratching his head in bewilderment, swearing at his patient oxen and asking the saints in heaven and the devils in hell why such a disaster should happen just to his cart.—All the neighbours flocked together and after much talk made it clear to him that it was Baba Alba's fault—so Ioan Sirbu began cursing the old witch instead of his oxen, rather relieved, though, that he owed his disaster neither to the saints nor to the devil. . . .
But what was Baba Alba searching for in the forest? She did not need any more mushrooms, her apron was quite full of them, yet she was standing there, shading her eyes with her shaky hands—it was more as though she were waiting for somebody—but who could Baba Alba be waiting for?
Twit, twit, chirped a little robin, hopping on to a twig. Twit! Twit! He was asking the old witch-woman who she was waiting for. The animals of the forest were not afraid of Baba Alba.
"I have not seen him for thirty years," said Baba Alba.
"Who?" asked the little robin. The old woman did not answer, but turned and limped away.
"Who, who?" called the little robin after her, and a bullfinch who was not far off also called out, "Who, who?" An impertinent little squirrel, almost orange in colour, ran up to the top of a fir tree, and called at the top of his voice, "Who, who?" though he had no idea at all what it was all about.
On reaching her hut old Baba Alba let her bundle of dry sticks slip off her back on to the ground, and emptying her apron of its mushrooms on to the bank of hard-beaten earth in front of her hovel, sat down next to them, wiping the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Thirty years, thirty years," she continued to mumble, "and every day I go up into the forest to see if he is not coming along the mountain track." She looked awfully old and forsaken as she sat there all alone amongst her mushrooms and dry sticks.
The old raven with a hoarse croak flew suddenly down from his perch, flop! straight on to her shoulder, and the little green lizard, guessing her return, came gliding out of the hut with quick, nervous movements, just to see if all was well, for these were her only companions!
Oh! of course she must really have been a witch or she would have chosen other companions! Or do you think they had chosen her?
It was such a beautiful evening, and the sun, in going down, made the shabby maize-roof shine like gold; the lizard's green coat glittered, it might have been real enamel. But all that light only made old Baba Alba and her raven look still uglier and older and sadder; truly the moon suited them better. . . .
Well, it just happened to be full moon that night! And it was the moon who told me what Vasile heard, because Vasile, the moment he had driven Popa Dionisie's pigs home into their courtyard, had stolen up to the witch's dwelling. He had arrived in time to help the old woman light her fire. This he had done more than once. As he was a sad, lonely little boy, he liked to come and help the sad, lonely old woman; she hardly ever talked to him at all—but he could not really believe that she was a witch.
But once she had suddenly looked at him, and had murmured quite unexpectedly: "He also had blue eyes!"
But again he received no answer, and as he was not a very inquisitive little boy, and accustomed to be silent, he did not enquire any further.
He was very fond of the little green lizard, and as Vasile could whistle beautifully, the lizard was also very fond of him, for lizards love music. The moment it heard Vasile it would poke its head out of its hole and then come zigzagging down the cracked wall, with rapid little runs. Vasile was less fond of the raven, and rather wished he had not been there; he certainly gave a witchy look to the place.
"Do you really brew philtres and poisons?" asked Vasile, "and can you make the dead get up out of their graves, and the comet turn away from her trail?"
"Is that what they say about me?" enquired the old creature.
"Yes, and that at St. Dumitru you make the apples, which the peasants are carrying as offerings to the church, dance out of their hands and jump into your cooking-pot!"
"And what else?" asked the old woman.
"That you have a treasure hidden away under your ' vatra,'4 from the time of the great Trajan—that it is cursed gold."
"Do you want some of my treasure?" asked the witch.
"What could I do with gold?" enquired Vasile.
"Well, generally people want gold," declared Alba.
"Have you got a treasure under your 'vatra'?" insisted the boy.
"No"; the old woman shook her head.
"And is your raven the devil's first-cousin?"
Again the old woman shook her head.
She was so very, very bent, that she seldom looked at you, in fact she could hardly lift her head, but now she tried to do so, and Vasile imagined that she was actually smiling.
"My poor old raven!" was all she said.
Now it was quite dark and the fire in the "vatra" threw a red glow over Vasile, who had a little dish on his lap—he was peeling the old woman's mushrooms.
"There was a time," said the old woman, "when I did not live with a raven."
"Who did you live with, then?" asked Vasile.
"The moon is rising," said Baba Alba, ignoring the boy's question. "I must go out to my bell."
She did not invite Vasile to go with her, but she knew that he would follow her. The little green lizard scurried back into its hole, but the old raven flew up upon the pole over the bell, which was his usual place.
But now I shall let the moon tell you what she saw, . . .
"Old Baba Alba," said the moon, "always comes out on nights when I am full—even when it is winter, the cold does not seem to disturb her much.
"I think she is always waiting for someone, in fact I know she is—but on this particular night I learnt for whom it was that she was waiting, because all of a sudden she told it to Vasile. I think she had become fond of Vasile—she too, like Popa Dionisie's old wife, loved his eyes. The Popa's old wife had had once, a very long time ago, a little boy of her own and his eyes had resembled Vasile's eyes—but whom did Vasile's eyes remind Baba Alba of, that is what I wanted to know!
"Well, I was at my brightest, and the night was still, and rather chilly, because it was October. I was flooding the world with silver. Against the sky the mountains looked very black, but the river in the valley beneath us gleamed like a dream-vision. The bell was sending forth its fairy blue light, the old woman staring up at it in that rapt, trance-like way that was hers.
"Little Vasile sat beside her, and I could look straight into his eyes. Really they were wonderful! No lake could have been deeper or more mysterious. . . .
"Are you expecting something of that bell?" asked the orphan suddenly out of the silence.
"Yes, I am," assented the witch.
"What?" asked the boy.
"That it should sound," said the woman.
"But if it has a tongue it cannot be so difficult to make it sound," observed the child.
"It must sound all by itself," declared the queer old body.
"Why?" asked the boy again.
"Because then a soul will have been delivered, and a heart will have been washed of its sin," answered solemnly the witch.
"What heart?" enquired the boy in an awed whisper.
"The heart of my son!"
Though Vasile was little given to showing any astonishment, this announcement all the same made him start, it seemed so very astonishing that this creature who was old as the hills should have a son!
"Where is he?" murmured the boy.
For a moment the old, old woman did not answer, silence had become the law of her being, words came to her like pain. The old and lonely find it hard to speak, but lifting with difficulty her trembling head, she stared into the small boy's eyes—then it was as though some ice which had long bound her tired heart suddenly melted, and hiding her withered old face in her hands, she broke into hoarse and terrible sobs.
"Vasile was frightened, and I found it difficult to keep my light quite steady—for Baba Alba, Baba Alba, was she not a witch! And how could a witch be overcome by human grief!
"Yes, her sobs were terrible, like a hurricane over a dried land—one felt that tears could not come to soften their agony.
"'He had blue eyes like yours,' murmured the torn old soul at last, 'and he was the only one I had, but I was so poor I could give him no joy—and he became a bad boy and afterwards a bad man . . . and he . . . killed . . .' Here the old woman paused, and the uncanny raven suddenly cawed, which gave Vasile a terrible start. That old bird was really horrid!
"'For many a month I kept him hidden away in the forest,' related the woman; 'I brought him food in secret places—but one day he was gone . . ' another long pause.
"Vasile was staring up at the old woman; a breeze passed through the trees, making the dead leaves whisper together, as though they too were marvelling over old Baba Alba's tale.
"'I searched for him, searched for him,' pursued the poor woman at last, 'searched and searched till the bones in my body ached . . . although I was not very old in those days—not so very old. . . . Then I left the place where I had been living and I came here. . . . I could not remain where he had been and was no more."
"'Had he been caught?' whispered the child anxiously.
"'No,' said Baba Alba. 'No!' And again she was silent. The raven shifted his position on the pole above the bell, stretching one wing with his foot, for he was getting stiff.
"'Then the old raven came to live with me,' said Baba Alba, folding her shaking hands in her lap as though to stop their trembling, 'and from the very first I was called "the witch," perhaps because I was silent and shunned all humanity and never went to church . . . but how could I go to church?"
"'You might have gone to pray for your son," suggested Vasile.
"'Yes, I might have done that,' agreed Baba Alba humbly. 'Yes, I might have done that, but I no more believed in God!'
"'Oh!' exclaimed the orphan as though in pain. 'Oh!'
"'Twenty years passed,' resumed the old woman, 'and then suddenly one night . . .' she paused, and I had to open my ears very wide because her voice became but a whisper. Vasile drew as near to her as he dared.
"'One night . . . I heard a strange sound at my door—it was a very dark night, and very windy, there was snow on the ground and my hut was cold. I sat up in my bed, not sure if I was awake or dreaming, then I heard a sound like a bell, muffled—yet distinctly the sound of a bell. . . .
"'All trembling I rose from my pallet of rags and opened the door.
Outside a man was standing, tall and dark and silent; the wind was tossing a black veil about his head. At his feet lay something darker than the night. . . .
"'Men's hearts are of stone,' said a deep voice; 'the world is cold, Mother, let me in . . . ' Then I shrieked aloud 'Tudor!' for indeed it was my son!
"'I drew him into my hovel, shutting the door upon the storm outside, and also upon that dark object which had been laid upon my threshold. Oh! yes, especially upon that! For God forgive me, but I dared not to think upon what my son might have laid before my door. . . .
"'With trembling hands I coaxed a flame back to life on my hearth, but I dared not look into the face of my son, there was something changed about him, something that I could not recognize, something that made my heart beat . . . but then I had not seen him for twenty years . . . and he would not sit down."
"'Had he chains on his hands or on his feet?' asked Vasile in a whisper.
"'No, no!' protested the old woman—'and after a terrible silence all of a sudden he burst out, like a sluice breaking: "Mother, why turnest thou thy face away from mine?" Then for the first time I raised my head to look at him, and lo! he was garbed in the habit of a monk! a long cassock falling to his feet, a dark veil shrouding his head. His face shadowy, terrible, sinister. A wild, unkempt beard covered the lower part of it, and thick, unkempt hair fell from under his veil to his shoulders.
"'But the coarse stuff on his left shoulder was worn through and I could see a deep wound from which the blood was dripping down over his heart. . . . Then I gave a piercing shriek. Somehow I had felt certain that there would be blood about him, somewhere—but I had imagined it on his hands, not on his shoulder! For murderers generally have red hands. . . .
"'He saw that I was looking at his wound and a sort of awful smile came to his lips, but his eyes were fierce and anxious like those of a tracked beast.
"'"I am a monk, Mother," he said, "but I am as yet unforgiven, for I have not confessed my sin—I cannot confess—I will not confess!" And he clenched his hands. I then understood that night still lived in his soul. . . .
"'"My shoulder is bleeding, Mother, because I have carried towards thee, over seven hills and seven dales, a bell . . . a bell which is as heavy as the sin I carry about with me in my heart . . . and the weight of it has worn my flesh away to the bone. . . .
"'"I shall hang up the bell for thee in front of thy hut. Thou must never sound it, Mother! It will sound by itself on the day when I am forgiven . . . but not till that day." Then with an unexpected movement he bent down and kissed my forehead—his lips were icy cold—then I heard the door closing, it was all over . . . and I stood once more before my hearth . . . alone . . . and I had said no word of love to him, and I had not washed his wound!
"'Outside the storm was raging, raging like souls in torment—I was so paralysed with fear that I dared not open the door to look out into the night after him. Perhaps I had been dreaming—but no . . . there on the ground before me was a quite fresh stain of blood. I knelt down . . . as in church, I knelt down and touched that stain with my forehead . . . I cannot say what made me do this—but you see, the blood was of my son's shoulder, and not of his hands . . . and what he had laid down before my threshold was a bell . . . not . . . not . . .' and the old, old woman again hid her face in her hands. . . .
'"Next morning,' she said at length, taking up her tale again, 'I found the bell hanging on the pole between the two trees, as you see it now—the storm had passed away with the darkness, but everywhere there were scarlet stains splashed about on the white, white snow.
"'That was thirty years ago,' added the sad soul. 'I am nearly ninety; my grave is waiting for me, dearly do I long for rest, but I dare not die before the bell rings . . . I must not, I will not die . . . till I hear its voice. . . .'
"Vasile had stolen a small cold hand into the old woman's dry, horny palm. No, Baba Alba was not a witch. . . ."
That was how the moon told me her tale. . . .
* * * * * *
Winter had come on. The mountain-side, so lovely in summer, was now visited by icy-cold winds. The little village huddled away at its foot felt all shivery, and the peasants moved about with blue noses, beating their hands under their arm-pits to keep their fingers warm. It was a very poor village, and beneath it, in the valley, the turbulent river tossed its impatience.
Things were going wrong in the village. The schoolmaster's wife had lost her wedding-ring, nearly all the children had measles, and the hens had some sort of malady which made them die by the dozen. The mayor had taken to drinking and old Mother Safta had gone mad—but there was even worse: the bell in the village church had suddenly cracked—right through! And now its voice was cracked also and discordant, so that it rather discouraged than invited people to prayer.
The good peasant-folk put their heads together, discussing and deploring these misfortunes, and the name of Baba Alba came back again and again.
I cannot remember who first suggested it, but the idea was suddenly circulated that, as of course Baba Alba was as usual responsible for all the ill-luck which fell upon the community, she ought to be made to pay for it. One had had patience long enough, but the crack in the bell was the limit, it was beyond what any Christian could tolerate—and so . . . here many heads were put together, and there was much whispering. . . .
Baba Alba has a bell. . . . Yes, but . . . well, it's only fair! . . . Yes, of course it was fair, but . . . but what? . . . Well, who would like to go and fetch her bell? Go inside her enclosure! Face her spells and her black arts! . . .
Ah! indeed, there was the hitch! Certainly there were hours when she left her hut to wander in the forest, those mysterious, suspicious wanderings . . . but all the same . . . and the old raven, was he not the devil's first-cousin?—And there was the lizard. Of course, a lizard is a very small animal, but if you look at it attentively, you can see that it has quite the shape of a crocodile . . . and who could know how far a witch's power went . . . she could perhaps turn you to stone, or smite you with blindness, or steal your reason from you . . . or even turn you into a hare, which all the dogs would chase. . . .
Oh! certainly, whatever one undertook must be undertaken with precautions . . . and all the wise men of the village rubbed their scrubby chins, and scratched the back of their heads in perplexity.
Why not in the night? suggested someone . . . . Splendid! That was the way—in the night, when everything was dark; but it must be before Christmas, so that the new bell could be hung up for the holy feast-days. . . . No one had ever heard its voice—but all of them were dead certain that the bell must long to be freed from the terrible old woman's black arts—so not only was it not stealing, but a blessed deed . . . a real Christian deed, almost a crusade in fact! . . . This last idea was very pleasant to the ardent church-goers; it set their consciences at rest! To free the bell, that really would be a fine thing. A Christian bell in such hands!
And so it was decided that on the night before Christmas Eve, a whole band of strong and decided young fellows should steal up to old Baba Alba's enclosure and carry off the bell—deliver it, they said, and no one admitted that such an heroic deed could be called theft. . . .
But this is how it all came to pass. Listen well, for it is rather wonderful what I am going to relate.
The days crept by, no faster or slower than usual, although a smouldering excitement could be felt everywhere in the village.
Only Vasile, who even in winter-time guarded the priest's pigs, knew nothing about what had been planned against his old friend, and on the very same evening that the deed was to be done, he climbed up the steep path to Baba Alba's cottage; he had visited her more often than ever since that night when she had told him all about Tudor, her son.
Her hope had now become his; ardently, ardently he desired to hear the voice of the bell, which would mean that the murderer had found at last mercy in the sight of the Lord. Tudor must be also a very old man now, nigh upon seventy, Vasile had calculated in his slow way, because although Baba Alba was not as old as the hills, she was very, very old, cruelly, sadly old and worn-out. That one frail hope alone kept her from laying down to die. . . . Vasile understood instinctively that she was longing for eternal rest.
When he reached the old woman's hut, he found his lonely friend just stepping out into the cold moonlight, closing the door behind her so that the heat of her "vatra" should not escape into the night. She was a queer figure indeed, for she had heaped all the old rags she possessed upon her body, and over the whole she had hung a rough sheep-skin coat. An old white cloth was on her head and fingerless gloves of felt on her hands. She looked very tiny and frail, and limped along painfully with the aid of a thick crooked stick.
"Come with me," she said to the orphan. "But it will be cold, very cold, and perhaps we shall sit there in vain—I do not know why, I have a curious presentiment that this night something will happen—" and as she said this, her old raven croaked three times.
"He feels something in the air, I am sure," she added. The strange companions sat down in their usual place. Yes, certainly it was very cold, and all about them the snow sparkled crisply—the stars were out in myriads, and the moon was almost full. There was no wind.
Above the bell, which glimmered faintly, sat the old raven, darker and gaunter than ever, a shadow to which Vasile had grown quite accustomed. In fact, he knew he would have missed it, had it no more been there.
At first all was quite still. The old woman was mumbling something under her breath, rocking herself slowly backwards and forwards with an almost unconscious movement.
"Something is going to happen, something is going to happen," was the thought that was rolling about in Vasile's head.
And, indeed, steps were coming stealthily up the hill—many steps, but Vasile did not hear them, they were deadened by the thick, hard snow.
All at once the light on the bell began to brighten visibly—yes, it really did! Or was Vasile only imagining it to himself?—but Baba Alba must have seen it also, for she suddenly laid hold of the little boy's hand.
Both of them stared and stared—and as they stared, the bell before them became brighter and brighter, till finally their eyes could hardly bear the glare
But it was not only Vasile and his old companion who were perceiving this astonishing phenomenon; the band of strong young fellows, who had come up so stealthily, to do a deed they had tried to convince themselves was heroic—had halted at the old witch's thorn hedge, and were gazing with all their eyes at the extraordinary sight.
Brighter, brighter grew the bell, till it danced before their eyes like a living flame—and then, oh, dear! a marvellous note rose clear into the air, vibrant, musical, heavenly, with a sound of ecstasy in it, a sound of longing—a sound of deliverance. . . .
And all those looking on saw how old Baba Alba rose to her feet, how age seemed to fall from her, her shoulders to straighten, how she seemed to grow beneath the marvellous light which inundated her with a radiance which could be naught but heavenly! But the most extraordinary thing of all was that out of the dark a tall figure was seen advancing towards her with outstretched arms, the figure of a man, and the same light which transfigured the despised old outcast, threw an astonishing radiance upon the man's face . . . and all saw that it was the face of a quite young, a very beautiful stripling—and his eyes were blue and star-like as the eyes of Vasile the orphan.
And all the while the bell was ringing, ringing, ringing, like a voice full of an ecstasy too great for this earth. . . . Then, as suddenly as the vision had risen before their eyes, it began to dissolve, and with it the light on the bell vanished. Everything became pale and ghostly once more in a world where the moon alone shed its radiance over the indifferent, hard-frozen silent earth. . . .
On the ground beneath the bell lay Baba Alba, her arms out-stretched like the arms of a cross, her poor old face buried in the snow, and above her the ink-black raven croaked and croaked, as though he could never stop croaking any more.
Vasile sank on his knees beside the old woman he had learned to love, and very gently, as one who wants to express his sympathy, he began stroking the white cloth which covered Baba Alba's head. . . .
But those who had come to do a brave deed slunk away one by one, not looking behind them—shamefacedly, without finding a word to say—and as they silently descended the steep mountain path, the bell began to sound again—but this time mournfully, tolling a knell for the dead.
* * * * * *
On the day after Christmas, old Baba Alba was buried in the old cemetery on the hill-side. No one discussed her right to be laid in holy ground.
Those who had contemplated the marvellous vision of that night, when they had stolen up the hill with evil thoughts in their hearts, ever afterwards crossed themselves when they remembered what they had seen; and the villagers never doubted their tale, for had not everyone heard the wondrous voice of the bell, as it suddenly tolled out into the night?
It was even decided that it was sacrilege to move the bell from where it hung. The spot became a blessed spot, and because Vasile alone had recognized that Baba Alba was not a witch, he was appointed as guardian of the bell. He was even given a very small pittance by the community, so that he could inhabit Baba Alba's crooked little cottage with the over-large maize-roof. Popa Dionisie's pigs were fetched up by him each day to graze in the enclosure, which in former days Vasile alone had dared to enter.
But only on feast-days and days of fasts and mourning did Vasile ever sound the bell. Its voice was always beautiful, but never, never again did it sing as it had done on that night when Baba Alba's son had found forgiveness.
The old raven kept his place on the pole above the bell, till the first "viorele"5 poked their blue heads through their winter covering of dead leaves; then it flew away, and was never more seen.
But the little green lizard lived with Vasile. They loved each other very much, and no one any more feared that he would turn into a crocodile. . . .
On the same day that Baba Alba was buried, it came to pass that in a far-off monastery, hidden away amongst high mountains and night-black fir trees, a very old monk was laid to rest in the solitary forest churchyard, which faced the rising sun.
Two nights before, the very old monk had called the "staritz"6 to his death-bed and had confessed a crime committed in his youth, nearly threescore years ago. . . . He had been a silent man and none of the other Brothers had ever guessed that a murderer had been living in their midst—but when he was dead they missed him, because, although he was old, old and taciturn, he had had eyes as blue as mountain lakes.
"You remember," said one old monk to another, "how thirty years ago he decided, as penance, to carry our old cast-away bell over seven hills and seven dales to the poorest house in the farthest village he could reach? . . . indeed he was a strange, but a holy man." And the staritz, passing that way, heard them—but he said nothing, although three days ago he knew to whose hut the bell had been brought. Confession is sacred—the staritz was the sole guardian now of the secret, which had remained fifty years locked away in the impenitent heart of old Baba Alba's son. . . .
1 "Baba Alba" means Old Mother White.