ONCE upon a time there was a monastery. Such a tiny, white little monastery, nestling at the foot of high, high mountains, the peaks of which stuck right up into the clouds. Like a flock of gigantic birds the little white houses clustered round their white church, against a background of dark fir trees, so dark and thick that they made the houses look all the whiter by contrast.
At daybreak and at sunset, a bell with a rather shrill voice would go dingle, dingle, dingle . . . and the doors of the many little houses would open all at once and black-frocked monks with their dark-veiled head-dresses would troop into the church for prayers. On Sundays and on feast-days, the little bell would go dingle, dingle, dingle, much more often, and the monks would seem to be saying their prayers all day long. But worst of all it was in time of Lent; then the little bell left the monks no peace at all, and as they were all very old, I think their knees must often have felt stiff and sore.
In the tiniest and whitest and cleanest little house of all lived "Parintele"1 Simeon, the tiniest of little monks; so small was he that he almost looked like a dwarf.
He was a dear old fellow, with very few teeth left in his head, so that he mumbled when he talked. His beard was as white as his whitewashed walls. His black frock was so long that he stumbled over it. Suffering from gout, he wore huge felt shoes so that he shuffled more than he walked. He had a kindly smile and children and dogs loved him.
Once I saw Parintele Simeon inside his dear little white house. He had taken off his dark cassock, and was sitting in the tiniest of tiny little rooms upon the tiniest of three-legged stools. His under-robe was as white as his beard, as white as his walls, and as white as the boiled potatoes which he was eating with a white wooden spoon.
Half of the tiny little room was filled up by a huge whitewashed oven, all twisty and strange of shape. I never saw anything as white as Father Simeon's dwelling; the only dark spots in it were the black bowl he ate his potatoes out of, and a huge dark leather volume which lay upon a wooden bench.
Now there was something very mysterious and wonderful about this book, which was Father Simeon's most cherished treasure—all the monastery stood in awe of and envied this precious book. . . .
It was fat . . . fat . . . and tremendously heavy, and had so many pages in it that it would have taken you a whole day to count them—a whole day!
The children of the village near by knew about this book. In fact it was the pride of all the country-side, and it was said that no other monk in any other convent in the country possessed such a book.
On Sundays after the church service was over, Parintele Simeon would sometimes allow a few of the village children to come into his tiny white little dwelling to look at his book. This was the greatest, greatest pleasure which could be given them, but as Simeon's house was so teeny-weeny, he could take but very few children into it at a time, and so greatly did he prize his old volume, that never for a moment would he allow that it should be moved elsewhere, nor that anyone should turn over the leaves when he was not there.
If, of an evening, you had peeped in through Parintele Simeon's tiny window, you would have probably seen him seated on his low three-legged stool and, in front of him on the bench, the precious volume. A single candle stuck into a black earthenware jar would be burning beside him, throwing a flickering light over the pages and over his thick, snowy beard, which would shine as though frosted.
On those occasions Parintele Simeon wore enormous round horn spectacles on his nose, which made his eyes huge, huge, giving him the appearance of a wise old owl.
Not all the monks of this community were as clean and tidy as Parintele Simeon, who could have stood as model for all the monks of all the monasteries all over the country.
There were especially three old monks, which were quite a shame to the place. They were called Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon; they seemed to find a special satisfaction in being dirty, as though they had made a vow never to wash, and you won't believe it, but moss usually grew amongst the hairs of their grimy beards, which had never known the teeth of a comb!
They lived in dilapidated hovels which hid, as though ashamed, behind the white little houses of the other monks. You would not at all have liked to go into these dwellings, which were anything but clean, and which had an unpleasant fusty odour. Their windows had been stuck down with brown paper, so that even in summer they could not be opened. Flies filled the place, buzzing everywhere, covering everything with ugly black spots and even getting into the food.
When it was very warm these three old shadows would crawl out of their dark, smoke-filled dwellings and sit upon a very rickety wooden bench under the apple trees, blinking at the sun. This was about all they did, except of course go twice a day to the church, where they would stand in dark corners against the walls, uncanny old mummies, mumbling prayers as they slipped the worn beads of their rosaries one by one through their trembling fingers.
In their own somewhat nebulous way, Brothers Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon were jealous of old Simeon, because the "staritz"2 praised him, saying that he was a model monk—but more especially were they jealous of his wonderful book.
Why should he possess such a book, and they not ? Thus argued Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon, and there are, I am afraid, a good many people in this world who argue that way, although to my mind it is not logic, because, after all, what is yours is yours, and what is mine is mine, and that ought to be the end of it; yet sometimes it isn't, but only the beginning, as you'll see by this sad little tale I'm going to tell you.
* * * * * *
Down in the village beneath the monastery lived a wood-cutter's family. There were many children in that family, in fact there seemed to be a new baby every year, so that Mother Zetta had a terrible time of it keeping them all tidy and out of trouble, cooking for them and putting them to bed or tumbling them out of the house at daybreak. Occasionally, when she had time, they would have their faces and hands washed, but this was not very often, for Mother Zetta was really too busy, and also too poor, and soap was scarce.
But for Easter Saturday's midnight Mass the good woman would dress them in their best clothes, tying red, white-spotted handkerchiefs upon the little girls' heads, which made them look like a row of toadstools. The boys would have their noses wiped, their whitest shirts put on, and their hair brushed down over their foreheads right into their eyes, with a hard, wet brush, a proceeding they quite particularly disliked, but accepted as a sort of finishing up of the long Lenten fasts. Then taper in hand, they would be marshalled off in long file to the monastery church, Mother Zetta with their father bringing up the rear; and it had never happened yet that Mother Zetta was not carrying a new-born baby in her arms.
The Mass lasted till daybreak, and after it was over the tired family would trudge home again through the pine forest, each child guarding its taper so that it should not be blown out. The hands shielding the trembling flames would glow transparent red, and the big pines would be partially lit up as the small procession hurried through their ranks.
After all these ceremonies, the Easter breakfast would be a great feast. Eggs dyed red were its principal feature, with a flat bread like a thick plait of hair twisted into a ring, and best of all, a white cheese made of sheep's milk; this the children liked inordinately, and they would sit on the cottage threshold consuming great hunches of it, which they held in their hands like huge slices of white cake.
The middle part of this worthy family consisted of Ghitsa and Stanca, a couple of twins. They were six years old, and were always getting into trouble. No well-deserved chastisement ever seemed to have any effect upon them, they always ran into fresh adventures, for which they were afterwards liberally spanked. . . .
The monastery was their great attraction, and more especially Father Simeon's little cottage, Father Simeon himself, who looked like a dwarf out of a fairy story, and above all, Father Simeon's wonderful book!
One Sunday, after Mass, it had been Ghitsa and Stanca's turn to be allowed to go into the old monk's sanctuary, and to turn over the leaves of the book.
But now it is time that I should tell you why this book was so different from other books, why it really and truly was a wonder-book. Well, now you will hear. . . .
There were beautiful legends printed on its parchment leaves, and whilst you read the stories the personages would actually all appear before you, all the saints and martyrs, the kings and queens, knights and soldiers, the beggars and dogs, horses and birds, the flowers, palaces and castles, even the sea and mountains and landscapes of the Holy Land, and even sometimes visions of Heaven, but these only showed themselves to those quite worthy of such heavenly manifestation, as for instance the venerable "staritz," or the Metropolitan3 when he came to visit the monastery, or worthy Parintele Simeon himself.
Ghitsa and Stanca, who that day were on their best behaviour, had seen wonderful things: all about a beautiful saint, with a sky-blue mantle and a luminous halo round her head—a saint who had divided her riches amongst the dumb, the blind, and the lame, giving all she had to the poor, finally even her beautiful sky-blue cloak.
Never, oh, never, had the twins seen or even dreamed of anything so beautiful, and their greatest, greatest desire was to see more, if possible to see all that the book contained. But as there were many little children in the village, Ghitsa and Stanca would have to wait a long time till their turn would come again.
Now Ghitsa and Stanca were not fond of waiting, patience was not one of their virtues.
Each Sunday they would come up to the monastery in hopes of getting another peep at the wonder-book; they would hang about the big grass courtyard of the monastery—and not leave till they were quite sure they could no more get into Parintele Simeon's cottage.
It was on one of these occasions that Ghitsa and Stanca made the acquaintance of Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon, and it was this acquaintance which brought about their misfortune, as you will shortly hear.
* * * * * *
These three not very interesting old fossils had also been allowed a look into the book. Once in their presence the "staritz" had spoken of a beautiful vision of the Golden City which he had seen in Simeon's book, and the three shabby, grimy old fellows, perhaps just because of their griminess and because of the abominable little holes they lived in, longed to get a glimpse of the Golden City and had asked old Simeon to open the book at that page. Simeon had immediately complied with their desire, but the visions would not rise before the eyes of these three dingy old beings.
Much upset, and feeling as though adverse spirits had entered his snow-white cell with the three shabby Brothers, Simeon had folded his hands and prayed, but the visions had remained amongst the leaves of the book, although the kind old monk began reading the legend all over again with his most suave voice.
Finally, much upset, he had turned to a page of minor importance, a page of lesser visions, and these had risen up before Trofim, Pamfil, and Tihon, taking precise shape.
But the three monks had set their hearts upon seeing the Golden City; some dim yearning had entered their souls which they were loath to give up, and as it had not appeared they kept a dull feeling of resentment againát Simeon, as though he had purposely despoiled them of something.
Father Simeon would never have despoiled anybody of anything, he had the biggest, kindest heart in his little body; besides he was really a holy man.
Now it came to pass that, one Sunday afternoon, Ghitsa and Stanca were hovering about the convent enclosure, up to all sorts of tricks, playing all sorts of games, one eye, however, always watching Father Simeon's house, hoping that the dear old man would step out of his door and invite them inside, just as in a fairy story. But Father Simeon, holy man, was having his Sunday afternoon siesta—this was his Sunday's treat—and he had no idea that such an anxious couple were waiting outside.
Stanca was a pretty little girl. From afar she curiously resembled a diminutive woman with her much-worn red "catrintsa"4 wrapped tightly round her skinny little hips over a long white shirt which came far below her knees. From beneath a discoloured kerchief two brown plaits peeped out, much bleached by the sun, so that in places they were almost straw-coloured. Her face was thin, her eyes large, grey, and solemn, surrounded by long black lashes.
Ghitsa was more cheerful of countenance, chubby-cheeked, with sparkling black eyes and an untidy mop of dark curls; he smiled readily, showing two rows of brilliantly white teeth.
His hemp shirt was much darned, and there was a little tear at the back of his trousers, which allowed a comic little piece of shirt to protrude in an impudent sort of way.
It was warm, and the sun shone so brightly that the three old fossils, Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon, crawled out of their hovels and settled down upon their rickety bench, like three rusty old crows on a perch.
With vague, bleared eyes they stared at nothing, but out of long habit their beads were always slipping, click-click, through their palsied fingers.
Ghitsa, tired of waiting for Simeon's door to open, went up to the shadowy figures on the seat and asked, "When will he be coming out?"
"Who?" asked Pamfil.
"Father Simeon," said the boy.
"He is sleeping," said Trofim, in his quivering old voice.
"How long will he sleep?"
"That's his business," grumbled Tihon.
"Have you seen his book?" asked Ghitsa in a whisper.
The three old brothers nodded.
"We want to see it again," confided the child, simply because he wanted to confide in someone.
"Everybody wants to see it, always," complained Trofim," but Simeon is a sly old hypocrite, and selfish too."
"You think he won't let us look at his book again?" asked Stanca timidly. She did not quite like the look of the three old fossils.
"He probably won't," mumbled old Tihon.
"But what can we do then?" asked Ghitsa disappointedly, and Stanca stuck her finger into her mouth, anxiously awaiting the answer. Her eyes were very round and questioning.
"Go home," said Tihon crossly.
"I've a better idea than that," declared Pamfil, and his toothless mouth had a sort of grin.
"What is it?" asked Ghitsa eagerly.
"You must steal into Simeon's house when he is not there, and take a long, long look at the book, all by yourselves."
"Oh!" gasped Stanca in a shocked voice.
"Oh!" mimicked Pamfil, "and, pray, why not?"
"But he would be very angry," explained the boy.
"Does that matter?" asked one of the monks.
"Yes, I think so, don't you?" asked Ghitsa.
"No," said Trofim.
"But how could we get into his house?" enquired Ghitsa, temptation already stealing into his heart. Stanca still had her finger in her mouth, but her eyes were anxious.
"If he goes out, I suppose he locks his door?" Ghitsa insisted.
"Yes, but he does not take his key with him," said Pamfil mysteriously.
"Where does he keep it?" whispered Ghitsa, his eyes sparkling.
"Will you relate to me what you see in the book if I tell you?" asked Pamfil.
"Of course!" promised the child.
"Well, he keeps it in a little hole under the threshold," explained Pamfil's quivering, cracked voice.
The other two old fellows grinned a toothless grin, they looked like three horrid old gargoyles; Ghitsa did not like them at all, they were too ugly, but they could impart useful information.
"But when will he be out?" asked Ghitsa, almost under his breath.
"What do you ask?" enquired Tihon, holding his hand to his ear.
"When will he be out?" repeated the child, clearing his throat.
"To-morrow, from early morning till late at night," said Pamfil; "he has something to do in town. That's your chance, but remember, we want to hear all about what you see!"
Ghitsa nodded his head, as he had become quite speechless; then, suddenly taking hold of his sister's hand, he scampered away as quickly as his legs could carry him, the little escaped corner of his shirt sticking out behind in a more comic way than ever.
"Stupid little idiots," grumbled Trofim.
"But I would be pleased if they played a trick upon Simeon," mumbled Tihon. "It would serve him right"—Tihon had still a vague feeling as though he had been despoiled of seeing a vision of the Golden City.
"We'll go in now," decided Pamfil, and obeying him as though they were all wound up with the same key, the three nasty old fellows shuffled back into the shade of their hovels.
* * * * * *
It was towards evening next day that Ghitsa, dragging a rather reluctant Stanca by the hand, stole into the convent enclosure.
The sun was setting, and the tall fir tree standing like a sentinel before the church door, that fir tree which had such a high, bare trunk, threw a long, long dark shadow right over the grass to Father Simeon's gate. It was like a giant black finger pointing out the way. Was it a sign? Ghitsa was superstitious, and would much rather it had been a ray of light; but for all that, he was not going to give up his adventure now at the eleventh hour, when he was so near his goal! He had spent an uncomfortable enough day thinking of it, and planning it all out, till it had actually given him a pain in his stomach, yes, right in the middle, something that hurt when he gulped.
Stanca had only come with him because as a matter of course she always followed Ghitsa wherever he went.
Ghitsa was quite trembling; even the piece of shirt sticking out of the tear in his trousers at the back seemed limper and less sure of itself. . . .
Here was the threshold.
"Under the threshold," the uncanny old monk had said. . . . Ghitsa was so excited that he fumbled about awkwardly. The perspiration stood in large drops on his forehead. A little gust of wind sweeping through old Simeon's apple tree gave him a start, it sounded like a warning whisper.
"Help me!" begged Ghitsa of Stanca—his voice was quite unlike his own. Stanca crouched down on her heels beside her brother, and putting her hand into a small crevice in the stone immediately drew out the key. . . .
"Oh," gasped Ghitsa, "we've got it; what luck!" his eyes sparkled with a mixture of fear and pleasure.
The lock was stiff, and a fellow with a bad conscience is generally awkward; his heart beats too quickly, too loudly, which is both disturbing and confusing, it robs him of his faculties. Ghitsa was realizing this just now. But after a great effort he was able to turn the key, and the children found themselves in Father Simeon's snow-white little dwelling. . . .
How neat it was, so tidy, so clean, and so white; it actually seemed to shine. There was a faint smell of cold smoke in the room, but no other smell at all, which is rare in a monk's cell.
"Look," whispered Stanca, taking her finger out of her mouth to point at something. . . . And there lay the book!
Huge, dark, and important-looking—a weighty thing indeed, full of meaning, full of possibilities. . . .
Father Simeon's great horn spectacles lay on the volume; a sort of blear-eyed guardian, they somehow seemed to be looking at the children.
Not only the spectacles were looking at the children but, out of the dark corner, the painted eyes of Father Simeon's icon where it hung on the wall. St. Nicholas it was, and his eyes were huge and staring and very watchful.
Stanca suddenly felt them fixed upon her, and a little cold shiver ran down her back. Being in everyday life a pious little girl, she promptly, as was proper, went up to the holy picture, crossed herself and kissed it. In doing so she made the little branch of "busuioc"5 stuck behind it fall. This gave Stanca a fright. She tried to put it back in place, but it would not hold; she tried several times, but each time it slipped and fell on the floor—was that a bad sign ?
"I wish St. Nicholas would not stare so!" whispered Stanca to her brother.
"It's rather uncomfortable," admitted Ghitsa, "but don't look at him, then perhaps you'll forget that he is there. But come now, we must make haste and open the book, so as to get away again before old Parintele Simeon returns."
The spectacles had to be taken off the volume; Ghitsa had a sort of feeling as if they would bite him or defend themselves in some way. Very gingerly he took them up between thumb and first finger; the spectacles did not resist or do anything unexpected. But how dark it was getting. They certainly would need a light. . . . Oh! but there! pushed back into the corner was the candle in its black jar, and beside it a very old box of matches. . . .
Ghitsa lit the candle. . . .
Immediately his and Stanca's shadows were thrown against the white wall, big and uncomfortable, prominent. They were like two huge black beings, mimicking the children's movements. It is really disagreeable to have a bad conscience, and when you have, your heartbeats are such a confusing and sickening company.
But now the great moment had come! The children's heads were close together, bent over the book. Ghitsa was seated on the little three-legged stool, Stanca kneeling at his side.
"You open first," whispered Ghitsa, who was not feeling very brave.
"No, you, you!" insisted Stanca. It really was only fair that Ghitsa, the instigator, should take the risks. . . .
Behind the children the door had opened silently—but they had no idea of this, nor that three hideous old faces framed in rusty black veils were peeping in upon them; the three fusty old monks, who had been the tempters, had come to profit by the children's sin, for was it not a sin to cheat such a good and holy man as Father Simeon?
Ghitsa, with trembling fingers and terribly noisy heart inside him, now proceeded to open the book and turn over the first pages . . . nothing appeared before the children's eyes except hundreds and thousands of little black letters, which to their unlearned eyes had no sense whatever. No vision arose to delight them, they saw nothing at all, no beautiful saints in blue mantles, no kings, no queens, no angels . . . then all at once . . .
Fizz . . . bang! poof! ha-ha-ha! Oh! Goodness, goodness! What was that! Something dreadful was happening—Ghitsa had just turned over another page—fizz—bang! poof! ha-ha-ha! and red lights and flames suddenly filled the room! Dear old Father Simeon's snow-white room!
There was a smell of sulphur and now the place was alive with grinning evil faces, the air full of horrible laughter, and long claw-like hands clutched at the children's hair and clothes. . . .
What had happened? Oh! oh! Had Hell opened its doors and let all its devils out? Well, yes! Incredible as it may seem to you, it was just exactly what had happened. Only Hell, in this case, had been old Simeon's wonder-book. Instead of angels and saints and martyrs, a dozen horrible red devils with long tails and pointed little horns on their heads had jumped out of the precious volume. This was the children's awful punishment for wanting to deceive such a kind-hearted, holy little man as Parintele Simeon!
"Come along," cried the devils, "this is really a fine piece of luck. It's years since we had such a catch! And ha-ha-ha, there are also those three old black fellows, they'll be rather tough but they'll all the same help to pepper our hotch-potch—come along now, hurry up! You tender little morsels, quick, quick, come along!" And the devils, seizing Stanca by her pigtails and Ghitsa by his curls, twirled the terrified children out of the little white house.
Old Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon tried to escape, but their shaky old limbs would not obey them; besides they were quite paralysed with fright. One devil got hold of Pamfil's beard, another of Trofim's veil, a third of old Tihon's nose, and with cackling screams and atrocious laughter, hurried their victims off into the wood. . . .
I am sure you are dreadfully anxious wondering what is going to happen to poor Ghitsa and Stanca, and you are right to be anxious, for, indeed, they had fallen into terrible hands!
That was an appalling way the children passed into the thick forest, pushed and tugged, pinched and punched, ill-treated in every way by the odious red devils till at last they reached a clearing surrounded by fir trees so dark and high that they seemed to shut out the whole sky. And in that clearing there was a big fire over which an enormous black pot was hanging, suspended from the branch of a withered oak tree.
Two black devils with red eyes were stirring the pot with long, three-spiked pitchforks. "Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!" laughed the two black devils, and their voices were even more evil than those of the red devils.
"So you have got hold of the two little rascals, have you? Bravo, bravo! And of the three ugly old crows as well—what a good supper we'll have! But first let us dance, let us dance!" And all the devils, red and black, joining hands, began capering and dancing round the fire, brandishing their pitchforks, whisking their horrid tails, and singing disgusting songs.
Like two lost lambs, Ghitsa and Stanca stood trembling, tears of despair coursing down their cheeks.
"Oh! oh! oh!" they sobbed, "we did not mean to, really, we did not mean to—we thought that we would see saints and martyrs and angels with white wings. . . ."
"And have seen red devils instead, ha-ha-ha!" laughed the capering fiends. "It is all very well to say that you did not mean to! Did not mean to what? Did not mean to go into Parintele Simeon's house, perhaps? But then why were you there? Did not mean to conjure up devils out of his holy book? That we well believe! Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha! But now it is our turn to have a good time," and suddenly one of the devils lunged forward and hooked his horrible pitchfork just into the little piece of shirt which hung from the tear in Ghitsa's trousers, and lifted him right off the ground, up, up, till he held him dangling, head downwards, just over the terrible black pot.
"Oh, oh!" screamed Stanca. "It's my brother! My poor dear little brother! Save him, save him, oh! blessed Virgin Mary, oh! dear St. Nicholas, oh! good St. Dumitre, oh! merciful St. Paraschiva, oh! Mother of God and all the blessed martyrs in heaven, save my poor brother, save him, save him!" And the little girl threw herself upon her knees, crossing herself and touching the ground many times with her forehead. "Oh! dear Virgin Mary, oh! Holy Mother of God . . ." but the devils only laughed all the louder and continued to dangle poor Ghitsa by that frail scrap of shirt, right over the gaping, steaming pot. Oh! oh! at any moment the shirt might tear, and then what would be the fate of Ghitsa, poor little Ghitsa?
Stanca lay now face downwards, her head hidden amongst the moss on the ground. The three old monks had been tied by the devils to three trees. Fright seemed to have melted the bones in their bodies, and they hung quite limp, like three empty cassocks, their grimy, moss-grown beards almost sweeping the ground.
Now it was quite night and one big star, having managed to rise above the fir trees, peeped down with an astonished eye of light upon the tragic scene below. . . .
All at once the sound of a voice chanting . . . far away, but distinct, and certainly it was coming nearer. . . . Stanca raised her head and a quiver ran through the old monks' bodies. Ghitsa kicked about, and made frantic movements with arms and legs, as though trying to swim in mid-air; from time to time he uttered lamentable howls, but each time the devils drowned his complaints with their laughter.
The chant came nearer, nearer. Now, even the devils were listening; their hideous laughter had stopped.
Nearer, nearer came the singing; certainly it was a holy chant, not particularly melodious, and the voice was shaky, but it was a holy chant, a church chant. . . .
A light flickered through the trees . . . now the chant was quite near—a dry branch cracked, then another . . . there was a shuffling step . . . and . . . there stood Parintele Simeon, a faint halo shining round his high, saintly forehead, his two old hands clasped as though for prayer.
Aghast he stood still, retaining his attitude of prayer—the halo round his forehead flickered as though sharing his emotions.
Stanca with a sob of relief ran up to him and seized hold of his cassock. But Parintele Simeon's eyes were fixed upon poor Ghitsa and the hateful red fiends which had him in their grasp, fiends such as his saintly spirit had only dreamed of on nights of indigestion, and those I can assure you were few, in Father Simeon's holy and frugal life.
With hanging tails, like dogs afraid of a whipping, the devils were crouching round the fire. Only the one who was dangling poor Ghitsa over the black pot was still standing, though he too had his tail between his legs.
Old Simeon realized the danger of poor Ghitsa's position. If he ordered the devil to put him down, he naturally would drop him into the boiling soup, and what then of poor Ghitsa?
Then an inspiration came to old Simeon; of course it was given to him by God, because God loved old Simeon, and in His great mercy He is ever ready to pardon little children and sinners when they repent, and I assure you, hanging there over the pot, so near a tragic end, Ghitsa was repenting for all he was worth.—Well, as I said, Simeon had an inspiration.
With a stride you would not have imagined possible for such a small fellow, more like a soldier striding to battle, Simeon cut his way through the circle of devils, which dared not molest a man so holy, and with God's own strength lent him for the occasion, regardless of the flames leaping about him, the tiny monk gave one tremendous push . . . sh! . . . to the sinister black pot, overturned it, so that the broth went hissing and spluttering into the fire, covering the red devils with scalding spray and steam. . . .
There was a ghastly scream . . . a child's voice mingling with the hideous, devilish voices—turmoil—consternation. . . .
What really happened I do not know; it all came about with such bewildering rapidity—but the devils, red and black, fled shrieking fearfully into the forest darkness, and a poor little Ghitsa, all black and singed, and very much the worse for wear, lay sobbing in Parintele Simeon's short arms, lay against his holy, kindly bosom, lay with his face buried in the saintly man's white beard, comforting, but prickly for all its belonging to so holy a man; like an erring little lamb he lay there, a lamb that after cruel misadventure finds his shepherd at last. . . .
It was a moving spectacle, indeed, I hope you all appreciate how touching it was: old Parintele Simeon seated on the ground, the halo round his forehead, now quite steady, clasping the repentant sinner to his kindly heart; Stanca with her arms around both of them, the fire smoking behind them like a huge funeral pyre, and staring through its wavering fumes, the three old monks, their bones still soft as cotton-wool, but some sort of life coming back to their soulless eyes—and some sort of repentance to their envious hearts.
"I'll never do it again, I'll never do it again," sobbed Ghitsa, "I only wanted to see saints and angels, I never thought that devils could live in such a holy book. Oh! oh! all my skin is aching, I am black and burnt and a very, very unhappy little boy. Kiss me, Stanca, kiss me! I'll never do it again!" and of course Stanca kissed her brother with the effusion of a mother who has been given back her child.
Father Simeon was beginning to grasp the situation, for Ghitsa, in confused sentences, broken by sobs, confessed all his sin.
"The good God will forgive you," he said solemnly, making the sign of the Cross over the children's foreheads. "But brothers Pamfil, Trofim, and Tihon will have to fast and pray many a day before they can again find favour in the face of the Lord, for a grievous sin it is indeed to lead little white lambs astray!"
Ghitsa did not feel very white, but all the same it was comforting to be likened unto such an innocent animal, it gave you back some of your self-respect. So he wiped his eyes.
Simeon, full of the Christian spirit of forgiveness, rose from the ground and went to each of the old monks in turn and untied the cords which held them captive.
In contrast to the blessed glow round Simeon's head, the faces of the three culprits looked particularly sinister and dark, but the moment they were unbound, all three fell with their faces to the ground and kissed the little monk's felt shoes, for indeed after their deplorable adventure with the devils, the monk veritably appeared to them as a saviour.
Father Simeon did not much care for their grovelling gratitude, nor for their whining praises, but being filled with the spirit of Christian forbearance he surrendered his felt slippers without outward show of impatience to the insistent kisses of their loose-lipped mouths.
There is not much more to relate. By the light of his halo, Father Simeon led the two children back through the dark forest to the monastery, the three fusty old Brothers following in their wake, like three shadows that have been whipped.
"And next Sunday," said the holy little man as they stood before his house, "next Sunday my door will be open to you, and if God is willing and your hearts contrite, your spirits purified, perchance new visions will be revealed to you from the sacred pages of my book." Then lifting his hands in blessing, "Now be off, my little lambs," he said; "depart in peace," and like two small models of virtue, hand in hand the twins ran back through the dark forest to the arms of their anxious parents, who had quite thought that they were lost.
* * * * * *
It seems that the next Sunday "God was willing," for I have been told that on that day, when the pages of the wonder-book were turned, Stanca and Ghitsa saw not only saints and martyrs, but also many, many angels with snow-white wings . . . therefore we may presumably admit that they came to Parintele Simeon's snow-white dwelling in the right Christian spirit and with contrite hearts. . . .
I, for one, like to think of the God-fearing Simeon seated on his tiny three-legged stool, his horn spectacles on his nose, a child kneeling on each side of him, all three absorbed in the heavenly visions of his sacred wonder-book.
Stanca had not forgotten to bring a fresh twig of "busuioc" to stick behind the icon in the corner to replace the dry twig that on that tragic night had fallen to the ground, and I can assure you that St. Nicholas's eyes had no more a disapproving look. . . .
But what of the devils? you may ask. Well, the devils . . . the devils had been driven away. . .
1 "Parinte," priest. The word means a monk, as well as
an ordinary priest.